Category Archives: Dominican Republic

Samana Humpback Whale Watching

Samana Whale Watching-1

Surprising Fact: Dominican Whale Watching Easier and Better Than Alaska.

Riding the top deck of a 45-foot whale watching boat hunting for humpback whales in the Bay of Samana, I keep comparing the Dominican Republic landscape with that of another famous whaling ground: Alaska. From a considerable distance, the Samana coastline appears heavily forested with row after row of terraced trees rising above the shoreline. To me, this unbroken canopy mimics the uninhabited, isolated regions of the far north.

Making comparisons to Alaska is inevitable since whale watching is one of the state’s best-known attractions. Yet the odds of seeing humpbacks are actually better here in the Dominican Republic. The Bay of Samana is one of the whale’s most important breeding and calving grounds, with between 2,000 and 3,000 of the giant mammals migrating here each January.

A naturalist explains over the boat’s crackling loudspeaker that the whales move south for calving season because a newborn humpback—even though it weighs close to a ton–lacks enough fat to survive in the cold waters of the North Atlantic.

The adults stay in the DR’s warm waters until the calves are fit to travel, which begins around the middle to the end of March. From Samana, the humpbacks return to their summer feeding grounds located between North America, Greenland and Iceland.
Samana is central to the whales’ reproductive cycle. Since humpbacks have a gestation period of about a year, the calves now being born in the Bay of Samana are probably the result of the previous season’s mating.

Humpback whale Samana Peninsula Dominican Republic                   Atlantic humpback whales are dark on the top, white underneath.

As the boat narrator points out, the Bay of Samana is only one area of the Dominican Republic where the humpbacks winter but it is the most accessible place for whale watching. He claims that at the moment virtually every humpback whale from the western North Atlantic—whose home waters are from 2,000 to 4,000 distant from Samana–is now lounging somewhere around the Dominican Republic.

This information deeply impresses Nina, a 10-year old Dominican girl seated next to me. Tightly hugging her most important possession, a bright pink knapsack featuring the famous blonde-haired Barbie, Nina is amazed to hear that humpbacks have traveled thousands of miles to have their babies in her homeland.

“Are the baby whales born here Dominicans, too, just like me?” she asks the boat’s narrator.

He has to think about that. “Yes, I guess you could say that,” he answers. “And that means all the humpback whales in our part of the world are Dominicans, too, since they were all born somewhere near the Dominican Republic.”

Nina smiles and hugs her Barbie knapsack tighter. For the moment, she doesn’t seem to care if she even sees a whale today.

The other 60 passengers with her do. We’re all becoming antsy. Normally, whales would be sighted by now, but we have high rolling seas, which makes spotting more difficult. More and more of us are imagining tail flukes and waterspouts in the tossing white froth.

When the first genuine whale spout finally is sighted, there’s no dramatic “Thar she blows,” just a huge collective sigh of relief.

Humpback whale pod exhale spray Samana Peninsula Dominican Republic                               Two humpback whales surface near our boat.

Humpbacks are known as the most playful of all whales, which has me hoping that at least one of the animals will breach, or jump skyward. Although it doesn’t happen this day, a succession of whales entertains us thoroughly as they roll on their sides, wave their flukes, or flip their massive tails skyward when they sound.

Several times we are almost eye to eye with a humpback whale, which is classified only as a medium-sized whale. They grow from 30 to 50 feet in length with the largest weighing as much as 29 tons, or 58,000 pounds. They are almost tiny compared to the blue whale, the largest creature on earth. The largest known blue whale was 110 feet long and weighed 209 tons, or a whopping 418,000 pounds.

But on our 45-foot boat, the humpbacks are goliath enough. As we drift within 20 to 30 yards of a large adult, I’m close enough to start counting the fleshy knobs (called tubercles) on the whale’s massive head, so big it takes up more than a third of a humpback’s body. In the clear water, I can easily distinguish the body color; black on top and white on the bottom.

We end up spending less than an hour of our three-hour trip with the whales but I am well satisfied. I’ve seen more humpbacks in Samana and gotten closer to them than I ever have on several Alaskan trips. And in Samana I do it on a bright sunny day where the wintertime temperature always hovers somewhere in the 80s. I can’t ask for more.

Well, maybe a breach or two. But I’m told later, that almost never happens with humpbacks in Samana. Perhaps because all their energy is concentrated on mating.

 Humpback whale watching boats tourists Samana Peninsula Dominican Republic                     You can choose between large and small whale watching boats.

If you go: Victoria Marine is considered one of Samana’s most reputable whale watching operators. In fact, owner Kim Beddall pioneered whale watching here in 1990. And if you don’t see whales, your next trip is free.

