Story and photos by Bob Schulman
If you're vacationing in the Dominican Republic's big resort at Punta Cana on Jan. 21, it would probably be a bad day to go sightseeing in the nearby town of Higüey. Unless you like crowds. Because that day is the Caribbean country's national holiday of La Senora de la Altagracia, and the town gets flooded by some 800,000 pilgrims from across the island.
How the holiday came about – and why this particular town is packed that day – is the stuff of various legends. A popular version goes back to 1494, when Christopher Columbus' troops invaded what was then the little Taino Indian village of Higüey (the name meaning “the place where the sun's rays first shine each day”).
But the Tainos fought back, and were about to send the Spanish strangers packing – the hard way – into history. Surrounded, the invaders tried one last defense: They put a large cross in the path of the attackers. Miraculously, the cross glowed with an image of the Virgin Mary, which sent the Tainos packing instead.
The victorious conquistadores built a church on the site, then went on to name the surrounding area La Senora de la Altagracia (Our Lady of the Highest Grace), with Higüey as its capital.
Fast forward to 1922, when La Senora de la Altagracia became the patron saint of the whole Dominican Republic, and then to 1954, when work got underway on the current basilica. It took 18 years, but when it was finished, its 200-foot-high arch and other architectural features put modern-day Higüey on the map. There are things to write home about inside the basilica, too. Besides ornate religious items, a display spotlights a famous 15th century painting of – you guessed it – La Senora de la Altagracia.
Visitors should know that Higüey is a fairly large city with perhaps 150,000 people living there and seemingly the same number of two-person motoconcho (motorbike) cabs buzzing around in the absence of buses and regular taxis. Hailing one down is easy, except on Jan. 21.
Notes: Covering the eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola (Haiti is on the western third), the Dominican Republic (the D.R., for short) is the Caribbean's top tourism destination. Among its attractions are pristine white beaches, hundreds of lavish resort-hotels and eye-popping historical attractions – including the oldest Spanish colonial cities in what was once known as “the New World.”
There are a half-dozen major resort areas around the D.R., the largest being Punta Cana-Bavaro, a 70-mile-long strip of powdery beaches dotted by 100 or so posh hotels along the eastern shores of the island. Higüey, the only main city in the area, is about an hour's ride inland from the beaches.
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