The Samaná Peninsula

The Samaná Peninsula is in the far northeast of the country, geologically the oldest part of the island, a finger of land which used to be a separate island. In the 19th century the bay started to silt up to such an extent that the two parts became stuck together and the resulting land is now used to grow rice. Previously the narrow channel between the two was used as a handy escape route by pirates evading larger ships. A ridge of hills runs along the peninsula, green with fields and forests. There are several beautiful beaches, which have not been overdeveloped or 'improved', fringed with palm trees and interspersed with looming cliffs. They have become popular with Europeans, many of whom were so attracted by the laid-back lifestyle they set up home here, running small hotels and restaurants. Whale watching is a big attraction, January-March, when the humpbacks come to the Bahía de Samaná to breed. This is one of the best places in the world to get close to the whales and a well-organized network of boats takes out visitors to see them.

Sánchez is the gateway town to the peninsula and all road transport passes by here. A good road runs along the southern side of the peninsula to Samaná with a spur over the hills from Sánchez to Las Terrenas on the north side. Another new road is to be built direct from El Catey airport along the northern coast to Las Terrenas. There are good bus services from Santo Domingo and from Puerto Plata and towns along the north coast. You can also get a ferry from Sabana de la Mar, across the bay.

Samaná

The town of Santa Bárbara de Samaná, commonly known just as Samaná, is set in a protected harbour, within the Bahía de Samaná. Columbus arrived here on 12 January 1493, but was so fiercely repelled by the Ciguayo Indians that he called the bay the Golfo de las Flechas (Gulf of Arrows). Nowadays two small islets offshore are linked by a causeway to the mainland, providing a picturesque focal point when looking out to sea and added protection for yachts. The town itself is not startling, there are no colonial buildings, no old town to wander around, but the location is most attractive and it is a lively place particularly in whale-watching season.

The present town of Santa Bárbara de Samaná was founded in 1756 by families expressly brought from the Canary Islands. The city, reconstructed after being devastated by fire in 1946, shows no evidence of this past, with its modern Catholic church, broad streets, new restaurants and hotels, and noisy motorcycle taxis. Any remaining old buildings were torn down by Balaguer in the 1970s as part of his grand design to make the Samaná Peninsula into a huge tourist resort. When he was defeated in the 1978 elections his plans were discarded and Playa Dorada was developed instead. His dream is now being revived and the peninsula is witnessing an unprecedented construction boom with new hotels and villas, marina, golf course, airport, etc. There were 2400 hotel rooms on the peninsula at end-2006, with another 5400 planned to be built by end-2011.

In contrast to the Catholic church, and overlooking it, is a more traditional Protestant church, white with red corrugated-iron roofing, nicknamed locally
La Churcha
. It came from England, donated by the Methodist Church. They began the custom of holding harvest festivals, which still take place. The Malecón waterfront road is the main street in the town, lined with restaurants, bars and tour operators. The dock is here, for the ferry to Sabana de la Mar, some whale-watching tours and private yacht services. A causeway links two islands in the bay, where there is a hotel.

Humpback whales return to Samaná Bay at the beginning of every year to mate and calve. Various half-day tours go whale watching, certainly worthwhile if you are in the area then. This is recognized as one of the ten best places in the world to see whales and is very convenient for the average tourist as they are so close to the shore.

Parque Nacional Los Haïtises

Across the bay is the Los Haïtises National Park, a fascinating area of 208 sq km of mangroves, humid subtropical forest, seagrass beds, cays, mogotes and caves, which were used by the Taínos and later by pirates. The irregular topography of bumpy, green hills was caused by the uplifting of the limestone bedrock and subsequent erosion. There are anthropomorphic cave drawings and other pictures, best seen with a torch, and some carvings. Wooden walkways have been constructed through the caves and into the mangroves in a small area accessible to boats and tourists. The park is rich in wildlife and birds. Many of the caves have bats, but there are also manatee and turtles in the mangroves and inland the endangered solenodon .

Various companies organize tours. Some include a trip upriver to a village and a swim in the Cristal lagoon (turquoise, cool, sweet water) as well as lunch on a beach near Sánchez. Take hats and lots of sun screen, no shade. It takes longer to get there by boat from Samaná, so it is better to start from Sánchez. Sabana de la Mar is even closer, but excursions are informal.

Cayo Levantado

The offshore island, Cayo Levantado, is a popular picnic place, especially at weekends when the beach is packed and best avoided. The white-sand beach, known as Bacardi Beach is nice, though, and there are good views of the bay and the peninsulas on either side. 

Las Galeras

At the eastern end of the peninsula is Playa Galeras. The 1-km beach is framed by the dark rock cliffs and forested mountains of Cape Samaná and Cape Cabrón, now designated a National Park. The village is popular with Europeans, several of whom have set up small hotels and restaurants. There is a fair amount of weed on the beach and some coral, so rubber shoes are a good idea, but it is 'unimproved', with trees for shade.

Playa Rincón
is 20 mins from Las Galeras by boat, US$10 return journey, or 40 mins by jeep along a paved 8-km road to Rincón village, followed by a 2-km rocky and muddy track through coconut palms. Playa Rincón is dominated by the cliffs of 600-m high
Cape Cabrón
at one end but backed by thousands of coconut palms filling every available space. The sand is soft and there are few corals in the water, which is beautifully clear, but the beach is wild and uncleaned, so coconuts and branches litter the sand. On reaching the beach turn right along a track to get to several beach restaurants at the end where you can get delicious fried fish, caught that morning. They are on a small promontory which gives protection against the waves.

Playa El Valle
is reached by 10 km dirt road from Samaná, 4WD needed, or come by boat from Las Terrenas or Las Galeras. A
guagua
comes a couple of times a day from Samaná, US$1. The drive over the mountain is spectacularly beautiful, with two river crossings where women still wash their laundry and children hitch a ride to school. On the way back you get a wonderful view of the Samaná Bay with a flash of white sand on Cayo Levantado as you come over the top. The beach is undeveloped except for a tiny beach bar, aptly named El Paraíso . There is also a beach bar for the sole use of guests from
El Portillo Hotel
in Las Terrenas, who stop here for lunch on a safari trip, but otherwise the beach is usually empty of tourists. The view from the beach is dramatic, with the headlands rising vertically out of the water and a river running into the sea. Coconut palms are everywhere, be careful about sitting underneath one for shade. Check before swimming at deserted beaches where there can be strong surf and an undertow. Drownings have occurred near El Valle. Only go in when the sea is flat calm, ask for advice at the beach bar or at the tiny naval station behind.

Las Terrenas

On the north coast of the peninsula is Las Terrenas, with some of the finest beaches in the country, from which, at low tide, you can walk out to coral reefs to see abundant sea life. The beaches go on for miles, fringed by palm trees under which are hidden a large number of small hotels and restaurants, often run by Europeans, attracted by the lifestyle. It is a quiet, low-key resort and never crowded, although development is in progress and greater numbers of visitors are expected; the beaches are mostly clean and remain beautiful. It is reachable by a 17-km road from Sánchez which zig-zags steeply up to a height of 450 m with wonderful views before dropping down to the north coast. The road Samaná-Las Terrenas via Limón is also a pretty route although perhaps not so spectacular from the top.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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