Isla Saona or Saona Island, located 12 miles off the southeastern coast of the Dominican Republic, ranks among the top five most popular excursions in the DR. It’s no surprise–this Caribbean island off the coast of Bayahibe is straight out of a postcard from paradise with its numerous powdery white sand beaches, bright turquoise waters, sandbanks, and towering palm trees, with no major development.
The sheer number of tourists who are sold this destination from even as far as Punta Cana (a couple of hours away from Bayahibe, the jump off point to Saona), and the number of tour operators who offer it are staggering. Approximately 3,000 visitors descend on it daily by speedboat or catamaran. But even more surprising is that this protected site remains pristine and beautiful year after year, despite the crowds.
I’m all for visitors seeing the largest offshore island of the DR–at 15 miles long and 3.3 miles wide–and basking in one of the most gorgeous beach sceneries in the Dominican Republic and in the Caribbean. But I’d like you to be informed before heading to this protected island–and get the most out of your day trip and your buck.
Here’s what you should know about booking the best excursion to Saona Island, and what you should and shouldn’t do when visiting this paradisiacal plot. Because we are cool, responsible travelers looking for the most immersive experience.
1. Look Up Where Saona Island Is Located: It Is Closest To Bayahibe
Most tour operators out of Bavaro and Punta Cana are known for not disclosing an important fact: Saona Island sits off the coast of Bayahibe, a small fishing village popular with divers and anglers.
When you book a Saona tour from the Punta Cana area, this means a two-to-three hour long road trip–depending on where on the Punta Cana strip you're located– because you’re going from the extreme east or northeast to the south. In addition, there will likely be numerous pickups from the area hotels along the way. This translates into a really, really, long day.
Most tourists are not aware when they sign up and realize half way through, that they’re a long way from Punta Cana. It hurts most when you’re heading back at the end of a day of sun and booze.
If you do mind a long road on a bus, a much better option is to stay overnight in the charming village of Bayahibe, where there are plenty of affordable, locally owned hotels, restaurants, and a great Dominican vibe. You’ll even save on the excursion cost.
2. Saona Island Is Part Of A Protected National Park
This stunning island is part of the magnificent Parque Nacional Del Este, which has been a protected nature reserve since 1975. The entire park encompasses about 305 square of both land (including over 400 caves) and sea. The sea part is made up of the popular offshore islands of Saona, Catalina, and Catalinita, as well as the natural pool area of La Palmilla.
It’s a bird haven, but it’s also a sea turtle haven: Saona Island is the most important turtle nesting site in the country, with nesting season lasts from March through November. Hawksbill, green, and leatherback species come here, and are endangered species.
3. It Is Not OK To Touch The Wildlife: Don't Lift or Remove The Starfish
Since this is a protected park, you should respect this island’s resources. Enjoy the crystalline waters of the Piscina Natural or Natural Pool, but do not touch, move or pose with the indigenous starfish that inhabit and fill these waters. It is horrifying how many tourists are doing this, at the prompting of some ill-informed tour operators and guides.
Starfish are not toys, they are wildlife. When you remove them from the water, there is a threat of causing irreversible damage to their tissue, even for a few seconds out of the water. Moreover, the sunscreen that is most likely on your hands is toxic to starfish.
Please, please be responsible and leave them in the bottom of the water. Take your underwater camera or get a protective smartphone case if you wish to take a photo (you can get them from vendors before you board the boat), at a normal distance and keep them away from your hands.
I stumbled on ridiculous selfies on Instagram, and was appalled–if I find out who the tour operator is that allowed this to happen, I will post it in this article.
It also goes without saying as well that you should not pee in the natural pool. Nuff' said.
4. Pick The Right Tour and Tour Operator To Saona Island
Your Saona experience will be directly linked to the tour operator you select. And believe me, there are a multitude of companies selling you the dreamy island trip. But which stops you make, what type of boat you select (speed or catamaran, sailboat or luxury), and the kind of guide accompanying you will influence your experience. I have my recommended tour operators listed in Moon Dominican Republic–the ones that support ecotourism and sustainable travel, are informed on the island's history, and will take you to the absolute best areas on the island while managing to keep away from the crowds (by visiting at different hours during the tour).
5. Visit Mano Juan for History, Culture, and Conservation
Get a feel of local island culture by picking a tour that includes a stop in Mano Juan: the only inhabited portion of Saona Island. The first inhabitants came to this specific area of Saona during World War II, when dictator Rafael Trujillo sent them to guard the island. Today, approximately 300 people live in pastel-colored traditional wooden houses dotting sandy streets facing the beach. There are no cars here. It’s a typically Dominican fishing village. Tourism and fishing are the main occupations here. The village finally got electricity in 2014, thanks to solar panels. But there’s still no plumbing inside the homes, and they pump well water instead.
On the very back end of Mano Juan, past an open field, is a sea turtle sanctuary–a project was established seven years ago with the help of a local fisherman and funded by a local ecotour company in Bayahibe.
About 120 to 150 eggs are laid on the beaches of Saona during turtle nesting season. Eggs were under threat due to locals eating or selling them—the belief is that this works like a drink of mamajuana—but thanks to the center, preservation has improved and beaches are monitored regularly to protect the nests.
There are now rooms for rent on Mano Juan, which means you can spend the night on this lovely plot and enjoy it after the crowds have left.
6. Don't Miss Canto De La Playa, The Most Beautiful Beach of All Saona
The beaches on Saona are all stunning. But one stands out: on the far southeastern tip, often deserted, is Encanto de la Playa, or Canto de la Playa (the song of the beach). If you were ever to take sexy or jumping photos of yourself anywhere (guilty!), this would be the million dollar-looking beach to do it on.
Not all tour operators offer this stop–ask before you go, or consult Moon Dominican Republic for more details on this beach.
7. Wear A Hat and Plenty of Sunscreen
It seems obvious, but you’ll need to stay protected, particularly when you’re at the natural pool, where there’s absolutely no shade once you enter the water.
Last but not least, prepare for a super fun experience. Saona is breathtaking.
Find out more about finding your perfect Saona Island Tour, and where to stay or eat in Bayahibe in the current Moon Dominican Republic travel guidebook. And if you know someone interested in visiting Saona Island, please send them the link to this article.