It’s easy to appreciate the beauty of the SAMANÁ PENINSULA, a thin strip of land poking out from the Dominican Republic’s northeast corner into the Atlantic Ocean. Arguably the most appealing part of the whole country, the region boasts a coast lined with spectacular beaches that epitomize the glorious Caribbean archetype of powdery white sand, vast banks of swaying coconut trees and transparent green-blue sea. Away from the water, the Cordillera Samaná, an imposing mountain range thick with sixty different types of palm tree and possessing a few impressive waterfalls, supports the peninsula, most of it penetrable only by horse.
Perhaps more than for the beaches and spectacular geography, visitors come for the opportunity to see up close the thousands of humpback whales that migrate to the Bahía de Samaná during the winter. Whale watching has become a thriving local industry – with regulations in place to preserve the safety of the whales – peaking between mid-January and mid-March, when sightings are virtually guaranteed. Most whale boats depart from the town of Santa Bárbara de Samaná (generally shortened to “Samaná”), the largest on the peninsula and within easy shouting distance of several terrific beaches – including Cayo Levantado, the original Bacardi Island. If the hustle and bustle of the more typical Dominican towns becomes too much, head east to Las Galeras, a pristine horseshoe of sand that, despite some development in recent years, still maintains an air of tranquillity. A short drive away are the Cuevas de Agua, the peninsula’s most impressive Taino archeological site; alternatively, take a boat ride north to isolated Playa Rincón, one of the country’s top beaches. Along the peninsula’s north coast you’ll find the remote expat colony of Las Terrenas, a burgeoning beachside hangout for independent travellers with a decent nightlife scene. Day-trips easily made from here include to untamed Playa Bonita, the largest Samaná beach of all and horseback excursions to the remote and thundering waterfall Salto El Limón.
Until the late nineteenth century, a narrow channel separated the Samaná Peninsula from the Dominican mainland, making it a hotbed for pirates, whose smaller ships used the channel to evade the bulkier galleons that couldn’t make it through.
Since then, sediment has slowly glued the peninsula onto the mainland; where once the water flowed, a fertile flood plain lies, packed with rice paddies. The peninsula’s gateway town Sánchez is situated here. Once a famous port that now derives most of its income from shrimp farming, it is of little intrinsic interest to visitors but is an important transportation hub, providing guagua connections with Samaná and Las Terrenas.
Top image: Playa Moron in the Samana peninsula in the Dominican Republic © Lydd.fr/Shutterstock
Set in a narrow horseshoe-shaped cove at the eastern end of the peninsula, the sleepy outpost of LAS GALERAS is gradually being brought into the mainstream. The road from Samaná has been improved in recent years and the number of lodgings and restaurants continues to rise steadily though they have so far been small-scale, low-impact developments. Despite this growth, the small village has managed to maintain its peaceful and timeless ambience, and its main attraction, a sweeping curve of pure white sand, upon which an almost unbelievably turquoise sea laps gently, remains as beautiful as ever.
Set midway along the peninsula’s northern coast, LAS TERRENAS has grown into one of the country’s tourist hotspots, especially since the arrival of the international airport at El Catey in 2006 and the new highway from Santo Domingo that has made Las Terrenas an easy weekend retreat for wealthy Dominicans from the capital.
There are two distinct areas to the town: the beachside glitz and glamour of the hotels, bars and restaurants and the inland Dominican barrio, which has been built up into a warren of rough dirt roads with dirt-cheap housing to accommodate the masses of workers needed to sustain the tourism. There is some resentment between the Dominican and foreign communities, centred on the well-founded perception that the expats are making all of the money off the booming tourist business.
Las Terrenas sees its busiest time in the summer when, during July and August in particular, it’s swamped with Europeans. The larger hotels and resorts catch most of the traffic but there are enough independent travellers and backpackers to keep the smaller bars and restaurants busy, and everybody tends to come together later in the evening to crowd out the livelier bars and discos to the early hours.
The town makes a pleasant base-camp from which to explore the northern part of the Samaná Peninsula, including the less-developed beaches on either side, such as Playa Bonita and El Portillo – home to the vast Bahía Principe El Portillo resort (w www.bahia-principe.com) – that hold even more appeal than the one in town. Aside from exploring these, a day-trip to the El Limón waterfall is highly recommended both for the journey there on horseback and the view of the fall itself.
