A Dose Of Culture
What fuels the unique vibe here in the DR? Our secret sauce is a tangy blend of African roots, European influence and indigenous Taino heritage. You’ll see it in our markets and galleries, watch it come to life in our music and dance. You’ll certainly savor it in our cuisine.
In fact, culture and history permeate day-to-day life on this island. And while Punta Cana may be less “authentic” than the rural areas (it’s all about the tourism), there’s plenty of DR flavor here – and even more off the beaten track.
Fine and Folk Art
Look past the standard gift shop memorabilia and you’ll find a rich Dominican fine art legacy. Local artists have long taken their cues from the -isms of their European contemporaries (Classicism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism…) and made it their own. Check out the Museum of Modern Art or the Bellapart Museum, both in Santo Domingo, where works by historically-significant artists including Celeste Woss y Gil, Cándido Bidó and Yoryi Morel are displayed.
Traditional Dominican art can be traced back to Tanio cave paintings made 3,000 years ago. Trinkets found in today’s market stalls – pottery, colorful masks, baskets, jewelry, handbags – pay homage to our folk art traditions. One singularly Dominican icon is the faceless pottery doll, whose countenance (or lack thereof) represents the nation’s mix of races and cultures.
Many of these souvenirs are handmade and most are mass-produced for the tourist market, where haggling is perfectly acceptable. However, a sharp-eyed buyer might come across a true object d’art in the higher-end shops.
Music and Dance
Merengue is practically a requirement at any Dominican gathering. You’d be hard pressed to find a Dominican of any generation who doesn’t know the DR’s national music and dance style. You’ll hear it (and its somewhat more sensual cousin, the Bachata) everywhere you go, from rural villages to the nightclubs of Punta Cana.
Merengue has been around since the 1800s, although the upper echelon initially pooh-poohed its African roots. Then came Rafael Trujillo. The future dictator used Merengue as a symbol of national identity in order to woo voters, and it’s been in the mainstream ever since – far outlasting Trujillo himself.
What is it about Merengue that’s so irresistible? For starters, the music is just plain infectious. Secondly, anyone can learn the moves. A partner and a gentle sway of the hips are all you need to get the party started.
In Punta Cana, you can find anything from pizza and sushi to high-end French. But it would be a shame to overlook the comforting fare prepared in a typical Dominican kitchen.
Our cuisine is as close to an actual melting pot as you can get. It’s a multicultural party on a plate celebrating whatever’s available – mainly meat and seafood, plantains, cassava, coconuts and plenty of rice and beans. With a good helping of soul and a pinch of sofrito, Dominican cooks elevate these simple staples to satisfying heights.
Go native with national favorites like la bandera (stewed meat with rice, beans, and fried plantains), sancocho (a creamy stew featuring up to seven kinds of meat), bacalitos (cod fritters), chivo guisado (spicy goat stew) and chicarrónes (pork cracklings). You’ll see mangú, a plantain puree, at almost every Dominican breakfast table. Add garlic and pork rinds and you have mofongo – not to be confused with mondogo, a tripe stew.
Rum and chocolate make perfect souvenirs, so they’re always part of the Punta Cana experience. Still, nothing you take home says Dominican Republic like a fine cigar. The Taino people were using tobacco centuries before Columbus set foot on Hispaniola. When his crew brought it back to the Old World, Europe became, shall we say, hooked.
The DR today is the world’s top producer of premium, hand-rolled cigars, and our smokes are widely considered the gold standard. And while we can rightly boast of ideal growing conditions and top-grade tobacco, we also think of cigar-making as a symbol of our heritage. They’re made from proprietary recipes by master artisans using generations-old techniques.
You don’t have to be an aficionado or even a smoker to learn about cigars. Factories in and around Punta Cana offer fascinating tours so you can see what it takes to craft these noteworthy smokes.
Museums are the best way to discover this country’s deep roots. Start with a day trip to Santo Domingo. The Museum of the Royal Houses documents military history and everyday life in the Colonial era in a splendid building constructed in 1511. The Memorial Museum of the Dominican Resistance commemorates the 30-year struggle for democracy and human rights under Rafael Trujillo. And the Museum of the Dominican Man offers an anthropological journey through Pre-Columbian times.
Elsewhere, Tainopark in Santa Barbara de Samana immerses you in scenes depicting peaceful indigenous life and the bloody Spanish invasion. Thousands of actual Taino artifacts are on view at Altos de Chavón Archaeology Museum in La Romana and the Museum of Taino Art in Puerto Plata. Or explore something completely different at the Jewish Museum in Sosúa.
Lucky is the tourist who visits the DR in February, when every Sunday brings the spectacle of Carnival to the streets. This colorful parade of costumes, masks, music and dance culminates in a giant celebration on February 27, Dominican Independence Day.
Masquerade is at the heart of Carnival; different troupes portray spirit characters from their region’s mythical heritage. The whip-wielding Limping Devil is said to spoof the “satanic” Spanish conquerors. Dancing, paint-splattered Pinatos represent the Maroon resistance, and La Ciguapa is a naked seductress with long hair and backward feet. The Guloyas celebrate their African origins in eye-popping regalia of feathers and beads, while Los Indios don native Taino costumes with elaborate headpieces.
The Dominican version of this pre-Lenten custom dates back to Spanish Colonial times, when Christian slave owners allowed slaves a single day each year to let loose. Today’s Carnival is a joyous mashup of religion, folklore, revelry and the cultural kaleidoscope that is the Dominican Republic.