As fall transitions into winter in the United States, so does my desire to go someplace warmer, to disconnect on a beach, avoid the gray skies, and allow my phone to go to voicemail.
Each year, it comes down to where to go. Belize and its carless islands? The familiarity of expats and creature comforts in Costa Rica? The mix of Peruvian and Chilean cuisines? The art form of capoeira and sounds of Gal Costa’s Aquarela Do Brasil that give the impression that you’re in the Brazil of the past?
Over the years, these countries have become my go-to places and my safe havens for when the wind starts knocking on my window. Not all of them are easily accessible, but that is part of their charm.
Although a few may have tourists here and there, for the most part, you will find locals spending their vacation time at most of these locales and, if you arrive at the right time, you will also find me.
Below is my guide to my favorite beach getaways from Belize to Uruguay, plus a bonus recommendation in Mexico.
1. Ramon’s Village
Ambergris Caye, Belize
Due to the country using English as a local language and its location near the United States, Belize is a quick getaway from almost every major U.S. city.
To reach the islands of Belize, you fly into Philip S.W. Goldson International (BZE). From there, you take a shuttle to one of two ferries that go to the islands or take a short flight into the San Pedro Regional Airport (SPR).
Once there, you have a few options. My favorite beach is Ramon’s Village in Ambergris Caye — the biggest of all the islands. I gravitate to this specific destination due to its restaurants, bars, and Garifuna food.
From here, you can easily grab a boat to go snorkeling, parasailing, or visiting Shark Ray Alley.
2. Playa El Tunco
Although not on most travelers’ radar, Playa El Tunco rewards its visitors by showing a side of the country (on the Pacific) not seen often or portrayed in a positive light. Before arriving at San Salvador International (SAL), arrange for transportation to take you to the town of La Libertad.
Only 35 minutes away from the airport, you can utilize the time to see the beauty of the country and hopefully get some pollo (chicken) campero. Luxury accommodations are on the far end of Playa El Tunco and overlook the ocean. A rocky barrier partitions the public (Playa Las Flores) and private sides of the beach.
Although the private side leaves you with long stretches with almost no one in sight, the public side has the restaurants and fishermen who are delighted that the Americans are visiting. English is barely spoken here, so here is your opportunity to practice your Spanish. Locals will have a million questions for you and want to share their lives and stories with you.
Pro Tip: Carry some cash.
3. San Juan Del Sur
A beach town that serves as a stopover before heading deeper into the country, San Juan Del Sur has an interesting history due to American William S. Walker, who used the site as a port of entry before proclaiming himself the president of Nicaragua in 1856.
Once again, book transportation before flying into Managua International (MGA). You can take a regional bus, but I strongly suggest private transportation for the 2-hour trek. The laid-back vibe and attitude will grab you instantly. While here, I took long naps on the beach, ate late lunches, and lost track of time.
A prime surf and snorkeling site, you will find a few surfers stopping by to catch a few waves, party in town, before leaving the next day via the bus station. For families, there are vendors offering pony and donkey rides up and down the beach.
The people are friendly, and every day feels like Sunday. My only gripe is that a few locals attempted to sell me everything from souvenirs and cigarettes to coconut water while I was trying to relax.
4. Playa Herradura
Jaco, Costa Rica
Transportation from San Jose International (SJO) is a 90-minute ride to the Caribbean side of the country and one of the most popular destinations. Deciding to steer clear of the crowds, I stayed at one of the resorts at Playa Herradura.
What I prefer about this area just a short drive from the city of Jaco are the creature comforts that I am used to coming from a Caribbean family — namely, the food. While in Herradura, it tasted authentic. In the city, I noticed that a number of restaurants received their food from American companies. The taste was different, even a bit bland.
Playa Herradura is the perfect place for spending time with friends. When I’m there, I like to meet for a few drinks, explore the area that was the inspiration for the original Jurassic Park, and relax on the beach while watching the boats out on the water.
