Gem Of The Samana Region: Las Terrenas
Stretches of the Dominican Republic’s sandy coast—including in Puerto Plata and Punta Cana—have been catering to tourists for a decade and longer, and it shows. These resort towns could be Cancun… or any other resort town in any other country.
That’s one face of this Caribbean island nation.
The Samana region is another. It’s less known and less visited and offers two very different options for expats: Las Terrenas and Samana.
Cruise lines discovered this part of the Dominican Republic around 2006, when ships began calling at the small harbor town of Samana at the tip of the Samana Peninsula. The development that followed spread gradually inward from the coast, eventually reaching Las Terrenas.
Now Samana is a shell of a town that comes alive only when a ship is in port. Las Terrenas, on the other hand, has managed to take advantage of the benefits of development, without succumbing to the dark sides. The one-time village known as Las Terrenas has come into its own just this year. A trifecta of recent improvements make it the best choice in the region for the would-be retiree.
When the cruising behemoths began pulling into the small port of Samana a few times a month, discharging hundreds of visitors at a time to throng through the town all at once, the local government was forced to invest some money in supporting infrastructure. But their strategy wasn’t forward-thinking or sustainable. They focused on the town, not the peninsula. Specifically, they focused on the harbor. This had a predictable effect: A half-kilometer stretch around the harbor looks like Main Street in Disney World. The rest of the town looks and feels like a slum. The cookie-cutter colonial houses that were built in a strip, painted in candy colors, and intended as business locations are charming, but more than 70% are unoccupied. No cruise ship was in port when I visited, so the few occupying businesses in these houses were closed. This included the tourism office, which is located here and was closed at 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.
A test I use when visiting a new city is to take note of who’s out and about on the streets. Are kids playing or walking home from school alone? Women walking unaccompanied? These are two good indicators that a place is safe. In Samana, other than a few women working in shops and restaurants, the streets were populated only by men. Though it may not be rational, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable walking around here alone even at midday.
One enduring upside of the government attention as a result of the cruise ship traffic is the highway that was built from the capital to Samana, bypassing Las Terrenas. This wasn’t a short-sighted investment that benefitted only small Samana town, like the misguided row of houses at the harbor. The highway spans and benefits half of the country, including Samana and also Las Terrenas two hours away along the coast.
Still a sleepy fishing village just 10 years ago, today Las Terrenas enjoys the advantages that come from improved infrastructure while retaining its small-town charm. Founded by the French in the 1970s, this hamlet has been attracting foreigners for decades. Foreigners here are an established and comfortable part of the landscape. After the French arrived, the Germans, Italians, Swiss, Brits, Poles, and Ruskies followed, not to the Dominican Republic in general but to Las Terrenas specifically. This immigration history has meant the development of infrastructure to support such an international community, from a German meat shop to an authentic French boulangerie and from a Swiss cheese shop to an Omaha beef store and an Italian clothing boutique.
That’s not to say that the local Caribbean culture is lacking. Caribbean has melded with European. The typical Old World European ideas about courtesy, aesthetic, and attention to detail are reflected in everything. At the same time, while the once all-dirt town is now organized around plazas of pretty flagstones, the roads all paved and signposted, none of the tropical feeling has been lost. This is still a sun-faded, pastel-washed beach town, with coconuts falling in the streets and white sand around every corner.
With all of the history and culture its long-time foreign residents have imported, the now real-world highway system, the new state-of-the-art, international-standard hospital, and a real grocery store, this place is now expat-ready. While some of your predecessors may have had to slum it, your move here could be comparatively turn-key.
Still, Las Terrenas is a relatively off-the-beaten-path retirement choice. It offers many amenities that other Latin American destinations lack, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that living here would be just like living back home. It wouldn’t. If you’re up for a Caribbean adventure but like the idea of comforting yourself in the face of the challenges of establishing a new life in a new place with a glass of good wine and a plate of imported cheeses come each day’s end, then this could be the perfect spot for you.