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Isla Saona

A trip to this island is the most popular excursion for those staying in Bayahibe, Punta Cana, and Bávaro hotels. Isla Saona, which is part of the Parque Nacional del Este just across the Bahía de Catalinita, attracts nearly 1,000 tourists a day.

Even back in the 16th and 17th centuries, Saona was used as a layover location. Spanish sailors struck a deal with Taíno chieftain Cotubanamá that allowed Isla Saona (originally named Adamanay by the Taínos) to be used as a minimart of sorts. The Spanish were allowed to stop and buy casabe bread made by the natives, gather firewood, and take a rest. It’s not clear what the Taínos got out of the deal.

Today, the most exciting reason to go to Isla Saona is the “getting there.” Through your resort or an independent company, you can book a catamaran, sailboat, or speedboat ride to the island for the day. The journey will show you the turquoise magnificence of the waters and the contrasting beauty of the limestone cliffs of the national park meeting the sea. Isla Saona sits in the crossing zone where the Caribbean and the Atlantic meet at the Canal de La Mona. Be on the lookout for dolphins; they’ve been known to follow the boats in this region!

The beaches of this 22-kilometer-long island are postcard worthy, with white sands and abundant palm trees. If you’ve booked through a resort, a barbecue-buffet lunch will most likely be provided on one of the beaches designated for the resort’s use. The resorts also have open bars on “their” beaches for drinks. Ask a local to crack a coconut open for you for about US$2. Bring along a bottle of water.

A walk along the coast or on the inland trails of Saona is one way to escape the crowd on the beach (sort of) and add variety to your day. You’ll need bug spray because the mosquitoes and sand flies can be more than bothersome. Saona’s mangroves and lagoons are breeding grounds for many birds, including the Hispaniolan parrot, pelicans, and the red-footed booby. Flamingos can be found around the aptly named Laguna de Los Flamencos (Flamingo Lagoon) near the southwestern shore. Also on the western half of the island is the Cueva Cotubanamá, a cave where Chief Cotubanamá and his family hid out from the Spanish (they was eventually captured). It contains fine examples of rock art and can be reached by foot via a trail.

Mano Juan, a small, picturesque village on Isla Saona’s southern shore, used to sustain itself with fishing but has now turned to the more lucrative (albeit less charming) hawking of trinkets to the tourists on the beach. Pastel homes line the beach so take your camera—this is the photo-op you’ve been waiting for.

Other than for lounging on the beach, Saona is known as a good spot for diving and snorkeling at the reefs just offshore. If you stay more toward shore, you’ll see many shells and shrimp. But a little farther out await the giant sponges, coral, and colorful fish.

Unfortunately, the throngs of boats and hordes of tourists coming to spend the day on Isla Saona have done damage to its once serene underwater habitats and unspoiled beaches. Fuel in the water and noise levels of the boats add a congested feeling. With the popularity of this excursion growing, the problems are only increasing.

Reaching Isla Saona is easiest via Bayahibe, where there are a number of independent excursion vendors. Prices among them vary little.

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