With its cerulean surf and endless sunshine, the Dominican Republic is especially popular among vacationers seeking the promise of a carefree, all-inclusive escape. But outside the resorts lie an impressive array of underappreciated areas, offering travelers unforgettable adventure and Instagram-worthy sights.
Explore Los Haitises National Park
Half archaeological site, half Edenic landscape, this protected area on the northeastern coast showcases pockmarked limestone cliffs, twisted mangroves, and a vast system of sinkholes and caverns.
Approaching the park by boat, you’ll pass islets where birds boisterously stake out the nests tucked into trees and craggy alcoves. Frigates are among the most eye-catching. You don’t need to be a birder to be entranced by males puffing up their melon-sized crimson throats to court the drab, black and white females.
Venture into the park’s dark caves to be awed by the country’s largest collections of petroglyphs, created by the indigenous Taíno people. The pre-Columbian drawings of birds, whales, and gods evoke the nation’s history in a way no language could.
Soar in a Hot-Air Balloon
Boating is one of the Dominican Republic’s most popular activities, but why not trade in turquoise waters for the wild blue yonder? In Punta Cana, you can sail the skies in the Caribbean’s only licensed hot-air balloon ride.
Balloon operator Luis Leonardo regales guests with fascinating stories in the air, then dazzles them with a magic show during a champagne breakfast on the ground.
To catch the sunrise, you’ll have to get up at 4:30 a.m. It’s worth it to float above sugarcane fields as the sun emerges from the ocean for an unforgettable—if at times heart-stopping—experience.
Snorkel a Hidden Beach
Why leave your hotel’s beach, with its easy access to fruity cocktails and fresh towels, in search of a less convenient seaside? You’ll find the answer at Playa Fronton.
Only accessible by boat or arduous hike, Fronton is a testament to the DR’s varied landscape. The narrow, palm tree-peppered sands abut a towering cliff, drawing as many climbers as beachgoers to the remote playa.
Fronton is also a prime snorkeling spot. Don’t be waylaid by the smattering of coral near the shore: The more active reefs are farther north, where the cliff falls into the sea. There, among delicate seagrass and colorful fish, you’ll find an amazing collection of red, black, and purple sea urchins. (Just be sure to wear water shoes.)
Ride Horseback to El Limón Waterfall
Tear yourself away from the coast for an inland trek to El Limón, a waterfall in the Samaná Peninsula. To reach the secluded site, you’ll ride horseback through pristine tropical landscapes as your guide points out lizards, flowering paradise trees, and lightning-quick hummingbirds.
Muffled by dense foliage, El Limón likes to make an entrance: As you reach the crest of yet another hill, it suddenly appears, as if the forest pulled back the curtains on a theater. After picking your own way down rocky steps and through a creek, reward yourself with a dip in the swimming hole beneath the falls.
Take in the Town of Samaná
Despite the peninsula’s growing popularity, Samaná itself has managed to elude the spotlight. The town sees most of its visitors from January to March when the humpback whales are migrating. But during the rest of the year, this seemingly sleepy port town is a wonderful place to join Dominicans’ daily lives.
Resurrected from pieces shipped to the island from England in the late 1800s, the unassuming Domincan Evangelical Church became a place of worship for freed slaves and their descendants. On the west side of town, the animated Mercado Samaná, rarely frequented by tourists, offers regional produce and spices while children play tag and men play dominoes.
At night, Samaná puts on its dancing shoes. Seemingly dead in daylight, bars and clubs suddenly pulse with life as residents come out to dance the merengue.