Why you should care
Some travelers value imperfection.
Most people visiting the Dominican Republic jump straight to La Romana or Punta Cana, the Cozumel and Cancún of the DR. But if you’re not keen on all-inclusive high-rises and vacations seen from a golf cart, there’s another, delightful option. Sticking off the northeast of Hispaniola like a strange little mutant crab claw, the Samaná Peninsula offers a taste of the Caribbean as it was, pre-Señor Frog’s.
This historic locale has been the home to a long line of independent thinkers. The Caribbean’s most feared pirates tromped around on the coast. And some of the resident Dominicans descended from escaped American slaves whose boat ran aground in 1864. The peninsula is “considered the jewel in the crown of the Dominican Republic,” says Andy Brachhold, who lived there 13 years and runs a website dedicated to the peninsula. “It evokes a reverence among many Dominicans when mentioned.”
It’s easy to make friends in a place like this, and it’s easy to not leave.
Gringos love it too. Bumping down the road to one of the pincers of the crab claw, you’ll find an expat outpost called Las Galeras, squeezed between some of the most beautiful beaches in the country — including the acclaimed Playa Rincón. Many of the French and Italians who live here came to get off the grid, yet they’ve managed to put Las Galeras back on it, running a community of posadas and restaurants serving European cuisine with Dominican ingredients. Blue cheese fondue and steamed lionfish, anyone?
Nevertheless, “there’s no enclave of gringos,” says Cindy Neill, a 45-year-old Californian who came 11 years ago and never left. “The Dominicans outnumber the tourists, but we’re all here together, interacting.” It’s a sharp contrast from the sequestering that goes on in the resorts of Punta Cana.
But despite the European air, the real reason to go is much more rustic. Samaná is a place where horses roam the beaches and fish are sold out of truck beds, where dirt roads lead past fruit stands to deserted turquoise waters, where the smoke of grilled street meat billows on lazy Saturday nights. It’s easy to make friends in a place like this, and it’s easy to not leave. And that’s not even mentioning the spectacular whale watching or the diving.
However, the typical drawbacks of off-the-beaten-path tropical hideaways apply. Neill points to the increasing stink of sex tourism. And even after the four-hour bus ride across the country, “it’s still like the outback a little bit,” she says. Cellphones rarely work, and water is only “almost always” available (they used to only occasionally have water, but got a new aqueduct). She says the people who enjoy it most are those “who don’t need everything working perfectly.” For that reason, the place attracts a younger, adventurous crowd of independent travelers.
But the magic might not last forever. In 2006, an airport opened on the peninsula, followed in short order by a $150 million toll road, further linking the crab claw with the capital. So we suggest going soon, and dodging the beaten path by reverting to the bumpy local roads to get there. Few tourists see the sprawling interior of the country: the variations of green in the banana and pineapple fields, the ramshackle farming communities, the barefoot children racing the bus, the blue mist on the mountains. The real DR.