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Explore the natural beauty of Los Haitises National Park
This national park is remarkable for its impressive landscape and caves with drawings done in Pre-Columbian times, most likely by the Taino natives. Tours begin from Santa Barbara de Samana or Sanchez, with a 45-minute speedboat ride across Samana Bay.
Once across, you’ll enter a world lush with tropical vegetation, cliffs and seabirds. There are more than 110 species of birds in this coastal marine park. And at San Lorenzo Bay, you’ll find the most extensive population of mangrove swamps in the country, crucial for the survival of animal life.
Drift by small islands and see caves with prehistoric rock art created by the natives. The most famous cave is San Gabriel, where a drop of water is said to have eventually formed a stalagmite shaped like the archangel Gabriel. End your trip with a swim in the natural pools around the Caño Hondo Ecolodge, followed by lunch.
Go green with an eco-adventure to El Limon Falls
Located in the geographic centre of the Samana peninsula, there are several different small ecotourism-based businesses that can lead you to these famous falls. Typically these guided tours are run by local families and volunteers, and you can choose to go on horseback, by mule, or on foot.
While it is possible to hike to the waterfalls, travelling on horseback is recommended. During the 40-minute journey, you’ll see family orchards of cocoa, coffee, coconut, mango and other tropical trees and plants. You’ll pass by colourful homes, built from the beautiful wood of the Royal Palm Tree. As you get closer, the trail ascends sharply and you’ll need to cross a river. You’ll then make the steep descent by foot to reach the pool beneath the falls.
While a little rugged, the trip is well worth it. The 50-metre-high El Limon Falls cascade out of the deep-green forest above, over moss-covered walls. The sight will likely leave you in awe.
Most tours end with a tasty meal served under an open-sided thatched hut.
Head to Playa Rincon, one of the world’s finest beaches
Conde Nast Traveler named Playa Rincon the second-best beach in the world and they’re not exaggerating. This stretch of white sand is relatively undeveloped. If you head to the cliffs at the far end of the beach, you will feel like you’ve found your own deserted paradise. At this end of the beach is a small pool fed by the Caño Frio river – cool water perfect for escaping the heat. At the other end of the beach is a small sheltered area that is an excellent spot for snorkelling.
It takes a bit of a journey to get here, but you’ll be glad you made the trip. First, you’ll need to make your way to Las Galeras, a small fishing village on the northeastern side of the Samana peninsula (about 30 minutes from Santa Barbara de Samana). Most of the action in this quaint town is found on its white sand beach, where many locals gather and eat fresh fish cooked at beach cabana bars.
Save your appetite and barter a price for the 15-minute boat trip to Playa Rincon. By boat, you’ll get great views of the coastline and other beaches along the way.
Playa Rincon may be remote but it has all the comforts of the mainland. You’ll find several restaurants (try Tipico Rubi), as well as beach loungers and umbrellas you can rent (and toilets). Dip into the freshwater Caño Frio river on the west side, where you can rinse off the sand before you head back for the day.
See the global mix at Las Terrenas
Located midway along the north shore of the peninsula, this former fishing village has emerged as one of the most highly rated destinations in the country. It’s home to an attractive combination of small restaurants, hotels, stores and bars as well as many kilometres of unspoiled beaches.
Swiss, German, French, French-Canadian and Italian expats have all chosen to live here, adding a cosmopolitan element that blends perfectly with the relaxed Dominican vibe. The road by the Pueblo de los Pescadores (Fisherman’s Village Way) has been resurfaced with a promenade, or paseo maritime, of attractive cobblestones. The old fishing cabins have been transformed into bars, restaurants and stores. And it all comes together, forming an immensely charming region to visit.
Come for whale watching season
Observation season for humpback whales runs from mid-January to mid-March. Book your vacation during this time and you’re virtually guaranteed to see them singing, mating, birthing or flirting during a half-day excursion.
Females give birth in the calm, warm inner bay, where newborn calves can be seen frolicking with their mothers. In the rough, deep outer bay, the males compete heatedly for the favours of the females. Watch for their prodigious leaps as they lift their entire bodies out of the water in an effort to impress the ladies. They sing haunting, long songs, with their heads down and flippers outstretched. The males jockey for position, trying to keep rivals away with head butts and fin swats.
There can be hundreds of whales in the bay during peak season. Strict regulations are in effect to protect the whales, so choose a specialist operator for your excursion.
Revisit history at Santa Barbara de Samana
Santa Barbara de Samana, the capital of the province, was first developed by the Spanish in 1756. However, much of the original architecture was destroyed by a fire at the beginning of the 20th century. But the famous temple brought from England to house the Methodist community, known as “La Churcha,” still stands.
The starting point for whale-watching excursions, this city is hopping from January to mid-March. The Malecon, a broad walkway along the water, also gets particularly busy with stalls filled with local crafts, T-shirts and jewelry when the cruise ships dock several times a week. The lively local produce market at the entrance to the town is also a must-see.
Paseo de la Costanera (Las Terrenas)
The best place to shop in the Samana peninsula is Paseo de la Costanera, located in the centre of Las Terrenas. This two-level shopping mall is filled with more than 40 small boutiques, bars and restaurants. In the centre is an open-air tropical garden, providing plenty of space to relax in between purchases. Every Saturday, the garden hosts a large market with fresh food products, local crafts and flowers.
Stop in at the Ginkgo Caribe boutique to admire its collection of amber and larimar jewelry. Terrenas en Plata is also well-stocked with the best jewelry from both Dominican and foreign artisans. Ask owners Elisabeth and Jean-Paul for their recommendations. There is something for everyone, even children. For high-design and artsy jewelry, go to nearby Arte di Murano. Refresh with a fresh-pressed pineapple juice and sandwich on the terrace of Tiki Snack.
Haitian Caraibes Art Gallery (Las Terrenas)
You’ll see what appear to be Haitian paintings for sale all over the Dominican Republic. But if you want to buy authentic paintings, visit Haitian Caraibes Art Gallery on Calle Principal (Main Street) in Las Terrenas. Gallery owner and former Haiti journalist Claude Lachamp, is a veritable connoisseur. He exhibits works of renowned artists such as Dabadie, Prosper Pierre-Louis and Calixte Henry. He also sells his own brand of excellent Dominican cigars.
Pueblo Principe (Santa Barbara de Samana)
This collection of recently built, colourfully painted shops near the Malecon walkway in Samana has everything from jewelry and apparel to gifts. There’s even a small casino anchoring one end of this strip of boutiques. Stop in at Harrison’s Fine Caribbean Jewelers. It’s the Dominican Republic’s largest jewelry chain and has been serving the country for more than three decades. Its tiny silver flip-flop earrings and pendants often prove too cute to resist.
The Malecon (Santa Barbara de Samana)
When the cruise ships come in, locals come out to set up their stalls along the Malecon walkway. There are vendors selling T-shirts, crafts and small souvenirs but it’s the lively atmosphere that is the most fun.
Tipico Rubi (Playa Rincon) (Seafood, $)
Located right on the sands of Playa Rincon, this open-walled restaurant grills up some of the freshest food you may ever eat. The fresh fish and seafood here come straight off the fishermen’s boats. Take your pick of fish, langoustine, lobster or any other catch of the day and have it grilled on the spot. No problem if you don’t like seafood – this spot also has chicken and other meat selections.
Distilled water is used to clean the vegetables here, so don’t be afraid of eating some greens. Try the garden salad. It’s made from local, ultra-peppery arugula, tomato, cabbage and carrot. The vegetables taste like they have just been picked. And, the fries are made from fresh, hand-cut potatoes.
Have a piña colada for dessert. It’s served in a sweet, fresh pineapple. The coffee’s good, too.
La Terrasse (Las Terrenas) (Seafood, $$)
The candlelit, romantic white house at Pueblo de los Pescadores is a favourite among locals. The French bistro-style food centres on seafood dishes such as snapper en papillote and grilled dorado. Above the sand, at this restaurant on stilts, you can catch all the ocean action. You might even see your lobster being caught right in front of you.
Le Thalassa (Las Terrenas)(French, $$)
This chic place with wood floors and a palm branch roof has a casual elegance. Across from Playa Las Ballenas on the Pueblo de los Pescadores in Las Terrenas, this is the new hot spot for locals.
The young French chef and owner here is from Marseilles and is skilled in the kitchen. Dishes such as shrimp stuffed with calamari, tender rare grilled beef and curry chicken are served in ample portions alongside salad and vegetables. Cocktails are expertly mixed, and there’s also a good wine list.
The Beach (Playa Coson) (Seafood, $$)
The Beach is a restaurant and beach club on beautiful Playa Coson beach near Las Terrenas. The open-air, plantation-style house is set in a tropical garden and is part of the property of the highly rated peninsula House guesthouse. The menu changes weekly but focuses on fish, seafood and dishes inspired by the ocean. Try plates such as the shrimp with passion fruit reduction and salads made with local produce.
La Cuca Marina (Las Terrenas) (Italian, $$)
Located at Pueblo de los Pescadores in Las Terrenas, this seaside restaurant is small and charming. You can watch the ocean and hear the waves crash as you dine. Start with the Italian cold cut sampler, then order the lobster tails or homemade pasta as your main dish. Most food is cooked in a firewood oven or on the grill. Leave room for the apple dessert.
The French Bakery (Las Terrenas) (Bakery, $)
Grab yourself a coffee, a baguette and pain au chocolat at this bakery in La Plaza Taina in Las Terrenas. It’s like a little breath of Paris in the tropics.
Restaurant Chino (Santa Barbara de Samana) (Chinese, $)
Set on a hilltop above Santa Barbara de Samana, the view from Restaurant Chino is stunning. Sit on the patio and enjoy retro-style Chinese foods, like chop suey, chow mein, egg rolls and wonton soup. This spot has all the North American Chinese food standards.
Pizza Playa (Las Terrenas) (Pizza, $)
By the sea at the Pueblo de los Pescadores in Las Terrenas, this restaurant has the largest selection of pizza in town. Set in a former fisherman’s house, it’s colourfully decorated with Caribbean paintings and has a large terrace facing the sea. Relaxed and family-friendly, you’ll enjoy taking in the view from here while your pizza cooks in a wood oven. Salads, lobsters and prawns are also available.
Visit the famous Cayo Levantado (all ages)
This small island off Santa Barbara de Samana is one of the most famous places in the country as the backdrop for many famous commercials. The crystal-clear waters show off a full range of blues and the ultra-fine sand is snow white.
Guests of the Gran Bahia Principe Cayo Levantado stay on the island. But if you’re not a guest, you can still catch a boat to the island and hang out at the public beach. A great place to bring the family, you’ll find gift shacks, a restaurant/bar and toilet facilities. During humpback whale season, you can watch the mating rituals.
Get back to nature at Ecotopia (all ages)
Ecotopia has more than 30 hectares of private nature reserve, located just southwest of Las Terrenas. This is the place to get back to nature. You and your family will see hundreds of rare trees, exotic plants, tropical flowers and orchids here. Stroll along the footpaths to explore on your own, or hire a guide who can teach you more about the plants, birds and reptiles you’ll see along the way. At the end, there’s a natural pool fed with cold water from the river that you can jump in for a refreshing swim.
Learn more about humpbacks at the Whale Museum and Nature Center(all ages)
Visit the small museum located at the west end of the Malecon in Santa Barbara de Samana. It is run by the Center for Conservation and Eco-Development Samana and is dedicated to humpback whales. Learn all about these magnificent mammals and have a look at a full skeleton! The kids will also enjoy listening to the sounds these incredible creatures make and watching their antics on video.
