Visitors to the Dominican Republic who swing by Santa Barbara de Samaná (or, as we call it, Samaná) will find a town full of life with many shops, beautiful hotels, and various amenities set up to help locals and tourists explore. But when I lived there as a young teen, the province was a quiet and isolated place that offered very little in areas of tourism or hospitality.
The mayor of the city back then was a family friend, and he and his wife were loving parental figures for the short time I lived with them (and in my heart even after I moved on). My time in Samaná was simple and carefree, and it served to instill a love for my Dominican heritage and country.
During a recent visit to the area, I had the opportunity to explore many places that influenced my early teenage years. Here are a few ideas of what to do when visiting.
Explore secret caves
The protected area of Los Haitises National Park is accessible to tourists only by boat, and the number of visitors allowed at any one time is very limited. Boat tours will take you into caves where turquoise waters cooled by rivers merging into the ocean make for a wonderful swim—so long as you don’t mind the bats flying overhead. Take a short hike into any one of the many caves and witness the various pictographs left behind by the Taïnos, one of the island’s indigenous tribes. Birdwatchers will delight in the various bird colonies found there, including populations of buzzards, pelicans, and swallows, just to name a few.
Swim in the caves of Los Haitises
Swim under waterfalls
The largest of the waterfalls in El Limón is a 164-foot drop and is accessible either by hiking or horseback riding. You don’t need to be an expert rider to get on the horse, though you might find some of the climbs and dips a bit unnerving. I have taken several excursions to the falls, and all of them offer a traditional Dominican lunch at the end of each trip, as well as the option to shop for local goods, such as locally grown chocolate and coffee. The Parada Basilio y Ramona excursion group offers access to the route with the best views of the valley. The hike with them is a bit more challenging then what I have experienced with other tours, but swimming under the warm waters of the fall makes it all worth it in the end. Local guides help take you along the way, but prepare to tip well; the trek to the falls, which they do by foot while guiding your horse, is quite strenuous.
Explore the beaches
The beaches of Samaná are some of the most beautiful in the country. Two of my favorite hangouts growing up were El Rincón and Cayo Levantado. El Rincón translates to “the corner,” a name chosen to describe its secluded location best accessible by boat via the area of Las Galeras. There are also roads that access the beach, but they can be rough and are best traveled by ATV. There are no resorts or hotels here, though one can enjoy drinks and food provided by a few bars and restaurants nearby. It remains in many ways just as it was during my childhood, a little slice of heaven.
Viewfinder Tip: Most hotels and resorts are able to make reservations for tours and excursions, relieving visitors of the burden of planning on their own.
Cayo Levantado, or Risen Key, on the other hand, has changed a lot. What used to be uninhabited forest and beach territory accessible to locals through a ride on the small boats of the local fishermen has now become a huge tourist attraction, with the Luxury Bahia Principe Cayo Levantado resort being the biggest draw. There also are several restaurants and bars. I wouldn’t advise against visiting this area, but I definitely would suggest taking an early boat out so you can enjoy the beauty of the area before the crowds arrive.
Between January and March each year, the Sanctuary for Humpback Whales attracts thousands of whales, which come to mate and give birth. Whale-watch excursions leave early in the morning, which is the best time to see these great mammals. On one recent tour, I saw several whales. The most beautiful sighting was a mother with her calf. There aren’t many words to describe the experience of watching a whale in the wild, but I will say it is one of those bucket list things you have to do. My advice when choosing a tour group is to find one that takes out small groups in small boats. This is because when you are in a boat with a lot of people the crowd often blocks your view and taking photographs becomes a challenge. Whales also seem to be more interested in smaller boats (some of the ones we saw came very close to ours).
Take in the beach life
I recommend that in order to simplify these experiences, have Dominican pesos handy, as most vendors only accept cash, and the minimum you will pay in highway tolls through the province totals the equivalent of US$25, also cash only. I tend to get my cash at local ATMs for better exchange rates.
Also when you’re ready to eat, remember that seafood and fruit are amazing in this part of the Dominican Republic. Make sure to stop into any local bakery for some coconut bread, or pan de conconete. Your life will never be the same.
Finally, it’s important to note that Samaná is accessible by the nearby El Catey International Airport, though this facility currently caters mostly to European airlines and flights to and from the United States are limited. Las Americas International Airport in Santo Domingo is the next closest airport with more frequent flights. It is about a 3-hour drive via DR 5 highway.
I always encourage visitors to take the drive if they are comfortable doing so. Driving in the Dominican Republic only serves to add more adventure to the wonderful experience that travel to this beautiful country can be.
What are your favorite island adventures?