Nights in Santiago de los Caballeros can be breathless.

So can days, come to think of it. But it is at night that the young and restless assemble in the Duarte Park at the foot of the city’s trademark monument under a star-crossed sky to socialize, while music purls out of speakers larger than the cars that carry them. The foot of the monument also has the best view in town, looking out over 90 square kilometers of cityscape.

city_watchThe monument itself, the Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration, is fundamentally a huge concrete pillar with a gallery within and an iron Jesus perched on top, arms held skywards like during a stick-up. It is visible from practically every vantage point in the city, and is to Santiago what the Twin Towers used to be to New York City. But at night the monument is more than just a monument to past revolutions: it is witness to the celebration of the future for the Ciudad Corazon — Heart City, as Santiago is known.

IMG_7673Who-wants-to-be-a-Millionaire question: who founded Santiago? Was it a) Amerigo Vespucci b) Christopher Columbus c) George Washington or d) Winston Churchill?

The answer is way too obvious. Christopher Columbus is the most widely used patron to practically every city and island in the Caribbean, so why not Santiago? And indeed, he is credited with christening a small fortress alongside the river Yaque del Norte in 1495 with the name ‘Santiago’, not far from where the city stands today. Nine years later a group of gentlemen-adventurers–caballeros–moved from the doomed La Isabella (the first ever city in the New World — long story, let’s not get started) to Santiago and legend has it that since then the city was known by the full name it carries today: Santiago de los Caballeros.

Although Santo Domingo is the capital of the Dominican Republic, Santiago has been its secret capital ever since its foundation. The New York City analogy works here, too. Located strategically amidst the fertile Cibao Valley halfway to either north or south coast, Santiago boasts with both country and city life, and in the DR, both are lax. This combination of immiscible elements makes for a city like few others. Its economic food-chain is well in place and working like a charm, “with cigars and coffee grazing the top and politics hanging on at the bottom” as one Santiaguero — Santiago native — once joked. Its history is spiked with wars, revolutions, battles and a disturbing amount of earthquakes, with the next quake pending, but that doesn’t stop the city from flourishing — in fact, it seems to inspire everyone from the Mayor up to the youngest shoe-shiner. It is the most promising city in the country, yield of a well-kept industrialization program; a 51% slice of the nation’s taxes alone originate in the Santiago region.

It is fair to say that the tobacco industry, the many duty-free zones and several large and small companies carry the most weight of that slice. Numerous projects and the many employment opportunities make Santiago also the city with less unemployment. At a population closing quickly on the one million mark, that’s surprising.

Away from all the money-making and materialism is yet another world, and the foot of the monument is only the beginning. Santiagueros are a breed of their own, starting with their language. Their Spanish dialect Cibaeño is both laughed and frowned upon by the rest of the nation, and their habit of needlessly replacing Rs with Is at the end of many words makes for uniquely flavored conversation. Also their colloquialisms are unambiguously seasoned, such as hay que agrio — loosely interpreted as “what a mess” — and dejate de caballa — which could be understood as “you gotta be kidding”.

5antiago2Speaking of seasoning, one of the DRs most notable snacks called quipe originated here, and it is said that the best pork sausages are stuffed in Santiago alone. There are plenty of places to enjoy these specialties; most of them aligned towards the monument like worshipers. During the star-spangled nights it is recommended to embark on a tour of them, maybe even barhop through the numerous live-music pubs that play a wide selection of everything from rock to salsa, meringue, son, and the incomparable Latin jazz. For the more intellectually inclined, several museums and galleries embellish the city, most notably the first floor of the monument itself with its exquisite exhibition of paintings by the acclaimed Spanish artist Vela Zanetti. In terms of museums the Folkloric Museum Tomas Morel and the Tobacco Museum take the lead.

Second don’t mean second best, and that applies intensely to Santiago. Santo Domingo’s prettier little sister is a growing metropolis with ‘future’ written all over her. Coming from Santo Domingo, the Duarte highway (#1) smartly leads up to the monument past hints of what’s in store: on the right a hotel and hospital are constructed within a mile of one another, both of imposing size and investment, while on the left one of the nation’s leading universities, the Madre y Maestra Pontifical University, sprawls out of sight and into the future.

santiagoA tiny airport — or rather airstrip — serviced equally sized carriers and the odd JFK flight with American Eagle, but more recently the International Airport Cibao was raised out of the dirt and is quickly becoming a hub for airlift shuttles into various parts of the world. The old airstrip is being turned into a park and all over town trees have begun to increase the city’s coloration to a more vivid green. According to its Mayor Hector Grullon Moronta, within a year, the entire city will have been planted with trees.

That same Mayor is also the driving force behind Santiago’s future, and although Santiagueros have much disparaging to say about Dominican politicians in general, Hector could be the exception. “Our city is ripe for investment,” he states proudly, “with very clear environmental conservation criteria. Anyone coming here will find that Santiago is a safe place to live with a low crime rate and decreasing pollution.”

While chewing on a quipe and nursing a Soberana beer, a true Santiaguero might reply to that “déjate de caballa!”