Dominican Republic was never very high on our bucket lists as self proclaimed ‘adventure junkies’. It’s no secret to anyone that we love to explore, and so the thought of a 100% beach vacation usually brings us out in cold sweats. With that being said, it’d been a long time since our last all-inclusive beach vacation to Mexico in 2014 and perhaps a relaxing vacation was long overdue. We decided that we hadn’t been to the Caribbean together before, and eventually decided on an all-inclusive trip to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in the Dominican Republic. Predictably though, after a fews days… ok, more like a day… of sitting on the beach we decided we needed to go searching for adventure. After a bit of furious googling, we quickly came across the most incredibly unexpected natural wonder called “Hoyo Azul”, and realised we had to go and find it:
The Hoyo Azul is one of two incredible natural cenotes in a private reserve called “Scape Park“. Scape Park is a tourist park/reserve with several attractions, including Hoyo Azul, Cenote Las Ondas, ziplining, catamaran cruises, private beaches and more. Even if you looked nowhere else, a quick look on Trip Advisor would lead you straight to the Hoyo Azul Experience (#14 out of 540). My guess is that it sits close to the top because in a sea of ziplining, buggy rides and snorkelling trips it seems to be one of the few tours to offer something truly unique. But yes, they do do ziplining. Set into some large limestone cliffs, the park seems like it was built for it.
Louise and I arrived pretty early (around 8.30am), and as we were the first to arrive we were given the choice of taking a private tour or waiting for a bigger group. We jumped at the chance to get there before the crowds and were quickly rounded up by our fantastic tour guide, Angel. Angel didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Spanish, but we seemed to understand each other perfectly. Not knowing much about the journey to Hoyo Azul, I could make out the rock cliffs in the distance and guessed that we were headed in that direction. Fortunately, the path to the cenotes were shaded, the temperature was still cool and we must have reached the blue hole within 20 minutes; maybe even faster once Louise noticed all the signs for different snakes (I can see this walk being quite tough if you arrive a bit later on in the day). Having read some other online reviews, it sounds like going in a big group takes twice as long. Possibly because more time is taken to point out the wildlife and hydrate along the way etc. In our case, we knew the crowds would be bearing down on us soon so we didn’t make any pit stops.
Quite literally meaning “blue hole” in Spanish, Hoyo Azul is a stunningly clear, deep blue pool in the heart of the Dominican jungle. This is the kind of water you daydream about swimming in; a natural spring, hidden in a cave, in the middle of a rainforest. All of the crowds at the entrance became a distant memory as soon as we cast our eyes over that crystal blue water. You could see the bottom with startling clarity, and it was impossible to tell if it was 1ft or 50ft deep. The pool is actually incredibly deep though, and we were told that it extends more than 75m underground. Up above, the caves are lined with enormous beehives and you can hear the quiet buzzing of the bees as you swim around the pool. Once you get to the pool, you can get in slowly or jump in off the diving platform. The answer was easy for us, and it didn’t take long for the ‘cannonballing’ to begin. In the end, we had the entire place to ourselves for about ten minutes before the crowds started to arrive. We could go on and on about the serenity of Hoyo Azul, but pictures tell the story better!
Cenote Las Ondas
As I mentioned earlier, there are two cenotes at Scape Park, the other one being ‘Cenote Las Ondas’. Unlike Hoyo Azul, Cenote Las Ondes is buried deep undergound. The pool is only accessible by descending deep into a dark cave; hope you’re not claustrophobic! It’s a totally different experience to the other cenote and definitely worth checking out!
Rather than take the ziplining option, we begged Angel to take us there instead before the crowds arrived. Fortunately he agreed, and once more we descended into the jungle, immediately coming across a sign for large Tarantulas. Nope. To make the walk more interesting, the route is lined with interesting signs depicting the lives and culture of the indigenous Taino People. It’s pretty fascinating actually, especially seeing how these incredible cenotes played a part in the culture. Interestingly, the cenotes were never used by the Taino, as they believed that they were a gateway to the underworld. After a brief walk, we came to an opening in the rock and a wooden staircase. The staircase takes you down several stories into the darkness until eventually you reach the Cenote Las Ondas. Lit with an eerie blue glow, it was another opportunity for us to cool off and take a dip. Fortunately, once again we had time to take in the quiet scene before the next group arrived.
On the way back, Angel took us back past a few animal cages with the most enormous yellow python, and another with a couple of beautiful monkeys (Nacho and Mia). Not really an overly advertised feature but something to stop at along the way between activities. I’m pretty sure you can hold the python, once again, nope nope nope nope.
How to do Scape Park:
If you’re looking for more of a natural experience, I would recommend arranging a private tour; the earlier the better. If you want to have more of a fun, adventure day then just visit as normal. When the groups arrived at each spot it turned into more of a cliff jumping spot/photo op. Mix that in with ziplining and you’re set for an awesome day of adventure. Both are fantastic ways to take it in, but it’s good to bear in mind the difference. I definitely recommend arriving early, as even arriving at 8.30am meant that we arrived in a sea of tour buses. If you’re planning to arrange a private tour or drive there yourself, make sure contact the park in advance. The entire park is located in a secured area, so you’ll need a reservation to get through the security check point.
One of the highlights of our day was our visit to Juanillo Beach, a private part of the Eastern Coast owned by Scape Park. Unlike the rougher North coast, the beach here has calm turquoise waters and stunning views. If you book a catamaran tour or a Juanillo Beach excursion, you’ll end up here at the private beach restaurant owned by Scape Park. Food and drinks are free flowing and there are plenty of water activities to choose from. If you feel like wandering a little, we also stumbled across an awesome little beach bar called little John. Very picturesque and a great photo op if you’re looking for a classic Instagram beach bar photo 🙂
Where is Scape Park?
Scape Park is located right by the Punta Cana airport on the East coast. We drove for around 40 minutes from our resort on the North coast (Hard Rock Hotel), and ended up arriving at Scape Park just after opening at 8.30am.
We loved the uniqueness of this experience. Great ziplining experiences are a dime a dozen in Dominican, so if you’re planning on doing one it’s worth checking the cenotes out at the same time. Finding something you can’t get anywhere else is what makes for unique memories, and Scape Park offers it by the brilliant, blue bucketload. We have incredible blue water in Canada, but this is something completely different! It’s also a great chance to learn about the local culture. I would say the biggest downside is that you’re not allowed to bring your own cameras to Hoyo Azul. If you want any photos you’ll have to buy them in the gift shop afterwards. I can’t say that surprises me, but it’s a shame nonetheless. Parts of the park are currently under construction (Nov 2017), but I don’t think it detracts from the experience.