PARQUE NACIONAL LOS HAITISES, a massive expanse of mangrove swamp that protects several Taino caves, 92 plant species, 112 bird species and a wide variety of marine life, spreads west of Sabana de la Mar around the coastal curve of Bahía de Samaná. Though it covers twelve hundred square kilometres in total, only a small portion is open to the public, most of which is accessible by organized tour.

Along the coast it holds the country’s largest unblemished expanse of red and white mangroves; in the near-impenetrable interior, dense, trail-less rainforest predominates, punctuated by the ruins of long-abandoned sugar plantations and numerous cave systems. What you’ll see on the boat tours is a series of virtually untouched mangrove rivers along with small islands and coastal caves that provide habitat for untold numbers of tropical birds; some of the caves, too, bear Taino petroglyphs.

The 2hr 30min standard boat trip hits two main areas of interest within the park. Heading out through the mangroves the boat’s first stop is Cueva Arena, a large grotto that has numerous Taino drawings of families, men hunting, supernatural beings, whales and sharks. Some tours stop briefly at the beach cove here offering the opportunity to get a good look at Cayo Willy Simons – once a hideout for the infamous pirate – recognizable by the dozens of birds circling around: pelicans, herons, terns, frigates, even an occasional falcon. To reach the second cave, you pass the ruins of a hundred-year-old banana wharf, with pelicans and terns perched on the remaining wooden pilings, before pulling up at Cueva de la Linea, once intended to hold a railroad station for the sugar cane that was grown in the area. In pre-Columbian times, the cave was a Taino temple; look for the guardian face carved at the entrance, and residues of ancient campfire smoke and innumerable pictographs along the inside walls. Some tours include a short forest walk, and longer trips costing slightly more also take in the grottoes San Gabriel and Remington, both with Taino faces carved into their walls. The two caves were also known as temporary homes of various pirates, including Cofresí, Jack Banister and John Rackham.

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