Samaná, Dominican Republic: The Hidden Gem
Last summer we spent a week in a beautiful town of Samaná located on the Samaná Peninsula on the northeastern shore of Dominican Republic. Compared to some of the other destinations in D.R. such as Punta Cana and Puerto Plata, Samaná remains less known and, thus, more secluded of a destination (for now at least). The most special thing about Samaná is the number of natural attractions in the region as well as the opportunities it provides for whale watching from January to March when approximately 2,500 humpback whales migrate to the bay.
When you think of traveling on a budget, all-inclusive resorts are probably not the first thing that comes to your mind. And, usually, booking an all-inclusive stay at a hotel will not be the most wallet-friendly option for your vacation. BUT it all depends on when and where you go. If you are planning on booking an all-inclusive vacation at a 5-star resort in Cancun during spring break then yes, you would most likely be able to find a cheaper way to spend your holiday. However, if you book in the low-season (i.e summer months for Central America and the Caribbean destinations) and get a great deal on your all-inclusive package, then you will actually save money (and probably get way more drunk on the unlimited drinks - which is not a bad thing!).
When we booked our Samaná vacation at the 5-star Grand Bahia Principe Cayacoa in June, we paid $850 CAD per person for an all-inclusive 7 night stay. This price included the return flight from Toronto, accommodations, and unlimited food and drinks for a week. A return flight to Samaná alone is $600-700 CAD (the cheapest I could find was $550 for a couple of departure dates in June). So, when you factor in the rest of the expenses you would have while staying at a hostel or an AirBnB plus the money spent on food and alcohol (you're on a tropical vacation after all!), an all-inclusive trip doesn't seem like that expensive of an option.
The downside of an all-inclusive vacation is that you are tied to the same hotel for the duration of your trip. For some, however, it might not be a downside at all. There's nothing wrong with taking a week to unwind to the max and spend your time lounging on the beach or by the pool with a book in one hand and a piña colada in the other. We all need this kind of vacation once in a while. But it is still possible to get some exploring done while on an all-inclusive vacation. We've done quite a few all-inclusive trips over the years and we always make it a goal to combine the best of the both worlds: take some time to relax and make time to travel around and explore the country as well.
While in Samaná, we went on a couple of organized tours that we would recommend. Usually, there are two ways to book a tour at an all-inclusive resort: through a tour operator at your hotel; or through local people on the beach. The latter option is sketchier but it will cost you less. If you book through someone selling tours on the beach, you will most likely end up on the same tour with the people who booked through their hotels anyway (and you'll feel all smug on the inside because you'll know you paid less 😉 )
Tip: When it comes to booking your trips, we would recommend you do due diligence. Don't pay in advance if booking with the people on the beach (even better if you can arrange to pay the remainder of the tour's cost upon your return to the hotel), research the company that the guy at the beach is representing online, and, if something feels off, don't do it and go with the hotel-based travel agent instead. Remember, your safety always comes first.
Our first tour was to Los Haitises National Park located across the Samaná Bay from the town of Samaná (we booked with "Raymond Tours Samana" after talking to Raymond on the beach). The park was created in 1976 and it is now a 319 square mile protected virgin forest with a limited number of tourists allowed. We got to the park by boat which we boarded at a dock in Samaná. On our way, we passed by a multitude of small lush islets literally covered in nesting pelicans.
We passed by a mangrove forest, which Los Haitises has the greatest abundance of in all of the Caribbean. I've never seen mangrove and it was unlike anything I've ever laid eyes on before so I found it quite exciting to slowly drift by this crazy-looking vegetation.
In Los Haitises, we visited two caves: Cueva de la Línea and Cueva de la Arena. Cueva de la Línea is named after an 18th century railway line that used to transport bananas and rice through this area (you can still see the remains of the old railway jutting out into the sea with pelicans neatly perched on each post). The cave is dark save for the light streaming in from an opening in the ceiling. We were provided with flashlights to roam around and explore the cavern.
The second cave, Cueva de la Arena, is a sandy cave close to the sea. Its floors are covered in pools of water from the tide crashing at its opening. There are two prominent petroglyphs at the cave's entrance dating back 1,000 years left behind by the Taíno, the park's original inhabitants. The Taíno used these caves for rituals and to protect themselves against hurricanes and other danger.
After spending some time exploring the caves we got to step back out into the Caribbean sunshine (and heat) and board the boat which was to take us to our final destination: Cayo Levantado, an islet in Samaná Bay known for its palm-lined white sand beach that looks like a real tropical paradise. We did some snorkelling right off the beach and saw some fish, although they weren't very abundant.
The second trip we did while in Samaná was to the El Limón Waterfall. We booked this trip yet again with Raymond from the beach and we ended up being the only two people going that day (which made the whole experience that much more amazing!)
The waterfall is 52 meters high, cascading down the side of a lush green cliff, with a swimming hole at its base which is VERY refreshing after a hot and humid climb (it was a bit too refreshing for me but I'm a chicken when it comes to cold water - there were a few people in the water when we arrived and they all seemed to be enjoying themselves, so don't listen to me and dive in!) I've read some negative reviews of El Limón complaining how overcrowded the place is, even in the low season. Maybe we got lucky because there were only about 7 other people there besides us. Just be mentally prepared to share the waterfall pool with a bunch of people before you go to avoid any last minute disappointment.
We got to the waterfall on horseback, climbing up the mountain for about 40 minutes. The ride itself was quite an experience as we passed by small farms with our tour guides pointing out the unique regional flora.
On the final stretch of the hike to El Limón, we passed by another waterfall the name of which we do not know but it was quite a sight amidst a rich lush rainforest.
What makes an all-inclusive vacation in Samaná unique is that you don't even need to book any tours to be able to get off the resort and explore a bit. Besides the town of Samaná, with its Whale Museum and several restaurants and bars being within walking distance from the hotel that we stayed in, there is also the "bridge to nowhere" - a series of 3 bridges connecting 2 small uninhabited islands in Samaná Bay.
The history of the bridges is open for debate but the general consensus seems to be that they were built in the mid 70's before the money ran out in 1978, at which point the construction stopped. If you walk the bridge to the second island you'll come across the ruins of what was originally planned as a fancy restaurant meant to boost tourism in the area.
The hike between the islands is easy, although very hot at times (especially along the longest of the bridges with no shade to provide any relief from the sun). We shared the islands with only two other people whom we ran into a couple of times. The rest of the time we had both islands to ourselves. Although it did feel a little creepy walking around the abandoned construction site, it was quite amazing to wade in the water of the island's tiny secluded beach while hunting for seashells and admiring the view of Samaná in the distance.
Tip: If you plan on walking the "bridge to nowhere", go in the morning or evening (when the temperature is cooler), wear sunscreen and clothing to protect yourself from the sun. Bring water. The bridge is long and there is no shade, which makes for a vey hot and sweaty hike.
When planning to travel on a budget, do not dismiss the idea of an all-inclusive vacation. Oftentimes, when planned correctly, all-inclusive trips can actually save you money, ensure you have a hassle-free and relaxing time while still providing you with an opportunity to explore and experience the country you are in. We don't go to all-inclusives often but sometimes we do treat ourselves to a week of a mostly lazy beach getaway. And you should too.