Santiago de los Cabelleros
An interesting day trip is to Moca, east of Santiago, which is a coffee and cacao centre and one of the richer regions of the country. The Iglesia Sagrada Corazón de Jesús belonging to the Silesian brothers dominates the town. There are some very impressive stained glass windows and mosaics, many donated by local families in the mid-1950s, some depicting local dignatories and priests.
The organ is on an upper level and a spiral staircase from the musicians‘ gallery leads up to the clock tower, which can be climbed. The view is well worth the recommended US$1 tip to the church official. There is also a simple village church, Iglesia de la Virgen de la Altagracia on the square in town, white inside with paintings of Jesus’ ascent to the cross. The square contains a very ancient fallen tree, fenced off, on its last legs. There is a bust of President Ramón Cáceres, 1866-1911, twice president in 1906-11. Tourist information may be found at the Town Hall at the corner of Independencia and Antonio de la Maza. It is not recommended that you stay the night, there is only one old hotel, L’Niza, on J P Duarte towards Santiago, which does not charge by the hour.
The road leading from Moca to Sabaneta on the coast is extremely beautiful, winding through lush green hills. At the crest of the hillside, about halfway between Moca and Sabaneta is a restaurant called El Caffeto, T5787058, with a magnificent view all the way down to Santiago on your right and Moca down below. Sit on the balcony if it is not too windy and have drinks or lunch (crèpes, spaghetti, meat and fish dishes up to US$10). The only drawback is that it is right above the road which can be noisy with trucks struggling up the twisty hill. A motoconcho from Moca will cost you about US$7 each way, negotiable. Make sure you arrange return transport. You can go from Moca to Sosúa by guagua, changing at the Cruce de Veragua/Sabaneta. A very recommendable trip with a magnificent view from the summit just before you cross over the mountains, of Santiago, Moca and even La Vega. The scenery is so good it is worth taking a taxi (eg US$15 to Sabaneta, rather than squashing into a guagua. Metrobus has buses Santo Domingo-Moca twice daily, via La Vega (Moca T5782541).
Outside Moca on the road towards the Autopista Duarte, lies El Higüerito where they make faceless dolls. Every shack is a doll factory and you can bargain for better prices than in Santo Domingo or Puerto Plata.
To the southwest of Santiago is the pleasant, mountain town of San José de las Matas. It has tree-lined streets, mostly modern buildings and a breezy climate. The post office is just uphill from Oasis; opposite the post office is a path to a mirador with benches. Codetel at Padre Espinosa y Félix Saychuela. Nearby are the balnearios (bathing spots) of Amina, Las Ventanas and Aguas Calientes, all about 5-6 km away. There is fishing in the Represa del Río Bao.
From Jánico, the site of Columbus’ first inland fort, Santo Tomás, can be visited, although there are no remains to be seen, just a memorial stone and a flagpole in a beautiful meadow with palms, above a little river. In Jánico seek out a motoconcho driver who knows the way and pay about US$5 for the trip, up and down steep hills, along narrow paths and river beds. There is a small sign in Jánico on the road.
To the northwest of Santiago a Highway runs through the Yaque del Norte valley to the Haitian border. One route to Haiti turns south to Mao (Hotels: F Cahoba, T5723357, also Céntrico, T5722122, San Pedro, T5723134, Marién, T5253558) and continues through Sabaneta to the border town of Dajabón. Instead of turning south to Mao, you can continue to Montecristi, a dusty little town at the western end of the republic’s north coast. You can visit the house of Máximo Gómez, the Dominican patriot who played an important role in the struggle for Cuban independence and in the Dominican Restoration. Columbus rejected his original idea to make his first settlement here and the town was in fact founded in the 16th century, rebuilt in the 17th. In the 19th century it was a major port exporting agricultural produce. The town has an interesting old clock. (B Cayo Arena, T5793145, two bedroom apartments on the beach, great place to stay). Very near Montecristi is a peak named El Morro (in the national park) which has a beach (very rocky) at the foot of its east side. There are mangroves and turtles which can be seen in the clear water. The Cayos Siete Hermanos, a sanctuary for tropical birds, with white beaches, are a good excursion. There has been some destruction of the offshore reefs.
