A July 2003 trip
to Higuey by Jose Kevo
Quote: With population nearing 150,000, Higuey is a regional capital for the eastern Dominican Republic. There's no reason to plan on actually staying here; most only passing through on their way to the Costa del Coco. But if you've a few hours to spare, you'll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
You Can''t or Won''t Miss the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia which is the Holy Mecca for Dominican Catholics. This towering concrete cathedral is an architectural wonder uniquely designed and certainly worth your time to stop and explore.
Market Junkies, you''ll definitely want to have your gamut of senses overwhelmed and assaulted at Higuey''s vibrant display of daily commerce in what I consider the DR''s best Outdoor Market, and perhaps in all the Caribbean! It''s also the place to head if you''re looking for a quick, inexpensive wealth of dining and snacking opportunities.
Jake the Rat - follow in my footsteps as I take you on my most defining experience for Higuey the day I went in search of queso blanco; White Cheese.
Along the main arteries, you''ll pass several small locally owned hotels but likely have little reason to consider staying here. Dining options are also limited to the local standard fare; comida creolle. Don''t expect to find fast-food and other American franchises that are beginning to pop up in Dominican cities, as this area has so far been passed over.
Uncommon souvenir purchases came be found along Avenida Laguna Llana and within the Basilica''s southern parking lot from the hordes of vendors selling Catholic-related religious icons and locally hand-crafted items depicting the Cathedral.
Resort Tourists staying in the Punta Cana/Bavaro used to flock to Higuey for exchanging currencies, making phone calls, and other related assistance, but overdevelopment of the area has replaced the need for making the 1+-hour trip. Should you require any of these services, you''ll find them clustered around the town''s Central Plaza area.
My other Dominican Journals can help you plan your time within the country''s southeastern region, including my upcoming one for the nearby Costa del Coco.
Once in the central area, everything is within easy walking distance. Lonely Planet''s DR guidebook''s city map is an adequate source to help you get your bearings and find anything you''ll care to see.
For drivers, the parking lot entrance to the Basilica is on the southern end of the compound along Avenida de la Altagracia/Highway 4. Parking is free, and I would suggest leaving your transportation here and walking to any where else you care to go.
Should you decide to take a motoconcho, a ride any where within the city center should never cost more than RD10.
Sometimes just getting there can turn into the better of the experience as you discover On The Road To Higuey.
The small park in the central plaza was nothing overly impressive, or at least with evidence of flowers and well-tended gardens like you find in most others. The overgrown shade trees all but negated the blue skies and intense summer sun - great for sitting on one of the many shaded benches and surveying the environment while watching locals go about their daily business. Don't expect to do this uninterrupted - characteristics of any Dominican town square are the little shoeshine boys out in full force so expect to be repeatedly approached regardless of what type of footwear you have on.
In looking around the perimeters of the square, the outer stores are wall-to-wall currency exchange houses, trinket shops, and any other number of businesses which once prospered from the nearby tourist trade coming from along the Coconut Coast. With the ongoing, overdevelopment I would later find in the Bavaro/Punta Cana resort areas, the once necessary trip for travelers coming to Higuey for conducting official business has since vanished. Proprietors hadn't seemed to figure this out yet...standing on the sidewalks encouraging me to enter as I passed by. At no point did I ever encounter another "foreigner" venturing about in Higuey except for my times spent in/around the large Basilica.
If you actually make the effort to explore the central area, you shouldn't miss the hidden gem that time has also passed over and all but forgotten. The Iglesia San Dionisio is the original cathedral built in the 1500's sitting on the southeast corner of the square. It has the old Spanish Mission appearance from the outside housing a rather plain but interesting interior with the vaulted ceilings and frescoed dome rising above the altar. And to think before the new Basilica opened in the mid 50's this was where thousands of Dominicans made their annual pilgrimage for paying tribute to the Virgin of Altagracia?
The old caretaker put down his broom to come and personally welcome me in despite my irreverent appearance wearing a cut-up t-shirt, shorts and a do-rag. Beyond the initial greeting, there was no exchange of conversation; only contemplative silence. Stay for as long as you wish, and like everything else in the city center geared towards visitors, plan to have it all to yourself.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 26, 2003
Located on Avenida de la Libertad between calles Guerrero del Rosario and Las Carreras, this was definitely one of those mystifying travel time-warp experiences that left me disenchanted by the mundane tasks of shopping at a regular supermarket - not to mention questionable quality of foods I'm left to pick from. These bountiful harvests are also what keep costs down for Dominican all-inclusive resorts unlike most smaller Caribbean islands where foods must be imported.
