With its next-door neighbor Costa Rica becoming overcrowded and overpriced, travelers are looking up the coast for affordable, unspoiled beach real estate. The area, admired for its sandy beaches, lush tropical landscape, and friendly locals, is experiencing a boom in vacation home and hotel growth. It's a great time for travelers to come, too. The tourism infrastructure is stronger and there are a fair amount of accommodations and activity options now, but prices are still reasonable and the area retains much of its local character.
What to do:
San Juan del Sur's uncrowded beaches and reliable offshore winds make it ideal for surfing. In town, Arena Caliente rents surfboards ($10 per day) and runs lessons ($32 per person). If you're not a surfer, you can get out on the water on a full-day sailing trip with Pelican Eyes Sailing Adventures ($70 per adult), which includes eight hours of sailing, a stop at a protected bay for swimming and lunch, and an open bar. Onshore, you can explore the jungle by swinging across 1.5 miles of zipline ($25 per person) or riding horseback ($10 per hour) with the outfitter Da Flying Frog.
Casual thatched-roof bars and restaurants line the town's beach, serving up Nicaraguan brewed Victoria beer and dishes made of freshly caught fish.
Where to stay:
Pelican Eyes...Piedras y Olas, is one of the area's most upscale establishments. Not just a pretty resort, Piedras y Olas was built by an American as way to support and assist the non-profit Fundación A. Jean Brugger, which provides locals with educational opportunities and vocational training. Staying at the resort is cheap by U.S. standards—prices at this eco-friendly resort range from $125 per night for a deluxe room to $270 per night for a two-bedroom private guesthouse. For affordable but comfortable accommodations in the center of town, try Villa Isabella. Nightly rates start at $50.
San Juan del Sur is about a two-hour drive from the Managua International Airport in Nicaragua's capital city. Round-trip flights from Miami in April start at $288, including taxes and fees, on American. From the airport, you can access San Juan via rental car, taxi ($50 to $60 each way), or express bus (about $3).
Caye Caulker, Belize
If you had to pick one term to sum up the tiny Belizean island of Caye Caulker, it'd be "laid-back." "The motto on Caulker is 'go slow,' which typifies the lifestyle," says Wendy Auxillou, owner of several beachfront suites on the island. "It is a great place to relax and find yourself."
One mile wide and five miles long, tiny Caye Caulker is the lesser-known little sister of Ambergris Caye, a much larger Belizean island famous for its proximity to world-class dive sites along the Belize Barrier Reef. Caye Caulker is close to the dive sites too, but its size has kept development and crowding in check. The island is being "discovered" by more visitors of late, but prices remain budget friendly.
"Even though the island is set up for tourism, [it] has a very local feel," says Cruise Critic Associate Editor Erica Silverstein, who visited the island on her honeymoon in December. "The streets are packed sand and people get around on foot or by golf cart. In the evenings, locals set up grills on the beach and sell fresh fish dinners."
What to do: