The North Coast of the Dominican Republic has loads to offer. It’s not quite the same as Punta Cana in the South West where you almost exclusively find all inclusive hotels and sunburnt tourists. Whilst the North Coast has an international airport in Puerto Plata, it’s more local, less crowded and depending on whether you go East or West, incredibly beautiful.
We were staying in Playa Encuentro near Cabarete/Sosua and were in the market for a day trip.
Naturally we turned to Google to explore our options – we had already done Dudu Lagoon & La Preciosa whilst half of the group had also already hiked the Isabel Del Torres trail to the view point above Puerto Plata.
Cayo Arena was a popular option and the one we settled on. There was some slight trepidation considering the reviews. They range from an amazing experience with crystal clear water (it is called Paradise Island) with great snorkelling…..to an over priced, crowded and overrated attraction.
We decided to risk it.
Getting to Cayo Arena
As per usual, let’s start with the logistics.
Cayo Arena is a small sandbar about a 20 minute boat ride off the North Coast of the Dominican Republic, near the border with Haiti. The area is called Punta Rucia and we left from Playa Ensenada which appeared to be the most popular take off/drop off point.
If you’re coming from Puerto Plata, Sosua or Cabarete there are a number of your operators offering a full day tour to Cayo Arena. Prices tend to be around the $80-$90 USD range and include pick up from your hotel, the boat ride and often a Dominican Lunch (chicken, rice and beans).
We reckoned it would be better to make our own way there. OK Motors just outside Sosua rented us a car ($40 for the day and including insurance) which was incredibly reasonable, especially since there was 4 of us!
The drive from Sosua/Cabarete is about 2.5 hours to Cayo Arena although you really want to make sure you are past Puerto Plata before 7am/7.30am to avoid the rush hour. Get caught in that and it will be over 3 hours.
The roads are, well, Dominican. They’re okay but the closer you get to Cayo Arena, the more windy they get. The last few kilometres are dirt roads and at some points were wished we had paid the extra $15 to get an SUV.
We weren’t on the tour so we had to organise a boat ourselves. The instant we parked there was someone offering us a trip, so don’t worry about capacity! We paid $25 USD each for the boat which again seemed pretty reasonable.
Boat Ride from Playa Ensenada to Cayo Arena
As I said, it’s a 20 minute speedboat ride from Playa Ensenada to Cayo Arena.
Having been a nerd and read far too many reviews of the trip, this was one of the things that seemed to have rubbed people the wrong way. We were there early so the boat ride out to Cayo Arena was relatively calm, although if you arrive any later than 8.30am you can expect there to be some wind chop / waves. I get why people may have thought it was uncomfortable, especially if you’re a little more ‘mature’ let’s say! It’s not crazy, but the sea isn’t glassy.
We had to wait about 20 minutes whilst someone went and fetched fuel for the boat. Furthermore, the engine cut out twice within about 500m of the beach which was a little concerning but they managed to fix it!
The itinerary for the trip was La Piscina Natural, Cayo Arena and then the mangroves.
First up was La Piscina Natural.
La Piscina Natural is a sandy area within a larger outer reef (all submerged but maybe only a 4-6 feet deep). As such, it offers and area for people to swim and snorkel and is just over half way to Cayo Arena.
We wanted to be the first ones on Paradise Island so whilst they took us to La Piscina Natural, we actually decided not to jump in the water and go straight to Cayo Arena.
That ended up being a good choice.
Cayo Arena (Paradise Island)
A few minutes on our 10 man boat later and we were fast approaching Cayo Arena.
The deeper blue water suddenly gives way to crystal clear, turquoise Caribbean water and a sandy bottom. The island itself is only a sandbar so the size will depend on the tide. However, don’t expect a large area. When we were there it was probably half a football pitch. There’s also a few shacks, but by shacks I mean crudely constructed sunshades.
We dropped our bags off under when one of the sunshades, stripped off into boardies/bikinis and straight into the water. It was around 8am and there were only a few other people on the island (including a few guys selling drinks out of a cooler).
The reef creates a natural sand bottom lagoon around the sandbar which is less than shoulder deep so you can wade out into the crystal clear, picturesque water. If you’re looking to snorkel and see fish then you need to either swim at the edge of the reef or depending on the depth, swim over the reef. Be careful of currents though if you’re intending on swimming over the reef.
Generally speaking, it’s a picture postcard destination. Sun, white sand, turquoise Caribbean water. It makes for great pictures and it is a decent place to visit.
There are few things to take into account though if you’re thinking about visiting Cayo Arena:
Get there early
We arrived at Cayo Arena just after 8am and had the place almost to ourselves for about 30 minutes. If we had our time again we would get there an hour earlier, even though that means a very very early wake up and leave from Playa Encuentro!
There are two major reasons as to why I would say it’s worth getting up super early to be the first ones on Paradise Island:
The North Coast of the Dominican Republic does have a lot of wind and Cayo Arena is no exception. The sandbar is 20 minutes out to sea so there isn’t really and land to block the wind.
There was already a decent amount of wind by the time we got there, and it got progressively worse. Having spent 3 months in the DR, this happens almost everyday. If you get there at 10am you will be in for a super windy visit – windy to the point where it just won’t be as enjoyable.
Cayo Arena is a tiny little sandbar. There isn’t a whole lot of real estate to accommodate large crowds. A few small boats is fine because they often only carry a single group (like us) and you can spread out across the lagoon.
Around 30/45 minutes after we arrived, a big tour catamaran landed at Cayo Area…..and unloaded at least 50-75 people. We left 5 minutes later.
There simply is not enough space on Cayo Arena to dump that many people on. They may have spread out, gone swimming or snorkelling but people started playing music loudly, drinking, shouting (to fid each other) and generally spoiling the picturesque surroundings.
Seriously, get there as early as humanly possible. I think the first boats leave at 7am, aim to be on the first boats. As soon as the big tours arrive you are screwed.
That’s also another reason not to get one of the larger organised tours. If you get picked up in a coach, you know that you’re probably also going to be ushered onto that big catamaran. So you have no choice! You’ll be stuck with a load of other people that will be one Cayo Arena at the same time as you….
The great thing about hiring your own boat is that you get to leave whenever you want. No waiting around for people, not strict schedule.
The large tour arrived on Cayo Area. We all looked at each other ad unanimously decided that now was the time to leave.
10 minutes later and we were entering the mangroves.
Our boat driver (*pilot? skipper? captain?) was incredibly adept at speeding through the twists and turns of the mangroves, adding to the experience. I had never actually been in mangroves so really enjoyed this part of the trip.
We stopped in a little lagoon, had a little snack and were on our way. The trip through the mangroves was a nice little addition to the trip!
Is Cayo Arena worth it?
Honestly, I got off the boat thinking that the 2.5 hour drive for a 2 hour round trip probably wasn’t worth it. The rest of the guys thought it was and now that I’ve had some time to reflect, I’m glad we went.
If we had arrived only 30 minutes later than we had, it definitely would not have been worth it.
It cost us less than $40 all in to hire a car and a boat, between 4 of us. I can’t express enough how much I would recommend doing the same. DON’T use the tours, you will regret it.
The drive is a little longer than I would have liked, but all things considered, Cayo Arena (or Paradise Island) is worth the visit if you staying in the North West of the Dominican Republic.