Well, we’re coming up on Carnival (carnaval in Spanish) season again. While there are carnivals throughout the Dominican Republic one of the oldest and biggest is in La Vega, the largest parade is usually in Santo Domingo and Monti Cristi is know for one of the most unusual festivals. For many this is one of the highlights of the year a month of parades, colorful masks, and a overall sense of abandonment of moral restrictions. This abandonment is what makes the La Vega Carnaval a major tourist attraction but also makes this a rather dangerous time of year for foreigners.

Dangers of Carnival

If you haven’t figured it out yet I’ll state it clearly, I’m not a big fan of the Carnival month of February (which is why it is listed in the Places to Avoid category). During this time you have to be very careful of when and how you travel through the Dominican Republic. Traveling after dark is always a rather poor idea in the D.R, poor road conditions, lack of enforced traffic laws, people on the wrong side of the road driving with no lights or people driving with high beams on and extra fog lights blinding you are all common. Alcohol and driving is also a common combination here. During the festivals like Carnival it just gets worse.

During the Carnival month of February you also get an overall feeling of abandonment of common sense in the general population which greatly increases these dangers. Walking on the street after dark is even worse. Pickpockets, people whipping pedestrians with a special Carnaval whip or Vejiga, and crowds of drunken people make this a dangerous time for anyone to be on the street but even more so foreigners which stand out as targets.

Travel during the Carnival

Last night (Jan 27th) a group of us were heading back from Santiago after an assembly. Getting through Santiago and the La Vega area was about normal but our real challenge came as we were approaching Rincon heading toward the Cotui area. We were traveling in a GuaGua as a group, It turns out that they were holding a practice round in this area in preparation for the upcoming carnaval month of February. This was unexpected because the La Vega Carnaval starts in February not January.

For a several mile section the streets were crowded with flat bed trucks loaded with people in costumes like a parade large numbers of cars and pickup completely loaded with people with 10-15 people in the bed of the trucks, sitting on the roof and hanging on to the back as they drive along. The cars would have people sitting on the doors, roofs and trunks. Where there were spaces between the vehicles scooters and motorcycles usually packed with 3-5 people each weaved through. To make things worse on this small more or less two lane road there was also a large “Grey Hound” style tour bus pushing through the traffic (these are a pretty common form of public transportation here), as well as many large trucks loaded with construction products (sand, dirt, concrete etc.) trying to pass through.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera at the time. This would have been a great time to document some of the most “interesting” driving conditions I have ever seen. The public cars, buses and work trucks were impatiently trying to push through the cars, pickups, motorcycles and parade trucks all of which were heavily loaded with most of the drivers drinking (as was evident by the bottles being passed around).

To make things even more interesting in most of the pickups and hanging out the doors of the cars as well as sitting on the roof of the cars were girls and guys dancing or at least trying to move to the music that was blaring from sound cars with huge public address speaker systems.

Quite often the girls were losing items of their clothing or lifting their dresses etc to attract the attention of (and completely distract the drivers and people they passed by). You can probably guess how this affected the already poor driving ability of most of the drivers. In a country where the day to day dress of some women is in clothes that you would expect to find in a Victoria’s Secret magazine, you can imagine what happens when they are drinking and are participating in a “anything goes” celebration.

Something also to understand as foreigners. Foreigners stand out as targets if you are seen in the area where the carnival is being celebrated expect to receive more attention. All foreigners are considered rich and it is barely considered a crime to help relieve these foreigners of the burden of carrying all that money. That means you will be more of a target for overpricing, pickpockets and actual muggings. There are often reports of muggers stopping public cars, or reaching into public cars to grab items from the lap of passengers. The drivers have no obligation to protect the occupants. If you are in a public car trying to pass through a carnival packed street that is stopped or barely moving, if the mob try to force you out of the car the driver will very likely not try to do anything to prevent it. It is best to make sure you are not put in that situation.

Well, we made it home with no real incidents which we were happy for. But this does illustrate the caution needed when traveling to and through the Dominican Republic in (or near) February. During the day it is a little crazier here, especially in the cities that cater strongly to Carnival like La Vega, MontiCristi, Santo Domingo and others. You should be especially cautious anytime on the weekends. All travel in the carnival areas should be avoided in the late afternoon and evening if at all possible. Also the La Vega and some of the other Carnivals culminate on February 27th. Any time of the day will be a bad time to be traveling on this day.