There’s Something About Samaná
The Caribbean stereotype of all-inclusive hotels and resorts seems almost unavoidable, but there are still a few places free of additives and artifice, where you can simply take off and lose yourself in the moment.
text & photos: Martín Echenique @martinechenique
Idon’t want to lapse into the clichéd story of an undiscovered destination, and I don’t want to ignore the many benefits of the fantastic, all-inclusive packages at famous beaches like Punta Cana, Cancún and Varadero. However, Samaná is something special: this peninsula on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic is one of those places that conventional Caribbean tourism really can’t do justice. Not even a little. In Samaná, you can escape your hotel room and hike through the jungle amid rivers and natural wells, taste cacao right off the tree, sample fresh fruit at the town market and lounge on postcard-worthy beaches – choreographed dancing by the hotel pool simply cannot compete with these attractions. Read on, and you’ll see why.
Adventures in Nature
Carlos, our guide (and a Vin Diesel lookalike), sings “Hasta que te conocí” by Juan Gabriel in a dynamic display of off-the-cuff karaoke as he drives our all-terrain van into the hills surrounding the bay. We leave the beautiful beaches behind to explore a verdant and somewhat disorienting jungle landscape that makes you press your face against the window in an awkward (and futile) attempt to figure out where you are. After an hour’s drive, we arrive – to our surprise – at a house that would be completely unnoticed on any ordinary tour. There are no signs listing prices, schedules or rules, much less a ticket office or souvenir stand. First impression: I feel relieved. This place seems to reject the mass-tourism maxim promising that you’ll get to see and do absolutely everything, all in record time.
According to its inhabitants, Samaná is an “independent republic.”
Signs in English, a French-British heritage and an evangelical protestant majority set it apart from the rest of the island.
Welcome to Basilio and Ramona’s place. Twenty-five years ago, this Dominican couple transformed their home into an eco-tourism hostel that’s now the most popular of the 13 such establishments on the peninsula. With a contagious smile, Basilio welcomes us as we walk in under a roof made of palm-tree trunks. A few steps away, there’s a huge green space surrounded by cacao, mango and coffee plantations. This is the beginning of a trail leading to one of the most amazing places in Samaná: the waterfall called the Salto del Limón.
A narrow, rocky path of nearly two miles separates us from this impressive, 150-foot waterfall that flows into an idyllic, natural pool. It’s the perfect reward after having ridden on horseback – or having walked, if you were brave – for almost an hour in a humid, 86° Fahrenheit heat. I say brave because it is not an easy path and even less so on foot, but every drop of sweat is worth it, believe me. After crossing a couple of rivers and taking pictures of seemingly endless jungle panoramas, Salto del Limón is one of those places that truly impresses and moves you. Time simply stops.
We break free from the trance, and our appetites perk up as we head back home, where Ramona greets us with a hearty, delicious menu that smells heavenly. (Attention foodies: This may be the best part of the tour.) Under the same palm-tree trunks that greeted us just a few hours ago, the table is set with beans, rice, salad, coconut chicken, beer, fresh cacao, cool water and mamajuana, a powerful concoction made with rum, wine, honey and six medicinal herbs. It’s a true Dominican feast. “Full belly, happy heart,” the local saying goes.
Truth or Fiction?
Mist from the ocean sprays your face as the boat speeds ahead on the bay. It seems like a completely normal Samaná excursion, but it’s not. Get your camera ready because on the horizon you’ll see a landscape like something out of Avatar or Lord of the Rings, but Caribbean style. Luckily for us, it’s not a work of fiction: infinite keys, rivers and mountains emerging from the sea welcome us to Parque Nacional Los Haiteses, one of the largest natural reserves in the Dominican Republic and, according to Carlos, the most mind-blowing.
Just half an hour from Santa Bárbara de Samaná, the provincial capital, this place is definitely one of the area’s most surreal attractions. A circuit of paths and bridges connects the different mangrove swamps and caves that serve as galleries for Taino pictographs made before Columbus arrived in the Americas. Don’t leave the park without visiting the caves of La Linea, San Gabriel or Reyna. A hundred hills spring up from the Caribbean Sea like tropical icebergs. On the enigmatic Cayo de los Pájaros, a host of pelicans and frigate birds hover in a scene that demands a serious photo shoot. Just why is the key is so popular among our feathered friends? The reason is shrouded in mystery.
Back to the Beginning
How could we visit the Caribbean without mentioning white sands and crystal-clear waters? But the beaches of Samaná are different. Hidden (sometimes far) away from the large hotels and tourist hubs, these beaches are truly captivating, preserving that special air of a coastal retreat off the beaten path: few people, cozy beach bars, sand that doesn’t look retouched in Photoshop and, above all, a rustic atmosphere that makes me feel like less of a tourist.
With so many options, I ask every local I meet to name a favorite beach, and it seems to be the most difficult question imaginable. Almost everyone hesitates before answering, but certain names come up again and again: Cosón, Punta Popy, Bonita and Rincón are the indisputable leaders. The idyllic circuit of beaches on the northern coast of the peninsula is a 40-minute drive from Santa Bárbara on the way to Las Terrenas, and it’s just 25 minutes from the capital to the beaches in Las Galeras, like Rincón.
Playa Bonita is by far the most enchanting, however. The name “Pretty Beach” definitely suits this horseshoe of fine sand and palm trees, where you can you float on your back in waters free from throngs of swimmers, annoying jet skis or thumping reggaeton as a soundtrack. It’s an authentic taste of the Caribbean, one that seems increasingly in danger of extinction. And you can find it in Samaná. in
Daily flights to Punta Cana from Lima and one flight a week from Santiago and Buenos Aires, followed by ground transportation to Samaná.
For more information, visit lan.com
$$$ The Peninsula House
Calle Cosón (no address number), Las Terrenas
$$ Sublime Samaná
Bahía de Cosón (no address number), Las Terrenas
$$ Bahía Príncipe Cayo Levantado
Isla Cayo Levantado (no address number)
Parada Ecoturística Ramona & Basilio
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