The Santo Domingo valley stretches east from the capital along the Caribbean coast all the way to the Mona Passage, the body of water separating the Dominican Republic from Puerto Rico, encompassing vast tracts of sugar cane along the way, once practically the nation’s sole source of hard currency. North of these fields roll the verdant high hills of the Cordillera Oriental – really a final spur of the Cordillera Central – which themselves terminate at the bowl-shaped swamp basin of Parque Nacional Los Haitises. This sizeable region is the Dominican Republic’s southeast, known primarily for its popular Punta Cana resort zone, a 45km strip of idyllic, uninterrupted sand lined with all-inclusive hotels that are far less expensive than what you’ll find around most of the Caribbean. While these beaches may be a bit remote for extensive day-tripping and countryside exploration, they do make perfect spots for utterly relaxing holidays. And the upgrading of the region’s roads – which has seen much of the coastal highway widened, and the start of a new highway through to Punta Cana – means that the whole area is becoming ever more accessible.

Aside from the large resort area, the southeast is fairly poor, rural and somewhat bereft of must-see sights – with the notable exception of the two national parks that help frame the region. One of these, Parque Nacional del Este, protruding into the Caribbean at the southeastern tip of the Dominican Republic, more or less continues the theme of great beachfront, especially along the remarkable nature reserve on Isla Saona. Nearby, you can visit three cave systems – Peñon Gordo, Del Puente, José and Padre Nuestro – though the extensive Taino rock art that these caves hold is mostly off-limits to tourists. Not far to the west, the pretty seaside village Bayahibe, the latest centre of all-inclusive construction, is the best base from which to visit the park’s various points of interest. At the northwestern edge of the region, the mangrove swamps of Parque Nacional Los Haitises, on the Bahía de Samaná, hide several Taino caves visited on boat trips organized from towns both in the southeast and on the Samaná Peninsula.

La Romana and San Pedro de Macorís, which lie on Highway 3 between Santo Domingo and Parque Nacional del Este, serve as urban exceptions to the backwater feel of much of the region. These two mid-sized towns, which both flourished during the glory era of the sugar industry, have enjoyed contrasting fortunes in recent years. La Romana has grown into a relaxing and prosperous place, having benefited quite a bit from Gulf & Western’s investment in local industry and capitalizing on some resort build-up – notably in the vast Casa de Campo complex just east of town. San Pedro, on the other hand, is still struggling economically despite its widespread reputation for turning out numerous baseball professionals – such as home-run king Sammy Sosa – from its poverty-stricken slums.

Brief history

It’s not entirely surprising that the southeast, save for a few choice spots, seems slightly left behind – at least when its rocky history is considered. Shortly after arriving in Santo Domingo, governor Nicolás de Ovando waged a particularly brutal campaign of Taino extermination in these parts, and the newly cleared land was quickly settled in 1502 by explorers Ponce de León and Juan Esquivel, who established sugar estates and cattle ranches in the area, while at the same time setting up slave-capturing outposts in Puerto Rico and Jamaica. The one notable relic of the era is Casa Ponce de León, the fortified keep of the famous conquistador near the village of Boca de Yuma. In the late sixteenth century, though, the area was abandoned and became home to roaming herds of wild cattle left by the Spanish estates. When the devastaciones forcibly moved north-coast settlers into Monte Plata and Bayaguana in 1605, the colonists resorted to hunting the cattle for their livelihood, setting up tanneries and ranches to export leather and beef via Santo Domingo. The rancher ethos is still very present, particularly during the many fiestas patronales, which feature long processions of cowboys and livestock parading through the countryside and city streets. This ranching system promoted a less egalitarian economic system than the prosperous family farms of the Cibao Valley, and during the chaotic nineteenth century the Southeast produced most of the caudillos – political strongmen who imposed their will on the country by force of arms – who recruited private armies and battled each other for supremacy.

Even as the caudillos fought for national power, their economic clout at home was being undermined by the burgeoning sugar industry. In the 1860s, Cuban financiers, who had fled a revolution in which their plantations had been burned and their slaves freed, began large-scale sugar production in the eastern Santo Domingo valley; sugar quickly became the country’s principal commodity. Former fishing villages San Pedro de Macorís and La Romana were built up into bustling port cities during the Dance of Millions, when American corporations pushed the Cubans out and prices increased tenfold due to World War I, though the global depression of the 1930s wiped out much of the region’s prosperity. The revival, spurred on by the construction of the many lavish all-inclusives along the eastern coast, did not really take hold until fairly recently as more and more of the glorious pristine coastline is gobbled up by large-scale tourist developments.

