Dominican Republic’s Santiago Carnival 2016

While the rest of the world is done with carnival celebrations, the Dominican Republic is still in the thick of its weekly parades. There are four Sundays to go in different parts of the country — including the grand finale in Santo Domingo in early March.

Last Sunday I attended the city of Santiago’s Carnival–one of the most colorful, popular and culturally interesting you can attend. The celebrations center around the city’s most popular sight, the Monumento a los Heroes de la Restauracion (commonly known as Monumento de Santiago), giving the already-colorful event a gorgeous, green backdrop.

Dominicans have their own way of doing things — and that includes carnival. Carnaval dominicano is pure art and creativity, history and culture. The main attraction isn’t hundreds of women in feathers and barely-there bikinis, but rather, folkloric characters and personalities that date back to the colonial times and share an aspect of Dominican life or society–whether Taino, Spanish or African. Each one of them has a story to tell.

Santiago Carnaval started late afternoon–Dominican style. Crowds began to trickle in at 3pm, while the skies were still blue, and the big parade began at 4pm around the Monument. But early birds can still show up by 2pm and enjoy Barcelo’s big tent and bar where they shell out mixed drinks for 50 pesos (barely over a dollar) while a DJ spins the latest Dominican and Carnival tunes–including Baile en la calle de noche (y de dia), one of the Dominican carnival “anthems.”

The rain arrived mid-way through the parade, and cloudy weather lingered, but the revelers’ and audience energy remained high throughout and nothing was halted–yet again, a Dominican thing.

Santiago’s main carnival characters are the Lechones or devils with pig-shaped snouts (Santiago is known for its pork, by the way). They aren’t scary because of their tall horns. Rather, it’s the long fouet or sisal rope whip they carry in one hand, swinging it above their heads at high velocity, making standersby run and shudder at the sound of the air whistling, followed by the rope crashing on the ground. You need to keep your distance, as well, from the rattle shaped containers or vejigas they hold in the left hand–made out of an inflated cow bladder–that they swing at your butt and thighs if you’re in their way, giving you a proper vejigazo. Between cracking whips and hitting bottoms, the lechones dance–an African type of dance, swinging their legs side to side and lunging forward.

Legend has it the lechones were the carnival gatekeepers–vejigantes–warding off the crowds during parades and protecting its participants who back in the day, were royals.

While you’re dying to admire their ornate costumes up close–they are indeed beautifully beaded–remember to look safely from the sidelines! Security is plenty all along the parade route (in fact there seemed to be too many), from police to private, and it’s safe to attend and watch the grand show around the city’s most visited landmark.

Hundreds of lechones groups come out with variances in their masks that denote their neighborhood in Santiago–spiked, not spiked, and so on–and all ages participate. Aside from Santiago’s signature devils, other popular Dominican carnival characters were present in full force–including Roba La Gallina, the hen robber (pictured below)–and Los Indios, and other more modern costumes.

If you’re on the north coast and are interested in attending Santiago’s Carnival, you can do so easily from Puerto Plata (just 1h15 minutes away), Jarabacoa or  Santo Domingo (4.5 hours one way), by hopping on a Metro Tours or Caribe Tours bus service depending on your originating city.

The next carnival parade is this coming Sunday, in another part of the country. Join me on IG, FB and right here on the blog next week to find out where I am taking you next in the Dominican Republic.

My thanks to the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism and its Santiago staff, for my media pass. It allowed me to access within the parades so I could capture images for my Moon Dominican Republic Travel Guide, and bring you a few here on the blog.

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