Join in the Dominican Republic’s favourite pastimes – baseball, dominoes and merengue – on the colonial streets of the historic capital
It’s first light and Santo Domingo is not yet awake, but down at the Centro Olímpico Félix Sánchez the morning’s practice is already in full swing. On the sunbaked field, a group of youths dressed in peaked caps and faded shorts is hustling for the next pitch as cries of ‘Rápido, rápido, rápido!’ ring out from the sidelines.
‘I’ve worked on this field seven days a week for 20 years,’ says veteran Fausto Sosa, as he marshals the boundary, barking throaty instructions at the players. Dressed in a 70s tracksuit and scuffed trainers, a cracked stopwatch swinging from his weathered neck, Fausto reels off a list of Major League legends he’s mentored over the years, including Jorge Sosa, a former New York Mets pitcher. Turning his attention back to the game, he jabs a finger to single out the next batter, before giving him a fatherly slap on the belly. ‘This little hitter is only 15,’ he adds, ‘but I swear he has the mano de dios: the hand of God.’
Nowhere in the Caribbean is baseball taken more seriously than in the Dominican Republic. Brought to its shores by Cuban immigrants in the 1870s, the sport is omnipresent in the city of Santo Domingo: youngsters play with makeshift sticks in dusty parking lots; older crowds gather round crackling televisions and radios in tobacco-scented bars, clinking bottles every time a home run is scored.
It’s drama like this that makes Santo Domingo such an absorbing city to explore. In the Zona Colonial, a historic quarter of alleyways, arches and cathedrals, endless intriguing scenes unfold, tempting onlookers to linger. Sun-wrinkled taxi drivers smoke thick cigars and play dominoes in the leafy shade of Parque Colón. They sit beneath the bronze limbs of Christopher Columbus, for whom the square was named in the late 19th-century. Around the corner, past the fallen ruins of the San Francisco Monastery on Plaza de España, a skiffle band serenades a crowd with an accordion, a double-headed tambora conga drum and a washboard. When they earn enough pesos for a few cold drinks they slink off to enjoy them in the shade.
Further along the street, the pace is starting to pick up at El Conuco, a dancehall restaurant with the faded charm of a Caribbean rum bar. It’s time for an energetic night of foot-stamping and merengue, a high-tempo folkloric dance. Supposedly born from the foot-dragging of chained African slaves working in the fields, it is today an enduring symbol of Dominican culture and good times.
On the dancefloor, dressed in a full red skirt, dancer Illuminada Corniel is swaying her hips, her hair tied back in plaits. ‘One-two, one-two,’ she whispers to her partner, as they twirl in a fleet-footed motion that outpaces the whirring ceiling fans. Around them, flushed couples pirouette and jive, but Illuminada and her straw-hatted beau let the rhythm grip them as though they were the only ones on the dancefloor. It’s a mesmerising spectacle, but one almost meriting an 18 certificate. As the saying in the Dominican Republic goes, ‘merengue is the closest you can get to sex with your clothes on,’ and this evening Santo Domingo seems determined to prove it.