The town of Samana lies on the southern coast, east of the airport at Arroyo Barril and opening onto the scenic Bahía de Samaná. Known for its safe harbor, it was the former stamping ground of some of the Caribbean‘s most notorious pirates, including such ne’er-do-wells as England’s Joseph Bannister, whose men killed 125 British soldiers when they came to arrest him. Bannister escaped, although 40 of his pirates were killed in the melee. Samaná (more formally known as Santa Bárbara de Samaná) is the main town of the peninsula, fronting a bay of tiny islands, sometimes called Bannister Cays in honor of that notorious pirate. Columbus arrived here on January 12, 1493. After battling the Ciguayos Indians, he named the bay Golfo de las Flechas, or the Gulf of Arrows. If you stand along the water looking south, the two islets you’ll see in the bay are Cayos Linares and Vigia.
In an ill-conceived urban renewal plan under President Balaguer, much of the atmosphere of old Samaná, with its narrow streets and wrought-iron balconies, was destroyed, giving way to ugly concrete buildings and wide asphalt-paved boulevards. Most activity centers along the main road running along the bayfront, Avenida La Marina (most often called Malecón, or “sea wall”). The beaches aren’t in the town of Samaná itself, except for a stretch of sand at the foot of a steep road leading over to the not particularly inspiring sands of Bahía Escondido. To reach the best beaches, you have to go farther afield. All the beaches either west or east of the town of Samaná can be reached by guaguas (small buses or vans) that run to the sands frequently throughout the day and can be hailed along the road. A series of good sandy beaches also lies east of Samaná on the road to Las Galeras .
A more approachable beach lies 5 km east of Samaná. Playa Las Flechas is reached by going along Carretera Las Galeras. Historically, this beach was the site of the first battle between Native Americans and Europeans. Near the mouth of Bahía de Samaná, Cayo Levantado lies 7 km southeast of Samaná. Here in the midst of luxuriant tropical vegetation you will find a trio of lovely beaches of white sand. Cayo Levantado (on the picture above) was the original Bacardi Rum island photographed in a famous ad campaign that ran on TV in the ’70s. Regrettably, the famous swaying palm featured in the ad was uprooted in a tropical storm. Yet hundreds of its siblings are still here to shade you when you’re not racing across the white sands. Once at Cayo Levantado, should you tire of the beach, you can take one of the trails that crisscross the island; one leads to a promontory on the southern tier of the island, the lookout point opening onto panoramic views. Yet another trail cuts across to the western side of the island, with a beautiful beach on a secluded bay.
On the southern tier of Samaná Peninsula, this sprawling mass is the country’s second-most-visited park, covering 202 sq. km and spanning 24 km west from Boca de Inferno and Bahía de San Lorenzo to the head of Río Barracote, a river at the western end of Bahía de Samaná. The park can only be visited by boat. The park, which is actually a mammoth expanse of mangrove swamp, is home to 112 bird species, nearly 100 plant species, a huge variety of marine life, and several Taíno caves once inhabited by the island’s original settlers. The interior of the park is almost impenetrable, the home of a dense rainforest that is eerily punctuated by the ruins of sugar plantations “gone with the wind.”
The mangroves aren’t necessarily green, but red or white in color. You may very well think you’re in an aviary with flocks of roseate terns, frigate birds, ruddy ducks, snow-white egrets, narrow-billed todies, white-cheeked pintails, grebes, and the Ridgway’s hawk, along with double-breasted cormorants, coots, and the stunning blue heron. Falcons fly overhead. At least three caves contain pre-Columbian drawings. The best of these is the stunning Cueva San Gabriel because of its stalactites and stalagmites. Some of the most notorious pirates in the Caribbean were said to have hung out in these caves, including Bannister and Rackham. At the entrance to Cueva de la Línea you’ll see a long row of rocks, which are the remains of a railroad erected more than 50 years ago as part of a long-abandoned railway to ship sugar cane.