Exploring the Caribbean – Punta Cana in Dominican Republic

PUNTA CANA, DR: It was time for our 2nd girls trip and this time it was going to be somewhere in the Caribbean. It was the fearless five of us out to explore a new place while having some girl time. Initially, we were going to go to Montego Bay. But sorry Jamaica, Dominican Republic had better deals on flights and logistics.

Punta Cana in Dominican Republic - one of the top destinations in the Caribbean

Punta Cana in Dominican Republic – one of the top destinations in the Caribbean

 

Punta Cana, it is the home of white sandy beaches, great food, fantastic warm weather, and genuinely friendly people…and all these make this place one of the top Caribbean destinations. For tourists, like me, who can’t speak much Spanish, not to worry…most of the people we dealt with, like in restaurants, cab drivers, and etc spoke at least some English.

Beautiful beaches of Punta Cana, DR

Beautiful beaches of Punta Cana, DR

Punta Cana International Airport is about 40-45 minutes drive from all the resorts and hotels area. About currency, I only exchanged $100 to Dominican Peso from the airport and I didn’t even have to do that (but it’s always good to have some local currencies in the pocket in my opinion). We could and did use USD almost anywhere and everywhere.

TIME of TRAVEL: We visited Punta Cana at the very end of November last year. It was probably the best time to go there. No spring-break or winter holiday tourists, weather was around 80s…no scorching heat or humidity to deal with. We did get tropical rain couple nights, usually around 9/10pm.

OUR HOTEL: Sunscape Dominican Beach Punta Cana is where we stayed during this trip. We had the deluxe tropical view, basically just looking over the other buildings and the grassy areas of the resort.

Overall, the resort itself was good. They had good service, big and clean rooms with balcony, friendly services, and all that. I wasn’t a big fan of their food, except for the breakfast where they had fresh papaya, watermelon, passion fruit juice. But other Japanese, Mediterranea, French places were very disappointing. Another thing we should have complained to the hotel concierge, is that Punta Cana gets tropical rain here and there, and when it rains, all the paths inside the resort get really slippery. My friend fell on that (and later we found out few others too) and hurt her ankle really bad. There has to be something the hotel management can do to provide more safety in weather like that.

EATING and SHOPPING: This was a lesson learned for me that not all-inclusive places serve good food. Most of the meals that we had in our resort, if not all, were below average. I mean, even their pizza and hotdog tasted like chewed up beach slippers. I was, at one point, craving to taste some local food at some local restaurants. We did get delicious Dominican BBQ chicken and fish in our trip to Saona Island. But after few meals at the resort, I couldn’t take it anymore. So finally, the last day, we decided to go out and have dinner at a place, called La Delicasa, recommended by our hotel. It was more like a semi-fast food place, serving authentic Dominican food. Loved it, period.

Our lunch in Saona Island in Dominican Republic - BBQ chicken

Our lunch in Saona Island in Dominican Republic – BBQ chicken

For souvenirs, Taino Art works (like paintings, wall decor, masks, statues) are very ethnic and traditional gifts to bring back from DR. They are usually locally handcrafted containing tribal signs and symbols that supposed to bring good luck. Other wooden arts are also very popular here. I, myself, bought tapestry, Taino art paintings, Dominican coffee, chocolate, and coconut shell candle holders. Jewelries made with beautiful blue larimar stones are also something popular here which is only found in DR. Unlike many other places I’ve visited, going for souvenir hunting is a bit challenge in Punta Cana. We came across some people who were selling jewelries and small trinkets in Saona Island for really cheap prices. Whatever you buy here you can always bargain, unless they are fixed priced. I also found couple souvenir shops near our resort on the Bavaro Beach selling all sorts of stuff from paintings to jewelries to cigars and generic stuff. But I saw something in Punta Cana for our souvenir hunting that I’ve never seen in any other places before, maybe a Caribbean thing. We wanted to go to a place where we could find local trinkets. And when I asked the hotel concierge, they said they can contact the nearby souvenir “villages” and they will take us there free of charge, we walk around and look around and not obligated to buy anything. And in 2 hours, they will drop us back to the resort. Yes, it does sounds like a trap, but it was the only option we had and in a way, it was a fun experience. A minivan took us and 3 other families to their souvenir complex. There are few different “huts”, each had its own products. One for only cigars and you get to see how the cigars are made and try them, one for larimar jewelries, one for tequila and other drinks, one for only chocolates and coffee beans…where you can try and taste everything before you buy, and finally another one was with just other types of handicrafts, like paintings, t-shirts, generic trinkets, and other gift items.

