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The palm-studded white sand beaches of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, are a vacationer’s dream. But there’s much more to this tropical playground.
By Lebawit Lily Girma
Photography by Anthony Giacomino
On my first day in Punta Cana, I checked into my deluxe suite at the Barceló Bávaro Palace Deluxe and rushed to the beach. My gaze fixated on powdery white sands as far as the eye can see and coconut trees too tall for my camera frame. I got what all the fuss was about. The surprise? Discovering a side of this resort region that I didn’t expect: nature reserves hiding Taíno caves and sinkholes, a lush countryside with cacao and horse farms, colorful local beaches, award-winning restaurants and an exhilarating nightlife. It’s the Dominican Republic you might otherwise miss.
A NEW WORLD
CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS FIRST set foot in Dominican Republic in 1492, so it may come as a surprise that Punta Cana has only been around for 44 years. In 1971, tourism mogul Frank Ranieri purchased a large swatch of land in the area, with plans of opening the Punta Cana Club hotel. Nautical charts indicated that his land was located in Punta Borrachón (or Drunken Point). As a more suitable and marketable name, Ranieri decided on Punta Cana in honor of the “cana palma,” an endemic palm tree abundant on his property.
Today, Punta Cana is synonymous with Dominican Republic, if not the Caribbean. Thirty miles of near-continuous white sand beaches, flanked by towering coconut trees and all-inclusive hotels, make it the quintessential island escape. Among the region’s top destinations, it’s easily accessible thanks to nonstop charter flights from major US cities, including Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and St. Louis. The newly-expanded Punta Cana Airport is the second largest in the Caribbean, receiving over 2 million passengers a year.
FOR TRAVELERS WHO who want to wander beyond the beaches, there are more protected parks and caves along the eastern coast of Dominican Republic than in any other part of the country. Don’t miss Scape Park at the southern tip of Punta Cana. Its 247-acre forest is home to ancient caves once used by the Taíno—Dominican Republic’s first inhabitants—and now open to the public for swimming or spelunking. The “cenotes,” or sinkholes, are the highlight here.
“We believe it’s the God of fertility,” says Omar Rodriguez, in charge of marketing for Scape Park, explaining an original pictograph found on the limestone wall inside the newly-opened Cenote Indígena Las Ondas. An outdoor Taíno exhibit keeps hikers informed along the trail leading to the mouth of the cave, where a steep wooden staircase takes visitors into an underground, water-filled chamber once used for Taíno rituals.
Arguably one of the most beautiful places in Scape Park—and all of Punta Cana—is the open-air Hoyo Azul, or blue hole, at the foot of a 246-foot limestone cliff. The only thing standing between you and this freshwater haven are a suspension bridge, a medicinal plant trail and an orchid garden.
Funjet Vacations Senior Vice President Jorn Kaae says Scape Park was one of the highlights of his recent trip to Punta Cana. “My daughter and I especially loved the cenotes—their breathtaking beauty was unlike anything we had ever seen before,” says Kaae.
More lovely lagoons can be found at the 1,500-acre private Indigenous Eyes Ecological Reserve. “Anyone can come and visit the reserve for a fee, but it’s free for our guests,” says Giselle Gonzalvo, public relations supervisor at the Westin Puntacana, as we hike through the lush subtropical forest. “And the amazing thing is the beach is right on the other side of the park,” she adds.
The reserve’s network of trails leads to 12 freshwater lagoons fed by an underground river. The Taíno believed these lagoons resembled eyes because of their oval shape, hence the park’s name. One of the most beautiful of these, also called Ojos Indígenas, is a jade and turquoise color and can be reached after a 20-minute hike.
If you can pull yourself away from this paradise pool, head across the street from the reserve to visit Puntacana Ecological Foundation, an award-winning nonprofit working to mitigate the effect of development in the Punta Cana region. Walk around the organic garden, which area restaurants use to source their produce. Better yet, donate some of your vacation time to the foundation, and help preserve Punta Cana’s natural sights and resources.
“The Foundation offers a range of volunteer positions that support our mission to protect and restore the natural resources of the Punta Cana region and to contribute to the sustainable development of Dominican Republic,” says Victor Galvan, ecological research coordinator. “We have a growing database of interested volunteers, who are thoughtfully paired with tasks that fit with their interests and talents.”
IN THE CAMPO
PUNTA CANA’S NATURE parks and reserves are a breath of fresh air, but the Dominican “campo,” or countryside, is a rugged reflection of the island’s landscape. And it’s just a 30-minute drive out from the resort town. The Runners Adventures Caribbean Safari VIP excursion offers a great glimpse, taking you on bumpy roads and muddy paths in safari style off-road trucks.
