Founded in 1495 by Christopher Columbus, La Vega is the site of one of the oldest settlements in the New World. The Spanish discovered gold here in the 1490s, and they also established the first mint in the New World here. The original settlement, now referred to as La Vega Vieja, was destroyed by a hurricane. El Parque de Flores, the town's central park, has a delightful, contemporary fountain. The brightly painted, centuries-old buildings surrounding it are being slowly restored, under a beautification project of President Leonel Fernández. Plans are to have an ongoing exhibition of Carnaval masks in one of them.
A commercial center for the surrounding farms, it's not a tourist magnet except in February, when La Vegas is justly celebrated for its Carnaval, probably the best in the country. The celebration dates back to the first Spanish settlers, and at this time the normally reserved, hard-working townspeople can become rowdy, especially when joined by nearly 100,000 fellow Dominicans and tourists. The Presidente flows faster than the water in the fountain during Carnaval, so be careful on the road during this time—drunk driving is a problem. In general, it's a pretty safe party, with good security, and it's fun. As with any event with large crowds, carry little of value on you, and make certain that your camera is around your neck and in a case with a wide, sturdy strap. Book accommodations far in advance, since even Santiago is busy during this time with its own Carnaval.
Crowds sit in bleachers erected along the parade route or join the organized, costumed groups who are the official marchers. Costumes can be lavish, heavy, and wildly decorated—otherworldly, even. La Vega is known for its distinctively haunting devil masks. These creations are intricate, fanciful gargoyles painted in surreal colors; spiked horns and cows' teeth (once real but now simulated) lend an eerie authenticity. Several artisans work in dark, cramped studios throughout the area, their skills having been passed down for generations.
Before you dance wildly in the street, be forewarned that some of the young male marchers snap leather whips, so you need to stay clear. Their buddies wield hard rubber, faux animal bladders and whack people in the butt, so watch your back.
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