Victoria Marine uses the 55-foot custom whale watching vessel Pura Mia, which carries up to 65 passengers.  A marine mammal specialist narrates and answers questions on every trip.  Narration is done in English and Spanish with interpreters available on board. Dramamine tablets supplied on request. (Yes, the Bay of Samana does get rough sometimes).  Price is US$50 for an adult plus USD$3 Samana sanctuary fee; under 10 US$25.

Their trip schedule makes it obvious the best whale watching is the end of February. From January 15-February 15, tours depart once a day at 10 a.m. From February 16-March 9, the boat leaves at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.  Tours continue to run daily until March 25. The Pura Mia  leaves from the Samana town dock, with pickup for those staying at Cayo Levantado scheduled 30 minutes after the boat departs Samana city, officially known as Santa Barbara de Samana.

Virtually all the large whale watching boats depart the Samana town dock, while smaller and faster craft leave either from there or locations outside the city. A small boat may not be what you want for high seas but on calm days they could be perfect.

Samana has established strict whale watching regulations to prevent boats from crowding the animals. Like all celebrities, humpbacks prefer to be left alone.

Horseback Ride To Samana’s El Limon Waterfall

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Riders on the El Limon waterfall trail in the Sierra Samana mountain range.

Dominican Republic Arrival Has Memorable Start

When a plane lands at an airport and fire trucks quickly begin spraying water over the fuselage, that’s normally a sign of big, big trouble. But that isn’t the case when my JetBlue flight touches down at El Catey International Airport at Samana, in the Dominican Republic.

Instead, as we were advised before landing, streams of water are a traditional way to welcome an airline’s inaugural flight.  I notice they also have a practical purpose: washing off the plane’s windows for its return flight.

This arrival celebration marked the beginning of JetBlue’s direct New York-JFK service to Samana, placing this remote section of the Dominican Republic in much easier reach for visitors from the U.S Northeast and Canada. Our arrival  also made  JetBlue the leading U.S. carrier to the Dominican Republic, with regularly scheduled JetBlue flights arriving at every major destination including  Santo Domingo, Punta Cana, Puerto Plata and La Romana in addition to Samana.

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Our inaugural flight had a special greeting.      El Catey International Airport, Samana

The inaugural shower at the Samana airport is a fitting start to a trip that will include visits to some of Samana’s most popular attractions, including the 130-foot high Falls of El Limon (also known as Salto El Limón and Cascada el Limon).

While it’s possible to reach the falls on foot, it probably would be a lonely, rough and likely a muddy trek. Most people prefer to go by horse, which is an unexpected adventure in itself. In the Samana countryside near the falls are various paradas (literally means “stops”) where small ranchers organize excursions to the falls.

Our chosen ranch is Parada Basilio & Ramona’s,  located in the tiny community of Sendero el Café. We gather in their open air dining room and learn we must pick through an assortment of bike helmets and knee-high rubber boots, considered essential equipment for our ride. The bike helmets are to protect us in case we fall off a horse, an understandable precaution, especially considering the steep inclines and descents we expect to encounter.

                     El Limon-33                      El Limon-29
              Ranchers advertise with small signs.             Guide protects saddle from rain.

The boots are a surprise. Turns out our horses will be crossing several swift streams where the water could indeed come close to our knees. It’s been raining on and off so the rivers are swollen.  Good news in one sense since it ensures El Limon waterfall will be at full flow. We’re also given an option of taking a raincoat; I stuff one in my backpack for just is case.

A line of horses waits for us, each one held by a villager who not only will serve as our guide but accompany us for the entire trip. As each of us mounts up, a guide is ready to jog beside the horse and stay glued to his rider for the rest of the trip. This helps ensure there will be no horseplay here with people competing to the top. A good approach considering many of the winding trails are narrow and tight without space for two horses to pass.

And river crossings? There are two in each direction.  Considering that since the age of 12 every horse I ever have ridden wanted to take a roll in the water when I am in the saddle.
But not on this extensive river crossing trip. Having a guide leading with the reins makes these a tranquil crossing.  My horse also seems to understand the occasional urgings and encouragement.  I’m also encouraged enough to risk a camera to record the crossings.   

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    My view of my horse’s crossings.                   Guides make sure it’s a safe crossing.

The bumpy ride to the falls takes about 45 minutes. At trail’s end, we reach a large open-air bar and restaurant with almost a dozen picnic tables. The shelter is crowded with riders from other paradas, some like us ready to make the descent to the pool beneath the falls, others preparing to depart.

With new people constantly coming and going, there is no secure place to leave anything and since your guide will be at your side, don’t expect to find anyone to guard whatever you want to leave behind for your trek to the base of the falls. What you ride off with stays with you for the entire time. Travel light.