Explore the area on an ATV bike or by horseback (age 6 and up)
Rent quad bikes and go exploring the countryside on your own, or join up with a tour. There are a number of tour companies taking groups and children (age six and over). Kids under 15 years old may be passengers only. You really get to see the countryside as you visit beaches, waterfalls and small plantations as you tour.
If you would rather see Samana the way locals do, you can get on a horse. Horses are still the only form of transportation for many locals who live away from the main towns.
You will enjoy all the beautiful scenery and the kids will have fun being cowboys and cowgirls for the day. Children 10 years and older will enjoy getting to ride their own horse, even leading the pack.
This is a great last-minute option for families as horses and guides can be hired on a last minute basis almost anywhere and are a great way to explore the countryside. Organized horseback treks are offered in Samana, Las Galeras, Las Terrenas and El Limon.
Head to the beach (all ages)
Playa Las Ballenas, located west of Las Terranas, is prized for its long beaches of white sand and water sports facilities. Youngsters will delight in playing in the cool waters of the Rio Las Terranas river where it meets the ocean.
Gaia Club (Las Terrenas) (Dance club, $$)
The three-storey discotheque Gaia is a hot spot in Las Terrenas. The action gets going just past midnight and continues into the early morning hours. Lights, lasers, fog machines – this place has it all. You can party the night away to three different styles of music from the best DJs in three unique atmospheres.
The first floor features house, tropical, electronic and other types of music. On the second, more exclusive VIP floor, you might hear dance music, hip hop or merengue. On the third floor, the Penthouse, the DJ spins vinyl and relaxed lounge music.
Sip a Blue Hawaii (a mix of Blue Curacao, pineapple juice and coconut cream liqueur) and dance the night away. Most of the action here happens on the weekends, but there are plenty of events and themed nights on other days of the week.
El Mosquito Art Bar (Las Terrenas)(Lounge, $)
Catch the sunset on the beach at Pueblo de los Pescadores at this cozy bar by the sea. Order a mojito to sip and a cold platter to snack on, then sit back and enjoy the live music, including new jazz and lounge-style music. Take a walk around this small space and admire the artwork on display.
El Toro Sobre el Techo (Las Terrenas) (Dance club, $$)
DJs set the Toro aflame during mega parties and themed nights. Singles will also love the Latin atmosphere and mix of clientele. Situated on the beach at Pueblo de los Pescadores, you can easily locate this club by its pulsating music.
Xava C Bon Bar & Tapas (Las Terrenas) (Dance club, $)
Have fun and move to Latin rhythms and techno music at this new dance club in Las Terrenas. You might find members of the dancing school, the Salsa Caribe Group, helping you improve your moves. It’s a friendly environment – so don’t be timid about mingling.
Bars along the Malecon in Santa Barbara de Samana (Bar, $)
Nightlife in Samana is concentrated near the Malecon. Walk along the boardwalk, listen to the music and pick your place. They’re open-air, friendly and filled with locals just relaxing.
Later in the night, the action is likely to head to a nearby beach where Julito’s Restaurant is located. It’s a perfect venue for dancing under the stars. Practice your Spanish and follow the crowds. Take your clue from the regulars and enjoy a cold beer.
Though music is everywhere in the Dominican Republic, the Samana peninsula, which sticks out like an oversized thumb from the north coast, is especially alluring to adventure-seekers. Its deserted beaches, oceanside limestone crags, roaring kitesurfing winds and variety of marine and birdlife have the makings of a once-in-a-lifetime vacation.
Samana’s beautiful beaches
For starters, this appealing peninsula has Playa Rincon, acclaimed by some travellers as the most gorgeous, unspoiled beach in the Caribbean. Getting there requires a short boat ride, but when you arrive at Rincon, your jaw will drop.
A silky beach fringed with postcard-perfect palm trees stretches southeast for a lazy five-km from the limestone heights of Cape Cabron. Coral reefs break the ocean swell and shelter a lagoon of irresistible turquoise water.
