Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Escape from Punta Cana!

Your highly anticipated vacation to an all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic has finally arrived. With a bottomless umbrella drink in hand, you hit up the decadent buffets, try a trapeze course, and tell yourself that you don’t need sunscreen for that Caribbean sun because it’s all about getting that base tan. Then hour 48 hits, and that Top 40 mix for the water aerobics class is starting to fry your brain, and you forget whether you are in the Dominican Republic or some other tropical island. Not to worry, there is a way out so that you truly remember your vacation to the DR. Here’s how to escape from Punta Cana:

Get Away for the Day

La Basilica
When investors first started to develop Punta Cana in the late 60s, they found infertile land adorned by limestone outcroppings and sand patches, but not much else. Besides a few small farms and fishing villages, the area was undeveloped jungle.

Much has changed since then, as the mass-appeal resorts of Bavaro continue to extend farther north up the coast and the luxury resorts of Cap Cana extend further south. Despite all of this development, there are few places visitors can go within Punta Cana since the region is saturated with all-inclusives that require strict reservations for entry. However there are a few towns that are suitable for a day trip:


Known for La Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia, Higüey is a bustling town that recently underwent a beautification campaign, resulting in many more green spaces and trees across the city center. Dedicated in 1972, the Basílica is one of the most important houses of worship for Catholics in the country, and the most visited site for religious pilgrims on the island. Built in the contemporary-utilitarian Dominican style of architecture (that is, entirely of cement), its parabolic arches represent a modern twist on the typically gaudy Catholic cathedrals. A visit to the Basílica paired with some local eats at one of the restaurants along Av. Hermanas Trejo, such as Cotubanamá or D’Yira Restaurant, make for the perfect afternoon outing.

Casa Museo Ponce de Leon
San Rafael de Yuma/Boca de Yuma

Simply called Yuma by the locals, this area caught the interest of Spanish explorer Ponce de León in 1503 because of its proximity to the navigable Río Yuma. León played a key role in subjugation of the local Taínos, for which he was rewarded with the title of Governor in this region of the colony. Today’s Yuma is a minor town, where the main attraction is the Casa Museo de Ponce de León (Entrance RD$50; to arrive, when entering the town of Yuma, veer left at the fork and turn left on Carretera Los Jobitos just before the cemetery, where there is a sign for Casa Museo de Ponce de León. Follow the road about 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) down and the museum will be on the right; Mon–Sat 7am–5pm).

After taking in the 16th century architecture and belongings of Leon’s home, head 20 minutes west to Boca to Yuma, a sleepy fishing village set on tremendous cliffs overlooking the sea. What this town lacks in terms of entertainment, it makes up for in charm and home-style cuisine.  Try one of the many fish-fry huts along the coastline. Or, before entering the town, turn left at the sign for Restaurant Bahia Azul, which serves fresh-caught fish with hearty portions of rice, beans, and fried plantains. If you decide you want to stay, try Hotel El Viejo Pirata (RD$1200; When the main road through town ends at the coast, turn right at the hotel's sign, after which the hotel will be on the right; 780-3236/804-3151/780-3464;;

 Take off for a night
Kids Playing at Costa Esmeralda
Costa Esmeralda

The placid aquamarine waters that gently lap virgin white sand catapults this beach to among the top in the country. Accessible by boat, horseback, or scenic drive, the beach is set in a protected bay, leaving the water smooth and clear with few waves. Development has yet to touch the pristine sands of this beach, meaning Esmeralda has no accommodations. There are no stores or restaurants nearby, so bring your own snacks (and rum).

To reach the beach by foot from the nearby town of Miches, walk east along the beach and ask a local to show you the footpath that cuts through the forest to the other side of the point (seen to the east of Playa Arriba). The walk takes about an hour and a half. Be safe and go in a group and don’t carry valuables as the trail is isolated. By car, drive east toward the town of La Mina for about 8.8 kilometers (5.5mi). Just beyond La Mina, find the turnoff to Playa Esmeralda, marked by a Brugal sign. Follow the dirt road and go left at the fork until the road runs parallel to the beach (veer right). Continue until reaching the far eastern end of the beach, which is the best section for swimming. This area is just past the Marina de Guerra office. Boat and horseback riding trips to Costa Esmeralda are also available through Coco Loco Hotel (US$15-25, which includes breakfast; located on Playa Arriba; follow C/ Pedro A. Morel de Santa Cruz toward the coast and then make a right at the beach; 886-8278, 974-8182), which is also one of the better options for lodging. 
Antique Sailboats at Bayahibe

One of the other great natural attractions in the area is Montana Rodonda (located about 17 kilometers (11 miles) east of Miches). It features a 360-degree view of the coast, two lagoons, verdant surrounding hills, and electric green rice fields.


The small but quite lively fishing town of Bayahibe is located on the edge of the Parque Nacional del Este, making it an excellent place to overnight while enjoying the islands, caves, and trails of the beautiful park. The attractive town meanders around the placid bay, offering a number of attractions: an archaeological dig with artifacts dating back over 4,000 years, shallow fresh springs with unique histories, locally-run jewelry and art workshops, and historical sailboats still in use today. 

A Local Musician Enjoying Bayahibe's Sunsets
After spending the day exploring the natural wonders of the national park or savoring some perfectly grilled lobster, rest at Hotel Bayahibe (RD$1300-2000; C/ Principal, 833-0159/0045;; or rent a cabana from Cabanas La Bahía (RD$800-RD$1200; 710-0881).

Dancing in Santo Domingo 

Going Rogue

You got a taste of what the DR has to offer, and you can’t imagine spending one more day stuck in resort confines. Whether you are looking for hang-gliding in the pine-covered mountains, incredible live music and night-life in Santo Domingo or a quiet boutique hotel near virgin beaches, the DR has got it all.  Find out more from Dominican Republic (Other Places Travel Guide).

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