Dominican souvenirs

Dominican souvenirs

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We stayed in Punta Cana for total 4 nights. This trip was all about just relaxing, spending time at the resort and its beach, and taking it slow. We went there without much strict itinerary, except for the Saona Island trip which just took one of our four days. Other days, we basically enjoyed the pool, the resort parties, going to a nearby souvenir shop, eating out for one dinner, and last day we just decided to check out the Macao Beach. I did regret not booking a trip to Santo Domingo from Punta Cana for one day. It’s the capital of Dominican Republic and has tons of historic landmarks and cultural sites to visit and in about couple hours of drive each way, you are there. Santo Domingo will be my top priority if I come back to DR in the future again.

Below are few places we visited during our stay in Punta Cana:

  1. ALTOS de CHAVON and SAONA ISLAND DAY-TRIP: We booked this trip before arriving Punta Cana. For $84 per person, we got a 10-hour day excursion with lunch. We got to visit their history, local lives, and some of the most beautiful Caribbean coastlines. We were picked up from our hotel around 7am in a small minivan and were brought to a gas station to be shifted to a bigger bus with other tourists. One thing I want to mention here, we had a professional photographer with us all time during this trip, taking our photos everywhere, taking candid and posed shots. Some loved it and some not so much. But give this guy a chance, at the end he’ll show you all the photos which you can buy if you want to for about $5 per image. Our main tour guide was a funny, very enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and accommodating man…who could dance very well too.
A local wearing traditional Dominican dress in Punta Cana

A local wearing traditional Dominican dress in Punta Cana

                      a. ALTOS de CHAVON: Our first stop of that morning was Altos de Chavon, an artist’s village on top of a spectacular hill which was perched above the winding Chavon River. This place replicates the 16th-century Mediterranean town and is an architectural wonder. It did feel like a mini European village, with churches, cobbled stoned alleys, and small squares. Musician Carlos Santana had one of his concerts in the amphitheater in Altos de Chavon. The amphitheater was built around 1976-1982 and can hold around 5000 people. This town was also used in few Hollywood movies, such as Anaconda. The area of the main church and its square is probably one of the best places to take some shots of the surroundings. We couldn’t go inside the church. But from outside this stone-made church looked grand and very photogenic.

View of Chavon River from the hilltop town Altos de Chavon in Dominican Republi

View of Chavon River from the hilltop town Altos de Chavon in Dominican Republi

There are few small boutique shops, souvenir stores, art galleries,  cafes and snack places here. But the highlight is the view from this hilltop town.  Looking at the river down below with small hills surrounding the place is stunning, especially when we arrived in the morning, it was quiet and peaceful. Also, enjoy the garden with exotic flowers and fruits, like banana, mango, lemon. Explore the enchanting old buildings and enjoy the locals, especially women walking around in their colorful traditional dresses.  

Architectural beauty of Altos de Chavon in Punta Cana, DR

Architectural beauty of Altos de Chavon in Punta Cana, DR

We didn’t stop at the Casa de Campo once we reached the complex of Altos de Chavon, but we were told this is where rich Hollywood stars, like Vin Diesel, have their vacations homes.