The smell of pan-fried red snapper lures beach-goers toward the diner at the end of the beach. Other than this locally owned diner, there is no development here. In fact, you can often count the number of people on the beach on one hand.
A little less friendly for swimming, but a close second for natural beauty, is Playa Fronton, near the remote tip of Cabo Samana. It’s also home to one of the country’s best rock climbing areas. From the laid-back fishing village of Las Galeras, you can hire a boat to take you there.
Thirty minutes later, after dropping anchor, you’ll wade ashore at Playa Fronton. A small, beachside bar is the only sign of civilization. Peregrine falcons seem to float upon the breeze, rushing up the limestone escarpment towering above the beach.
While most come to Fronton to soak in this wild coastal headland and perhaps tilt back an El Presidente beer, the more adventurous test themselves on one of the rock climbing routes up the cliff. Follow the worn pocket-like handholds and large stalactites typical of seashore limestone.
Watch for whales
Playa Fronton lies near the easternmost point of the Samana peninsula. It is separated from the north coast of the country by the huge and biologically rich Samana Bay, noted for its humpback whales. These huge mammals spend the summer feeding along the Atlantic coast of North America and Greenland, then head south.
They give birth to their calves and raise them in the warm, soothing waters around the Dominican. Samana Bay provides some of the island’s richest habitat for humpbacks, drawing thousands of whales annually, and many more tourists hoping to catch a glimpse. January and February are prime viewing season.
“Twenty years ago, there was very little known about these humpbacks,” says Ontario-native Kim Beddall, owner of Whale Samana. The company single-handedly launched the whale-watching industry in this massive bay. “Now locals take a lot of pride in these whales and are very serious about conservation.”
Head to El Limon Falls
For a taste of the Samana interior, venture into the lush green hills and tiny farms halfway between Santa Barbara de Samana and Las Terrenas. This is also where you can access a freshwater gem – the 44-metre-tall El Limon Falls. At one of the many roadside ranches, you can stop for a hearty cocido, a local favourite of sumptuous beef stew accompanied by rice, beans and a side of yucca fries to fortify you for the hour-long ride.
Energetic young locals do the guiding, following trails winding through pastures and groves of trees and plants bearing papaya, lemon, softball-sized grapefruit, banana, coffee, yucca and yam. Eventually, the rush of water, like rustling leaves, grows louder as you clip-clop through the densely forested valley on horseback.
The horses are then left to graze and drink water near the top of the falls. A slippery staircase carved from the rock will lead you down to the base of the cascade. If you’re feeling really adventurous, follow the enthusiastic guides as they climb upwards, using handholds obscured by the water, until they reach a small pedestal of rock a third of the way up the falls. Once there, the best way down is to jump into the pool of water below! Be warned, this activity is definitely not for everyone.
Let loose in Las Terrenas
It’s only fitting to end a Samana sojourn in Las Terrenas, the nightlife and water sports capital of the Samana peninsula. During the day, the blue sky above the sea is filled with a rainbow’s assortment of surfing kites. At night, the bars are full with a mix of Spanish, French, Italian, German and English tourists. Warm, humid air drifts along the hopping waterfront, mixing once again with the merengue music and the savoury smell of fried fish.
Spontaneously, you’ll find your feet tapping to the rhythms, warming your winter soul and inspiring plans for a return trip to this irresistible peninsula.
Calendar of events
Whale-watching(mid-January to mid-March)
Samana Bay is overtaken by humpback whales who mate and breed in this sanctuary. Each winter, thousands of whales migrate from the cold waters of the north to the warm, crystal-clear waters of this bay. Listen to the male humpback’s solitary courting song and witness incredible displays of flippering, tail-lobbing and breaching by the most-active species of whale in the Atlantic.