Top image © cieniu1/Shutterstock

Bayahibe

BAYAHIBE is feeling the pressure. Formerly a pleasant, low-key seaside fishing village, its idyllic setting round a sheltered bay and proximity to the Parque Nacional del Este, which offers the country’s best diving and snorkelling, have helped to turn it into a significant tourist destination in recent years. Where once a handful of fishing boats bobbed in the water, serried ranks of motorized launches and catamarans waiting to transfer tourists to Isla Saona pack the harbour.

Despite ambitious construction on all sides, from the all-inclusive resorts along the surrounding coast – in particular the resort zone of Dominicus Americanus to the east – to the work of the burgeoning Italian expat community on the village’s fringes, which includes a new residential project that is likely to alter the complexion of the place, Bayahibe retains its appeal and laidback vibe. There is a good selection of budget accommodation, as well as a row of atmospheric restaurants dotting the waterfront and miles of beach stretching out on either side of the village although Bayahibe’s own strip of sand is rather scrubby and uninviting. Moreover, this is the best base from which to explore the beaches, caves and dive sites of Parque Nacional del Este.

Boca de Yuma

On the northeastern tip of Parque Nacional del Este sits Boca de Yuma, a pueblo that has been passed over by mass tourism because of its lack of accessible beachfront, though there is one fairly nice stretch of sand across the river. Boca de Yuma’s setting along squat, ocean-pounded bluffs is undeniably impressive and it makes a pleasant stop for independent travellers seeking to experience everyday life in one of the DR’s quieter corners. There’s also great fishing in the area, and the town makes a good alternate entry point to many of the sights within Parque Nacional del Este. From here you can also take in the former stronghold of conquistador Ponce de León.

Within the village it’s possible to wander along the shore, its rocks sculpted over time by the crashing surf, or pay a local fisherman RD$1200 to ferry you across the Río Yuma (and collect you later) to a pretty little beach called Playa Borinquen that you’ll share only with a couple of grazing cows. Most of the little boats lining the beaches are still used primarily for fishing; this is one of the best fishing grounds for marlin in the entire Caribbean. Renting a boat and captain for the day will cost around RD$5000, more if you want to head for Isla Saona.

A short walk west of town along the waterfront is the national park station at the eastern entrance to Parque Nacional del Este (RD$100), from where you can hire horses (RD$1000 per person) or walk for an hour along the water to a natural land bridge from which turbulent jets of sea water rocket into the air. Just a short walk north of the park station, the cavernous Cueva de Berna, a large cave once inhabited by Tainos, makes for an alternate, if less spectacular, goal than the caves near Bayahibe. Along with hundreds of bats and small birds, you’ll see Taino caritas (little faces) carved on the walls, though some have been defaced by graffiti.

A kilometre further inland from Cueva de Berna is another major Taino cave site, El Manantial del Guano, which includes three large underground lakes and a stone circle below a small hole in the cave roof, with dozens of petroglyphs representing Taino mythology, including the creation of humanity through the fertilization of the moon by the sun. Some anthropologists believe this may have been a Taino astronomical observatory, as the light through the chink in the ceiling hits a different petroglyph for every cycle of the moon. You can only visit the site with a guide (around RD$800) from the park station at Cueva de Berna.

Cueva Funfún

The pueblo of Gran Diablo holds an extremely rocky dirt road that leads 5km northeast to a Cordillera Oriental cave system that you can explore with Rancho Capote (553 2812, www.cuevafunfun.net; US$120 per person, US$105 if you get yourself to Hato Mayor), an adventure tour outfit. Tours take in stalactite-ridden, bat-infested Cueva Funfún (also called Boca de Diablo), a huge cave system at the southeastern end of the park that holds several separate chambers and a roaring underground river. The popular day-trip also involves riding on horseback to reach the cave. Many of the tour operators in the Punta Cana/Bávaro area book tours to Rancho Capote, which include pick-ups from most of the hotels.