The old church Altos de Chavon in Punta Cana, DR

The old church Altos de Chavon in Punta Cana, DR

Altos de Chavon is one of the most popular sites in Punta Cana and you can either combine it with your Saona Island trip or just take half a day trip from your hotel to come here. We spent about an hour in Altos de Chavon before getting on the bus again for our next spot.

             b. La PLAYA PALMIA: It was about 30 minutes bus ride to reach a small fishing village, called Bayahibe, by the Caribbean Sea. From here, we got onto a speed boat and cruised over the Caribbean Sea for about 15-20 minutes to come to a natural swimming pool, called La Playa Palmia or The Natural Beach. FYI, Hollywood film, Blue Lagoon-2 was shot here.

Going to La PLAYA PALMIA

Going to La PLAYA PALMIA

The water is shallow in La Playa Palmia and you’ll see many other excursion boats bring their tourists here to take a quick swim in this serene blue water lined with gentle palm trees. It was beautiful. I, personally, didn’t go to the water…simply because I am afraid of water and I didn’t bring any extra pair of clothes. But my two other friends, who got themselves wet and were served with both soft and hard drinks, while some of us enjoyed being on the boat and appreciating the surreal beauty of that beach. The 30-40 minutes we spent there, it was a total bliss.

               c. SAONA ISLAND: Another half an hour ride on that speed boat, we came to one of the most beautiful islands I’ve seen in my life…Isla Saona or Saona Island. This is beyond just a picturesque island bordered with thousands of palm trees. This was a true Caribbean paradise. The endless shallow turquoise waters of this natural reserve in Eastern National Park can’t be and shouldn’t be missed when you are in Punta Cana.

Saona Island in Dominican Republic

Saona Island in Dominican Republic

Right after we got off the boat, which by the way anchors a bit far from the beach…so you are bound to get wet, we walked over to our “picnic shelter” for lunch. This was our first out of the resort meal and it was mind-blowing. If I only knew that actual Dominican cuisine is that good, I’d have avoided going for all-inclusive. We had the option of rice, grilled fish, BBQ chicken, and salad.

There aren’t many things to do on this island, but that was the whole purpose actually…not to do much. We just enjoyed the powdery white sandy beach, warm weather with gentle breeze, palm trees, locals, bought some jewelries from the shops, and relaxed by the beach.

Saona Island in Dominican Republic

Saona Island in Dominican Republic

We stayed about 2 ½ hours here. In the meantime, try fresh coconut water, fresh pineapple juice in the pineapple shell, a massage by the beach and under the sun. I walked around the lesser crowded side of the island with my camera for a while to get some shots and glad I did that.

A local making fresh pineapple juice for us in Saona Island, DR

A local making fresh pineapple juice for us in Saona Island, DR

Another fun highlight of this whole trip is cruising on the catamaran/party boat. Towards the end of the day, we got on the speedboat again from Saona Island and were shifted to this Catamaran. This is an open boat with sails and no chairs to sit, but they have metal benches all around the boat. We were all tired and some were sitting, some were dancing with the dancers and with Caribbean party music, and others were enjoying the vast sea. I enjoyed the sun, the breeze, and the music in the background while laying down on the boat making my backpack my pillow. This was one heavenly feelings and my every penny was worth of it.

Our trip ended by getting into that big bus after the catamaran docked near the fishing village and in about hour and half or so, we were back to our resort.

  1.  MACAO BEACH: We visited Macao Beach on the very last day of our stay in Punta Cana and thank goodness that we did. We arranged a taxi for couple hours from our resort to go to this beach (please visit his info in my recommended tour guide…knowledgeable, gentle, and very friendly). This Guatemalan taxi driver living in Punta Cana currently, told us that Macao Beach is his favorite spot to watch sunset over the Caribbean Sea.
Macao Beach in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Macao Beach in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

          It was truly a remarkable sunset that we watched that evening. This part of the sea was a bit rough, good place for the surfers. Buggy riders also come here to ride along the white sandy beach.

          It is a public beach, so no entrance fee to pay. There were some locals with us too. It was stunning when the sky was sprayed with all shades of orange and yellow colors and reflected that on the turquoise water of the sea.

Macao Beach in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Macao Beach in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

         Absolutely fell in love with the Caribbean after this trip, have to plan to come back and explore other islands here.

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