When paradise opens its doors wide, it soon ceases to be paradise. Samaná is an Eden whose doors remain ajar. A world apart, yet. An oblong peninsula at the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic.
An appendix that shelters an overflowing microcosm of coconut trees and plantations, virgin beaches, mangroves, cays and islets where neither the echo of legendary pirates, nor the timid approach of tourists alter the routine of fishermen and shopkeepers who open their grocery stores to the emergencies of the day to day. In short, a remote place where winter is spent in a swimsuit.
This redoubt largely maintains its purity thanks to its own geographical casing: the eastern mountain range of the island and the shield of beaches and resorts of Punta Cana and Bávaro serve as a sponge to contain the ringed invaders with an all-inclusive bracelet.
Getting to Samaná has a bit of an adventure. You have to cross extensive rice fields flooded by the Yuna River, villages that are just a string of tobacco on the side of the road, plus some bohíos (huts) with their meager conuco (orchard) and their chickens.
Yellow buses, from the American school, are collecting Haitians who have found work in a hotel or batey (farm) in this, for them, the Promised Land. Huge billboards enliven his hope: “Jehovah provides”, “Christ is coming”, “I knocked and Jesus opened the door for me”…
The first town, at the gateway to the Samaná peninsula, is called Sánchez. It is the surname of one of the three “fathers of the country” who proclaimed the country's definitive independence in 1844. Some say that the town was founded by a friend of the famous buccaneer Roberto Cofresí, but surely there were already some peaceful fishermen before. Because the town - if a population of about 26,000 inhabitants can be called that - lives above all from fishing. What's more, it proudly proclaims itself the shrimp capital, for its famous prawns throughout the country, and has been celebrating a Ripiao Seafood Festival for years that finds an echo in the island tabloids.
Arriving in Santa Bárbara of Samaná, or simply Samaná, as they call the capital of the province and peninsula with the same name for short, is quite a shock. The city - yes, 50,000 residents - overlooks an immense bay, nestled on hills of lush greenery, with colorful houses lined along the promenade. Laughing Caribbean, in its purest form.
Although it may not seem like it at all, it is an old city. It was founded in 1756 by the Spanish governor of the island to prevent the incursion of French settlers and, as a curious fact, Canarian families were brought to populate it. The enclave, however, should not bring good memories to the Spanish: this was one of the few places where the first discoverers were received in a hostile way by the Tainos; That is why they baptized the bay as Golfo de las Flechas.
While strolling through the streets today, one stumbles upon only smiles and an almost absolute majority of black people: Samaná is a melting pot, which includes descendants of Spanish slaves, Catholics; descendants of French slaves, who retain their own Samanés patois (dialect); a third diverse group are the so-called cocolos, that is, maroons and freedmen from the Antilles; and a fourth group with a very special history, the people of color from the United States. And it is that in 1824 Jean-Pierre Boyer, governor of the island (which was then called just Haiti), sent citizen Granville to America to bring to the island descendants of Africans who wanted to benefit from the benefits that would be granted here.
Wilfredo Benjamin Kelly, current manager of a local marine excursion agency, boasts of ancestors who were part of those "pilgrim fathers" from Philadelphia. He assures that the group remained united by its Protestant creed and that even today many families retain thirty long American surnames (Benjamin, Shephard, King, Anderson, Green ...).
By the Malecón
In 1901, Wesleyan missionaries brought to that community, from England, a wooden church that they assembled here board by board. It is the Churcha (church), the oldest building in Santa Bárbara de Samaná. It presides, along with another whitewashed and more modern Catholic temple, the so-called Malecón, or Avenida de la Marina. Near the church, in a small park, a statue reminds of Teodoro Chassériau; This character was born in the nearby town of El Limón, was a disciple of Ingres and a prolific painter of French Romanticism, whose work is exhibited in the Louvre and the Orsay Museum in Paris. There is talk of making a museum for him here or something similar, but the truth is that he was taken to the French capital when he was just over a year old.