In the small town of La Otra Banda, you’ll spot canvas bags filled with spices and herbs, meat hanging from ceilings and fruit spilling out of crates. The locals are friendly and always willing to stop for a chat or recommend things to do or eat nearby. Afterwards, you’ll stop at a public school and then sample strong Dominican coffee and hot cocoa at Maria’s House. Maria graciously opens her bright pink home in the hills to visitors during the day, so they can see how she and her family make chocolate and roast coffee as their livelihood.
Past the small towns, the vistas turn into broad swaths of pastureland, dotted with grazing cows and horses, and sugar cane fields stretching into the horizon. A unique exploration of the island’s largest sugar cane fields follows, and you can even pick a stem and taste its sweetness. The day ends at the Cigar Museum, where you’ll learn to roll a “habano” for yourself.
A SAFARI EXCURSION is not the only way to get down with the locals. The Bávaro area, stretching north of the Punta Cana Airport, is home to two small beach communities—Los Corales and Cortecito—which are ideal for experiencing the local culture and getting lost in the crowd.
Start on Playa Los Corales, with its wide-open white stretch, dotted with fishing canoes and tourists parasailing above the coast. Stop in at Huracán Cafe, a white-washed beachfront lounge with sun beds and a dreamy second-story sea view, and sip on a Cuba Libre while the DJ spins.
Continue walking west and you’ll end up on Playa Cortecito, with more foot traffic, arts and crafts shacks, mobile vendors and glass bottom boats swaying in the water. There’s a distinct beach town hustle and bustle here, and that’s part of the Dominican charm. Enjoy a seafood lunch at Capitán Cook’s–easily spotted thanks to a fishnet hanging over the entrance–popular with locals for its sea-to-table meals. Pick your seat and select your lunch from a wooden trunk stuffed with fresh catch of the day, from snapper to Mahi Mahi. Grab a cold Presidente while your meal is prepared, and watch the world go by, toes in the sand.
AFTER YOU’VE FELT Bávaro’s local pulse, it’s time to take it up a notch. Because you can’t leave Dominican Republic without experiencing its award-winning restaurants and exhilarating nightclubs.
Designed by Oscar de la Renta, the romantic open-air setting of the AAA Three Diamond-rated La Yola—on a white draped bamboo deck perched over Punta Cana Marina—is only surpassed by its Mediterranean menu with a Dominican twist. Try the sautéed shrimp in a coconut sauce with “moro de guandules,” or the baked eggplant layered with sweet plantain and mozzarella cheese. Pick a table with an ocean view and look at the turquoise sea while a trio of Dominican musicians serenades you.
Over in Bávaro, the culinary influence of foreign expats is evident. Vegans and omnivores alike will delight in the new AmaLuna, set outdoors on a residential street and offering a five-course organic menu with Japanese, Indian, Italian and Spanish cuisine options. Just a few minutes away, the poolside terrace of Balicana Restaurant serves up a taste of Thai in the Caribbean, with plates of spicy green seafood curry and ginger teriyaki fish.
After all that food, there’s one thing left to do until dawn in Dominican Republic. A short jaunt into Bávaro town will land you on a strip where merengue and bachata echo out of bars and dance clubs. The most popular spot is Drink Point, an open-air lounge set across a Texaco gas station, with a thirty-something crowd spilling out onto the sidewalk terrace.
The ultimate in disco fever is the new Coco Bongo, set in Downtown Punta Cana. “It’s a fun late night dance party, until the early morning hours,” says Sara Schuldt from Funjet Vacations. “You can see impersonators, from Beyoncé to Spiderman.” From the visual effects to performers flying across the room, it’s a night you won’t experience anywhere else in Dominican Republic.
SEA AND SAND
LET’S FACE IT, beach combing sugar white sands and getting that perfect tan are bona fide pursuits in these parts. But not all beaches are created equal, even in Punta Cana. Prepare to gasp as you turn the hill on approach to the public, northern Playa Macao. The initial view of an iridescent blue Atlantic Ocean, velvet sand and towering coconut trees is breathtaking. There are no resorts or concrete structures on the beach and that’s what makes it stunning. This is the perfect spot for a Dominican lunch of whole fried fish, “tostones” and avocado.
On the southern tip of Punta Cana, Playa Juanillo shimmers against a phosphorescent blue sea. It’s worth a stop for a cocktail or a fresh coconut. Playa Blanca’s smaller size and ideal location for wind and water sports make it a popular escape for the day. For lunch, try the casual Playa Blanca Restaurant. Opt for a bowl of shrimp ceviche, yucca empanadas, or a plate of spicy goat stew with coconut rice, all washed down with the best margarita in town. ■