If you want to avoid the tour-bus crowds, arrange an early morning or late afternoon visit from El Limón. The 52m waterfall is accessible by horse from any of the operators below (as well as several outfits in Las Terrenas) and takes roughly three hours round-trip. You can also walk but that‘s only advisable when it‘s very dry. The path cuts across a broad river before climbing into the palm-thick mountains. As the waterfall comes into sight, the horses are tethered at a small way-station where you can have a drink before making the steep descent to the fall. The walk is well worth the effort to see the torrent of whitewater dropping precipitously off a sheer cliff in the middle of the wilderness forming a natural pool at its base, where you can swim. You need to be in decent shape and well shod, especially after a lot of rain when the boggy route can be treacherous. You‘ll also need to wear long trousers for the ride.
The local community-based ecotourism association now has its own excellent website (gosamana-dominicanrepublic.com), which gives details in English, including phone numbers, of the dozen legitimate operators in the area and where they’re located. However, tour quality and the rates charged do vary among the providers, as does what is included. Whether you come on a tour bus, or as an independent traveller, you should establish beforehand whether the price covers: transport to the parada (in the case of an organized tour); the park entry fee (RD$50); drinks and/or a meal, generally a combination of chicken, rice, fried plantain and a smidgen of salad; and the guide – who walks alongside you and informs you about the surrounding countryside, probably in Spanish. If the guide’s tip is not included, find out from the operator (again before you sign up) what the norm is.
The pick of the bunch, and so preferred by a lot of the larger tour operators, is the combined ranch-restaurant Santi Rancho, just south of the intersection on the road to Samaná. Their waterfall trip currently costs RD$750 per person, which includes the horse, guide and park fee and they now also offer canyoning down Río El Limón.
Also highly recommended is Parada La Manzana (t 916-0892, e firstname.lastname@example.org), located a few kilometres south of El Limón and run by Antonia and Martín, who, in addition to organizing a good trip, also prepare an excellent traditional lunch. Consider also Parada Ramona and Basilio (t 956-5526), where you can also learn about their home-grown cocoa.
Playa Bonita, 3km of uninterrupted beach that begins just west of Playa Las Ballenas, is a picturesque and tranquil strip of sand, backed by trimmed grass dotted with palm trees and an offshore reef that provides some of the best snorkelling on the peninsula. It’s seen a fair bit of development over the past few years, but most of it has, thankfully, been discreet and tasteful with new hotels set well back from the seafront behind grassy lawns, increasing the number of places to stay and eat without detracting too much from the unspoilt character. Stay the night and the sunset will leave you reeling, as will the canopy of stars.
Hidden from the rest of the peninsula on the upper prong of its easternmost end, Playa Rincón boasts the top Samaná beach, bar none. Its pristine condition is maintained by its inaccessibility, with just one rocky road leading there from Las Galeras. Although rumours that a major hotel chain is set to start building on the beach have been doing the rounds for years, development has been kept mostly at bay.
Tucked away at the base of the Bahía de Rincón – which is buttressed on both sides by enormous capes – the beach has long been a favourite of wealthy Dominican city-dwellers who camp out here with their families for the night. Of all the warm, clear waters on the island, Rincón has the very finest – moderately deep with manageable waves and a bright turquoise transparency that can’t be matched – combined with a 4km stretch of whiter-than-white sand and a sprawling coconut forest behind it.
If you’re in the vicinity of coconut trees, be careful where you park your car. All Dominican car rental agreements have a provision explicitly stating that insurance will not cover damage – usually shattered windshields or dented hoods – inflicted by a falling coconut. More unfortunate, an average of six people per year in the Dominican Republic die from being hit by one of the plummeting fruits. Tropical storms are the most frequent culprits; the high winds sometimes launch dozens of them through the air like cannon shot. Many of the larger resorts and hotels employ people with long poles to knock the fruits from their trees before they have a chance to fall.
Protected on its southern side by an elongated strip of land that breaks apart into a series of small islands, SANTA BÁRBARA DE SAMANÁ possesses a remarkably safe harbour. Naturally shaped to blunt the impact of hurricanes and tropical storms and with shoals and breakers allowing entry via only one small bottleneck, it’s the perfect spot to ward off unwelcome intruders. Strangely, this tremendous strategic potential has never been fully realized, despite five centuries of international political wrangling.
Looking out over the harbour today, you can still get an idea of the great city Napolean envisaged. A flotilla of sailboats stands behind the palm-ridged island chain; the port and the wide-open promenade that borders the water bustle with activity; and in place of the impenetrable French fortress that was to jut atop the rocky promontory across from the town is the whitewashed, newly renovated Gran Bahía Principe Cayacoa resort. Beyond it, a narrow bridge extends to the two nearest cays. This is due in part to French-descended President Joaquin Balaguer’s own failed act of hubris – the transformation of this sleepy town into the largest resort complex on the planet, its design mirroring Napoleon’s to the letter. In the early 1970s he tore down the city’s remaining Victorian architecture, widened the streets, built three large resorts and secured a World Bank loan to construct several more hotels and an international airport. A bridge was constructed that extended from the eastern point across two of the small islands, in line with the vision of Napoleon, and a restaurant was built on the second. When Balaguer lost the election in 1978, though, the project was scrapped and the tourism complex was moved to Playa Dorada near Puerto Plata. The restaurant never opened and the bridge leads merely to its ruins. Today, the bridge seems like an apt symbol for the town itself, which has a distinctly half-finished and neglected look to it – part neatly maintained holiday town, part forgotten backwater.