Regardless of which direction you enter the market from, you're all but sucked into the frenzy of activities and carried away in the wave of motorcycles, delivery trucks, and local shoppers that jam the narrow streets and alleys. Vendors are stacked in their booths and small stores hawking mountains of produce, dry goods, and the freshest of meats butchered on the spot that honestly left me wondering, how can they possibly sell all these foods before they spoil; regardless of the throngs of shoppers?
I'm not sure how many times I ambled back and forth with my senses of vision and smell on overload, but it was obviously enough to catch the attention of vendors and locals - and not just because I was the only "tourist" I saw present during this entire encounter. Answering their courteous and helpful greetings in Spanish gave them chance to interact with an outsider, which I suspect they rarely see. And not only were they eager to detail all the various items I'd never seen before, they were often just as quick to slice me off a taste.
Undoubtedly, I could have shot numerous rolls of film, but this was one of those cultural encounters that would have likely been tainted with an overactive camera - as if photos or a video camera could capture or replace the ambience of the experience. Other tips to keep in mind:
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on September 26, 2003
Feasting for the Cultural Appetite
Avenida de la Libertad
Higuey, Dominican Republic
Attraction | "Higuey as a transportation Hub"
For those using public transportation, namely gua-guas/buses, Higuey has three main terminals which can get you back to these destinations; departures are every 20 minutes:
When Arriving, bus routes run all the way through town making convenient key stops along the way before their final destination. Those coming from Santo Domingo or La Romana/Hato Mayor, final stop is in front of a large gas station one block from the Bavaro terminal. Those arriving from Bavaro, final stop is at the Highway 4 intersection just across from the Santo Domingo terminal, and just a short walk around the corner for La Romana/Hato Mayor buses.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on September 26, 2003
Higuey Transportation Hub
Higuey, Dominican Republic
My intentions were to wait on the next passing gua-gua for the 35+ km ride to Higuey; still too many painful reminders of motorcycle tragedy on the open road. Reynaldo was also familiar with our loss and my skepticisms about riding anywhere that wasn''t short distance, but began with despacio / slowly, suave / smooth and a barrage of other assuring adjectives that had me throwing caution to the wind and climbing on behind him without second thought.
Heading east on Highway 3 from the intersection, you quickly come to the hamlet/village of Benarrito that you''d never find on any map. This "wide spot in the road" has always intrigued me the way it appears inhabitants gather roadside every day to watch life pass them by. To insure you get a good look at them, three speed bumps have been placed to slow traffic. People called out and waved; Reynaldo again reminding me this is where he lives now.
Within moments of passing through, you literally take to the open road with fields of grazing cattle to the right, and this region''s signature trademark to the left. The southeast is sugar country where cane fields sprawl as far as the eyes can see appearing to grow right up to the base of the distant Oriental mountain range all but lost in the morning haze. An occassional dirt road heads off the highway; some with individuals waiting for transportation pick-up. Conversation continued and our solidarity was all but dwarfed in the countryside expanse.
I''d unstrapped my backpack fidgeting for my camera when Reynaldo reached around to grab my hand and place it on his hip...all but slowing to a stop for navigating the brief stretch of broken-up pavement. Todo bien / Everything good he asked with the all but protective fuss I repeatedly find from locals. He didn''t resume full speed until I''d convinced him otherwise.
I began noticing more billboards detracting from the natural scenary; advertisements for resorts or 2004''s Presedential elections. Reynaldo started to share his hopes for a new leader when suddenly pulling off the road at the Boca de Yuma turn-off. Another young man was checking his motorcycle with what turned out to be a flat. Reynaldo unlatched a concealed bomba / air pump and tire kit immediately starting to work. When preparing to leave, I asked if the kid was a friend or someone he knew? He shook his head no.
Once Highway 3 makes the L-shaped curve at the Boca de Yuma intersection becoming Highway 4, I''d noticed the difference countless times passing in the gua-gua, but experiencing this open-air, helmetless on back of a motorcyle with unobstructed views was exhillerating. Here, sugarcane is grown on both sides of the road; some places right up to the shoulder. Tall slender chutes all but engulf anything passing through. I pulled a couple of successive deep breaths as if to smell the sweetness. Fresh air was all I got...and another check from Reynaldo to make sure everything was ok.
Along this stretch of highway, there are no roads but only wide tracks cut into the cane fields that are swallowed into the horizon. Some where back there are the bateys; shack villages where Haitian cane cutters live in squalor. Reynaldo looked rather shocked when asking if we could venture down one of these mystery pathes for exploring. He promised some other time. I pledged to hold him to it.