5. Puerto Villamil Beach, Isabela Island
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
A short walk from the port where all the ferries to other islands are located is Puerto Villamil. It is a strange sensation to relax on a beach where flamingos walk by, but that is exactly what you will experience.
This is a location with spotty cell service and only a few ATMs where you can detach and enjoy the scenery while trying to spot the various inhabitants who call this place home.
Ask a local guide to take you around the island, go snorkeling or hiking, or try to spot the various penguins, tortoises, and boobies that swim by.
When you are done, stop at one of the local restaurants along the beach and relax.
6. Playa Cavancha
Located in the north of Chile, Iquique is an ideal entry point to the Atacama Desert and home to Empanadas Don Ignacio, which serves some of the best empanadas in the country.
Iquique is one of the most unique cities in the country. Because Iquique was a part of Peru prior to the War of the Pacific (1879–1884), you will undoubtedly notice a mix of cultures, foods, and spices that exists only in this region.
Playa Cavancha sits next to the main artery of Avenue Arturo Prat Chacon, a great site for watching the waves and taking a sandboarding lesson. More often than not, the waters are too turbulent to swim in, but the views are amazing as the city’s few tall buildings create a photo-worthy site once the sun starts to set.
7. Playa Brava
Punta Del Este, Uruguay
Grab a chivito (Uruguayan steak and egg sandwich) and head to Playa Brava to experience the jet-set life. Punta del Este is where the famous go to vacation. Going back to the 1950s, the site has attracted all sorts due to its beautiful beaches and nightlife.
Going by many names — the Monaco of the South, Pearl of the Atlantic, the Hamptons of South America, Miami Beach of South America, and St. Tropez of South America — this is where you can get away and run into American or Latin celebrities.
8. Praia Do Rio Vermelho
Salvador De Bahia, Brazil
Most travelers prefer Rio de Janeiro, but Salvador is my preference. Laid back and with more families as well as couples visiting Farol da Barra for some private time, Praia do Rio Vermelho does not have crowds, but there are plenty of nightclubs in the vicinity where travelers can practice their samba.
During the day, you can take a private speedboat tour of the area or visit the surrounding islands before watching the sun set over the Atlantic.
Bonus: Punta Maldonado (El Faro)
Guerreo/Oaxaca State Border, Mexico
It feels odd to me to speak of all these Latin American destinations without including Mexico. So while it’s not technically in Central or South America, I want to introduce Punta Maldonado — a reminder of what Mexican beach towns were once like. There are no fast-food restaurants here. Instead, you have families preparing regional meals. It is quiet and removed. The loudest noises you will encounter are the sound of children playing and the regional bus calling out for customers.
Known as El Faro (The Lighthouse), Punta Maldonado sits along Costa Chica (Short Coast) on the border of the Guerrero and Oaxacan states. To reach this destination means either flying into Acapulco International (ACA) or Puerto Escondido (PXM) and taking regional transportation that will take you right to the beach.
It’s known by locals for a slave ship that crashed off its coast, forcing its shackled inhabitants to swim to shore, and there are many people in the area who trace their lineage to those swimmers. More of a fishing town, you will find numerous vessels tied to makeshift docks and fishermen going out for the day’s catch while their families take care of chores.
Hotels are located on the top floors of a few local homes. The area is rough-looking, but that is part of its charm. It is safe, but no tourism dollars have gone to the area, and you can see it in the infrastructure and architecture. The locals were repairing their nautical museum when I was there — repaving the ground and cleaning it.
A few restaurants are over the water. It won’t be too long before someone offers you a Victoria beer and a menu featuring fresh ceviche.
Pro Tips: Carry cash as there are not any ATMs and cell service is spotty. Head up the road to catch the lighthouse watcher, who will let you go inside for a panoramic view. Put a few pesos in the box before leaving.
No matter which Mexican, Central, or South American beach destination you prefer, each offers its own unique charm, fun excursions, accessibility to locals who will be fascinated that you made it there, and delicious local foods that make the trek absolutely worth it.
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