Surprise History of the Dominican Republic


The Dominican Republic’s Samana Peninsula

What do the streets of Philadelphia and the idyllic northeast coast of the Dominican Republic's Samana Peninsula have in common?

Answer: William ("Will") Kelley, a descendant of freed slaves from Philadelphia, and others like him, who speak English with little or no accent, have British and Irish names and even carry on the tradition of afternoon tea.

I had the pleasure of exploring the Samana Peninsula, a spectacularly lush and little known location far from the lovely, though well-trodden, Punta Cana. It feels worlds away in space and time; a natural preserve that harks back to the first populations of Taino, Spanish and French adventurers, pirates and freed slaves from northern lands.

Surprising History of the Dominican Republic

After a bus ride through the winding roads of the tropical mountains with amazing postcard-worthy sea views around nearly every corner, I arrived at the port for a 10 minute boat ride to Los Haitises National Park.  This protected virgin forest of nearly 1400 km bursts with mangroves, plentiful species of brilliantly plumed birds, migrating humpback whales and indigenous Taino pictographs found within its caves, a must-see when visiting Samana. From the boat the park appears as numerous green mounds with limestone caves mysteriously peering out.  This is where I met Will. With a bright red t-shirt and baseball cap he greeted and joked around with the passengers in English.  "You must get a lot practice with foreign languages working with tourists all day," I said.  "I grew up speaking English; my family came from Philadelphia in 1824. My name is William Kelley!" He announced happily as he launched into the story of the seemingly surprising presence of this local population.

samana dominican republicOur guide was not only humorous and entertaining but also extremely informative on the history of the region and uniqueness of Los Haitises National Park.  As we navigated through the waters, Will explained that freed and escaped slaves had emigrated to Samana in the 1800s.  Many people in the region are descendants of freed slaves from Philadelphia, Louisiana, etc. They grew up speaking English, only learning Spanish in school, and even somehow managed to keep the tradition, long gone stateside, of afternoon tea.

Natural Beauty of the Dominican Republic

If the history of Samana is as stirring, its beauty is spell-binding.  Samana has long been diverse with Taino, Spanish and French, freed slaves, and marshes that were havens for pirates, but for even longer it has been resplendent in naturally beautiful diversity. Los Haitises National Park presents an opportunity to view this splendor undisturbed by tourist throngs offering humpback whale watching between January and March, when more than 1,500 of these majestic mammals visit during mating season, 121 species of flamboyant birds, and numerous species of delicate orchids, to name just a few. The small group tours, like the one led by Mr. Kelley, are affordable and greatly enhance your appreciation for everything this amazing preserve reveals. No floating plastic bags with store logos or cigarette butts here. Respectful tourists leave feeling honored to have been invited into this pristine tropical forest and to have played a part in maintaining it. My Samana and Los Haitises tour off the flip-flopped tourist track was my favorite part of this Dominican Republic experience.

The tropical vibrance was jaw-dropping and I couldn’t help seeing our guide Will as a long-lost brother connecting and extending the strands of a section of the American story I thought I knew. The powerful natural beauty of this nation, its strong will to keep it pristine, and the smiling optimism of its citizens will compel me to return and recommend the D.R. as a wonderful vacation spot to anyone and everyone.

Written By Tamara Kahlon

tamara kahlonTamara Kahlon is a travel enthusiast currently living in Miami, FL. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA and recieved her bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations from UCLA. She has traveled, lived and studied in Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, Asia and the Middle East and is constantly looking to expand that list "” but for now living in Miami and visiting the Dominican Republic is just fine.