Bayahibe sits on the northwest edge of expansive PARQUE NACIONAL DEL ESTE, a peninsula jutting south into the Caribbean and also encompassing Isla Saona, just across a small bay and easily accessible by boat. The national park features a maze of forests, mangroves, trails, caves and cliffs, an impressive array of birdlife and, on the cultural side, some signs of early Taino activity. Not much of the park, however, is conveniently accessible; in fact, no roads lead directly into its interior, and the best method of approach is to hire boats from Bayahibe to hit specific points along the rim, from where you can hike inland. Wherever you go in the park, wear plenty of insect repellent against the ubiquitous mosquitoes and a sizeable population of wasps. Watch out, too, for tarantulas, though they won’t bother you unless they’re antagonized.
The most popular part of the park – and rightfully so – is Isla Saona, an island off the southern coast lined with alternating stretches of idyllic, coconut tree-backed beachfront and mangrove swamp, unpopulated except for one fishing hamlet of around three hundred families. That said, the tourist traffic on Saona has increased exponentially in recent years and it has begun to feel more like high season at Miami’s South Beach in parts, prompting the more discerning operators to look for alternative spots, such as Isla Catalinita.Read More
Most boats pull in to Isla Saona at the tiny village of Mano Juan, a picturesque strip of pastel wooden huts with a 4km hiking trail that leads inland, an expensive restaurant run by Viva Wyndham Dominicus Beach and a long line of beach chairs and umbrellas; or Piscina Natural (known locally as Laguna Canto de la Playa), a sand bar with a clear lagoon behind it that makes a good snorkelling spot (you’ll see lots of giant starfish trundling along the sea bed, but resist the urge to pick them up). If you visit with an independent boat, avoid the hordes and head to one of the more isolated stretches of beach that dot the entire island, such as Canto de la Playa, where you’re more likely to get the white sand and transparent water to yourself, though in high season that’s not guaranteed even here. Another option is to have your boat captain skip Saona altogether, head into the Catuano Canal that separates Saona from the mainland, and stop off at the small island of Catalinita (not to be confused with Isla Catalina, see p.000), which gets less tourist traffic and has some excellent reefs for diving (less so for snorkelling). Its beaches are littered with large conch shells and during the winter months you may be able to spot humpback whales and dolphins and even, if you’re really lucky, an elusive manatee.
Cueva del Puente and Peñon Gordo
Cueva del Puente and Peñon Gordo
The park’s limestone landscape is riddled with caves, many of which bear evidence of ceremonial use by the Tainos and are adorned with Taino rock art. At the present time, the only cave system that is relatively straightforward to visit is the Cueva del Puente, which lies around 3km south of the national park entrance. You’ll need to hire a guide at the entrance who will accompany you on the fairly easy 30min hike down to the caves (see p.000). The system consists of three separate levels of caverns (the first has been caved in and thus gets some sunlight) with thousands of stalagmites and stalactites along with hundreds of bats and sparkling seams of bright, crystallized minerals. There are also Taino pictographs on the third level, though they’re not accessible to tourists: if your park ranger knows their stuff, though, they’ll be able to show you a Taino picture of a small- eared owl on the first level of caves – a bird that was thought by the Tainos to ferry dead souls to the afterlife.
The easiest way to reach the next set of caves, Peñon Gordo, on the park’s west coast, is to hire a boat (2hr each way). There’s a nice isolated beach from where it’s a 2km walk inland to the cave, where you’ll find scattered Taino glyphs on its second level. Be sure to bring a torch and boots if you want to get the most out of your visit. Also watch your step at the entrance, which is basically a large, slippery hole in the ground.
On a 1988 expedition deep in the heart of Parque Nacional del Este, a team of archeologists from Indiana University discovered the most significant and extensive Taino excavation yet on record, four ceremonial plazas surrounding a cenote; (a natural well) – a site referred to as La Aleta. Evidence shows that natives came to this well to worship during pre-Columbian times from across the countryside, even as far away as the Tetero valley near Pico Duarte.
In his History of the Indies, Spanish priest Bartolomé de Las Casas recorded a journey to La Aleta in the late fifteenth century, noting that the natives lowered bowls into the well via a piece of rattan rope to pull up water, which was sweet at the surface and salty at the bottom – a stratification that still exists. He also described the slaughter of seven hundred people at La Aleta in 1503, the culmination of Nicolás de Ovando’s campaign of Taino extermination, which he started after the Tainos killed three Spaniards on Isla Saona, itself a retaliation for an attack by a Spanish soldier. Bones from the mass killing have been found scattered throughout the site and within the well.
For the Tainos, caves served as the gateways to an underground spirit world. The well was apparently a site for subterranean ceremonies; fragments believed to have been parts of rafts lowered into the well have also been discovered. Other artefacts recovered from the site include clay pots and one straw basket, thought to contain offerings of food; a cassava cooking pan; axes and clubs; and an intact wooden duho (the seat from which the caciques prophesied to their people). In addition to the cenote, there is a series of four ceremonial plazas at the site – bounded by monumental limestone pillars – where a ball game similar to modern-day soccer was played by those who attended the rituals.
The government hopes one day to blaze a trail here from Peñon Gordo and open La Aleta to the public, but for now archeologists have to use a helicopter to get in, and no one else is supposedly allowed admittance. Still, the place has been ransacked twice by treasure hunters, and Dominican soldiers have been posted to prevent further looting.