El Seibo

Well off the beaten path, the pleasant cattle town of EL SEIBO, smack in the middle of the Cordillera Oriental and a bumpy 40km drive south of Miches, was once the stomping ground of nineteenth-century caudillo Pedro Santana, who ruled the Dominican Republic off and on during the period of internecine strife that followed independence from Haiti and continued until annexation by Spain. Whenever Santana was booted out of office by his rival Buenaventura Báez, Santana would retreat here until the next Haitian invasion, when he would be called back to lead the nation’s military defence.

The only feature that might count as a sight is the squat Iglesia Santa Cruz – which stands beside the Parque Central along the winding main road that bisects El Seibo – a preserved piece of colonial architecture that’s still used as the local parish. Occasional renovations have kept its red-brick dome and partially whitewashed limestone facade in good shape, though one of these “improvements” also resulted in the unfortunate plaster Victorian top to the bell tower. North of the city a predominantly paved but potholed road winds through the most scenic part of the unspoilt Cordillera Oriental mountain range to Miches; the peaks here are shaped into surreal spires and cones draped with a thick canopy of greenery.

El Seibo festivals

The fiestas patronales in honour of Santa Cruz, which take place during the first week in May, see a spirited celebration converge on the otherwise slow-moving town. Bullfighting features on the calendar and cattle are paraded along the main road, serenaded with song and eventually blessed at Iglesia Santa Cruz. The nine nights leading up to the fiesta are known as novenas, similarly festive evening celebrations worth a look if you’re in the area.

Higüey

Cramped, dusty and one hundred percent concrete, HIGÜEY is a busy agro-commercial town of 150,000 that’s generally passed through quickly on your way to the eastern coast. Despite the uninviting setting, it’s famous throughout the country as a Dominican holy city, and tens of thousands gather here each January 21 for a mammoth procession and prayer of intercession to the nation’s patron saint, the Virgin of Altagracia, who supposedly provides miraculous healing to those who make the pilgrimage. Even if you don’t believe in the wonders of the Virgin, you should not pass up the chance to have a peek at the cathedral, whose unprepossessing exterior belies a far more impressive interior, containing some stunning modern stained-glass windows and an inventive carved wooden altarpiece. A further hour can happily be whiled away, browsing the bustling market.

Laguna Limón

The spectacularly beautiful and serene Laguna Limón feels extremely pristine and remote but has a couple of small outfits around it dedicated to tourism. Two separate entrances lead to it from the highway, the first of which is marked by a small national park station (daily 9.30am–noon & 2–5pm; RD$100), where a local guide with a boat can be hired. The second entrance is 2km further west; there’s no park station here, so you won’t be asked to pay the fee. A further 2km on, a dirt road winds 3km down through pastureland to Playa Limón, another of the area’s spectacular beaches, though the undertow is often strong enough to preclude swimming and it’s plagued by sand fleas at dusk. It does, though, make for a scenic walk, and sea turtles lay their eggs here in the spring; take a left to reach the mouth of a local river, where the surf churns sea water into the brackish lagoon and the beach is adorned with patches of mangrove.

La Romana

LA ROMANA, 37km east of San Pedro, is slowly developing into a low-key tourist destination, thanks to its appealing riverside setting, increasing numbers of good restaurants, bars and cafés as well as its proximity to sights such as Isla Catalina and the Cueva de las Maravillas. Since the time the South Porto Rico Sugar Company built the mammoth Central Romana mill in 1917, La Romana has been a one-company town; the mill was the only sugar operation not taken over by Trujillo during his thirty-year reign. If you’re here in the harvesting season (Dec–March), you’ll hear the train hooting as it arrives from the surrounding plantations, laden with sugar cane. The mill was eventually sold to multinational Gulf & Western in 1967, which used the substantial profits to expand their holdings in the area, constructing the lavish Casa de Campo resort just to the east and convincing the government to open the first of the country’s industrial free-zones here. The mill and the resort, sold in the 1980s to the wealthy Fanjul family of Cuba, help make this one of the most highly employed parts of the country. Party time for the fiestas patronales occurs in the last week of August.

Miches

MICHES is a little town on the Bahía de Samaná notorious for being the setting-off point for illegal immigration to Puerto Rico (and from there to the US mainland). Dominicans have been known to pay their life savings to local boat captains to be smuggled in small fishing vessels across the shark-infested Mona Passage. For visitors, the lone attraction is Costa Esmeralda, a series of near-deserted sandy beaches extending for several kilometres east of town. Miches provides a good base for exploring the Costa Esmeralda, including Laguna Limón.

