The best antidotes to cold weather blues are warm waves and fine-sand beaches. And some of the best beaches in the world ring the Dominican Republic’s easternmost tip, Punta Cana. The sugar-sand beaches of the Bavaro area are why so many global visitors (from Americans and Canadians to Germans and Russians) flock year-round to Punta Cana resorts to frolic where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Indulging at a resort—whether you’re beachside, pool-hopping, or at a spa treatment—is a must-do in Punta Cana. But equally important is getting off the resort to experience the D.R.’s natural and cultural wonders. And you might be surprised to find that the hotel wants to help you see them: Many Bavaro and Punta Cana resorts offer excursions to some of the most incredible places to go and best things to do in Punta Cana and beyond.
Here’s how one hotel showed me the way off the resort and made returning after each adventure worthwhile.
The Resort: Occidental Punta Cana
Located in Bavaro, the Occidental Punta Cana resort is a sprawling all-inclusive property that has something for every type of traveler. Families can enjoy the several huge pools and on-site child care; honeymooning couples can upgrade to the Royal Club level for a balcony whirlpool and a more exclusive beach area complete with beachside hot tubs; fitness gurus can do free water activities like kayaking, windsurfing, and snorkeling, or book parasailing or a yoga class. And all guests break for the resort’s vast and idyllic beach, which has a volleyball net, beachside bar, and lounge chairs.
The Occidental Punta Cana has 11 restaurants to choose from, plus affordable romantic add-ons like a private dinner for two on the beach for about $180 (total). Entertainment like traditional dancing and live music are hosted nightly on the property’s main stage. All Occidental Punta Cana resort activities, services, and all-inclusive levels can be found here.
Punta Cana Things to Do
Hotel excursions are some of the best things to do in Punta Cana because they continue the all-inclusive theme; early-morning pick up plus admission, a local guide, lunch, and drinks are typically included, so you don’t need to worry about driving or finding places to eat. The Occidental Punta Cana offers excursions to all of the below activities—but they’re not the only resort that does: Ask the resort you book with about any specific excursions you’d like to do to make sure they’re available.
Here are four incredible ways to get off your Punta Cana resort for a taste of Dominican culture and nature beyond the beach.
Zip Line and Cave Swim at Scape Park
Once you’ve had your fill of the resort’s sandy beaches, head to nearby Cap Cana’s Scape Park for another way to cool off that includes a serious adrenaline rush. Scape Park is a massive natural water park built around jungle cenotes (or sinkholes), giving the term “waterpark” new meaning. A trip to Punta Cana isn’t complete without venturing off the resort to Scape Park, where you’ll have a blast while also learning about your surroundings.
Thrills like a canopy and into-the-water zip lines draw visitors of all ages. There’s also an underground swimming cave, a cenote waterfall pool, a bat cave for spelunking, and a swimming hole called Hoyo Azul—making it easy to spend a half day exploring. The park also puts visitors in touch with local wildlife like monkeys, parrots, and ranch horses. Plus there’s a Cultural Route between attractions that covers the area’s history, from ancient Taino Indians to Spanish colonialization, the African slave-trade, and modern Dominican history.
Full admission includes lunch at the park and all activities, transport from your Punta Cana resort (choose from dozens of hotel pick-up options when booking here), and afternoon transportation to Scape Park’s nearby white-sand beach—which you’ll want to relax on after hours of hiking and swimming. The beach has free lounge chairs plus a bar and restaurant (food and drinks here are not included).
Visit Altos de Chavon
One of the most unexpected things to do in Punta Cana is to head to a replica Italian-style village perched high above the Chavon River valley. Altos de Chavon is an arts and culture project that includes a Roman amphitheater, cultural center, archaeological museum, and a renowned design school. Altos de Chavon’s unique brick-and-coral architecture makes it perfect for some easy walking through archways and gardens, and the view of the river valley in itself is well worth the one-hour journey from Punta Cana.
Because Altos de Chavon is home to design students, you’ll also find artisan workshops and art galleries here. Traditional live music and dancers in colorful skirts also mill about the attraction, and big-name acts from Frank Sinatra to Gloria Estefan have played concerts at the amphitheater.
Tip: Altos de Chavon only takes a few hours round-trip to fully experience, so most Punta Cana resort excursions here will include another activity as well.
Sail to Saona Island
It’s hard to believe that Dominican beaches can get much better than the warm waters of Punta Cana, but Saona Island, part of a protected area called East National Park, is a next-level paradise. Catamaran tours are the best way to get here, and you’ll make some memorable stops along the way. Before arriving at Saona you’ll stop at shallow ocean natural pools, which are a hotspot for guide-led visitors to stop and wade around looking for sea life, typically with a drink in hand. The turquoise water here signals you’ve arrived at the Caribbean Sea.
Natural Pool Bayahibe is one of the most popular spots off Saona—it’s known for its stingrays and enormous pink starfish, which you can easily spot under the surface. But an influx of tourists to the area isn’t without its problems: Be a good visitor and opt for biodegradable sunscreen so you won’t harm the wildlife, and never pick up the starfish. Any good local guide here will tell you that the starfish population has dwindled at the hands of excited visitors who remove them from the water.
Once you’re on Saona, Bayahibe Beach has a Caribbean barbecue (included in most guided tours) and there are snorkeling and palm-shaded lounge chairs to pass the time. Because the island is protected, most visiting by charter boats depart before sunset. Getting to and from the island from departure points in La Romana (where Altos de Chavon is located) takes about 45 minutes by boat (not including stops), so you can easily spend a few hours at sea and at Saona.
Tip: Staying at the Occidental Punta Cana resort, I visited both Altos de Chavon and Saona Island with stops at the natural pools in a single day. It’s a day-long journey from Punta Cana to Altos de Chavon and Saona and back, but the two-in-one excursion is easily one of the most popular and best things to do in Punta Cana. The comforts of your resort will be waiting for you on return, after all.
Uncover Cap Cana
If you’re looking for a shorter and more relaxed excursion than these day-long adventures, one little-known area of the Dominican Republic that’s very close to Punta Cana is perfect for getting off the resort. Cap Cana is a residential and hotel area adjacent to Scape Park and is home to some of the world’s biggest celebrities—including former Red Sox player David Ortiz, former Yankee Alex Rodriguez, and superstars Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, to name a few. Scape Park offers boat cruises here as an add-on to admission, but there are also other charters that can take you out on the water. Most beaches are open to the public, like Juanillo Beach. Also, check out the Marina at Cap Cana.
Tip: A 20-minute taxi ride away from Punta Cana, Cap Cana is also known for its golf courses, where you might run into a certain pair of friendly retired MLB players.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Punta Cana Travel Guide
- What to Pack for the Caribbean: 35 Essentials
- Which Caribbean Island is Right for You?