The Dominican Republic: Tropical Terrains and Pristine Beaches

Cayo Levantado in Samaná
Cayo Levantado in Samaná

By Chance St. John
Christopher Columbus may have made an error when he landed on North America and declared that it was India, but he made no such mistake in describing Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, as “the fairest land under heaven.”

Known as “La Novia del Atlántico,” or “The Bride of the Atlantic,” Puerto Plata sings a siren’s song to visitors and locals alike, dancing them through lush tropical terrain and pristine beaches that invite anyone who lays eyes on them to relax for a lifetime and never go back.

While Puerto Plata is the ultimate destination for relaxation, and also most likely where you will fly into the Dominican, the keen traveler will most likely look to the developing town of Samaná.

One of the beautiful and off-the-beaten-path destinations in the Dominican Republic is the Samaná Peninsula. If you are lucky enough to visit in between mid-January and mid-March, you will be treated to the spectacle of thousands of hump-back whales that migrate here every year.

A New International Airport

Currently the most common way to access Samaná, which translates to “fish with coconut sauce,” is via a three-hour ride from Puerto Plata, but the new El Catey International Airport to be unveiled November 1, 2006 will soon open up a much easier access point.

The doorway of La Churcha in Samaná
The doorway of La Churcha in Samaná

This, in addition to the new resorts and hotels also opening up November 1, make Samaná an immediate destination for any traveler trying to capture the experience of a raw and less developed area of the Caribbean. The fastest growing tourism area of the Dominican Republic, the peninsula is rich in culture and sprawling, untouched white sand beaches bordered by verdant rainforests. In fact, Samaná is currently the vacation destination for locals of the Dominican Republic living in more touristy areas

Samaná City was founded in 1824 by freed American slaves who landed upon the island in two boats, which is why there are many English-speaking residents in the area. There still stands an unusual Protestant church creatively named La Churcha, which continues to hold services in English, a rare find in the Dominican Republic.

Accessible via the city is the exquisite island of Cayo Levantado, a short boat trip that will give you an unforgettable view of the coastline. Swaying palms and some of the purest beaches in the Caribbean make this a must-see, where you’ll be much more likely to encounter locals than tourists.

Also of note if you are going to be visiting in the area of Samaná are the excellent scuba diving opportunities in the crystal clear waters. With its natural beauty still intact, Samaná is one of the last destinations in the Dominican where you can entertain your fantasies of being a real-life Robinson Crusoe.

The Port of Silver

Although Puerto Plata is a much more developed area of the Dominican Republic, it still has many charms hidden within it.

The streets of Puerto Plata
The streets of Puerto Plata

Christopher Columbus was the first European explorer to sight and name Puerto Plata (“port of silver”) in 1493, but his brother Bartholomew was the first to officially found a settlement there in 1496. Interestingly, due to varying political and economic factors throughout the centuries, Puerto Plata has thrived, been abandoned as a smuggling port, been reclaimed, been burned down, and most recently was abandoned for 100 years until finally being resettled in 1960 thanks to the rising economy created through tourism

After continually growing more stable and prosperous, Puerto Plata is now home to the Gregorio Luperón International Airport, which serves the entire northern coast, also known as the “Amber Coast,” of the Dominican Republic. As a logical starting point for anyone looking to explore the northern coast, Puerto Plata has a little something for every traveler.

The Amber Museum

One almost compulsory stop in Puerto Plata is the fascinating Amber Museum near the central park and town square. With the exception of the Baltic Sea, Puerto Plata is the only documented place on earth where amber occurs naturally. In addition, the amber found in Puerto Plata is believed to be some of the highest quality amber found in the world.

The museum gives you an opportunity to view many exhibits of amber, with everything from vegetation to actual lizard fossils enclosed within the semi-precious stone that once existed simply as tree sap. You have the opportunity to purchase actual Dominican amber as you leave the museum, but keep in mind that not only at the museum, but throughout the island, you should always barter with the merchants to find a price that works for you.

Fort San Felipe and Puerto Plata harbor
Fort San Felipe and Puerto Plata harbor

Another necessary stop is Fort San Felipe, the single oldest fort in the New World. At the end of the Malecón, Puerto Plata’s beachside promenade, the fort looks out over the surrounding oceans and harbors.

Commissioned by King Felipe II of Spain and taking 33 years to complete, the fort, with its 6 ½ feet walls, was originally built to repel attacking pirates. It was later used as a prison, until first being abandoned and then ultimately restored in the early 1970’s. It now serves minimally as a museum, although the main joy of visiting is the opportunity to walk throughout the fort itself and see it as the defending Spaniards once did.