The Malecón is ideal to take the pulse of Samaná. The so-called Village is a recent invention with brightly colored houses, very Caribbean. Insatiable domino games are fought on the terraces or benches of the promenade, in front of the “hidden bridges” that link a couple of islets with the mainland. In reality it is a very long pedestrian bridge erected by President Balaguer in 1975, following historical plans by Napoleon's brother-in-law, General Leclerc, who was in fact planning a military fort.
In the bars and restaurants around the Malecón, coconut or coconut sauce is added to almost everything, especially fish. Famous places to try the local cuisine are Tierra y Mar, the Mediterranean Tavern or the Chinese restaurant (despite its name). There is a slope always full of cars parked on the side of the road: these are people who even come from afar to shop at D'Vieja Pan. The old woman was Albertina de Peña, who died in 2018 as reported by some local media, a descendant of those black Americans and an heir from recipes such as Johnny Cake (a cornmeal flatbread) or coconut, yautía, sweet potato or yucca breads. The business is now run by his children and grandchildren, the first to affirm that shopping at D’Vieja is like acquiring the crumb of Samaná itself.
But the most exciting thing about the place is, without a doubt, the bay. Immense, luminous, dotted with beaches and cays to whose inlets the raids and misdeeds of Cofresí reached, perhaps also his still hidden treasures. The pirate had his lair in neighboring Puerto Rico, where he was executed in 1825 along with 11 cronies. Another rebel without a cause was Captain Joseph Bannister, who defected from the English Navy in 1684 with a ship of 40 guns and 100 men, and served as a privateer from Cayo Levantado (so named in honor of his uprising against the crown).
This islet is located about two miles from the coast and is today the family beach of Santa Bárbara, with a couple of hotels and beach bars as appreciated as Ballena Blanca, where you can grab fish or coconut shrimp, lambí (snail) stew, a barbecue or a seafood casserole, contemplating the beach with the spark that a mamajuana (typical rum punch) always gives.
The star excursion
From the docks of Samaná, boat or catamaran excursions are organized to observe whales in the Sanctuary of Marine Mammals that extends a few miles from the south coast. Humpback whales come to mate from January to March, but playful dolphins can be spotted at any time of the year. It is more difficult to see a manatee, that kind of sea cow that the first-time and horny explorers of these seas confused with mermaids. At the start of the Malecón there is a discreet Museum of the Whales.
But the star and obligatory excursion is to the Haitises National Park. An amphibious geography that is somewhat reminiscent of Halong Bay, in Vietnam: a patchwork of cays and mogotes, with plumes crowded with vegetation, seabirds and raptors, and gloomy labyrinths of mangroves closing the passage of pipes and arms of the sea. The term Haitises apparently comes from the Arawak Ayiti word, "land of mountains." The Arawaks that Columbus and his colleagues discovered in these lands were called Tainos. The Tainos left in some of the formidable caves, carved by water and erosion, a series of cave paintings and petroglyphs that tourists now eagerly seek in this 1,600 square kilometer park.
Only 4 of the many caverns with paintings or archaeological remains are visited. They are very simple paintings, not as old, of course, as the European ones: these Taíno figures can be between 500 and 1,000 years old at most. They traced them using whale or manatee blubber mixed with ash or red mangrove or achiote powder. In some caves they took advantage of the rock projections to carve masks that, like the paintings, blend human features with those of birds like the owl. The Tainos contributed words to Spanish such as hammock, canoe, barbecue, perhaps also tobacco.
Catalog of beaches and chiringuitos
The other important city on the Samaná peninsula is Las Terrenas. In times of the dictator Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961) it was a fishing village; its access tracks, made of clay, were paved in the 1980s, and electricity did not arrive until 1994. No one would say so today, in view of the hustle and bustle and the airs of a happy and confident city. There are no tourists here, foreigners become neighbors in a matter of minutes.
Banks, schools, kindergartens, small hotels and bistros, a shop with pretensions of a boutique... And above all, grocery stores that bring bleeding meats and fish to the sidewalks, or a cornucopia of tropical vegetables and fruits, whose simple Enumeration sounds like Neruda's verse: mangoes, guavas, chili peppers, yams, squash, chinolas, custard apples, medlars...
The one that is still called Pueblo de los Pescadores is the old nucleus that gave rise to the town, converted into a string of beach bars and terraces on the beach. Some of these places enjoy special prestige among locals and foreigners, such as El Mosquito, El Cayuco (run by a Spaniard), La Yuca Caliente, Chez Sandro ...
Las Terrenas' marine façade covers more than 20 kilometers and encompasses some of the best beaches in Samaná, such as Cosón beach and bay, Bonita beach (where you can surf), Las Ballenas... The best ones are the ones further away by the east, close to the town of El Valle and the natural park of Cabo Cabrón.
An obligatory excursion, from any point of Samaná, is to El Limón Falls, listed as a natural monument.
To access it, you must equip yourself at one of the 13 ranches or stops that provide a horse, a protective helmet and a guide to undertake the ascents and descents of somewhat dangerous slopes. But is it worth it. The main waterfall falls over a pool where it is possible to bathe and recover from the scare of the road.
Two smaller waterfalls are located above and below the main waterfall, in a tangled and vaporous vegetal decoration, of a fairy tale. Some of the stops offer packages that finish the excursion with a homemade lunch.
Another similar waterfall is found on the route from Samaná to El Valle. It is the Lulu waterfall, which powers its pull with a zip line. This is a more rural area, in which so-called ecolodges are lavish, such as the Dominican Tree House Village or the Tropical Chalet. From the El Valle jetty, it takes just a quarter of an hour by boat to reach Ermitaño beach, for some the best in all of Samaná.
On the eastern tip of the peninsula, at Cape Samaná, Las Galeras is another former fishing village that is becoming a cosmopolitan tourist emporium. Many foreigners choose this area to settle without a return ticket. From here, it takes a few minutes by boat to get to Rincón beach: more than three kilometers of virgin sand with a river in the background, Caño Frío, where you can cool off. Those who come to Rincón Bay bring refreshment places such as El Monte Azul, El Pescador, El Cabito, La Bodeguita ... Discreet names and places, not an open secret. So that the doors remain ajar and paradise never ceases to be.
CHRONICLE OF AN ANNOUNCED SUCCESS
Most of the tourists who travel to the Dominican Republic seclude themselves in the luxurious all-inclusive resorts that line the southern coast of the island, east of the capital, Santo Domingo. Names such as La Romana, Punta Cana or Bávaro occupy a prominent place in tourist brochures and in the dreams of sun and beach seekers among heavenly palm trees.
La Romana is the closest nucleus to Santo Domingo. It housed the largest sugar mill in the world, that is what it lived on, but in 1970 it decided to open itself up to tourism by creating a golf course. Four years later, Casa de Campo was built, a resort that at the end of the eighties changed hands and acquired an elitist and seductive stamp by the Dominican designer Óscar de la Renta.
The first international cruise ships arrived in the 1990s, and a decade later it became one of the island's dream destinations.
Just an hour's drive east of La Romana, Punta Cana was pure jungle in 1970 The New York lawyer Ted Kheel teamed up with the Dominican Frank Rainieri, who was just 24 years old at the time, and with visionary fervor they acquired land that they immediately christened Punta Cana.
The following year they opened their first hotel, Punta Cana Club, with only 20 rooms, but with a small airstrip. This would become an international airport in 1986, with the arrival of a first flight from Puerto Rico with 21 passengers. Today more than four million tourists arrive at this airport a year.
At the end of the nineties, Rainieri managed to associate Óscar de la Renta and Julio Iglesias in the Puntacana Group, which has not stopped growing (although now without the designer or the singer).
To the north, Bávaro was at first a semi-wild territory in which the employees of Punta Cana were housed. But soon, Bávaro beach began to be colonized by large hotel chains, including the Spanish Riu, Meliá, Barceló, Iberostar, etcetera, which have turned this enclave, together with Punta Cana and La Romana, into a winning trio of aces for tourism in the Dominican Republic.
Source: El País