Exploring Stunning Saona Island, Cotubanamá National Park (Dominican Republic)

Located off the southeastern shore of the Dominican Republic, Saona Island — part of the protected Cotubanamá National Park in La Romana Province, formerly known as Parque Nacional del Este — is the largest of the DR’s more than 10 offshore islands. It also receives the most visitors: an astounding 700,000 a year as of 2018, most of whom make the two-hour tour bus journey from Punta Cana to Bayahibe village, the closest gateway to Saona Island.

Ironically, most Punta Cana resort guests don’t realize that Bayahibe is a lovely place to stay and enjoy the beach and sea scenery, snorkel and dive some of the DR’s best sites, and enjoy some local life in the village. It’s also one of the safest destinations in the country and a favorite of independent travelers.

Bayahibe’s scenic bay and waterfront area, where pre-arranged tours depart daily to Saona Island.

There’s a good reason Saona Island attracts so many visitors. It boasts a 15-mile long coastline lined with dreamy white sand beaches that range from spectacular to outstanding, facing signature Caribbean turquoise waters.

How far you explore along Saona’s coastline will depend on how deep your pockets are. The priciest tours (US$95 from Bayahibe) include additional stops like Mano Juan -— the only inhabited portion of Saona Island where locals reside in humble homes and run small shops and souvenir stands. And then there’s the last and most remote beach of the island, Canto de la Playa, which you’ll just have to see to believe. Not all tour operators come this far, which means fewer crowds.

I’ve lived in the DR and explored all over the country for several years, as you know, and I’m not easily impressed more than once. But I’ll tell you what: Saona Island blows me away each time I visit, which is now every year!

Even if you go for a basic sail along the popular beaches of Saona Island, you’ll get an eye full of the longest and most stunning Caribbean coastline scenery you’ll see in one place. But you have to explore Saona the right way, and I share my best tips in this post.

Bayahibe Village: Gateway to Saona Island

It’s worth staying overnight in Bayahibe, a small beach village where the fishing tradition continues. You’ll find a decent number of guesthouses, small hotels and apartment rentals, as well as dive shops, restaurants and all the amenities you need. These businesses face the beautiful bay or they line side streets for a short walk to the waterfront. Bayahibe’s residents are mostly Dominicans and Haitians working in tourism, as well as American and European expats (usually Italians who love the quiet seaside lifestyle).

Hotel Bayahibe is a solid pick if you’re looking for a no-frills, clean and safe place to stay. Located smack in the center of town, it’s a hop and a skip from the waterfront, and offers reasonable rates (between US$50-60 a night). Get the breakfast-included rate, it’s worth it so you can enjoy a morning meal facing the Caribbean Sea before heading out on your excursions.

It’s easy to walk around Bayahibe. It’s also safe — one of the safest resort areas in the country — and the seafood is as fresh as they come. Be sure to consume only what’s in season and verify your fish when ordering. Bayahibe somehow manages to keep a Dominican vibe despite the tourists who pass through here for the day. Merengue and bachata fill the air, colmados are ubiquitous, and street side frituras offer late night cheap eats.

Bayahibe’s traditional, colorful wooden homes are sandwiched among newer concrete constructions.
Bayahibe also boasts one of the most stunning sunsets in the DR.

Saona Island’s stunning coastline and beaches

Every morning, the boats and tour guides get ready as buses bring crowds from Punta Cana. Cars and local minivans also roll in from Santo Domingo with locals who also love to tour on the weekends.

Once you leave Bayahibe’s coastline and begin sailing and riding along Saona Island’s coastline, prepare for this type of Caribbean-perfect scenery.

Above: The “natural pool” or Piscina natural is included on every tour. This large, shallow sandbank is dotted with starfish.
Saona Island’s coastline goes on like this for miles, while you float away on a catamaran or speed by in a motorized boat.
The water changes hues and mesmerizes as you pass by beach after beach. Where your boat pulls over will depend on your tour.
It’s hard not to have an impromptu photo shoot on Saona Island. I used my iPhone 8 Plus and Saona’s dreamy setting did the rest.

Mano Juan: Saona Island’s only inhabited portion

Hop on a tour that takes you to colorful, stunning Mano Juan – the only inhabited portion of Saona Island. It’s worth it though pricier (due to distance).
A tourist taking respite on Mano Juan’s striking beaches.
Exploring the sandy back streets for a glimpse of life on Mano Juan, Saona Island.

Canto de la Playa: Saona’s most beautiful beach and its most remote

The farther out you go, the better it gets. Prepare to scream at the sight of Saona Island’s last beach. It’s appropriately named Canto de la Playa and is a near one-mile white sand stunner.

Undeveloped and virgin: Canto de la Playa is simply breathtaking.
The giddiness I felt on Playa del Canto in 2015.

Saona island do’s and don’ts

Because Saona Island receives huge crowds, it’s important to make the least impact as you can on this protected area.

Observing these five tips will also keep you away from those heavy crowds that we all hate to see on vacation.

  1. Decide which parts of Saona Island you want to see and ask the tour operator if they cover these areas. This will avoid disappointment. Ask questions!
  2. Do not touch, lift out of the water, or pose with the starfish in the natural pool under any circumstances. And please watch your step in the natural pool so you don’t step on a starfish. If your tour operator suggests posing with the starfish or touching them, tell them why it’s not OK. And then report them online once you are back to your hotel or home (through Trip Advisor, Google, Facebook reviews).
  3. Pick a responsible, sustainable tour operator. I have listed the ones I recommend in Moon Dominican Republic. Avoid the big tour operators who bring huge crowds to the same beach and Saona areas at the same time. Most decent tours range between US$75-100 per person (tourist price).
  4. If you speak Spanish and can negotiate, hire a local boat captain and enjoy the ride to yourself. Local captains own their own speedboats and are parked behind the main dock area (behind Saona Cafe, along the public beach area). The boats are basic but comfortable enough and get the job done: to get you to the beaches and all of Saona Island’s sights. Negotiate a day rate, and enjoy. The captain will stop at a lunch spot along the way and you can pull over and relax on any beach you chose. You’ll avoid most of the crowds.
  5. Bring your refillable cup for drinks — please do not use any of the plastic cups, straws or such that you’ll be offered by numerous operators (unfortunately this is an issue that continues in the DR).
  6. Bring plenty of sunscreen — and cute outfits because Saona’s scenery is like stepping into your own Caribbean billboard.
  7. Overnight in Bayahibe instead of Punta Cana. Stay at a guesthouse, dine in local restaurants, and put your travel dollars into the community. You’ll get to enjoy the sunset with cocktails after your Saona Island day trip, while everyone else has to hop back on their busses for the long journey back to Punta Cana.
  8. You can also overnight on Saona on Mano Juan; there are a couple of lodging options but you’ll need to plan ahead because they’re not quick on the emails.

For detailed information on Bayahibe village and Saona Island — please consult my editions of Moon Dominican Republic for Moon Travel Guides. The 2019 edition releases in September.

Sunsets I captured last weekend on my now-yearly visits to Bayahibe and Saona Island.

Have you been to Saona Island or planning to go soon?

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