Before European colonization the harbour was one of the settlements of the Ciguayos – an initially distinct ethnic group that was ultimately assimilated into Taino culture – that dotted the peninsula’s south coast. The Ciguayos lived near the Caribes and borrowed some aspects of Caribe culture, including the bow and arrow, elements of their language and black and red body paint. When Columbus landed at Playa Las Flechas just east of town in January 1493, the Ciguayos greeted his men with a flurry of arrows that forced the Spaniards back to their ships. A week later, the admiral met Chief Cayacoa aboard the Niña, repaired their differences and formed an alliance; the Ciguayos later assisted in subjugating the remaining four Taino caciques, only to be pacified themselves in the early sixteenth century.
Spain officially founded Santa Bárbara de Samaná in 1756 with transplants from the Canary Islands. In 1795, though, Spain handed the entire island over to Napoleon Bonaparte, in exchange for territory he controlled in Spain. Bonaparte quickly had blueprints drawn up of his dream New World capital, to be located in Samaná, but widespread chaos on the island – including a revolution in Haiti, two British invasions and civil war among the French commanders – prevented Bonaparte from taking control of the Dominican Republic for almost a decade. When the French finally received their colony in 1802, they were besieged by both a well-organized Haitian force and another British invasion and they soon capitulated.
The United States, too, went to some effort to acquire Samaná, inadvertently toppling two regimes in the process. In 1855, General Pedro Santana entered into formal negotiations with the Americans to allow for the annexation of the peninsula and its harbour, a move that proved fatal to his government as Haiti – eager to prevent the US from gaining a foothold here – invaded and Spain sent aid to local rebels. Santana’s successor, Buenaventura Báez, reopened negotiations in 1870 with President Ulysses S. Grant, who wanted Samaná to become the US’s main Caribbean port, finally agreeing to annex the island for US$150,000. The treaty was rejected by the isolationist US Senate, so the desperate Báez turned instead to private American investors, who signed a 99-year lease with him that gave them total political control over Samaná. Before the Americans were able to take it over, though, Báez was deposed and the contract rescinded.
A large portion of Samaná’s residents are descendants of African-American freemen and women who emigrated here during Haitian rule in 1824–25. At the time, a movement in the United States worked to repatriate thousands of freed slaves – seeking to escape the pervasive racism in the States – to West Africa, but stories of malaria epidemics made Haiti, the world’s only black republic, a more attractive option for many. Six thousand emigrants were temporarily housed in Santo Domingo’s Iglesia Las Mercedes before travelling on to various points across the country. About half ended up in Samaná, which the Haitians wanted to develop into a naval base. Despite sustained persecution by the Trujillo dictatorship in the 1940s and a general lack of interest by today’s younger generation, the settlers have managed to maintain their culture to some degree.
Some of Samaná’s older African-American population – many of them clustered within the sprawling Barrio Wilmore that borders the C-5 from the town’s west entrance – preserve an antiquated form of English, an oral history of the community’s struggles and an array of folk tales and legends. One ongoing custom is the series of yearly harvest festivals, community feasts with African-American church music held every Friday from late August to the end of October, a tradition that harks back to the yam celebrations and rice festivals of West Africa; check the bulletin board at the back of La Churcha for dates and locations, if you’re interested in attending.
Six kilometres out in the bay lies CAYO LEVANTADO, the original Bacardi Island photographed in the 1970s rum campaign, though the famous swaying palm from the ad has since been uprooted in a tropical storm. Fortunately, hundreds of others still line the soft white sands. It is now owned by the Bahía Principe group, who run the sole hotel, the Gran Bahía Principe Levantado (www.bahia-principe.com; US$151 and over) that takes up two-thirds of the island, while welcoming a steady stream of cruise-ship passengers throughout the year to a public beach at the other end of the island. Yet more visitors take the ferry over from Samaná (US$10) and most whale-watching tours and excursions to the Parque de Los Haitises stop off here for an hour or so, which can make it very crowded in high season. Moreover, with the extortionate food and drink prices and constant hassling from vendors, this is no Robinson Crusoe-esque paradise. There are many better places on the peninsula to spend a day on the beach.
