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.

Irresistible Saona Island receives thousands of visitors daily. - Image by Lebawit Lily Girma

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. 

It's a National Park – don't touch the wildlife!

 

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).

Pick the right tour and avoid the crowded beaches.

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.

Lebawit Lily Girma

A former corporate attorney, Lebawit Lily Girma is an award-winning travel writer, photographer, and author of several Caribbean guidebooks for US-publisher Moon Travel Guides, including Moon Belize and Moon Dominican Republic. Originally from Ethiopia, Lily calls herself a “culture-holic”–fluent in four languages, she has lived in eight countries besides the U.S., including Belize, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic. Her articles and photography focusing on culture, adventure, and sustainable travel in the Caribbean region have been published in AFAR Magazine, CNN, BBC, Delta Sky, The Guardian, and others. She is the recipient of the 2016 Marcia Vickery Wallace Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism from the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

6 Comments

  1. Gene B (Ohio)

    My wife and I went on this excursion last week. I would definitely NOT recommend this excursion. It is not quite like it is advertised. The catamaran we went on had 61 people on it. I was expecting 20-25. You can expect the catamaran to have one or two “professional” photographers that hound you the entire trip to pose for pictures. Near the end of the trip you will be hounded to buy a CD with the pictures in the $50 range. Once we arrived at the island it was absolutely packed with people. Most of the pictures they show you there are no people or very few. I estimate at least 600 people on the beach plus the locals that live nearby. All of the lounge chairs were taken when we arrived. There are definitely not enough loungers for the number of people arriving for the day trip. You can expect to be hounded by locals who are selling their trinkets. Our tour offered a meal on the beach. We stood in a long, hot line for 1/2 an hour. By the time we got our food and ate we only had about 1.5 hours left to enjoy the beach.
    The trip we took offered snorkeling. They guide took us to an old pier that had fallen down. The only thing remaining were cement columns. There was barely any coral and only a few small fish to view. It was really a joke.
    The last leg of the tour was the tidal pool with the starfish. The water was waste deep and very nice. There were 5 other boats in the area with probably 30 people on each boat. There were starfish in the waters which was kind of cool to see. All of the advertising shows beautiful women holding the starfish so we assumed this was ok and part of the tour. How else do you get a good picture without an underwater camera? No one from the tour company ever said not to pick them up prior to leaving the boat but they did yell at you if you did. So basically at the tidal pool swim area you just stand around in waist deep water drinking an talking. The tour we went on would not allow us to use the snorkeling equipment in this area. That would have been a nice way to view the starfish without picking them up.
    This is was basically a 12 hour excursion from the time we were picked up at the resort until we were dropped off at the resort.
    I would not recommend this tour. Those are my two cents for what they are worth. If you have your heart set on going then go. Maybe you will enjoy it.

    • Lebawit Lily Girma

      Sad you had that experience – I agree with you that MANY tour operators suck and only take you to that same beach that everyone goes to, where it’s so crowded you can barely see the sand. That’s why I highly recommend you pick up a recommended guidebook on the DR or do your research well to see who you are signing up with. I have a responsible tour operator listed in my book – and I had the BEST experience ever, and saw remote beaches on Saona as well, and we had lunch on a beach that wasn’t crowded and had lots of snorkeling (gear provided). They also managed to keep our small group from running into crowds.

      To wrap up for others reading: Saona Island is one of the most beautiful places in the DR – just make sure you choose the right tour operator! You can also consult my guidebook for recommendations. Click on the “guidebook” tab on this website.

  2. Hello ,I will be going to DR in June 2019 and I am planning on going to Saona. You mentioned a guide list when you went. Can you provided me with your recomendations? Thank you!

    • Lebawit Lily Girma

      Hi there – the recommendations are in my guidebook (“Moon Dominican Republic”). Click on “Guidebook” from the main menu and you’ll find the Amazon links there. You can purchase in Kindle or in print.

  3. Went on a 2 tank dive there yesterday with a tour operator I will give you their name privately if u want. Dive masters fed fish bread, picked up baby sting ray, poked puffer fish to make it puff up, picked up spider looking thing and poked a flounder to make it move. After diving in hondouras I was appalled. And yes their photographer picked up a star fish for photos. Not cool.

    • Lebawit Lily Girma

      Wow, terrible. Yes, please do message me privately! Click on About/Contact or go to drvisitor.com/about/contact. It may not be too late for me to remove them from my guidebook before it goes to print. Thank you so much for letting me know!

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