Eco-adventures in the Dominican Republic

(CNN) — Tucked away on the northeastern tip of the Dominican Republic, stretched out into the Atlantic, the Samaná Peninsula enjoys a splendid isolation from the rest of the country.

This corner of the DR has long been synonymous with long, uncrowded, white-sand beaches flanked by mountains, craggy limestone cliffs with panoramic views and rolling hills blanketed in coconut trees. You could stand anywhere on the Samaná Peninsula, throw a stick, and it would likely hit a tree, sand or water.

Those who travel here often come in search of one of the most secluded and stunning beaches in the Dominican Republic: Playa Rincón, a dreamy three-mile long, undeveloped stretch on the peninsula’s easternmost tip.

But beyond this famous beach, the peninsula’s laid-back seaside towns and its rugged tropical landscape — a popular backdrop for feature films and series — make it a destination ripe for outdoor adventures on or off the water.

You can watch humpback whales in the Bay of Samaná (in season through March), hike the Taino cave-riddled forests of Los Haitises National Park and ride the Atlantic waves in Las Terrenas.

Whale watching in Samaná Bay

From mid-January through March, humpback whales feed, mate and birth off the Samaná Peninsula.

From mid-January through March, humpback whales feed, mate and birth off the Samaná Peninsula.

Nick Argires/Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism

Thousands of humpback whales flock to Samaná every year to bask in the warm Atlantic waters that surround the peninsula. From mid-January through March, they feed, mate and birth in the area’s three major breeding grounds: Silver Bank, Navidad Bank and the Bay of Samaná.

Together, they make up the Sanctuary for Marine Mammals of the Dominican Republic, established in 1996 and the first of its kind in the Caribbean.

The closest area to explore is the Bay of Samaná, facing the peninsula’s south shore, with near-daily whale-watching boat excursions departing in-season from the bay front town of Santa Barbara de Samaná.

With hundreds of whales swimming in the bay at any one time, you’re guaranteed sightings of the giant mammals flippering, tail lobbing, breaching, courting with songs that echo off the waters and rearing their calves in these nutrient-rich waters. You can also spot them swimming in the distance from various towns along the peninsula’s coastline, including Punta Balandra, Las Terrenas and Las Galeras.

Horseback riding to El Limón waterfall

A bustling, small town north of the peninsula, Limón is home to one of the tallest waterfalls in the DR. The eponymous El Limón tumbles 130 feet from the peak of the Sierra de Samaná into a deep emerald pool flanked by a thick forest.

The adventure begins at one of multiple ranches in town. You’ll make your way on horseback down a rocky and at times muddy, wild trail through the forest, before eventually hopping off and reaching a series of steps leading toward the giant cascade.

Opt to hike instead of horseback riding, and you’ll get a closer look at the flora and fauna in these parts, where native species grow abundantly, including orchids, royal palms, pineapple and mango trees.

Birders will spot the national palmchat, the Black-crowned palm tanager, and the Hispaniolan woodpecker, among hundreds of species. Excursions to El Limón are offered from all around the peninsula.

Exploring Los Haitises National Park

Los Haitises National Park is an important bird-nesting site and a principal water source for the eastern coast.

Los Haitises National Park is an important bird-nesting site and a principal water source for the eastern coast.

Nick Argires/Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism

From the Bay of Samaná, a nine-mile boat ride south takes you into Los Haitises National Park — one of the largest protected areas in the Dominican Republic. It’s an important bird-nesting sanctuary and a principal water source for the eastern coast.

Its unusual landscape alone is worth a glimpse: rock mounds 30 meters high (almost 100 feet) punctuate the water. They are partly covered in vegetation and bird colonies, including vultures, pelicans and herons. On land, the park encompasses thick mangrove channels and rainforests flanked by limestone hills.

Boat excursions will make stops along the way to hike the trails leading toward a couple of Taino Indian caves. These chambers house some of the largest numbers of Taino petroglyphs and pictographs found in the country. Sketches of whales, gods, shamans and human forms cover the walls, offering a tiny window into the DR’s first inhabitants.

Boat tours to Los Haitises are available nearly daily from the town of Samaná, with outfitters picking up guests from around the peninsula.

Riding the waves in Las Terrenas

An hour east of Playa Rincón, steady, sweeping trade winds grace the beach town of Las Terrenas and have turned it into an increasingly popular coastline for wind water sports.

From December through September, surfers and kite surfers are seen flipping and gliding off the area’s coveted beaches.

Carolina Surf School, run by a former Dominican professional kite surfer, is based on Playa Bonita, and offers lessons year-round. The hub for kite-surfing schools is Playa Punta Popy, where a handful of beginners can be seen braving the turquoise sea throughout the day. Watch or join in, before relaxing at one of the bars across the beach, just in time for sunset.

Beach hopping — by boat

A handful of additional secluded beaches of varying size dot the Atlantic coastline west of Playa Rincón, several of which served as filming locations for international versions of the TV series “Survivor.”

Sitting at the foot of gigantic cliffs made of dark metamorphic rock, Playa Frontón is the most picturesque, boasting iridescent turquoise waters filled with corals and a fine white sand beach bordered by caves.

Playa Madama’s romantic white sand cove sits just a mile away. Excursions to these beaches depart from Las Galeras for a daylong boat-hopping adventure.

Lebawit Lily Girma is a freelance writer and photographer who has contributed to publications such as AFAR, BBC, Delta Sky, MorningCalm, New York Magazine, Moon Guides and many others. Follow her Caribbean-based adventures on Instagram @sunandstilettos.

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