There is also a road south from Montecristi to Dajabón (34 km), opposite the Haitian town of Ounaminthe. This border crossing is very straightforward and informal and gives easy access to Cap Haïtien and La Citadelle. Many willing guides and motoconcho drivers hang around and will take travellers between the border posts, but it is not far to walk. Caribe Tours run buses from Santo Domingo to Dajabón, several daily, via Santiago and Montecristi. If you want to join one of these buses in Santiago it may be full. Caribe Tours’ terminal in Dajabón is two blocks straight, then two blocks right to the border post. South of Dajabón is the balneario at Loma de Cabrera, recommended to visit if you are in the area. At the town of Navarrete on the Santiago-Montecristi Highway, a road branches north, bifurcating at Imbert (where there is a cheese factory and a Codetel office; Cristina Clare, Calle Ezekiel Gallardo A78, rents a hut (bohío) at the rear of her house, F, she will cook for you).
The northeast fork goes to Puerto Plata, the northwest road to the north coast at Luperón, which has fine beaches, suitable for watersports. It is also a good haven for yachts; the marina offers electricity and water connections for boats and there are several markets selling fish, meat and vegetables.
West of Luperón by a new road is La Isabela. Here, on his second voyage (1493), Columbus founded the first European town in the Americas, with the first ayuntamiento and court, and here was said the first mass. Only the layout of the town is visible. The restoration and archaeological excavation of La Isabela is being undertaken by the Dirección Nacional de Parques. There is a hotel by the ruins. To get there either take a tour from Puerto Plata, or take a carro público from Villanueva y Kundhard, Puerto Plata, to La Isabela village, US$3.50, then a motoconcho to the ruins, US$7.25 return including wait at ruins, a lovely trip. Martisant, T5857887, runs group tours for US$92.
Between La Isabela and Montecristi are the beaches of Punta Rucia at Estero Hondo. Besides the beaches there are mangroves and interesting flora and fauna. Lodging at LL Hotel Discovery Bay, T6850151, F6866741, all-inclusive, no children under 16, watersports and other activities provided.
Across the bay, is a fascinating area of mangroves, mogotes and caves, which were used by the Taínos and later by pirates. There are anthropomorphic cave drawings and other pictures, best seen with a torch, and some carvings. The park is rich in wildlife and you can see lots of birds, such as frigate birds, rey congo, ibis and pelicans. Some of the caves have bats, there are manatee in the mangroves and inland the solenodonte (Solenodon pardoxus), a mammal and insectivore found only on Hispaniola. Visits can be arranged by launch for US$45 including lunch with departures from Sánchez and Samaná; various companies organize tours to Los Haitises and to caves in the area (eg Amilka Tours, T5527664, daily from Sánchez, takes large tour parties and is the most regular but does not always have the best guides). It takes longer to get there by boat from Samaná, so it is better to start from Sánchez. Do not choose a small boat in windy weather, it will get rough and you will get wet. You may get wet anyway, it rains frequently, but some boats provide waterproof capes. The DNP, from whom permits must be obtained, also organizes tours, US$35 for 12 passengers (in Sabana de la Mar, T5567333).
There are several beautiful offshore islands. Cayo Levantado is a popular picnic place, especially at weekends when the beach is packed. The white sand beach is nice, though, and there are good views of the bay and the peninsulas on either side. There is a hotel on the island (see above); good drinks and fish lunches are for sale. Public boats go there from the dock in Samaná (US$6-8 return, buy ticket at Malecón No 3, not from the hustlers on the pier, lots of boats daily outward 0900-1100, return 1500-1700); alternatively, take a público or motoconcho 8 km out of town to Los Cacaos (US$3) to where two companies, Transportes José and Simi Báez, run boats to the island but the price is about the same (the latter company also does fishing and whale-spotting trips). Cayo Levantado is often included as a lunch and swim stop after a whale watching tour
A lovely drive is to go east of Samaná around the tip of the peninsula to Las Galeras, through beautiful scenery past lots of bays and several small beaches where you can stop and swim. Anacaona is a good beach about 8 km away, kept spotless, showers, loungers, beach bar run by Hervé. Then you pass Simi Báez (whale watching, boat trips) before you get to the Hotel Gran Bahía, approached through a tunnel/avenue of trees, most spectacular. The hotel has a lovely view of Cayo Levantado and other islets.
