North to Santiago

The Autopista Duarte, a four-lane highway, runs northwest from Santo Domingo to Santiago de los Caballeros, with the Cordillera Central on one side and the Cordillera Septentrional on the other. From there it reduces in size and follows the length of the Cibao Valley alongside the Río Yaque del Norte to its outlet on the coast at Monte Cristi. This is the main artery through the country, used by cars, trucks, motoconchos, cows, horse-drawn vehicles and others. The first town of any size just west of the Autopista Duarte is Bonao, 85 km from the centre of Santo Domingo and surrounded by rice paddies. To the east is the Falconbridge ferronickel mine, a large employer and major contributor to the region's economy. After Bonao on the Autopista Duarte, on the left, is the main road to Constanza.

Constanza

High up in the mountains, set in a circular valley formed by a meteor, is Constanza. Dubbed the Alps of the Dominican Republic, the mountains provide a spectacular backdrop for what is a fairly ordinary town with no buildings of note. The scenery is some of the best in the country, with rivers, forests and waterfalls and there are lots of good hikes in the area. In winter, temperatures can fall to zero or lower and there may be frosts at night, but during the day it is pleasant and fresh. The main street is Calle Luperón, which runs east to west. Most of the cheap hotels and restaurants are here or nearby. La Isla gas station is at the east end, where taxis and motoconchos congregate.

With a good, tough, 4WD you can visit the
Parque Nacional Valle Nuevo
, via the very poor but spectacular road from Constanza to San José de Ocoa. The views are wonderful and you pass the geographical centre of the island, marked by four small pyramids at the Alta Bandera military post about 30 km south of Constanza. The park's alpine plateau is at an altitude of about 2640 m and has a large number of plants which are unique to the island in pine and broadleaf forests. There are also thermal springs, three Amerindian cemeteries and the
Aguas Blancas
waterfall about 15 km south of town, so you can walk it if you want. The waterfall falls in three stages with a maximum drop of 87 m to a large pool at the bottom. At weekends or holidays it is very busy and lots of litter accumulates.

La Vega

La Vega's
carnival
is one of the most colourful pre-Lenten festivities in the country, with elaborate masks (
caretas
) of limping devils (
diablos cojuelos
), made mostly of papier mâché. It is also the oldest carnival, having been celebrated here since 1510, when a Spanish priest organized a re-enactment of the Spanish 'Moors and Christians' tradition. Activities are held on six Sundays in February and March, in the afternoons from 1500-1800. On the first Sunday there is an inaugural parade and on subsequent Sundays there are 'runs' by the devils. There is also a Children's Day, held in the Diablodromo.
Comparsas
, sponsored music groups, compete and there are competitions for the best costumes. Materials are brightly coloured and hundreds of little bells are sown into the costumes. There are currently over 90 'groups' of between five and 40 members, and it is estimated that some 1500 people dress up every Sunday. Traditional groups include Los Broncos, Las Mazones, Las Fieras, Las Hormiguitas, Las Panteras, Los Cavernarios, Los Bestias, Los Tigres, Las Plagas, Los Pieles Rojas and Los Rocky. It is a huge, rowdy affair. There are also performances by leading merengue and bachata groups. A collection of masks can be seen in the
Casa de la Cultura
 which also puts on temporary art exhibitions. See also www.dominicanmasks.com.

About 5 km north, the other side of the Autopista, is the turn for
Santo Cerro
, an old convent where the image of Virgen de las Mercedes is venerated and pilgrims come every 24 September to pray to Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. Legend has it that Columbus raised a cross on the summit of the hill in 1494. Inside the brick church on the hill is a hole in which the cross is supposed to have stood. If you continue along the road to the other side of the hill and into the valley, 6 km north of La Vega on the road to Moca, the ruins of
La Vega Vieja
 (Old La Vega), can be seen. It was founded by Columbus in 1494 but destroyed by an earthquake on 2 December 1562. Bartolomé de las Casas said the first Mass here and the first baptisms of Taínos took place here, on 21 September 1496. The first protest against the treatment of Indians was also made here in 1510, by Fray Pedro de Córdoba. La Vega Vieja is now a National Park and the foundations of the fortress, church and a few houses can be seen.

Conuco

At Conuco, 5 km east of Salcedo, just before Tenares on the main road towards San Francisco de Macorís, is the Museo Hermanas Mirabal. The house of the Mirabal sisters, is one of the most popular museums in the country. It was built in 1954 by their mother Doña Chea, and was the second family home. The sisters and their husbands were active in the resistance movement in the late 1950s, but Patria, Minerva and María Teresa were ambushed and murdered in 1960 on their return from visiting their husbands in prison, and are now icons for both liberty and the rights of women. The day of their assassination, 25 November, is remembered in many Latin American countries as the International Day Against Violence Towards Women. Their murder helped to lead to the downfall of General Trujillo, who was himself assassinated in May 1961. The fourth sister, Dedé, is still alive as she did not go with them that day. The bodies of the three sisters and Minerva's husband, Manolo, are buried in the garden, which has been declared an extension of the Pantéon Nacional, where national heroes are buried.

Jarabacoa

The three main rivers are the
Río Jimenoa
, the
Río Baiguate
and the
Río Yaque del Sur
. The Baiguate flows into the Jimenoa and the Jimenoa then flows into the Yaque. There are several other tributaries which are being explored for new whitewater rafting locations. The Jimenoa waterfalls,
Salto Jimenoa
 are worth seeing, 10 km from town, although they are often crowded with tour parties. The falls are large, with a tremendous volume of water and consequent noise. Closer to town, off the Constanza road, are the Baiguate falls,
Salto Baiguate
.

Pico Duarte

In the Cordillera Central near Jarabacoa and Constanza is Pico Duarte, at 3087 m the highest peak in the Caribbean, but only just. Its neighbour, La Pelona, is only 5 m lower at 3082 m. During the Trujillo dictatorship, when Pico Duarte was inevitably named Pico Trujillo, one of his geographers erroneously added to the height of the mountain, allegedly to impress his jefe (boss). To this day, most maps have Pico Duarte at 3175 m. There are several popular hiking routes, requiring differing degrees of stamina. Some of the routes take in other mountains as well. You will see a wide selection of native flora and birds, rainforest and pine forest, and pass through several different ecosystems. It is very beautiful landscape and a great experience. If you are not shrouded in cloud there is a fantastic view looking down on clouds and other mountain peaks.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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