I asked Reynaldo if he''d like something to eat or drink as we neared the railroad tracks which has a small cluster of shacks and stands; Grand Central for this area. He began slowing; pulling off the road without even answering. Before he''d even killed the engine, I could hear Merengue blasting as if the party had already started...9:45 in the morning!
We entered the open-air eatery which doubles as a disco, had the traditional booster shot of Mama Juana, and sat down at one of the plastic patio tables with chairs. Even for a veteran, Reynaldo was somewhat amused at not being able to hear over the deafening music. Feisty hens were challenging the mangy cat for pieces of pastelies we were tossing to the ground. Another gua-gua stopped to pick-up passengers...as if time mattered at this point.
Finishing our pineapple juices and preparing to leave, I decided to step around the corner to see what was source of the rancid smell coming from the creek. Off in the distance were a trio butchering a lot of somethings; the stench coming from whatever was smoldering in the huge kettle. Reynaldo''s gotten to know me all too well and indicated we needed to go before I could proceed any further or pull out the camera. Perhaps to appease my loss, he snatched a couple of bananas off the stalk hanging outside the make-shift colmado and handed the lady 5 pesos. I asked, "Who''s the monkey now"? He laughed though I figured he''d never heard of Curious George.
Crossing the railroad tracks signals the final 15 or so kilometers to Higuey. Along one short stretch, there''s rows of trees which create a canopy tunnel to pass under . Sudden shade called attention to absence of morning sun - something not even considered with the constant liberating breeze riding on a motorcycle. A large farm truck slowly passed with sideboards rising 6-feet high; a young boy sitting atop a mountain of green plantains and smiling...just like everyone in the DR.
The sparse early morning traffic was beginning to pick-up, but by then I was totally at ease within Reynaldo''s care and the questionable commute he''d coaxed me into - even with all the crosses and make-shift memorials we''d passed along the way signifying others not so fortunate. Nearing the city, fields give way to more homes/business...including a couple of roadside motels I''m told are for actividades extraordinario! At least they were in proximity to a premier hot spot for the southeast.
It would take a blind deaf person to miss the gargantuous pagoda-shaped, thatched-palm roof rising above the open-air dancehall that easily accommodates the multitudes. The vast parking lot was empty but the readily heard music was Toño Rosario; a Merengue King that make-shift signs advertised would be performing there Saturday. Reynaldo asked if I wanted to go. Reminding him I had no car; he reasoned we shouldn''t come this far by cycle after dark. Barely out of hearing range, I impulsively broke into the infectious chorus that had been playing. Reynaldo just shook his head; reluctant to chime in.
Except for a serene green field full of goats further accented by unfortunate comrades'' carcasses hanging roadside for sale, entering Higuey''s outskirts are much like any other global town. New businesses, such as car dealerships, gas plazas...even somewhat of a strip mall line the road, but with an unrefined appearance registering you''re in the DR. It''s also hard to miss the thriving garage businesses which keep scores of motorcycles running; an assortment of cyclists in various stages of tinkering amid a blackened grease-pit appearance with accompanying whiff of related grime.
Reynaldo felt me tensing up and squirming entering into the bustle of Higuey''s main thoroughfare. Tranquillo papi he assured while scooting back on the seat for steadiness of contact. Once confirming which regional government branch I was needing, he broke into Tour Guide pointing out things. His efforts to calm, distract me did nothing to divert his attention from the snarls of cycles, cars, trucks he''s used to navigating through. Arriving and stepping off with somewhat wobbly legs, Reynaldo felt need to convince me he''d be right there waiting when I returned.
The whole process was typical when dealing with any faction of bureaucratic government - taking longer than it should, and I got turned around within the unfamiliar facility. Exiting from the other end, I wasn''t even to the curb yet when other motoconchos waiting for random pick-up came racing towards me. Before I could even begin to explain, Reynaldo swept in amid them and reached out to assist me on behind him. Todo bien he asked, and the camaraderie with daily life in the DR resumed along the open road home.
About Reynaldo, until this trip, he was only a kid I recognized growing up over the years from the nearby village of El Padre Nuestro. Since my last visit, his mother had died leaving him to support his younger siblings. If available for hire, he can regularly be found at the Highway 815 turn-off for Bayahibe/Highway 3 intersection. You''ll recognize him by the red St. Louis baseball cap he''s always wearing. He speaks only Spanish.