I am living in paradise.
Samaná is a stunning peninsula on the north east coast of the island, a region that I cannot believe I knew nothing about just a few weeks ago.
On our bus ride across the island I couldn’t help staring out the window to see the amazing foliage. As we got closer to the peninsula we drove on a long twisty-turny highway that weaved in and out of the mountains and overlooked miles of virgin beaches lined with palm trees. I still have trouble believing I was not in a dream.
We stopped along the way to check out a cave that abutted the highway. The view of the ocean and the mountainside was breath taking! We all filed into the cave and learned about the geographic history of the island. Little did I know what the entire island of Hispaniola was once a giant coral reef. Through the movement of tectonic plates the reefs raised above sea level, creating the island and along with it a hilly terrain. Although these old coral reefs are not affected by salt water, rain water often erodes them and therefore creates phenomenal caves where the weaker parts of the coral once existed.
We arrived at our beautiful hotel in Las Terrenas that was steps away from the ocean. We unpacked our things in adorable decorated apartments and made our way back to the bus for another adventure.
Before I knew it we were embarking on a hike to Salto Limón. Leading the way was fabulous guide who taught us so much about the flora and fauna in this region. We saw plants that would shrink when touched by humans, hundreds of fruit trees, fossils, and the nests of Cigua Palmeras (the national bird) high up in the tops of palm trees. I even learned about the different medicinal properties some leaves and flowers have.
Parts of the hike made me feel as if I were in a Dr. Suess book. Palm trees lined the trail and speckled the hillside and only a couple brightly painted houses populated the area.
After our short hike we arrived at the top of a beautiful waterfall! I have never seen something so lush and spectacular. We scrambled down steep steps to get to the bottom of the waterfall. The moss that clung to the rock was luminescent. The cascading water formed a deep pool at the bottom that I was swimming in in no time!
There were small crevices and caves to discover and the water was so refreshing! I could not fathom the beauty that surrounded me.
That night we had a delicious dinner on the beach as the sun set. Paradise.
Saturday we had the opportunity to explore Parque National Los Haitíses. During our bus ride to the dock I got to learn about the fascinating history of Samaná. This region of the Dominican Republic is well known for all the influences that blend to create a unique regional culture. Samaná has a strong French, Haitian, English, and Dominican influence. During the Haitian “occupation” of the Dominican Republic, many slaves that had escaped the U.S. through the Underground Railroad were welcomed by boat as they sailed from Philadelphia in the 1800s. The mix of cultures is evident in the unique architecture as well. On route we got to see some of the most spectacular views in the country as we looked from high up into the mountains down to the palm tree filled shoreline.
During our boat ride to Los Haitises we learned so much about the humpback whale. The bay of Samaná is where humpback whales mate. The whales make their journey from all the way up near Canada and New England to the bay to mate and to give birth to their young. During mating season (January through March) there are hundreds of whales that come to the Dominican Republic. Who knew that all North Atlantic humpback whales were Dominican?
As we entered Los Haitíses there were tall islands with so many birds circling the top. I felt like I was in the beginning of the King Kong movie when they land on the island. As we grew closer we got to observe so many varieties of birds that were perched on the tree branches and flying around the island. The size of these birds was amazing. My camera couldn’t capture their impressive wing span or vibrant colors.
Once the boat docked we paired up and boarded kayaks. We paddled our way through turquoise water while surrounded by the steep cliffs of all the different islands. Vine-like roots hung down to the water from the trees whose home lay far up on the top of the islands. Moss covered the rocky sides, bordering the small caves that appeared, hidden by roots and vegetation. As we paddled we made our way deeper through the mangroves. The root systems of the mangroves are simply stunning. They weave through each other creating an intricate nest of roots through the water. From the branches are hanging roots that almost seem to have knuckles, as if they were arms reaching for water. There were crabs crawling up the moss covered roots that were freckled with snails. I even caught a glimpse of a few birds gliding on top of the water.
Upon returning to the boat we went swimming. Jumping into the water was refreshing and the water felt like bath water almost sweet tasting. Around us were jellyfish who were almost impossible to catch but you could feel them as the brushed by you. It started to rain while we were in the water and I couldn’t believe that I was actually living this dream.
We scrambled onto the boat for a delicious lunch and then made our way into the cave. The cave we entered had pictographs that had been painted by Taino Indians hundreds of years ago. The cave had been used by the Tainos as a spiritual sanctuary. Caves were seen as a place to connect with the gods. Many Tainos would consume hallucinogenic plants to allow them to foster a stronger spiritual connection. Being in the caves felt like such a spiritual experience. Seeing the stalactites, stalagmites, columns and intricate patterns made into the cave walls was mind blowing.
There was one area in the cave where there was a “skylight”. Through the opening was a tree that was rooted in the cave and that had roots the spiraled together and made its way out of the cave. It was an enchanting experience.
On our way back we saw the beautiful sunset coloring the sky above the ocean.
That night a bunch of the students had a party on the beach outside the hotel. We had a blast chatting and dancing. I have never seen the stars shine so brightly. Swimming in the water and looking up at the sky was surreal. The next day we got to relax on the beach and eat a leisurely breakfast and lunch.
We had a long trip home but I came home to the open arms of my host family. It really felt good to be home. I am starting to get really close with my host mom and have had some wonderful deep conversations with her over the past few weeks. She makes me feel like my home is in Santiago.