In Search Of Queso Blanco

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.


In Search Of Queso Blanco

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on September 26, 2003

In The Beginning: Higuey was founded by Columbus, governed by Ponce de Leon, and the distant locale left it unscathed during the French Haitian occupations. What you''ll find today is much of the same - an authentic, thriving Dominican city, basically in the middle of nowhere; passed over from outside development and the tourism industry.

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. ${QuickSuggestions} Higuey is pronounced "Í-whay" remembering that the Spanish "i" is pronounced "ee."

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. ${BestWay} Higuey serves as a connecting point for the southeastern region, and most travelers will only find themselves passing through on the way to somewhere else. I''ve included Detailed Route Info for those using public transportation - including gua-gua terminals, and for drivers.

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.


Staking Your Claim in the Central Plaza

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on September 26, 2003

Typical of all the Dominican Republic's major towns which evolved within early Spanish traditions, Higuey has the distinctive town square/plaza in the middle of the city that life once centered around. But unlike in nearby La Romana where the hub of activities are still clustered around this area, Higuey's reminds me too much of small-town America where downtowns have became forsaken and obsolete based on continued growth and businesses fleeing to outer-skirts and suburbs.

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.


Feasting for the Cultural Appetite

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on September 26, 2003

Have you ever seen cabbage heads the size of bowling balls, avacadoes as big as pineapples, or mangoes large enough to split between two people? These were just a few of the comparative revelations found within the Higuey Outdoor Market which showcases everything from this fertile agricultural region.

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:

  1. The market is open daily from 8am to 5pm.
  2. In addition to fresh foods, the major intersections are lined with other vendors and carts full of pastelies/fritters, dulces/sweets, fresh-squeezed fruit juices, and other inexpensive street treats that provide a full-meal snacking opportunity.
  3. There were three public restroom facilities scattered about the market.
  4. Along the outer boundaries are numerous stores selling inexpensive clothes and household items.
  5. The market is a convenient four short blocks up Avenida de la Libertad from the connecting bus terminal to Bavaro and Punta Cana.
Feasting for the Cultural Appetite
Avenida de la Libertad
Higuey, Dominican Republic

Higuey as a transportation Hub

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on September 26, 2003

For travelers in these parts, it's likely Higuey's only purpose for your concern will be on your way to somewhere else because in the southeast region, all roads lead to Higuey! Whether using public transportation or driving, here's basic information for taking the confusion out of passing through this bustling area.

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:

  1. Santo Domingo can be found on the east side of the major intersection located at the southeast corner of the Basilica compound. This is where you'd also catch the bus if you're heading to San Pedro de Macoris, Juan Dolio, Boca Chica, or beyond the capital. The station can be hard to spot - a large building front with open garage doors where buses park and wait for departures.
  2. Bavaro/Punta Cana is located on the north side of Avenida de la Libertad on the eastern edge of town. It too, can be easily missed based on obscurity of location and structure, but once on eastern Libertad, anyone can provide directions. The cost for Higuey to Bavaro was RD35.
  3. La Romana & El Seibo/Hato Mayor buses can be found in a small parking lot along Highway 4/Avenida la Altagracia just beyond the southern gate parking lot entrance for the Basilica. Those needing Boca de Yuma or Bayahibe (RD30) would take the La Romana bus for drop-off at intersection connections. Those wishing to catch the ferry in Sabana de la Mar for travel to Samana peninsula would take the Hato Mayor line and make the northbound connection in that city.

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.

For Drivers:

  1. Highway 4 is the main road into town when approaching from the south. At the major intersection located at the southeast corner of the expansive Basilica compound, Highway 4 turns left/west along Avenida La Altagracia and runs along the southern boundary of the Basilica. Take this route if heading to El Seibo or Hato Mayor.
  2. Avenida Laguna Llana picks up where Highway 4 goes left, and runs the entire length of the Basilica compound before teeing into Avenida de la Libertad. Take a right for heading to Bavaro/Punta Cana. This route is also known as Highway 106.
  3. Approaching from Bavaro/east, keep in mind Avenida Libertad is one-way heading in the opposite direction! Take a right on the road which divides a field and the first block of buildings, and then a left on the first major street you come to for entering Higuey.
Higuey Transportation Hub
Throughout Higuey
Higuey, Dominican Republic

Buscando Para Queso Blanco

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on September 26, 2003

I'd made several trips to Higuey over the years, but never had the unaccompanied chance to simply explore at my own leisure. The day I'd selected to do so was not only a Saturday, but also a welcomed relief from the house.

Barking like rabid dogs, chaotic Dominicanas were in a tizzy, trying to prepare enough to feed the entire village for a Quinceañera party the following night. I was chuckling to myself about the frenzied hysterics I was likely escaping, but before I could even make it half way down the block, Mami came running out into the street, and yelled for me to bring back queso blanco...white cheese. Ok.

You'd think by now I would have learned -- just because I can speak and understand the language, it does not qualify me to read minds. Too bad, since it's often what isn't said with Dominicans that's left wide open for interprative "ass"umptions. There’s quite a lengthy, long-running list of my oblivious antics that keeps the village entertained and ever-guessing. And so, another wild goose-chase begins...

Man On A Mission
Exiting the gua-gua at a central stop in Higuey, I'd already used the 35-minute ride to contemplate my desired course of actions for the day. And, how this perceived timely delivery of requested cheese would likely cramp any spontaneity.

Within my second block, I came across a medium-sized grocery store, and decided to survey the prospects - certainly not that I planned on hauling cheese around all day, but the budget shopping mode kicked in for establishing a comparative price base.

