Five affordable, under-the-radar beach towns in the Americas

Everybody loves finding a hidden gem, especially one with palm trees and sand. But with formerly emerging beach destinations in the Caribbean and Latin America getting built up with cruise ports, chain resorts, and even U.S. mega stores, it may seem like there are no more "secret" places left.

While it's true there may not be many "undiscovered" places anymore, there are still quite a few underappreciated ones. This month, I'll highlight five of the most affordable beach towns and islands left in the Americas—some right next door to destinations you already know.

Ilhabela, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro doesn't have a monopoly on beautiful Brazilian beaches. There are countless others all along the country's coast. Just off the coast of Sao Paulo state, Ilhabela—Portuguese for beautiful island—is the tropical refuge Paulistas head to when they tire of crowded urban beaches. As I discovered on a visit last August, Ilhabela is also a welcoming and seductive destination for foreigners. It's affordable, too, especially if you visit between March and November.

Ilhabela presents two faces to visitors. Its western side is lined with gentle beaches, buzzing resort villages, and the holiday homes of the Sao Paulo elite. The other 85% of the island (the interior and the eastern, ocean-facing coast) is protected Atlantic rainforest and undeveloped beaches.

What to do:

Life on the eastern coast is much as it is in the rest of Brazil: Relaxing on the beach, socializing in bars, and dining out are the main activities. There are dozens of beaches to choose from, but Praia do Curral near the southern end of the coast is the liveliest, with casual bars and eateries serving up seafood and live music.

Hiking, boating, horseback riding, and cascading are all possibilities on Ilhabela's wild east side. Maremar Turismo (this website is in Portuguese only) runs a variety of excursions, including jeep tours ($40 per person) and horseback riding ($34 per person) on Praia do Castelhanos, the longest beach on the island, and one of the prettiest.

Arguably the most beautiful beach is Praia do Bonete, a rugged, windswept cove reminiscent of Big Sur. It can only be reached by boat or on foot. Hiking the nine-mile trail through the rainforest to Bonete is one of the island's most rewarding adventures. It's a challenging four-hour outing, but the views are worth it.

Where to stay:

On the west coast, you can stay at the cute German-Brazilian-owned Porto Pacuiba Hotel on Praia do Viana. This homey hotel serves a delicious breakfast buffet of Brazilian fruits and European cakes and meats. I paid about $70 per night for a standard room in the off season.

When hiking to Praia do Bonete, you can (and should) spend the night in the Bonete fishing village. The friendly Pousada Canto Bravo offers comfortable accommodations, rustic-chic decor, gourmet meals made from freshly caught fish, and the staff can arrange surfing lessons and other activities. Overlooking the beach and lit by candlelight at night (there's no electricity in Bonete), Canto Bravo makes a great romantic hideaway. Nightly rates start around $88.

Getting there: May flights from Miami to the Sao Paulo-Guarulhos Airport, the nearest major international airport, start at $595 round-trip, including taxes and fees, on Copa. From the main bus station in Sao Paulo, it's a four-hour bus ride ($17 one-way) to the ferry terminal in Sao Sebastiao. The ferry ride takes 10 minutes and is free for pedestrians.

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