Meaning "place where the sun rises" in the language of the indigenous Taíno Indians, Higüey was one of the first areas to be settled by the Spanish conquistadors in 1502. Capital of Altagracia Province (which encompasses Punta Cana), the city is considered holy by Catholics because of a vision of the Virgin Mary that was seen there, as well as many reported miracles in the area. Higüey was the site of three visits by Pope John Paul II (in 1979, 1984, and 1992), and nowadays the cathedral near the central square is the main draw for tourists. An open-air market within walking distance reveals a not-so-pretty slice of life, and is a point of interest rather than a shopping destination. However, there is a large and fairly interesting artisan market, the Plaza Higüeyana, which is on many tourist itineraries. On the cluttered city streets, motorcycles are a heavy presence and zip around from every which way, so be alert whether driving or on foot. In fact, you really shouldn’t drive here.
If you want to make a pilgrimage to the church, take a tour (preferably) or a bus like the locals do. The Expreso Bávaro Bus Terminal, a hub of transit between the region, Santo Domingo, and elsewhere in the country, is here, as is the Altagracia Province post office, which services Punta Cana and the surrounding areas. Many people employed by the hotels along the East Coast beaches are residents of Higüey, with a commute of about an hour each way.