Salto El Limón are located at the top of the Sierra Samana mountain range, about a thousand feet above sea level. The waterfalls are opposite us, on the other side of the Limon River. Unfortunately, this day is overcast and a light mist (clouds?) blur their impressive display. On a clear day, just the front yard of the bar would be a great view.

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         View of El  Limon waterfall in front of the bar/restaurant where rides end.

It’s a walk of several hundred feet down to the pool at the base of the falls. The way down is on a long series of slippery wooden steps with a guard rail for support.  Considering the width at the top, the base of the waterfall is surprisingly narrow so thick plumes of water plunge down into the Limon River from the channel called Arroyo Chico. The rain has turned the river into an uninviting muddy brown, not at all appealing for swimming.

Most of our group continues on, wading the swift waters with a guide at their elbow to reach the opposite bank and make the climb to a second pool better for swimming. Others stay behind to watch two guys dancing atop big rocks being pummeled with water at the base of Arroyo Chico.

When it’s time to make the return climb from the falls, the thousand-foot altitude seems to work against flatlanders who live in low country. There’s a surprising amount of huffing and puffing, especially my own, with occasional rest stops to suck in air. Maybe it’s the steep incline but it feels like we’re higher than a mere 1,000 feet.

Back at the top we meet a large group of Europeans from the Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten. Their ship is docked in Samana Bay near the provincial capital of Santa Barbara de Samana, the Caribbean’s prime place for viewing humpback whales from mid-January to the end of March.

I finally got to know my guide a little while at the falls. He’s a 14-year old student who is out of school today thanks to a holiday. Instead of taking the day off, he’s here hoping to earn a tip, the only pay he’ll receive for his work. It’s the same situation for all the guides, though none of us knew this in advance. If we had, some of us would be better prepared because these people have worked hard. There will be a lot of furtive borrowing and lending at the end as soon as we dismount.

El Limon-30     El Limon-31
Steep stairway to the falls.                        Base of El  Limon waterfall.

Fortunately, the rains hold off until we make the shelter of the bar. Then we experience an intense but short-lived frog strangler in which the distant falls are almost blotted out. Soon it’s time to mount up and head back. The horses are motivated to return to their pasture; the trip down is 15 minutes shorter than our ascent. And the sun actually comes out briefly to show what a beautiful countryside we are riding through.

Some paradas, unlike Basilio & Ramona’s, use mules instead of horses. Considering the frequent web complaints about mules repeatedly trying to leave the trail and how much harder mules are to handle than a horse, a parada with horses seems definitely preferable.

So is one that serves food. After completing our trip of about 2.5 hours, we’re treated to a truly varied lunch: grilled chicken, spaghetti and tomato sauce, refried beans, rice and a mixed salad of lettuce, tomatoes, onions and fruit. Especially appreciated is that king of beers, Dominican-brewed Presidente.

This has been fun. Now, if that stream of water that started at the airport will just disappear for the rest of my time on the Samana Peninsula.  (It does, as the my next three Samana posts show.)

For more information about things to do in Samana, click here. For Samana cruise port information, click here.
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If You Go To El Limon
Many tourists tend to wait until the afternoon, so mornings are less crowded and avoid the hottest part of the day. Wait too late and you could be riding back in the dark, not a happy prospect.

Bring a backpack with water, a snack and sunscreen. If you plan to swim, wear your suit. For the ride, wear jeans, not shorts. Bring an extra pair of socks because the ones you wear while riding could get wet. A wide brimmed hat works well against the hot sun—and also rain.

Port of Samana, Dominican Republic

Overview Map

Samana is one of the least visited areas on the Caribbean’s most visited island.
This port deserves a lot more traffic.

An Overlooked Port of Call

Although the Dominican Republic is the most visited island in the Caribbean,  cruise ships from U.S. ports are amazingly sparse.  From what I’ve been able to determine online, only 3 cruise lines are scheduling stops at the Port of Samana in the coming year: Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Norwegian Caribbean (NCL).

Strange, considering the Port of Samana is the entryway to one of the Eastern Caribbean’s few remaining unspoiled regions. Furthermore, each winter thousands of humpback whales migrate to the Bay of Samana and provide the unusual opportunity to view these titans at unusually close distance. That’s a shore excursion not possible anywhere else in the Caribbean.  Also available here are waterfall treks, zip lining and (according to Conde Nast Traveler) one of  the world’s 10 best beaches.

The Samana Peninsula, among the few Caribbean areas offering an authentic island experience, remains largely undeveloped,  without the same-same of most other island ports. But why are there so few cruise passengers to enjoy all this?

