Why You Should Experience Carnival in the Dominican Republic

Finding devils, whips, and inspiration at the most ancient Caribbean carnival

La Vega carnival devil — one of many intricate devilish costumes. — All images Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.

“Cuida’o!” Careful! I turned around. Too late. A rock hard, balloon-shaped instrument was landing with full force onto my backside. I felt a sting spreading over my thighs and grimaced while the crowd erupted in laughter around me. Like every first-timer, I had fallen prey to the chief prankster of Dominican carnival: el diablo cojuelo or the limping devil, and his whip.

I wasn’t prepared for this exuberant scene, not even for the Caribbean. The carnival I had experienced in neighboring islands involved bodies in skimpy sequined outfits and feather hats, gyrating to soca music blaring from trucks, parading while taking swigs of rum from concealed bottles. The same jovial atmosphere, but an entirely different visual. In the Dominican Republic, carnival parades are rooted in folklore, history, and elements of African spirituality. Devils wear colorful papier-mâché masks, accented with bulging eyes and giant horns–more than six months in the making (see image above). Dressed in bejeweled rompers that mock European knights, they dance and terrorize the crowds with their whips, traditionally made of inflated, dried cow bladders. In contrast, men in red lipstick and voluptuous dresses parade as the village hen robber, Taino Indians twirl in their feathered costumes, witches perform sacred ceremonies in black-painted faces, and maroons show off their spears, among others.

The cultureholic in me was hooked.
The Taino Indians — a popular representation at carnival in the DR. — Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.
Roba La Gallina — the hen robber — one of the popular folkloric characters at Dominican carnival. — Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.
A young carnival troupe celebrating the African side of the DR’s triple heritage with their creative costumes. — Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.

The oldest carnival in the Caribbean

Dating back to the 15th century, to the days of the Spanish conquistadores—who built the first European settlement in the DR—which makes it the oldest carnival in the Caribbean region, Carnaval Dominicano transformed after contact with indigenous and African cultures, as the population used it to make fun of the colonial masters in their elaborate costumes. Over the years, carnaval became comprised of a blend of characters that tell the history and folklore of the country’s various provinces, and reflect Dominicans’ mixed heritage.

During the month of February, there’s a carnival parade takign place in every major Dominican city and town every Sunday afternoon after 2pm, and continues well past Ash Wednesday through month’s end. Instead of flocking to the beach or the river, as is the custom on Sundays, Dominicans come out to enjoy the fun every week. From toddlers to tweens and grandmothers, many in their homemade outfits, the mood is one of laughter, dance, and family-time.

Getting whipped once at Puerto Plata carnival almost kept me away. But I was intrigued by the intricate costumes and larger-than-life characters, and wanted to understand the most uniting event in the country, celebrated during the most cultural month of the year. So I decided to hop my way around a handful of additional carnival destinations around the Dominican Republic over the course of three joyous weeks in February.

Carnival in Santiago

Santiago de los Caballeros, the second largest city of the DR, hosts the most popular carnival after La Vega. Santiagueros are a proud, artistic and intellectual people (at least that’s their reputation and they love to tell it). The costumes are certainly among the most bejeweled and elaborate, from devils to comparsas, and demonstrate a passion for culture, creation, and extravagance.

Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.

Carnival in La Vega

The most popular, and the biggest street party in the DR is La Vega Carnival. It’s the oldest carnival in the country, but it’s also turned into the most commercialized over the years. Think dozens of sponsors, major concerts, and side parties. Still, it’s worth the glimpse if nothing for its sheer size and energy. If you’re smart, you’ll pay for entrance to one of the carnival troupes’ cuevas or caves: a giant covered tent along the parade route with seating, open bar, and hundreds of partiers screaming and dancing while the parade goes on. The more popular the troupe, the cooler the cueva. Otherwise, you’ll stand along the parade route. Avoid exposing your buttocks because those devils of La Vega have the most brutal swing of all and their ropes reach far!

Another devil at La Vega Carnival — 2017. Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.

The costumes of La Vega’s devils are well worth seeing up close. Hundreds of years of tradition, and hundreds of hours in beading and sewing.