When it comes to refrigerated foods, on-going circumstances with the nationwide rolling apagón/brown-out power outages have redefined cold storage and waste for what grocers stock, and locals purchase. Aside from minimal amounts of meats often kept and sold for daily consumption, dairy products are all but non-existant.

Even milk is sold in powdered premix, unrefrigerated cartons to be chilled before using. Once the inner-light bulb clicked, and my own mental black-out passed, I remembered this was the Dominican Republic! That explained why there was only a pathetic selection of yellow cheeses. I didn't even ask...reasoning that my people deserved the best, which I'd undoubtedly find at the city's outdoor market.

Ambling around Higuey's center turned out to be much smaller and more condensed than the expansive appearance on the map stashed in my backpack. I made "just in case" mental notes of a pair of other grocers I passed, but stumbled upon the market far quicker than expected. Once I'd sated my explorative senses, it was time to get down to business!

I found a small booth with a refrigerated reach-in cooler, and asked if they had any queso blanco? The lady made an eager search and indicated no, but suggested I should try next door - soon to become a futile, reoccuring scenario.

I'm not sure how many vendors unknowingly toyed with the rise and fall of my anticipation for fulfilling the basic business concept of supply and demand; that demand mode becoming more fervent with every "lo siento, pero no tengo" -- "I'm sorry but I don't have".

I even took a suggested six block detour to another grocery store only, to find the same slim-to-none pickings I somehow knew would be waiting.

By this point, I felt rather ridiculous and perhaps even more a stooge when a young man behind a diner counter insisted I go to the Basilica for cheese. What for; Divine intervention? No one sells cheese in a church!

Unknowingly again, I was left facing another communication gap; that chasm brought on by appearing to fit in and understand, which erases any need for further explanations – not that Latinos would ever think to give it!

I'd all but given up, and had already began imagining potential shame and outcomes for not being able to complete a simple task. I was in no hurry to head for the La Romana bus terminal, but yet didn't want to keep the ladies at the house waiting -- for something that was never coming.

I piddled my way back to the Laguna Llana t-intersection, in front of the Gran Basilica, and decided to stop at one of the religious trinket stores to pick up plastic everyday-wear rosaries for my boys. Thankfully, I did.

Seek and eventually Ye Shall Find
In addition to all the religious icons and tourist-type junk were stacks and stacks of queso blanco! "Holy Cheese", I would discover, being sold in stores and make-shift boothes for as far down the blocks as could be seen. Feeling like the rodent that hit the jackpot was somehwat overshadowed with disgust of how many times I'd passed along this major roadway, and never noticed the cheese...not that a rat supposedly has a conscious.

Exactly what consecrates these sacred morsels, I'm still not sure, and have learned not to question locals' beliefs centered around tradition, folklore, and superstitions -- often further rooted in the Catholicism-altered religion of Santería. But I was curious - was this made from milk, which came from some "Holy Cow" or goat? The most I could find out was it's pure with no chemical additives, and could be purchased in various amounts, including three-pound balls for RD50. I made quite the haul!

Since main entry to the Basilica compound was just across the street, I'm not sure what compelled me to desire passing through it again, but there I was - loaded down; being robotically drawn up the long walkway to the cathedral’s entry.

It took a bit for my eyes to adjust to the dimly lit interior. I made my way half-way down the center aisle, and parked on one of the wooden benches. A stiff breeze was being pulled through the open doors, creating a wind tunnel through the cavernous setting. The coolness was welcomed, yet warmth from gazing at the colorful stained glass wall initiated a rather melting affect.

I'm not sure how long I'd sat there surveying and reflecting; that habitual ritual a house of worship has a way of drawing out of individuals -- regardless of how often or little they dare enter. Here I'd came to Higuey to go exploring on my plan and terms, that were obviously altered by this quest for queso blanco; the Holy Cheese.

I likely ended up seeing more than I originally would have, and with a learning experience to boot...ironically, how so many of life's lessons come about when we're diverted from our planned course of action.
But this wasn't the time for further enlightenments. The ladies were waiting, and with my bags of cheese in tow, I headed for the La Romana bus terminal - unknowing that my daily dose of acquiring wisdom was far from over.

Caught in the Baited Trap - Again!
The público was just approaching the center of Bayahibe when driver announced the time. Dang, what had felt like an all-day excursion had barely lasted four hours!

The mid-day sun was riding high as I made my triumphant march home, along the dirt roads -- savoring not the flavor of the cheese but the fact I had succeeded in making a needed contribution. Turning down the block, aromas of the freshly stewed goat meat, for the village party, hung heavily in the thick salty air.

I was rather puzzled to find the house quiet and abandoned compared to the hubbub I'd earlier left, but began stirring around in the refrigerator to make room for my hard-earned plunder. Sounds signaled Mami in from the backyard patio. Turning to greet her, I wasn't expecting the shocked look on her face, but -- placing hands on her hips, exclaiming my name, and not knowing whether to scold or laugh was all too familiar.

As it would turn out, the panicked request from earlier in the day had nothing to do with cooking, or feeding the village at the following day's party. She'd only wanted some queso blanco; "Holy cheese" for herself and us, the family. Go figure!

Bless me Father, for once again, I have assumed.

On the Road to Higuey

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Jose Kevo on September 26, 2003

Stepping off the local publico at the crossroads, it didn''t surprise me none of the other motoconcho operators even bothered from under the shade tree. Reynaldo, my new trusted driver, was already kick-starting his Yamaha for where ever we were off for today.

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.


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