Parque Nacional del Este

Bayahibe sits on the northwest edge of expansive PARQUE NACIONAL DEL ESTE, a peninsula jutting south into the Caribbean and also encompassing Isla Saona, just across a small bay and easily accessible by boat. The national park features a maze of forests, mangroves, trails, caves and cliffs, an impressive array of birdlife and, on the cultural side, some signs of early Taino activity. Not much of the park, however, is conveniently accessible; in fact, no roads lead directly into its interior, and the best method of approach is to hire boats from Bayahibe to hit specific points along the rim, from where you can hike inland. Wherever you go in the park, wear plenty of insect repellent against the ubiquitous mosquitoes and a sizeable population of wasps. Watch out, too, for tarantulas, though they won’t bother you unless they’re antagonized.

The most popular part of the park – and rightfully so – is Isla Saona, an island off the southern coast lined with alternating stretches of idyllic, coconut tree-backed beachfront and mangrove swamp, unpopulated except for one fishing hamlet of around three hundred families. That said, the tourist traffic on Saona has increased exponentially in recent years and it has begun to feel more like high season at Miami’s South Beach in parts, prompting the more discerning operators to look for alternative spots, such as Isla Catalinita.

Cueva del Puente and Peñon Gordo

The park’s limestone landscape is riddled with caves, many of which bear evidence of ceremonial use by the Tainos and are adorned with Taino rock art. At the present time, the only cave system that is relatively straightforward to visit is the Cueva del Puente, which lies around 3km south of the national park entrance. You’ll need to hire a guide at the entrance who will accompany you on the fairly easy 30min hike down to the caves (see p.000). The system consists of three separate levels of caverns (the first has been caved in and thus gets some sunlight) with thousands of stalagmites and stalactites along with hundreds of bats and sparkling seams of bright, crystallized minerals. There are also Taino pictographs on the third level, though they’re not accessible to tourists: if your park ranger knows their stuff, though, they’ll be able to show you a Taino picture of a small- eared owl on the first level of caves – a bird that was thought by the Tainos to ferry dead souls to the afterlife.

The easiest way to reach the next set of caves, Peñon Gordo, on the park’s west coast, is to hire a boat (2hr each way). There’s a nice isolated beach from where it’s a 2km walk inland to the cave, where you’ll find scattered Taino glyphs on its second level. Be sure to bring a torch and boots if you want to get the most out of your visit. Also watch your step at the entrance, which is basically a large, slippery hole in the ground.

Isla Saona

Most boats pull in to Isla Saona at the tiny village of Mano Juan, a picturesque strip of pastel wooden huts with a 4km hiking trail that leads inland, an expensive restaurant run by Viva Wyndham Dominicus Beach and a long line of beach chairs and umbrellas; or Piscina Natural (known locally as Laguna Canto de la Playa), a sand bar with a clear lagoon behind it that makes a good snorkelling spot (you’ll see lots of giant starfish trundling along the sea bed, but resist the urge to pick them up). If you visit with an independent boat, avoid the hordes and head to one of the more isolated stretches of beach that dot the entire island, such as Canto de la Playa, where you’re more likely to get the white sand and transparent water to yourself, though in high season that’s not guaranteed even here. Another option is to have your boat captain skip Saona altogether, head into the Catuano Canal that separates Saona from the mainland, and stop off at the small island of Catalinita (not to be confused with Isla Catalina, see p.000), which gets less tourist traffic and has some excellent reefs for diving (less so for snorkelling). Its beaches are littered with large conch shells and during the winter months you may be able to spot humpback whales and dolphins and even, if you’re really lucky, an elusive manatee.

La Aleta

On a 1988 expedition deep in the heart of Parque Nacional del Este, a team of archeologists from Indiana University discovered the most significant and extensive Taino excavation yet on record, four ceremonial plazas surrounding a cenote; (a natural well) – a site referred to as La Aleta. Evidence shows that natives came to this well to worship during pre-Columbian times from across the countryside, even as far away as the Tetero valley near Pico Duarte.