Around 15km east of Samaná, just off the main road, an unmarked road leads northeast to a series of prominent limestone caves, collectively known as Cuevas de Agua, which once served as homes for the local Ciguayo population. The tiny farms adjacent contain some of the most extensive archeological sites on the island; for a small feel some of the residents will happily guide you round a selection of the petroglyphs and show you small Taino cemi sculptures that have been unearthed at the site.
Humpback whales have used the Dominican Republic’s Samaná Bay and Silver Bank coral-reef sanctuary as a nursery and breeding ground for thousands of years. Taino drawings on the limestone caves of Los Haitises depict breaching whales in the Bahía de Samaná and Columbus made note of their presence here in 1493. The whales return each December after nine months of relentless feeding in the North Atlantic; by late January more than four thousand of them, the entire northern Atlantic population, move around the waters of the country’s northeastern coast. They’re at their liveliest in Samaná’s tepid depths, as males track females, compete for attention and engage in courting displays, while mothers teach their calves basic survival skills. Don’t allow yourself to come here during the winter without taking an excursion to see them; the season generally runs from mid-January to mid-March.
Adult humpbacks grow to nearly 15m in length, weighing up to forty metric tonnes and are black with distinctive white patches. Their name comes from the singular arching of their backs when they dive. Their mouths are filled with baleen, hundreds of fibrous sheets that hang from the upper jaw and act as a sieve that traps tiny crustaceans. On their bellies are ventral folds – retractable pleats extending the length of their bodies – which expand, allowing the animals to hold massive amounts of food. Their enormous tails possess unique patterns of white blotches, which marine biologists use to identify individual whales in a similar way to human fingerprints.
Among the behaviours you may see while whale watching are: breaching – hurling the entire body above the surface before landing back down in a spectacular crash; chin breaching – bringing the head above water and slapping the chin against the surface; lobtailing – raising the tail and smacking it against the water; flippering – rolling the body and slapping the flipper against the water; diving – arching the back and then sticking the tail straight up in the air in preparation for a deep descent; and the trumpet blow – a tremendous, low blast that can be heard from several kilometres away.
Humpbacks also engage in the whale songs for which the species is well known – an eerie combination of moans and chirps formed into short phrases that are shuffled and put together in a basic form of communication. Only males sing and they do so far more frequently here than in the North Atlantic – which leads to speculation that songs are used to find a mate. Humpback groups in each region of the North Atlantic develop their own distinctive music, but a single song prevails while around the Dominican Republic. This is constantly evolving, probably due to the breeding success of the males who deviate from the original. Therefore, each winter starts with last year’s song but this is slowly revised over the course of the ensuing three months.
All of this is done to advance the serious business of mating and birthing that takes place in Samaná. The female gestation period is a full year, so calves that are conceived in the bay one year are born here the next; there’s a good chance you’ll see at least one of the babies, which can weigh over a tonne and are light grey. Mothers give birth at two-year intervals and shed up to two-thirds of their body weight while nursing; if twins are born – as they sometimes are – the mother is forced to choose between them, as her body cannot feed them both. The thick milk enables infants to grow at the astonishing rate of over 40kg per day.
Whale watching as a local tourist industry was begun in the 1970s by Kim Beddall, then an itinerant scuba instructor with no formal training as a marine biologist. She’s spent the subsequent twenty-plus years lobbying for government protection of the whales and creating an economic incentive that will protect them should the international whaling ban ever cease. As a result, more than forty boats in Samaná offer whale-watching tours every winter and regulations, again instigated by Beddall, are in place to try and ensure that the vessels don’t harass the animals.
The Spaniards made little use of Samaná harbour for the first two centuries of their rule, paving the way for pirates to take advantage of the narrow Samaná Channel and the snarl of limestone caves within the dense swamps of Los Haitises. The most notorious of these ne’er-do-wells was England’s Joseph Bannister, an official government privateer condemned to outlaw status by the 1670 Treaty of Madrid between England and Spain. In 1690 Bannister was anchored at Samaná with a frigate and another smaller vessel when two English warships tried to enter the harbour to arrest him. Bannister took his boats to the nearby island of Cayo Levantado and moved his men ashore along with some heavy artillery. The incoming warships were thus put directly in the line of fire and 125 English soldiers were killed as they cruised into the teeth of Bannister’s defences. Bannister’s large vessel was also destroyed in the melee; when his two-hundred-man crew found out that the ship was gone – and that the smaller one could accommodate only a quarter of them – they stampeded aboard the light craft, forty of them killed in the process. Bannister, though, got away and the islands surrounding the Samaná harbour have been known ever since as the Bannister Cays.