Santo Cerro

Central Highlands

Legend has it that Christopher Columbus placed a cross he received as a bon-voyage gift from Queen Isabella atop this hill, which commands fantastic, sweeping views of the Valle del Cibao. During a battle between Spaniards and Taínos, the latter tried to burn the cross, but it wouldn’t catch fire. The Virgen de las Mercedes appeared on one of its arms and the Taínos are said to have fled in terror.

Today the cross is gone – supposedly it's in private hands – but you can still see the Santo Hoyo (Holy Hole) in which the cross was allegedly planted. The hole is inside the Iglesia Las Mercedes, covered with a small wire grille and tended by nuns and Jesuit priests. The beige-and-white church is a major pilgrimage site, drawing thousands of believers every September 24 for its patron-saint day. Be sure to look for a fenced-off tree near the steps leading to the church – it's said to have been planted in 1495.

Santo Cerro is northeast of La Vega, several kilometers east of the Duarte Hwy, up a steep, winding road. It’s somewhat confusing to find your way as you're leaving the city; ask for directions.