In his History of the Indies, Spanish priest Bartolomé de Las Casas recorded a journey to La Aleta in the late fifteenth century, noting that the natives lowered bowls into the well via a piece of rattan rope to pull up water, which was sweet at the surface and salty at the bottom – a stratification that still exists. He also described the slaughter of seven hundred people at La Aleta in 1503, the culmination of Nicolás de Ovando’s campaign of Taino extermination, which he started after the Tainos killed three Spaniards on Isla Saona, itself a retaliation for an attack by a Spanish soldier. Bones from the mass killing have been found scattered throughout the site and within the well.

For the Tainos, caves served as the gateways to an underground spirit world. The well was apparently a site for subterranean ceremonies; fragments believed to have been parts of rafts lowered into the well have also been discovered. Other artefacts recovered from the site include clay pots and one straw basket, thought to contain offerings of food; a cassava cooking pan; axes and clubs; and an intact wooden duho (the seat from which the caciques prophesied to their people). In addition to the cenote, there is a series of four ceremonial plazas at the site – bounded by monumental limestone pillars – where a ball game similar to modern-day soccer was played by those who attended the rituals.

The government hopes one day to blaze a trail here from Peñon Gordo and open La Aleta to the public, but for now archeologists have to use a helicopter to get in, and no one else is supposedly allowed admittance. Still, the place has been ransacked twice by treasure hunters, and Dominican soldiers have been posted to prevent further looting.

Parque Nacional Los Haitises

PARQUE NACIONAL LOS HAITISES, a massive expanse of mangrove swamp that protects several Taino caves, 92 plant species, 112 bird species and a wide variety of marine life, spreads west of Sabana de la Mar around the coastal curve of Bahía de Samaná. Though it covers twelve hundred square kilometres in total, only a small portion is open to the public, most of which is accessible by organized tour.

Along the coast it holds the country’s largest unblemished expanse of red and white mangroves; in the near-impenetrable interior, dense, trail-less rainforest predominates, punctuated by the ruins of long-abandoned sugar plantations and numerous cave systems. What you’ll see on the boat tours is a series of virtually untouched mangrove rivers along with small islands and coastal caves that provide habitat for untold numbers of tropical birds; some of the caves, too, bear Taino petroglyphs.

The 2hr 30min standard boat trip hits two main areas of interest within the park. Heading out through the mangroves the boat’s first stop is Cueva Arena, a large grotto that has numerous Taino drawings of families, men hunting, supernatural beings, whales and sharks. Some tours stop briefly at the beach cove here offering the opportunity to get a good look at Cayo Willy Simons – once a hideout for the infamous pirate – recognizable by the dozens of birds circling around: pelicans, herons, terns, frigates, even an occasional falcon. To reach the second cave, you pass the ruins of a hundred-year-old banana wharf, with pelicans and terns perched on the remaining wooden pilings, before pulling up at Cueva de la Linea, once intended to hold a railroad station for the sugar cane that was grown in the area. In pre-Columbian times, the cave was a Taino temple; look for the guardian face carved at the entrance, and residues of ancient campfire smoke and innumerable pictographs along the inside walls. Some tours include a short forest walk, and longer trips costing slightly more also take in the grottoes San Gabriel and Remington, both with Taino faces carved into their walls. The two caves were also known as temporary homes of various pirates, including Cofresí, Jack Banister and John Rackham.

Punta Cana, Bávaro and around

From Higüey, a paved road winds 40km east to the tropical playlands of PUNTA CANA and BÁVARO. At one time, Punta Cana and Bávaro were two distinct areas lying at either end of a long curve of coconut-tree-lined beach. However, an extraordinary spate of construction over the past 25 years has blurred the boundaries between them. Nowadays, “Punta Cana” is more of a marketing brand than a specific location, incorporated liberally into the title of most of the hotels in the region, even those 40km north of the regional airport. There are actually very few services in what might be termed Punta Cana proper; most of the action occurs round the plazas in Bávaro, and the dusty urban area surrounding the busy traffic intersection, to the west, known as Friusa. It’s here you’ll find the bus station and most banks, shops, restaurants and bars as well as the hospital and police station.

Go elsewhere if you want to explore the country, as the individual resorts here tend to be cities unto themselves, encompassing vast swathes of beachside territory, expansive tropical gardens and several separate hotels. And, given the size of the Punta Cana area, development is far from complete. New hotels continue to go up along the coast, malls are erected inland and to the south the vast Cap Cana project is well under way.

