Wherever travel writer Tim Leffel, author of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and The World's Cheapest Destinations, vacations, you can be sure it's someplace cheap, authentic, and off the beaten path. And so it is with Progreso, Mexico, a little beach town on the Yucatan's Gulf Coast that has avoided Cancunification.
"This is one of those hidden gems that's getting harder to find," says Leffel. "I'm amazed at how inexpensive the region is considering how easy it is to get to from the U.S. The other thing that I find attractive is it's not a slice of the USA transplanted onto Mexican soil, as the Cancun area is. Most of the people who own houses in the area are Mexican and there are very few hotels, much less sprawling resorts. It's the old Mexico of slowing down and worrying about problems mañana."
What to do:
Most visitors come to Progreso and the neighboring villages of Chuburna (where Leffel owns a home), Chicxculub, and Telchac Puerto, to rent a house and flop on the beach in peace. "[The area] is basically a long stretch of flat coastline stretching east and west of Progreso, with fishing villages and vacation homes. It's very quiet and the beaches are never crowded and have small waves, so it's good for kids."
For more action, Leffel suggests going to the Progreso city beach. "There's drink and food service under palapas (open-sided, palm thatched structures) right on the beach itself and the city keeps it groomed," says Leffel. "Fresh fish restaurants are abundant and inexpensive and beers are $1.50."
If you really want something exciting to do, there are plenty of worthwhile sites nearby. Progreso is a 45-minute drive from the historic center of Merida, one of Mexico's prettiest colonial cities. Driving from Merida, it's 14 miles to the Mayan ruins of Dzibilchaltun, 50 miles to the massive ancient site of Uxmal, and 56 miles to the Celestun Biosphere Reserve, a wetland home to thousands of pink flamingos.
Places to stay:
Vacation rentals are the way to go in Progreso, and you'll find dozens of affordable properties in the area listed on reputable sites such as Vacation Rentals by Owner and VacationRentals.com. "You can rent a small house for $300 a week or rent a huge villa with a pool for less than $1,000," says Leffel.
The closest airport is located 22 miles away in Merida, which Continental serves directly from Houston. Round-trip April flights start at $381, including taxes. You can also fly to Cancun, a four-hour drive away. From Miami, round-trip flights in April start at $325 round-trip, including taxes and fees, on American. From either Merida or Cancun, it's convenient to rent a car.
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
In the mid-1800s, gold prospectors made their way to California via San Juan del Sur, a fishing village set in a crescent-shaped bay on Nicaragua's Pacific Coast. Once railroad tracks were laid across the U.S., however, Americans forgot about San Juan del Sur. Now a new gold rush is underfoot, and this time San Juan del Sur is the destination, not a stopover.