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Why January 21 Is A Big Day In Higüey

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Bob Schulman
Bob Schulman

It's usually pretty quiet in the old colonial town of Higüey in the Dominican Republic. Not so when January 21 rolls around each year. On that day -- the national holiday of Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia (Our Lady of the Highest Grace, the Virgin Mary) -- it looks like every last soul in this central Caribbean country has shown up there to pray, sing and dance in the streets.

The holiday spotlight falls on Higüey because the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia is there, its iconic, 200-foot-high arch towering over the town.

Why the basilica was built in Higüey is the stuff of legends. One of the most popular stories goes back to the days when Christopher Columbus was making the island of Hispaniola -- now shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti -- his home base in "the New World." In 1494, the little Taino Indian village of Higüey, meaning "the place where the sun's rays first shine each day," found itself in the sights of the Spanish invaders' arquebus muskets.

As the story goes, the Tainos were less than excited about giving up their sunny city to the foreigners, and were about to send them packing -- the hard way -- into history. Surrounded, the Spaniards tried one last defense: They put a large cross in the path of the attackers. Miraculously, it's said, 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 Señora de la Altagracia, with Higüey as its capital.

Fast forward to 1954, when work got underway on the current basilica. It took 18 years, but when it was finished, its soaring arch (signifying hands together in prayer) 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, its crown jewel is a circa-1500 painting of -- you guessed it -- The Virgin Mary, in a nativity scene. Also the stuff of many legends, the painting, set in a frame of gold and precious stones, is believed to have been brought to the island by some of its first settlers around 1502.

Yet another legend draws pilgrims year-round to the basilica to pray for miraculous cures for their ills and troubles. This tale is of a sick little girl, who was healed when the Virgin Mary appeared to her in an orange tree. Look around the basilica today, and you'll spot the recurring theme of orange trees in its artwork.

Higüey is less than an hour's drive from the booming Punta Cana resort area on the eastern sands of the Dominican Republic, but you don't see many strangers around town. Most would rather just tan up, chow down and shake their booties to merengue tunes at the 100 or so luxury hotels lining the powdery white beaches.

Those who do make the trip may be surprised to find that Higüey is a fairly large city of perhaps 150,000 local folks, with seemingly the same number of two-person motoconcho (motorbike) cabs buzzing around. Hailing one down is easy.

Except on Jan. 21.

More info: Visit the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism at www.godominicanrepublic.com.