Walking through its cobblestone streets takes us to a medieval Italian village, with its Greek-style amphitheater, an archeological museum and a church built in stone, but in the heart of the Dominican Republic, on the banks of the Chavón River, from which it takes its name.
“Altos de Chavón was conceived as a cultural village, it is a magical place, where everything that takes place has to do with the cultural sphere,” says Margarita González Auffant, director of the Altos de Chavón Regional Archaeological Museum and curator of contemporary art at the gallery.
The site, which opened in 1981 after five years of construction, houses the Altos de Chavón School of Design, affiliated with Parsons School of Design in New York. It also offers artistic workshops in various disciplines (pottery, weaving and serigraphy), while the stores offer tourists colorful handicrafts.
As we stroll through its streets, Margarita recalls that it all began at the initiative of naturalized U.S.-born Austrian Charles Bluhdorn, then president of the Gulf & Western conglomerate and owner of La Romana, one of the most picturesque places in the Dominican Republic.
“Mr. Bluhdorn owned Paramount Pictures and brought the production company’s set designer, Italian Roberto Coppa, to recreate this 16th century Mediterranean village,” adds Margarita, who emphasizes that this cultural village was created as a complement to Casa de Campo Resort & Villas, a luxurious complex of almost 3,000 hectares where millionaires from various parts of the world vacation on the Dominican coast.
Los Altos de Chavón is anchored on the edge of a cliff, where one can appreciate the majesty of the Chavón River, which originates in the interior of the country and flows into the Caribbean Sea. According to the portal www.losdominicanos.org, some Hollywood movies have been filmed on the banks of this tributary, including Apocalypse Now.
Inaugurated in 1981, the Altos de Chavón Regional Archaeological Museum documents the indigenous legacy of the island of Santo Domingo and exhibits a collection of more than 3,000 pre-Columbian objects that help tell the story of the early history of the Dominican Republic.
“When Christopher Columbus arrived on our island in December 1492, the inhabitants we had at that time – for the most part – were the Tainos. We came to have four different ethnic groups, but the most advanced and powerful was the Taino culture,” explains the Museum’s director.
She adds that the Tainos are of Arawak origin. “They came in canoes across the Orinoco River, so we have a lot of similarities with the Venezuelan aborigines, we are brothers. When the Spaniards arrived, they found a culture with a social division, with the cacique being the highest hierarch and the behique as the medical witch doctor. They knew about crops, fishing and hunting; they were not just passing through; our island has had inhabitants since 5,300 B.C.”.
For this reason, Margarita González Auffant points out that the Dominican people are the result of three ethnic groups: “We are neither Spanish nor African nor Taino, we are the fusion of three cultures”.
It was inaugurated 40 years ago by Frank Sinatra and has a capacity for 5,000 people. This iconic presentation was recorded in the HBO special entitled Concert for the Americas. It has performed more than 280 concerts with artists of various musical genres, including Elton John, Andrea Bocelli, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Maluma and Ferxxo.
St. Stanislaus Church
Pope John Paul II was present for its consecration in 1979, before the amphitheater and the village of Altos de Chavón were completed. He left in the church the ashes of St. Stanislaus, patron saint of Poland, and a hand-carved statue from Krakow. Weekly Catholic masses are officiated in the church and it is a required site for wedding celebrations.
Facts: Admission to Altos de Chavón costs $30, but for hotel guests access is free. For school or university groups the cost is $4 per person and for public schools, $2 per person.