Despite its growth, Punta Cana has not yet reached the tipping point, where the pace and size of construction begin to impinge on the holiday experience. With such an abundance of coast to play on, it has been possible to make sure that no hotel intrudes too greatly on any other. And you can still find, with enough fortitude, glorious stretches of relatively uninterrupted sand, particularly in the north at El Macao and Uvero Alto. At points where resorts have cropped up, you’ll find the requisite concentration of umbrellas, watersports outfitters and beach bars, with occasional souvenir shacks set up in between. Aside from the glass-bottom-boat operators trying to drum up business here and there, though, there’s relatively little hassle – and the all-inclusives here are the nicest on the island. Budget travellers will have to head to the village of Cortecito – scarcely more than a cul-de-sac of tourist amenities on a tiny stretch of beach squeezed between the large resorts – for the cheapest (but still fairly pricey) accommodation, or to one of the business hotels in Bávaro, which would inevitably be away from the glorious beach.

Cap Cana

The southern end of the resort zone, past the Punta Cana hotels, is occupied by the brooding presence of Cap Cana (www.capcana.com), the would-be resort to end all resorts, which, when complete, aims to be filled with mega-hotels, multimillion-dollar condominiums and Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses. The precise number and scale of each development is still, however, a matter of debate, with the whole project not due for completion for a good few years yet.

Sabana de la Mar

Sabana de la Mar is a dusty little port unremarkable but for its use as a setting-off point for the highly recommended boat tours of Parque Nacional Los Haitises. It also happens to be fairly convenient for the Samaná Peninsula; tatty passenger ferries depart three times daily (11am, 3pm & 5pm; RD$200) from the wharf at the northern end of town to Samaná itself.

San Pedro de Macorís

The crowded city of SAN PEDRO DE MACORÍS, some 70km east of Santo Domingo, owes its uneven development to the boom-and-bust fortunes of the sugar industry. During the crop’s glory years in the early twentieth century, grand homes and civic monuments were erected along the eastern bank of the Río Higuamo. Today, with most of the area’s mills closed, these buildings are grimy and faded, their dusty facades now absorbed into the squalor of the surrounding neighbourhoods.

The town is well known for its Cocolo festivals held at Christmas and during the Feast of San Pedro (June 24–30), when two competing troupes of masked dancers known as mummers – the Wild Indians of Donald Henderson and Los Momises of now-deceased Primo Shiverton – wander door to door along the major thoroughfares in elaborate costumes adorned with feathers and baubles, and perform dance dramas depicting folk tales, biblical stories and events from Cocolo history, accompanied by fife-and-drum bands.

The decline of sugar prices and continuous urban migration have made the bulk of San Pedro a pretty miserable place, and the first view of its smokestacks and sprawling slums is off-putting to say the least. What redeems it for most residents and visitors alike is its Malecón, a wide seaside promenade with modest public beaches at either end, celebrated by bachata star Juan Luis Guerra in his song Guavaberry: “I like to sing my song/in the middle of the Malecón/watching the sun go down/in San Pedro de Macorís”. Guerra had it about right. Though easily the city’s most attractive public space, the Malecón only comes to life at night and, particularly, at weekends when the little green huts lining the seafront suddenly turn into busy bars and foodstalls, the discos crank up their sound systems and vendors weave through the crowds hawking fast food, boiled corn, sweets and Clorets, and the beer and rum flow.

The Cocolos

When the Dominican sugar industry was nearing its zenith in the late 1800s, plantation owners began to employ migrant labourers from a number of islands in the British Antilles to meet the increased work demand. These black English-speakers – many of whom prefer to be called “The English” – were termed Cocolos, a bastardization of Tortola, one of the islands from which the workers arrived. While many of them returned home to their respective islands each year with their harvest season earnings, growing numbers began to settle permanently in camps around San Pedro de Macorís.

The Cocolos lived in squalid bateyes, shantytowns that were vermin infested and tended to lack running water. Disease – malaria, cholera and leprosy mainly – was widespread, and residents often starved during the off-season. They were also the victims of widespread racism, which led many to embrace the pan-Africanism of Marcus Garvey, a Jamaica-born activist who moved to New York’s Harlem to spread his message of black empowerment. Thousands joined his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which encouraged community self-reliance and provided disability benefits for those injured in the mills, and donated a portion of their salaries to the Black Star Line, a black-owned and -operated fleet meant to repatriate New World blacks to West Africa one day. In August 1921 the Garveyites organized a strike to protest against the inhuman conditions of the bateyes, but the unrest was broken up by US Marines who occupied the Dominican Republic, and the local leaders of the UNIA were deported.

The community infrastructure begun by UNIA soon evolved into self-improvement organizations that pooled resources to better the conditions in the bateyes, establish and enforce codes of conduct and provide medical care. During nonworking seasons, members formed cricket teams that evolved into the sugar-mill baseball squads, which eventually produced some of the world’s finest players. Labour unrest continued as well – in 1946 the Cocolos staged the only successful strike of the Trujillo era – which made sugar companies turn westward to Haiti for cheap migrant labour.

Semana Santa

The Haitian bateyes that surround La Romana and San Pedro hold exuberant Semana Santa festivities during the Christian Holy Week, which is also the most important Voodoo celebration of the year. The various satellite bateyes surrounding a sugar mill each have their own religious brotherhoods, headed by a medium known as a houngan (male) or a mambo (female). Each worships a patron deity and has its own gagá band – called rara in Haiti – which plays a repertoire of religious and Carnival songs in a processional orchestra of one-note trumpets and bamboo tubes that are blown and beaten in a cacophonous procession that can play all night long. On Ash Wednesday, the groups carry their senior officers on their shoulders in chairs, accompanied by gagá. This is just a warm-up to Good Friday when, just before dawn, four shrouded dancers parade into the perestil, where religious services are performed. The houngan “breathes life” into them one at a time, and they throw off their shrouds and lead the gagá bands in a parade around their batey, playing, singing and dancing to songs with lascivious lyrics, in keeping with the festival’s theme of regeneration and fertility. On Saturday and Easter Sunday they head out onto the road towards the sugar mill. Upon encountering another group along the way, a competitive jam session begins, which can, in cases, lead to fisticuffs. Though anyone is welcome to attend Semana Santa, if you look like you have money the gagá bands will repeatedly play for you, seeking money and rum in return; you’re best off bringing plenty of small bills for tips to the band, and arriving in a small group.

To familiarize yourself with the music of Semana Santa, you should purchase two things: the Smithsonian Folkways CD Caribbean Revels: Haitian Rara and Dominican Gagá, which features live recordings from Semana Santa festivals across the island, and Rara! Vodou, Power and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora by Elizabeth McAlister, a terrific book with companion CD on the music and the culture that surrounds it.

The Taino legacy

Debate has long raged over whether or not the Tainos who once inhabited Hispaniola were exterminated during the initial period of Spanish colonization. Certainly the majority were wiped out – by war, slave labour and epidemic smallpox – but there is evidence that some Tainos (perhaps quite a number of them) survived throughout the colonial era, intermarrying with the Africans and Europeans who lived on the island from Columbus onward.

The principal evidence for complete genocide comes from Spanish authors such as Las Casas who estimated that just a few thousand remained as far back as 1518. Early sixteenth-century sugar mill owners such as Juan de Viloria claimed, meanwhile, that their entire Taino slave workforce had been destroyed by smallpox. But there is counter-evidence: when Viloria died, his wife counted three hundred Taino slaves as part of his estate. It could be that Viloria had hidden the true figure to secure a free allotment of African slave labour.

Nor is the official historical record much more illuminating, with various wills and court documents continuing to refer to “Indians”, and a 1545 census (twenty years after the Tainos’ supposed extermination) claiming that over half of all sugar mill slaves were “Indian”. Bear in mind, too, that most of the island was outside European control and would have served as a safe harbour for Taino communities. In 1555 four large Taino villages were discovered along the north coast.

The question of the Dominican Republic’s continuing Taino heritage is controversial and emotive. The Tainos have been used by Dominican intellectuals in the past to cover up the nation’s more extensive African background, for instance, and Dominican mulattos are still officially classified as “Indios”. So it’s no surprise that many mainstream anthropologists are wary when someone presses the case for the Taino heritage of the Dominican people.

What is not in doubt is that Dominican culture owes a profound debt to the Tainos. Hundreds of Taino words and inflections are used and their methods of farming, cooking, weaving and boat-building are still widely practised. Even the pantheon of spirits in Vodú dominicana – a largely African religion – includes several divisions of Taino spirits while, in the most rural campos, villagers still use conch shells to call to each other from hill to hill whenever fresh meat or ice has arrived for sale.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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