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Dominican Republic Street Vendors
How do street vendors work?

Street vendors work under the hot Caribbean sun, tropical downpours and in the midst of hectic big city traffic, is the answer to that question.

A large part of the Dominican economy is made up of what’s known as ‘the informal sector’. This informal economy includes employees such as domestic workers and small-scale traders. In the case of the traders, the fact that they are ‘informal’ means that their business is unregistered and unregulated, and not subject to taxation. It is also the way in which a large percentage of Dominican people earn their living. In Spanish they are known as ‘vendedores ambulantes’.

Many of these informal businesses consist of little more than a tricycle or cart, often shaded by a colorful beach umbrella. In some cases not even that. The vendors either roam the streets, work from fixed spots on shady corners, or ply their trade at traffic intersections.

Street vendors are a colorful part of Dominican life, but for the tourist, the hawkers and hustlers in vacation areas selling trinkets and foodstuffs can also be a nuisance. The best advice for tackling over-zealous merchants of this kind is to be firm but polite in declining their offers. When this does not work, walk away if appropriate or use a stronger tone. Always bear in mind that this is their livelihood, but at the same time it does not excuse any harassment or invasive behavior on their part.

If you do choose to engage with these vendors, by all means haggle, but within reason. You might gain some satisfaction from bringing down the price, but again, for the seller, this is his/her living, so keep it in proportion. What is just a couple of dollars to you could mean the difference between getting food on the table and skipping a meal for the seller. It is a fact of life that some vendors will try to overcharge: depending on the item it is possible to detect these attempts if you have an idea what the actual price should be.

If in any doubt - just don’t buy it. If the street vendor does appear to be unscrupulous or aggressive, you could mention ‘Politur’, the tourist police that patrols tourist areas like beach towns and the Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo, and this should scare him/her off.

What do they sell?

Vendors in tourist areas hawk a range of items: seafood snacks (including shellfish marketed as ‘natural Viagra’), crafts souvenirs and artisan items like jewelry, t-shirts, baseball caps, sarongs and plastic beach toys.

Be aware that some of the ‘artesania’ being sold as local crafts may well be mass-produced in some Chinese factory and not Dominican at all. Other items may be from Haiti, or made by Haitians in the Dominican Republic. If authenticity is important to you, seek out the workshops where local crafts are made instead of buying them on the street. Likewise, caution is advised when buying what are described as Cuban Cigars: these are quite likely to be counterfeit and it is best to go to a recommended store, where the price might be higher but the quality and authenticity is more reliable.

Most beaches frequented by tourists will have one or two ‘Mama Juana’ sellers who usually oblige by letting potential buyers sample his potent wares.

Beyond the tourist areas, street sellers are very much a part of everyday life in the Dominican Republic. In every city or town, from the poorest barrio to the wealthiest neighborhood, fruit sellers and their colorful barrows of tropical fruits are posted on most street corners, and many other sellers do the rounds on specially adapted tricycles selling vegetables as well as fruit to their regular customers. They call out their wares, sound a horn or whistle to alert housewives about their arrival. In the afternoons ice-cream sellers do their rounds on their bicycles, ringing their bells to get the attention of children and older ice-cream lovers.

Campesinos (farmers) bring their produce from the countryside, often on horse-drawn carts laden with lemons, pineapples or coconuts, providing an interesting contrast with the urban traffic. These pieces of fruit can usually be purchased for just a few pesos each.

Street vendors may sell fruit and vegetables, prepared ‘frituras’ (typical Dominican fried delicacies like yaniqueques (johnnycakes), empanadas (pies), carnita (meat), quipes (kibbes) and more), hot dogs and ‘chimi churri’ (hamburgers), natural fruit juices and homemade sweets and candies. All are worth trying, and many are also attractive subjects for photography.
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