Las Terrenas Beach Party (April)
It’s party time at Las Terrenas beach and performers and DJs are rocking the night away. Locals and tourists gather to hit the dance floor and check out the crowds that flock towards the action.
Harvest Festival and San Rafael (August to October)
Both the protestant Harvest Festival and the Catholic San Rafael observance are held in the town of Santa Barbara de Samana each fall. Watch the traditional African-inspired dances and listen to the bambula music kept alive largely on the peninsula.
Bambula has roots in French-Caribbean music but can also be traced back to early African American music coming out of New Orleans. Today, the bambula is infrequently played, though there is an initiative in development called the Bayahonda Cultural Foundation, to help rescue the tradition and encourage sustainable cultural tourism in the Samana peninsula.
These festivals are held on Fridays from late August through the end of October at Samana churches.
Fiestas Patronales (early December)
Fiestas Patronales, or patronage festivals, are celebrations held in honour of various saints that have been adopted by towns and municipalities. These festivals take place throughout the Dominican Republic. In Santa Barbara de Samana, the festival is celebrated with bambula music and dancing.
Wildlife and wind are two wonderful reasons to get out and explore the Samana peninsula. This adventurous chunk of the Dominican Republic is the launching pad for excursions into spectacular Los Haitises National Park. At more than 1,600 sq. km., the park encompasses virgin inland forest, mangrove lowlands, secluded caves and hundreds of small islands awaiting discovery.
See the birds, bats and a piece of history in Los Haitises National Park
Los Haitises National Park is also a refuge to 120 different species of nesting birds and an internationally recognized home to rare nesting sites of the Ridgway’s Hawk, an endangered species found in the Dominican Republic.
An hour’s trip across Samana Bay from Santa Barbara de Samana, the park is best experienced from the water. Launching a kayak from the deck of a tour boat puts you up-close-and-personal with the sounds, smells and scenery of this fantastic place. Small islands of grey, weathered limestone topped with dense foliage poke out from the sea.
Here, you’ll see birdlife on land and sea. Male frigate birds inflate their red throats in a colourful form of avian flirtation. Turkey vultures and pelicans soar above like pterodactyls. Along the rugged shoreline, you can drift beneath the shade of mangroves, silent except for the occasional throaty croak of a heron. It feels like a lost coastal world.
It just so happens that this park is also known for its otherworldly caves. San Gabriel is one of the more popular caves to visit. Stalactites drip from the cave’s ceiling and bat colonies gather in shadowy alcoves, waiting for night.
San Gabriel’s most stunning feature is a petroglyph (rock engraving) of unknown age, showing figures that look almost extraterrestrial. Primitive, yet mysteriously beautiful, this lonely piece of art came from the Taino, the indigenous inhabitants of Hispaniola (the island containing both Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
“This is a snapshot of a vanished culture and society,” says guide Harry Sosa. Tours including lunch, transport and a knowledgeable guide start at around US$58 from Marivana Tours.
Catch a wave kitesurfing
Like elsewhere along the Dominican Republic’s coast, the Samana peninsula is a magnet for kitesurfers and other water sport junkies. But there is one major difference. On windy days, when the sea off of Puerto Plata is jammed with hundreds of kites and boards, the town of Las Terrenas has just a couple dozen out on the water.
Experienced kitesurfers might prefer 30 km/h-plus winds, but a modest 15 km/h is just fine for a first lesson. Kitesurfing for the first time is like your first spin out on a bicycle – simple in concept but difficult in practice.
Your feet are attached to a hybridized surf/snowboard, while your body is strapped into a waist harness that’s connected with a series of lines to a half-moon-shaped kite designed to harness the wind.
You’ll soon feel the surge of wind as it powers up the kite. Beneath your board, schools of fish dart in silvery flashes through the shallow water. Before long, that buzz of adrenalin you feel hooks your soul. Water, wind, board and kite – that’s all you need. There’s freedom to a sport in which no entrance fees or lift tickets are required. And that’s probably why folks are hooked on the windy lifestyle of Samana.