Port Location
The Port of Samana is located on the Samana Peninsula, on the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic. In terms of size, the Samana Peninsula is larger than many other Caribbean islands. From the town of Sanchez near the start of the peninsula to the road’s end at Las Galeras is about 40 miles in length. The spit of land is about 10 miles wide at its widest point.

The Atlantic Ocean borders the peninsula’s north coast; the Bay of Samana flanks its south shore. The Port of Samana is located at the capital of Samana Province and its largest city, Santa Bárbara de Samana, often called Samana or Samana City.

Some cruise lines prefer to call this stop Cayo Levantado Port after the small island in Samana Bay (a popular day excursion) over Port of Samana. Regardless, your ship ends up at the same anchorage in the Bay of Samana.

Main Area Attractions
The Samana Peninsula is one of the least developed parts of the Dominican Republic and has terrific eco travel opportunities. Some of the beaches here are superb. Playa Rincon, for instance, was rated one of the world’s 10 best by Conde Nast Traveler. Samana City’s main attraction is a unique one: the chance to get up close to humpback whales–better than you ever will in Alaska—but in warm weather during winter months. Horseback riding, ATV rides, offshore fishing and waterfall treks are just a few of the other varied shore excursions.

Docking Facilities
The cruise ship anchors in the Bay of Samana between one and two miles from Samana City. Ship tenders shuttle passengers back and forth to the tender pier, a trip of about 10 minutes. Restroom facilities are available at the tender pier.

Local Transportation
The town of Samana is small and can easily be explored on foot. However, mini-van taxis are available near the tender pier, their rates posted in U. S. dollars. Rates are based on eight passengers and include a 2 hour waiting time at your destination. Additional time is billed at $20 per hour. Taxi drivers sometimes want to fill their cab with eight passengers before departing, which could cause delay. Rental carsalso are available.

Tourism Information
The Ministry of Tourism has representatives in the taxi dispatch and information booth outside the tender pier.

Money Matters
Local currency is the Dominican peso. Its symbol is RD$ to distinguish it from the U.S. dollar. Each peso is divided into 100 centavos (“cents”). Some small stores may provide change in pesos. Credit cards are not widely accepted. ATMs and banks are close to the cruise pier. Banks include such familiar names as Scotia Bank and Banco Popular. (See current exchange rate)

Internet Centers and WIFI
Although Samana is an out-of-the way location, free internet and wifi are available at many restaurants and other establishments all over Samana City.

Samana Cruise Ship Dominican Republic

At the Port of Samana, ships anchor off Samana City and tender
passengers ashore, a journey of about 10 minutes.

Samana City Sights

Cayo Levantado
A small offshore island about 10 minutes from the cruise pier, is a popular day excursion for swimming, snorkeling and beach BBQs. Also called Bacardi Island because of the 1970s rum campaign filmed on its beautiful beaches.

Shipwreck Museum located next to the cruise tender dock features an exhibit of artifacts recovered from shipwrecks by Deep Blue Marine, Inc., the company with the exploration and rescue concession for underwater explorations in the DR. The museum is equipped with a modernized conservation lab with a well-stocked gift shop specifically added for cruise ship passengers. The exhibitions, which do occasionally change, have included objects from Le Scipion, a French warship that fought in the American War of Independence (Revolutionary War), as well as other major historical wrecks. The museum is located next to the  cruise ship tender dock.

Shopping  Whenever a cruise ship visits, an open air market comes alive along the Malecon, the walkway semi-circling the port. Even if you aren’t planning to shop, a stroll along the Malecon has a festive air when the tents are full of jewelry, paintings and various handiworks. When cruise ships are absent, head to the Town Park off the waterfront where vendors sell arts and crafts at a bazaar-type market. Vendors take cash only. They may not have change for US$ dollars, only pesos.

Whale Museum & Nature Center
This small museum, about a mile from the cruise tender pier walking the waterfront on Av. La Marina, explains the migration pattern and life habits of the humpback whales that travel to Samana Bay each winter. A highlight of the museum is a skeleton of a 40-foot humpback. Open daily 9-2 Monday to Saturday. Admission fee about US$2; 809/538-2042

Cayacoa Beach
You have to share Samana City’s main public beach with guests staying at the Hotel Bahia Principe Cayacoa., A 20-30 minute walk from the cruise pier, you reach the hotel and beach by following the waterfront route.

Cayo Vigía
You reach this small island behind the Cayacoa hotel using a long footbridge. Cayo Vigia obviously has experienced better times but the walk is worth the view for photographing Samana City, the port, and the bay. You also can take a swim here.

La Churcha
Located a few blocks off the waterfront on Calle Duarte, this landmark church was brought from England and reassembled piece by piece in the 1820s. Originally a Methodist church, it is now home to the Evangelical Church of Samana. The Sunday services are celebrated with gospels.

Map & photos from Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism