Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic’s most popular tourist destination, offers sun, sea and sand in abundance—and is home to a wide range of tropical flora and fauna from endangered iguanas to marine turtles and even manatees.
As the first rays of sunlight spill over the ocean and trickle through the shutters of my oceanside bungalow, I awaken to the sound of the lapping ocean. Barefoot, I wrap myself in a robe and step onto the terrace, gently closing the door behind me. As I take a deep breath of salty sea air, a soft breeze whips through my hair. Crystal-clear blue stretches into the distance, brushing up against an endless expanse of snow-white sand, dotted with coco palms. It’s my first morning in Punta Cana, the Coconut Coast. Having lived for seven years at Casa de Campo, La Romana, a short 40-minute drive from Punta Cana, it’s a treat to visit the area as a tourist, with a clean lens, lots of sunscreen and a brand new wide-brimmed hat.
Punta Cana is the Dominican Republic’s most popular tourist destination, a paradise where sun, sea and sand are found in abundance. On the eastern tip of the country, the Punta Cana region encompasses Cap Cana, Cabeza de Toro, Bávaro, El Cortecito, Arena Gorda, Macao and Uvero Alto. Collectively, these towns span more than 60 miles of coastline which curves elegantly from north to south; transitioning from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. Beyond the waves, the sand and the coconut groves, more than 42,000 hotel rooms cluster—spread between all-inclusive resorts, small boutiques and high-end hotels. Here, a thriving tourism industry fuels the entire region, attracting visitors from across the world with the promise of sun-kissed days and Dominican warmth and hospitality.
The Punta Cana International Airport welcomes more than six million passengers every year, making it the largest airport in the Caribbean. With amenities and services to rival some of the best airports in the world—including a pool overlooking the runway that’s part of the VIP lounge—the Punta Cana airport doesn’t forsake its Dominican roots. The main terminal building features a roof fashioned entirely out of dry palm leaves, designed to resemble a Dominican “bohío”, the word Taínos used to mean “living place.” It’s here, with the Taíno people, living peacefully in these simple palm-thatched huts, that many Dominican traditions originate. Following the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, which led to the eventual extinction of the island’s indigenous population, as well as subsequent colonizations from Spain and France, the people of the Dominican Republic celebrate a unique culture, a colorful blend of their African, European and Taíno ancestry.
I start my day in the shade of a “bohío” at the edge of the pool. I eat “mangú”—a traditional Dominican breakfast dish made of puréed green plantains, topped with red onions simmered in a vinegar sauce—served with fried eggs, fried cheese and fried salami. A waiter wheels a cart filled with coconuts nestled in ice over to my table; with a flick of his wrist he effortlessly slices the top off one and hands it over with a straw. While I fill my Dominican days alternating between rest and relaxation and excitement and exploration—swimming with dolphins, parasailing, boat trips, watersports, ziplining and golf—this becomes my morning ritual. On the morning following a lively night out at Coco Bongo Punta Cana, the region’s hottest night spot that features live entertainment in a nightclub setting, I linger a little longer and recover with a large mug of strong Dominican coffee.
The highlight of my trip is a catamaran ride to Saona Island, part of the Parque Nacional Cotubanamá. This national park, named in honor of a revered Taíno warrior, is home to abundant flora and fauna, including more than 112 bird species, marine manatees, bottlenose dolphins, nurse sharks, turtles—Hawksbill, Green and Leatherback—and a diverse population of Caribbean fish that inhabit the coral reefs along the coastline. It’s considered one of the most important archaeological areas in the entire Caribbean, with at least 23 caves containing several hundred pictographs created by the Taínos. I explored this area on foot many times during my years living on the island, on one instance as part of a bird-watching tour. While less of a draw than its beaches, the island is a popular birding destination. Hispaniola, the island the Dominican Republic shares with Haiti, is home to more than 300 different bird species, of which 32 are endemic. For comparison, the United States has 44 endemic birds; 29 which can only be found in Hawaii.
This time, however, I set sail in search of pristine sandy beaches: it’s what the Parque Nacional Cotubanamá is most famous for and what makes Saona one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.
Our first stop is Palmilla, a natural swimming pool characterized by waist-deep water. Along the shoreline, an undeveloped white-sand beach is lined with palm trees. We jump directly off the boat into refreshing water. At our feet, hundreds of cushion starfish drift in the sand and the occasional colored fish zips by. It’s only mid-morning, but we share a “brindis”, a toast, of Dominican rum with our sailing companions.
When we dock at Saona Island, a “yola”, a small wooden speed boat, ferries us to the shore, where we join the sun loungers dotted across the sand. While we relax, we sip tropical rum cocktails and snack on fresh fruit.
Lunch is served on wooden picnic benches clustered in the shade of a coconut grove. More rum cocktails are served alongside “pescado frito”—fresh fish rubbed with salt and pepper, coated in flour and deep-fried until crispy—and grilled lobster.
With plenty of time left before our departure and having had our fill of rum, lobster and sunbathing, we decide to explore. A short stroll along the sand, water lapping at our ankles, we find Mano Juan, Saona’s only settlement, where approximately 500 inhabitants live off fishing and tourism. Brightly colored “casas tipícas”, simple wooden houses, line the sandy main street, where we are greeted with characteristic Dominican hospitality and the opportunity to buy Dominican arts and crafts. We also stumble upon a primitive turtle sanctuary run by a fisherman named Negro, who once earned a living by illegally hunting turtles to sell their meat, eggs and shells but who now protects them.
At sunset, our day comes to an end with an impromptu merengue lesson on the deck of the catamaran.
Another day, and in need of a break from the beautiful monotony of pool, beach and bar, provided within the idyllic enclave of our hotel, we decide to visit the Parque Ecológico Ojos Indígenas, located inside the exclusive Puntacana Resort & Club complex. We spend an exhilarating morning strolling along a hiking trail that winds through the lush tropical forest, linking a series of 12 freshwater lagoons, known locally as “ojos indígenas”. The water, as clear as glass, and much cooler than the warm Caribbean Sea, provides a refreshing respite from the heat of the Dominican sun.
After lunch, we decide to stay for a round of golf. As one of the Caribbean’s top golfing destinations—there are 12 courses in the Punta Cana region alone—we’re not about to miss the opportunity to tee-off oceanside. We choose Corales, designed by famed golf course architect Tom Fazio, which is set between rocky cliffs, coral reefs and the expansive Caribbean Sea, boasting six oceanfront holes. We lose a lot of balls, distracted in equal measure by the wild beauty of the coastline and the multi-million-dollar villas that line the greens, many designed by Oscar de la Renta, the Dominican Republic’s most famous fashion designer.
The Basílica de Higüey, a cathedral which honors the Dominican Republic patron saint, Our Lady of Altagracia, is also an easy day trip from Punta Cana, and is actually included as a stop on many package tours. Another one of our favorite nearby destinations is Macao, an uninhabited beach with little more than a surf shack and a few very primitive beach restaurants serving fried fish, “tostones”, twice-fried plantain slices, and chilled Presidente beers. For those looking to venture off the beaten track, Macao is the place to do it.
While I’m admittedly a bit of a pessimist when it comes to souvenirs, as we wait to board our flight back to Dallas-Fort Worth, I seek out a gift store and purchase a selection of Muñecas Limé. Easily overlooked in favor of mass-produced cacao nibs, these faceless clay figurines are considered a true symbol of the Dominican Republic, a reflection of the Dominicans’ mixture of African, European and indigenous identities, races and cultures. In Plano, I keep my collection of Muñecas Limé on my mantelpiece, a beautiful reminder of my time spent in a tropical island paradise.
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