Los Haitises National Park: a complete ecoadventure

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Northeast of the Dominican Republic, sitting directly below the Samaná Peninsula, is a rugged karst landscape that seems like it came straight out of the Mediterranean. Thirty meter-high rock formations jut out of a vast, emerald-colored bay against a backdrop of densely forested hills. Turkey vultures circle above these giant mounds, while herons and pelicans are perched on the leafy vegetation covering their surface.

Los Haitises National Park, one of the DR’s largest protected areas, catches every visitor by surprise at first sight.

The islets of Los Haitises National Park © Lebawit Girma / Lonely Planet

Preserved since 1976, Los Haitises – which translates as “highlands” in Taíno – is home to rainforest, mangroves of varying species, over 200 species of birds (it’s a key bird-nesting site and sanctuary), multiple caves, and some of the highest numbers of Taíno petroglyphs and pictographs in the country. Manatees and dolphins also visit the park’s waters regularly. To boot, the life-sustaining role of Los Haitises National Park is as grand as its biodiversity: it’s the main water source for the eastern region of the country.

According to the Ministry of the Environment, 1.12 million travelers visited the country’s protected areas in 2016, and Los Haitises ranked among the most popular stops. Visitors are increasing from the park’s two main gateways, thanks to a new highway improving access to the park.

Exploring the park

Two coastal towns serve as gateways to Los Haitises National Park: Samaná, and Sabana de la Mar.

Samaná, located a 15 km boat ride north of the park, remains the more popular option, offering smoother road connections to the north or south of the country, a wide variety of tourist-ready amenities, and proximity to beach havens such as Las Terrenas.

The second gateway, Sabana de la Mar, is a small fishing town located south of Samaná across the bay, and directly next to the park, just nine kilometers by road from the entrance. It was once more difficult to reach this side, but access has now improved thanks to a completed Sabana-Miches Highway 104 connecting Sabana de la Mar directly to the east coast, all the way to Punta Cana.

Pelicans and terns rest on remains of the old railroad © Reinhard Dirscherl / ullstein bild / Getty Images

By boat from Samaná or Sabana de la Mar, the splendor of the park is undeniable. The park stretches along the tranquil Bahía de San Lorenzo – gigantic rock formations soar out of the water against a backdrop of steep limestone hills and sweeping rainforests. These 40-meters tall rock mounds, tinted rusty by a red iron mineral, are covered in vegetation, while birds circle above, dominating the surreal landscape. As you glide along the narrow passages between the rocks, you’ll spy resident birds such as swallows, pelicans, and grey herons perched among the foliage. In the morning hours, normally around 11am, dolphins are often spotted in the bay.

The two most popular cave stops on a boat excursion of Los Haitises have distinct characteristics. The Taíno were known to use caves for rituals, and to protect themselves against hurricanes or other imminent danger; the chambers reveal pictographs and petroglyphs that are thousands of years old. Each cave is easily accessed via footbridges and clear pathways.

The first, Cueva de la Línea, is also known as Cueva del Ferrocaril, or the railway cave; it was named after an 18th century railway line that used to transport bananas and rice through this area. The cave is a short hike from the water and sits in darkness, save for a large opening in the ceiling filling the cavern with natural light. The first wide section is full of pictographs scrawled across its numerous walls. These drawings reveal human, supernatural and animal forms, including the figure of a shaman, Boiyanel (the god of rain), a heron, a shark, and a humpback whale – frequent visitor to the Samaná region from January to March – among others.

The pools of sea water in the Cueva de la Arena © Lebawit Girma / Lonely Planet

At Cueva de la Arena, or the sandy cave, the chambers begin at the edge of the sea, just past a small beach. The tide crashes in at the cave’s entrance and water forms small pools across its floor, where you’ll occasionally spot a blue crab feeding. At the entrance are two visible petroglyphs dating back over 1,000 years: an owl with a slowly deteriorating nose and a face of an individual with a thick mustache, all left behind by the park’s original inhabitants. Inside the cave, hundreds of bats sleep in a non-accessible chamber while swallows rest in pairs against the cave ceiling.

On foot, the rainforests of Los Haitises are equally impressive in size, and in diversity of fauna and flora. You will likely spot the cigua palmera, the national bird of the Dominican Republic, the “Madam Sagá” or the village weaver, cattle egrets, and woodpeckers. Numerous species of fruit and medicinal trees also appear within minutes of hiking, including cupey, cacao, coffee, calabash, star apple and guava trees.

Getting to Los Haitises

By Boat

From Samaná, Moto Marina offers half-day catamaran or speedboat excursions along the park’s protected bay, allowing opportunities to examine the rock formations, explore the area’s mangrove channels, and visit the two Taíno caves. There’s also an option to include lunch and a swim on Cayo Levantado island; departures leave from their private pier along Samaná’s Bay. Tour Samana with Terry offers similar excursions, with pick-ups from anywhere on the Samaná Peninsula for an additional fee. From Las Terrenas, Flora Tours offers small-sized speedboat tours to get closer to the mangroves, and rock formations.

Visitors can explore the park on foot or by boat © Lebawit Girma / Lonely Planet

Boat excursions from Sabana de la Mar depart from the Caño Hondo pier, a 20-minute ride west from town. Daily guided tours are available through the adjacent Altos de Caño Hondo Lodge, departing at 10am.

Hiking

It’s also possible to explore a portion of the park on foot from the southern gateway of Sabana de la Mar. The hike begins adjacent to the entrance of Paraíso Caño Hondo Lodge complex, veering right. Bringing a licensed tour guide is mandatory, so you should arrive with your own or inquire at the lodge.

Kayaking

Kayaking along Los Haitises’ beautiful mangrove channels is an immersive way to enjoy its diverse flora and fauna. Whale Samaná offers kayak excursions during the summer months, and the Caño Hondo lodges offer them year-round.

Whether you decide to explore the park from Samaná or from Sabana de la Mar, by boat or on foot, book tours in advance to ensure availability and space.

Where to Stay

Choosing the right place to stay while visiting Los Haitises makes for a more complete eco-escape. Just a 20-minute ride up into the lush hills of Samaná, Dominican Tree House Village is an adventure in and of itself, with wooden cabins perched amid the canopy and suspended footbridges connecting to the communal dining room. Head to the nearby Playa del Valle for a dose of Vitamin D, find the swimming pool to cool off, or hit the zipline for a dose of adrenaline.

A view of the park from Altos de Caño Hondo © Lebawit Girma / Lonely Planet

In Las Terrenas, the intimate Hotel Atlantis offers a secluded beachside experience facing Playa Bonita. Rent paddleboards, sign up for a surfing class with neighboring Carolina Surf School, or just enjoy a meal at the on site French Creole restaurant run by Chef Gérard Prystasz, former chef of French president François Mitterrand.

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