At the eastern end of the peninsula is Playa Galeras, 26 km (one hour, US$1.75 by guagua, from market and dock in Samaná, US$4.50 by motoconcho), worth a visit. The 1 km beach is framed by the dark rock cliffs and forested mountains of Cape Samaná and Cape Cabrón, under discussion to become a national park. The village is popular with Europeans, several of whom have set up small hotels and restaurants, but it is still unspoilt. Diving is good with several sites around the bay and the headland. There is a fair amount of weed on the beach but it is unspoilt and ‘unimproved’, with trees for shade.
Twenty minutes away by boat, or 40 minutes by jeep along a very rough track is the deserted Playa Rincón, dominated by the cliffs of 600 m high Cape Cabrón. The whole peninsula is beautiful and the diving is superb, but many beaches are accessible only by boat (and the Samaná boatmen charge the earth). Others are reached by a dirt road, negotiable by ordinary cars. Check locally before swimming at deserted beaches where there can be strong surf and an undertow. Drownings have occurred frequently near El Valle.
On the north coast of the peninsula is Las Terrenas, with some of the finest beaches in the country, from which, at low tide, you can walk out to coral reefs to see abundant sea life. The region is frequently visited by divers, drawn by its excellent reefs, sponges and underwater caves. Insect repellent is necessary at dawn and dusk to combat the sandflies. Many people go there by private plane, but it is reachable by a paved 17-km road from Sánchez which zig-zags steeply up to a height of 450 m with wonderful views before dropping down to the north coast. The road Samaná-Las Terrenas via Limón was being paved in 2000. Las Terrenas village is developing rapidly to cope with the influx of tourists: the wooden houses are being replaced by concrete ones; in high season (December-April, July-August) there is a lot of traffic noise; the beaches, except Playa Bonita, are sometimes crowded, but they are mostly clean and remain beautiful. Out of season it is very pleasant. Horseriding can be arranged through El Portillo or Tropic Banana (stables run by Luc, who is Swiss) on healthy, well-schooled animals, for beach or mountain rides.
Where the road reaches the shore, at the cemetery in Las Terrenas village, a left turn takes you along a sandy track that winds between coconut palms alongside the white sand beach for about 5 km, past many French and Italian-run guest-houses and restaurants. At the end of the beach, walk behind a rocky promontory to reach Playa Bonita, with hotels, guest houses and restaurants; there are apartments beside Hotel Atlantis. Beyond the western tip of this beach is the deserted Playa Cosón, a magnificent 6-km arc of white sand and coconut groves ending in steep wooded cliffs (1½ hour walk or US$1 on motoconcho), an Italian development is planned here. A right turn at Las Terrenas takes you along a potholed road about 4 km to the largest hotel in the area, El Portillo (see above), which looks rather out of place, being a large multistorey building. The airstrip is behind it on the other side of the road. 10 km further on is El Limón, a farming village on the road across the peninsula to Samaná. This is a very pretty route and lots of places offer horses for hire along the roadside. From El Limón you can ride or hike for an hour into the hills to a 50 m high waterfall and swim in a pool of green water at its foot. The Cascada del Limón was made a National Monument in 1996. Behind the falls is a small cave. The landscape between the village and the falls is beautiful, with many different fruits growing in the woods. If taking a guide to the falls, fix the price in advance (the falls can be deserted, do not take valuables there). In 1998 access to the falls was regulated to prevent erosion and other ecological damage; it is now prohibited to visit other than on foot or on horseback. Guides are now regulated and work on a cooperative basis. Motoconcho Las Terrenas – El Limón US$2.50, but they will try to charge US$5-10.