Wind kissed my cheeks and whipped my hair as the motorboat raced across teal-colored water of Samaná Bay. As we neared some of the 58 keys of Los Haitises National Park, the boat slowed down and I soaked up a beauty I never knew possible. This was my first full day in Samaná, a province recognized for its ecotourism opportunities in northeastern Dominican Republic, and my first time to the D.R. Up until this point, I wasn’t sure if this destination was the right fit for me.
Where Geology and Biodiversity Meet
The park was established in 1976 and is currently 1,242 square miles. Its name comes from the language of the aboriginal people, the Taino, and means “hilly land.” Most of the limestone keys, or small islands, are haystack formations ranging from 66 to 131 feet tall. Many are topped with trees and looking closer, Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans were roosting on the branches. I spotted a few nests nestled in the trees hosting hungry chicks calling out for lunch.
The geologist in me loved seeing the limestone cliffs of the larger keys and how their starkness contrasted with the lush flora. More than a hundred species of birds have been identified in the park and according to my guide, more than a thousand plant species.
Going with the Flow
The boat captain motored the boat up a river called El Naranjo into La Pesquera, a limestone cave. Swallows, although at first glance I thought they were bats, swooped down toward the boat then swiftly away. As a deckhand anchored the boat, I looked over the side and saw black fish swimming in the teal water which now had a slightly milky haze.
“You can jump in,” or something like that.
“What?” I thought. “Jump in this river?”
“Jump in and drift to the beach back there and we’ll pick you up,” the guide added.
I was with a group of more than a dozen and decided although I didn’t know when I’d have another opportunity to jump into a river cave, I wasn’t going to do it. Nope.
Overcoming Fear of a Wardrobe Malfunction
And then I watched as one by one of my traveling companions jumped in then drifted down the river to the beach. The fear of missing out on something really cool began to weigh on me but so did my true fear. I’m not a strong swimmer and knew nothing bad would happen to me but it was something bigger holding me back from jumping in. That fear was a swimsuit wardrobe malfunction.
Standing on the edge of a boat about to jump wasn’t the time to realize after losing 25 pounds I probably should have bought a better fitting swimsuit for this trip. I quickly tossed modesty aside and took the plunge. I mean, when will I see these people again in case I accidentally exposed myself? Okay, one had a video camera and captured the whole thing for digital eternity but c’est la vie. I wasn’t going to give up on this bragging rights potential.
I jumped into the water and didn’t touch the bottom but quickly popped up like a buoy. The water temperature was perfect and after the water washed over my eyes and ensuring my contacts were still on my eyeballs, I took one last look around the cave. Above, the gray stalactites hanging down seemed more dramatic and impressive. Rather than fighting it, I let the river’s current carry me to the beach, sans a noticeable wardrobe malfunction.
Caves, Caves and More Caves
I climbed into the boat satisfied with my decision to take the plunge. Before reaching the national park’s land-based caves with petroglyphs and pictographs, we stopped in Mouth of the Shark Cave, named because the entrance looks like the jaws of a shark, for another swim. This time, I stayed in the boat while a couple others swam.
We motored around more limestone keys passing the artistic-like root system of red mangrove trees to reach the dock for Cueva de la Línea, or Line Cave. I applied mosquito repellent and was thankful for wearing sturdy shoes to navigate over the muddy and sometimes slippery terrain. The cave’s name comes from a railway line that ran in front of it. Inside the cave we visited a handful of caverns to see the pictographs and petroglyphs believed to be created by the Taino natives pre-Christopher Columbus (pre-1492).
Petroglyphs are engravings in the rock while pictographs are drawings. The “ink” used in these drawings were from such resources as dyes from mangrove bark, bat guano, charcoal and manatee fat.
For a brief moment I had a chance to stand on the cave’s dirt floor and look up through the opening to the outside. I was truly in awe of the centuries of history before me and how it’s been preserved. Closing my eyes I envisioned what it must have been like more than 600 years ago to live in the cave. I know the images tell a story and some of them on the stone walls looked as though they were written by a teenager angry with his parents.
La Cueva de la Arena, or Sand Cave, was the next stop which had a gorgeous sand beach and cave on the water. Small bats hung in the cave’s ceiling pockets and I was cautious not to disturb their deep sleep. The scenery of rocky shores meeting the sea was absolutely stunning and a pocket of calm water in the cave was inviting.
Before entering the cave system I saw two rock carvings probably dating back about 1,000 years ago. They showed some weathering but for the most part the detail was very distinctive although it can be argued what exactly the carvings depict. Some saw an owl while others saw Homer Simpson. What do you see in the image below?
Worked Up an Appetite for an Authentic Dominican Lunch
The Los Haitises National Park adventure ended with a trip back to the mainland and a typical Dominican lunch feast of cabbage salad, rice, beans, grilled chicken, fish, potatoes and fresh fruit. Oh my, was the fruit ever fresh! Not just during this lunch but everywhere during the trip through Samaná. Fruit as pineapple, mango, coconut and watermelon were sweet and delightfully juicy, just as fruit should be.
Explore Los Haitises National Park with a licensed operator. Tours typically offer a narrated boat tour, land tour through the caves and lunch. Admission into the park (RD $100) in typically included with the tour. Tours are commonly offered at Samaná-area and in other Dominican Republic resort destinations. I stayed at The Bannister Hotel, a relatively new waterfront boutique hotel perfect for my pace of life and enjoying an ecotourism vacation in the Dominican Republic.
Samaná Had Me at First Splash
As soon as I splashed into the water, I knew I was in love with Samaná. Admittedly, I fell fast for this magical, ecotourism destination and the few treasures I had seen but it all felt authentic, genuine and oh, so perfect. Yes, Samaná. You had me at first splash.
Enjoy additional photos on my Flickr channel.
This is the first in a multi-post series about visiting Samaná, Dominican Republic.
Disclosure: I was a guest of the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism and their U.S.-based public relations agency of record, BVK. They have not reviewed this post and opinions are my own.