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.
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.
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.
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:
You could spend all your time on Caye Caulker chatting with locals in bars or swimming from one of the island's many docks, but with some 400 species of tropical fish and 70 species of hard corals living offshore in the Belize Barrier Reef, it's well worth it to go on a snorkeling tour or go diving. The locally owned Hicaco Tours runs full-day trips ($45 per person) that include visits to the Hol Chan Marine Park, Shark Ray Alley, and Coral Gardens, plus snorkel gear. If you're dive-certified or want to learn, you can experience some of the world's most famous dive sites, such as the Blue Hole, from Caye Caulker. One of the island's most well-regarded dive companies, Frenchie's Diving offers four-day open water certification courses for $250. For experienced divers, day trips to the Blue Hole and Lighthouse Reef cost $135 per person.
Where to stay:
The Auxillou Beach Suites has one-bedroom suites right on the beach from $79 per night. Owner Wendy Auxillou can also set up very affordable packages that include activities and transportation to the island. For example, one three-night deal includes accommodations, snorkel and sailing tours, a massage, and round-trip air transfers from Belize City for $449 per person. Maxhapan Cabañas offers lower prices (from $60 per night) for guesthouse accommodations just off the beach.
April flights to Belize City International Airport from Miami start at $561 round-trip, including taxes and fees, on American. From Belize City it's a 45-minute water taxi ride to Caye Caulker ($15 round-trip).
Most visitors to Curacao—the "C" of the so-called ABC islands along with Aruba and Bonaire—stay in or near the capital of Willemstad. Although the town has pretty colonial architecture and interesting museums, it's quite developed and busy. For Caribbean travelers sick of chain resorts, casinos, cruise ships, and crowds, Westpunt, on the western tip of island, is the perfect antidote.
"The beaches are uncrowded, it's easier to eat on the cheap, and accommodations are less expensive—plus, I think it's the prettiest part of the island," says San Francisco Chronicle travel columnist Charyn Pfeuffer, whose favorite Caribbean island is Curacao. "Imagine cove after cove of clean sandy beaches and the most translucent pale blue water you will ever see."
What to do and where to stay:
One of the main reasons to come to Westpunt is to stay at the Lodge Kura Hulanda & Beach Club, a recently christened member of The Leading Hotels of the World, where luxury comes at a good price. "The Lodge Kura Hulanda sits on a cliff above a crescent-shaped beach—walk down a short staircase and you're on one of the island's most secluded stretches of sand," says Pfeuffer, who stayed there last April. "If you want to hole up and get away from it all, I can't imagine a better place. It's intimate and exclusive, without being overly expensive." Discount rates start as low as $155 per night for garden-view rooms and $235 for oceanfront studios.
On the lodge property, you can venture into a seaside cavern adorned with prehistoric rock art created by the island's original inhabitants, the Arawak-Taino Indians. There's a dive shop on-site, too. Snorkel tours start at $25 per person and one-tank boat dives start at $46 per person. Kayaks can also be rented for $10 per hour.
The interior of Westpunt is equally interesting. A few miles from the lodge in Christoffel National Park ($10 entrance fee), you can hike to the top of Christoffel Mountain or follow other trails through a white tail deer sanctuary. Nearby is Shete Boka National Park ($2.50 entrance fee), a rocky strip of coastline where sea turtles come to lay their eggs.
Other places to stay:
If you're looking for a cheap, but pleasant place to stay, try Rancho El Sobrino Curacao, which has guestrooms and one- and two-bedroom apartments starting at $50 per night. There's an Internet cafe and a restaurant and bar on-site as well.
Round-trip April flights from Miami to Willemstad, Curacao, start at $294 round-trip, including taxes and fees, on American. From Willemstad you can rent a car or take a taxi (about $55 each way).
SmarterTravel.com features expert travel advice and unbiased coverage of travel deals.