On the peninsula of Samaná is the city of the same name. Columbus arrived here on 12 January 1493, but was so fiercely repelled by the Ciguayo Indians that he called the bay the Golfo de las Flechas (the Gulf of Arrows). Samaná Bay, as it is now called, is very picturesque, fringed with coconut palms and studded with islets.
The present town of Santa Bárbara de Samaná was founded in 1756 by families expressly brought from the Canary Islands. The city, reconstructed after being devastated by fire in 1946, shows no evidence of this past, with its modern Catholic church, broad streets, new restaurants and hotels, and noisy motorcycle taxis. In contrast to the Catholic church, and overlooking it, is a more traditional Protestant church, white with red corrugated-iron roofing, nicknamed locally ‘La Churcha’. Traditional dances, such as bambulá and the chivo florete can be seen at local festivals (4 December, the patron saint’s day; 24 October, San Rafael). A causeway links three islands in the bay, which can be reached by taking the road to the Hotel Cayacoa. Steps to the bridge are found by walking through the car park and keeping the hotel on your right.
Humpback whales return to Samaná Bay every year between December and March to mate and calve. Various tours go whale-watching, certainly worthwhile if you are in the area at that time of year. This is recognized as one of the ten best places in the world to see whales and very convenient for the average tourist as they are so close to the shore. See also page 48. Tour companies and boat owners organize whale-watching trips from mid-January to mid-March, from about US$35 per person, an incredible experience. For reputable tour guides and people who care about conservation, phone Kim Beddall, T5382494, owner of Victoria II, concise, interesting, friendly tours at 0900 and 1330. She distributes an informative guide, Whales of Samaná by Ken de Pree, which explains the behaviour and life cycle of the humpbacks. There are about 40 registered boats, monitored by the DNP, who have a whale watch coordinator based at CEBSE (see below). Standards improve each year, strict regulations are in place to protect the whales and the captains hold weekly meetings. Reservations are essential with all captains as they are often booked up with bus loads of tourists brought from all over the country. In 1999, 32,000 people visited in the season.
Since March 1999, Samaná Bay has been part of a 20,000 sq km marine sanctuary. CEBSE, an NGO for the conservation of Samaná Bay, is campaigning for the bay to be made a biosphere reserve. CEBSE has built a new nature centre at Tiro Blanco, the green zone in the town of Samaná, and is involved in community projects. There is a small museum, entrance US$1, T5382042, with exhibits of the fauna, flora, history and culture of the area, including a 45 ft skeleton of a humpback whale and a dolphin. Displays are in Spanish and English and there are temporary exhibitions, for example whales in season. The museum is still in its infancy but more exhibits are planned, including Taíno objects. The NDP is also based here.
An airport for the peninsula is at Arroyo Barril (8 km from town, good road, but only 25 minutes flying time from Santo Domingo), which is being upgraded to take international traffic. Delays in construction works while the new government undertook new technical studies in 1996-97 provoked local people to form the Comité Samaná Se Cansó de Esperar (Samaná-got-tired-of-waiting-committee) to push for the recommencing of the works. The first phase was completed and opened in 1999; the second phase will allow larger aircraft to land. Many Caribbean-cruising yachts anchor at Samaná, taking advantage of the calm waters.