Finally, before you leave the city, make sure to get a breathtaking view of the Amber Coast via a cable car ride up to the “Pico Isabel de Torres Mountain.” Located 2,600 feet above sea level, the view from the observation tower at the top helps put all of the trivial worries of life into perspective. If you can, try to make it up to the mountain in the morning, as the afternoon can sometimes signal clouds around the mountain’s peak.

All-Inclusive Home Base

Most visitors do not stay in Puerto Plata however; they stay in its sister resort community, Playa Dorada, half a mile away. Home to over a dozen all-inclusive resorts, in addition to multiple casinos, a shopping center, and a golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones, Playa Dorada is a relaxing Neverland of endless beaches and entertainment.

In fact, it is a shame that the many all-inclusive resorts fulfill your needs so completely that the majority of tourists flying into Puerto Plata limit their exploration of the timeless Amber Coast to a simple cab ride from their airport to Playa Dorada. Still, even for those explorers looking for more than just fun in the sun, Playa Dorada is an excellent home base.

One of the premiere choices of the many resorts is the Occidental Allegro Jack Tar Village. Comprised of 73 welcoming villas along one of the best stretches of beach, it was the first resort to open in Playa Dorada and remains one of its best. Offering continual entertainment from dawn till dusk, along with all-inclusive drinks, three specialty restaurants to choose from, and some of the best service in the Caribbean, the Jack Tar will not leave you wanting.

Alternatively, the Victoria Resort offers a tranquil and slightly more subdued contrast to the rollicking party atmosphere of much of the Playa Dorada complex. While not directly on the beach, it is a short walk, or even shorter cart shuttle, to the nearest shore. Instead, you have the most direct access to the Robert Trent Jones designed golf course, ranked 53rd in the world outside of the United States.

There is also an excellent and unexpected pizza restaurant included in the hotel, which is all-inclusive along with all of the other food and alcohol available.

Of significant note when considering the Dominican Republic as your Caribbean destination is the fact that the beaches along Puerto Plata, Playa Dorada, and indeed, the entire island, have been or are currently being completely regenerated. Overall, the beach regeneration project covers over 14 kilometers of sand and has cost roughly $18 million.

This is a major step forward for Long Beach in Puerto Plata in particular, because that beach had been abandoned for over 30 years until the regeneration. What this means for travelers is plenty of clean sands and clear waters on some of the freshest beaches in the world.

Watersport Wonderland

For those looking to enjoy more of the beach than a gentle swim, Cabarete is the red-hot windsurfing place to be. A simple 30-minute drive or cab ride to the east of Playa Dorada, Cabarete offers plenty of thrills for the adventure traveler.

The most popular draw is certainly the world renowned windsurfing, which is welcome and accessible for those of all skill levels, even if you’ve never done anything of the sort in your life. There are many windsurfing and sailing schools that can provide all levels of instruction for any of the water sports you may like to try, although of particular note is the Carib Wind Bic Center, which is owned by national laser sailing champion Ari Barshi.

Towards the westernmost end of Cabarete lies Playa Encuentro, which offers excellent surfing opportunities down well-traveled sand roads and flourishing jungle terrain. As if Cabarete didn’t have enough to boast, it is also home to what the Professional Kiteboarders Riders Association president has described as the best place in the Caribbean for kite boarding.

Finally, if you ever tire of the beautiful waters, there are beautiful caves to explore in the Natural Monument Cabarete and Goleta Lagoons, also known as El Choco National Park. Surrounded by tropical rainforest, several different caves are accessible via one- to three-hour hikes. Fear not, however, you will soon be able to cool down in one of the stunning natural jacuzzis within the caves.

For other exciting inland adventures in Cabarete, be sure to look up Iguana Mama, an excellent adventure tour operator that doesn’t simply cater to the casual tourist. Offering everything from biking to hiking up and cascading down waterfalls, these adventure tours complete an amazing location that will redefine what you think of the Caribbean islands.

The Dominican Republic is crafting a well deserved new image, and with something for everyone all within an easily accessible area. This thriving tropical nation is definitely worth exploring.

Chance St. John

Chauncey (Chance) St. John is a Magna Cum Laude graduate of SUNY Albany. He freelances as a travel writer while preparing to join the Peace Corps and currently works with GE as a financial analyst and lives in Cincinnati Ohio.

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