The Dominican Republic’s Merengue Capital
By Sydney Hutchinson
Besides being the oldest Santiago in the Americas, founded by Chris Columbus himself, it’s the capital of traditional merengue music.
When To Go
You can hear live merengue in Santiago seven days a week, every week of the year. However, some especially interesting times include the last week of February, which is the culmination of carnival month, or July 25, the feast day of the city’s patron saint.
Getting there and around
Santiago has its own airport, known as Aeropuerto Cibao after the fertile valley region in which it is found. It is brand new and pleasant; currently Delta, American, Continental, and Jet Blue all fly there.
You must pay a $10 fee for a tourist card before going through passport control. There are free baggage carts and many porters to help you with them – tip them about 10 pesos per bag.
From the airport, many taxis are available to take you to the city center or any hotel for about 500 pesos ($15). Buses are also available to and from other major cities. The two most reliable are Caribe Tours and Metro Bus, though many cheaper, more crowded vans called guaguas leave regularly from various points in the city center.
The city has no public bus system, but there are cheap (10 pesos, about 30 cents) public cars that follow set routes. Although there are no maps to the system of conchos, drivers are generally friendly and will help you find your destination or make any necessary transfers.
Pay when you get in and be sure to greet your fellow passengers (not to do so is considered rude). Remember that four passengers must ride in the back seat and two in the front passenger seat. Because everyone exits on the right side for safety, you may need to step off and on to allow your fellow passengers out.
The Centro León is not only the best museum in the city; it’s the best in the country. It opened in 2003 and holds art exhibitions, cultural events, a media library for researchers, a tasty cafeteria, and a tabacalera, or tobacco-rolling house.
It was funded by the León Jimenes family, the Dominican answer to the Rockefellers and the owners of Presidente beer and Aurora Tobacco, so your entrance fee of 70 pesos ($2.25) not only buys you admission to anthropology, fine art, and rotating exhibits, but also a cigar-making demonstration and a cold one.
Best Unusual Attraction
Rancho Merengue is the headquarters for merengue típico, the traditional accordion-based rhythm that was born in the Cibao. While there are numerous places offering regular shows, RM gets my vote: it’s got longevity, diversity, and style going for it.
Owner John Taveras opened in 1989 with the goal of becoming el hogar de los merengueros, the home of merengue fans, and he achieved it by offering a mix of innovative and conservative artists every day but Tuesday.
Taveras recently remodeled and the result is a picturesque homage to the enramada or thatch-roofed shelter were rural merengue has always been played. Hors d’oeuvres and a full range of liquor and cocktails are also offered. Be sure to take a look at the mural taken from the merengue-themed works of Yoryi Morel, the DR’s best-known painter.
The carnivals of Rio and Trinidad are better known, but the Dominican Republic boasts a wider variety of carnival activities, and they last longer too. Just about every town has its own traditional costume and mask, and in most cases, carnavaleros take to the streets every Sunday in February, sometimes continuing into March.
Carnival in La Vega, 30 kilometers (19 miles) to the southeast, has more funding and is better set up to accommodate tourists, and it’s easy to get there from Santiago to see its elaborately costumed diablos cojuelos (devils). But I still prefer Santiago’s version, where any city resident, no matter how poor, can participate in any way they like.
That means you can see anything from carnival Indians to cock-fighters to Saddam Hussein, as well as the age-old lechón, a colorful figure with an enormous horned mask, a noisy whip, a catchy dance step, and an inflated pig bladder with which to whack the unwary passerby.
If you want to get out of the city and see some nature – and why wouldn’t you, in such a gorgeous country? – book a tour with Santiago resident Luis Espaillat. He’s fluent in English and has spent decades exploring the Cordillera Central, the tallest mountains in the Caribbean.
If you have only a day, he will take you to gorgeous waterfalls or to a nature preserve where the rare green ebony grows. If you have several days and want to camp, he can organize an expedition to the 10,000-foot Pico Duarte or the alpine valley known as El Tetero. Meals, guides, and pack animals included.
If you’re looking for luxury, the Aloha Sol downtown or the Marriott located just out of it are as good as you’ll find. But if you prefer cheap yet reliable, go with the Hotel Colonial. It’s conveniently located and has its own restaurant featuring Dominican home cooking.
If it’s full, Hostal del Cibao is just around the corner. It’s clean, cheap, and has a lovely owner (Carmen), but no restaurant. As with any budget hotel in the DR, if you want A/C or hot water you’ll have to ask for it and pay extra.
Rancho Merengue provides a home for merengue típico music, and a place where you can hear the style all week long.
Dominicans take their main meal at lunch, and at that time of day, dozens of cheap cafeterias are open all around downtown, all offering variations on the bandera dominicana (Dominican Flag): rice, beans, meat, plantains, and salad.
Dinner options for comida criolla (local food) are more limited, but at Rancho Chito chef Luis offers tasty takes on Dominican standards in a pleasant setting.
Still, the best food in town may just be Italian: at Amici restaurant, run by a Milanese family, everything is fresh and homemade, from bread to pasta to tiramisu. Try the spinach and shrimp lasagnette or the thin-crust pizza.
The Centro León gift shop has a great selection of carefully chosen, high-end jewelry, art, and crafts. But if you’re looking for kitsch or cheap thrills, go to the Mercado Modelo on Calle del Sol.
There you can buy everything from a bubble bath that will bring you fortune to a toy tambora, the goatskin drum used to play merengue típico. You might even find a few treasures like carnival masks or mahogany salad bowls. On the sidewalk outside, grab yourself a bottle of herbs to make your own mamajuana, a spicy rum drink reputed to work as well as Viagra.
For further information and/or reservations:
Centro León: Av 27 de Febrero 146, Villa Progreso, 809-582-2315,
Rancho Merengue: Autopista Santiago-Navarrete km 2 ½, 809-576-8562
Two downtown cultural centers offer a slate of carnival-related activities during February, and their staff is usually apprised of the latest parade schedules and routes. Ask folklorist Rafael Almánzar at the Casa de Arte, Calle Benito Moncion near Restauración (809-471-7839) or Tomasito Morel at the Museo Folklórico Tomás Morel, Calle Restauración 174 (809-582-6787).
NatourAventura (Luis Espaillat’s business): 809-581-9689
Amici restaurant, Calle 11 no. U12, Los Jardines Metropolitanos, 809-724-4223
Rancho Chito, Autopista Duarte km 12 ½, 809-276-0000,
Aloha Sol, Calle Del Sol 50, 809-583-0090,
Courtyard Marriott, Autopista Duarte Km 9, 809-612-7000,
Hotel Colonial, Calle Salvador Cucurullo, 809-247-3122
Hostal del Cibao, Calle Benito Moncion 40, 809-581-7775
Mercado Modelo, Calle Del Sol no. 94, corner of España (no telephone)
Santiago tourism website
Sydney Hutchinson publishes a Salsa website in Tucson. She writes a blog about accordians. She lives parttime in the DR.