I was fortunate to have a media pass from the Ministry of Tourism, and tagged along with a friend. We were on a stage where the devils would come show off their looks, prancing about as they competed for the best costume prize.

The massive crowds, the blasting music from life-size speakers, the flowing Presidente and rum, and the Dominican party vibe will say with you long after you’ve left.

Carnival in Cotui

After seeing a carnival group with Afro-Taino inspired costumes online, I was determined to go see them for myself. Cotui, a town in the northeastern DR, is about an hour’s drive from Santo Domingo (the drive there is hilly and picturesque). Though small, Cotui’s carnival dates back to the 1950s, and features banana leaf and recycled paper inspired costumes. The parties began in the local clubs and later evolved into street parades. The themes also evolved, with animal themed masks to represent devils.

Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.

Cotui is particular known for its carnival group Los Platanuses, whose costumes are made of dried banana leaves and masks out of painted gourds (see image below); Los Funduses with costumes made from plastic strips; and Los Papeluses with costumes made out of shredded paper. Over 500 years old, Cotui’s original costumes won the national carnival prize in 2005. Their resourceful use of recycled material is simply genius.

Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.

Carnival in Santo Domingo Este (East of the Capital)

Reflecting the underground pulse of Santo Domingo, the “east”–east of the Ozama river and east of downtown Santo Domingo–showcases African roots, including influences from Haitian-Dominicans with performances such as the “gaga” (known as “rara” in Haiti). It’s a ceremony that combines voodoo, santeria, and christianity. Prepare for downright rowdiness as the hours progress past 5pm (and I recommend you leave before dark, unless your car is parked nearby).

Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.
Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.
The scenes surrounding carnival parades are just as culture-packed. — Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.

Children’s Carnival in Santo Domingo

Perhaps the second most entertaining of all carnival parades, for me, is seeing the next generations of Dominicans carrying on the carnival torch. Last year’s Children’s Carnival or Desfile Infantil took place in the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo– their natural smiles and colorful outfits against a backdrop of 16th century buildings.

Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.
Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.
Children’s National Parade in Santo Domingo–2017. Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.
Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.

The National Parade in Santo Domingo–or “Desfile Nacional”

The number one parade to experience when visitingthe DR in February is the Desfile Nacional–the closing, national carnival parade taking place the first weekend of March, following Independence Day (February 27), and closing off the carnival season. The best comparsas from the Dominican Republic’s 31 provinces, plus the Distrito Nacional (Santo Domingo), parade down the city’s Malecon or waterfront boulevard.

From the variance in ethnicities to religions and dances, the national parade is a stunning cultural kaleidoscope of the DR, past and present—one that few visitors get to see.
Puerto Plata’s Afro Queen of the Atlantic–2017. Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.
The south and southwest of the Dominican Republic bear strong Afro-Caribbean roots and traditions (as well as parts northeast). — Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.
Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.
(Single Image above) The Guloyas — one of the DR’s UNESCO-protected Afro Dominican groups. — Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.
Perhaps the only common carnival thread with its Caribbean neighbors: big trucks doling out free drinks and blasting music down the boulevard. And it wouldn’t be Dominican carnival without Presidente. — Copyright Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.

A lesson in loving self, neighbor, and country

The kicker is that even after experiencing the above main carnivals across the DR, I have many more to witness. For example, there are parades in La Romana, Montecristi, Rio San Juan, and San Cristobal, also every Sunday in February.

Just like the country’s vast landscape, the exploration of Dominican carnival is inexhaustible.

But past the devil masks, satirical figures, and folkloric tales, I realized that there’s a deeper significance to carnaval dominicano—one that Dominicans at large embrace during this joyous month of February. It’s a reminder to honor and make peace with the past, while celebrating the present. To express yourself creatively and freely, without fear of discrimination based on social class, race, origin, or sexual orientation. To celebrate your culture and all of the people that make up your homeland.

I’ve carried this message with me on my travels around the Caribbean, and it’s what keeps me returning to Dominican carnival every February—even if it means walking around with my hands over my buttocks.