My 8 favorite beach towns to visit in Central and South America

As fall turns into winter in the US, so does my desire to travel somewhere warmer, relax on a beach, avoid the gray skies, and leave my phone to voicemail.

Every year it comes down to where you are going. Belize and its car-free islands? The knowledge of expats and creatures in Costa Rica? The mix of Peruvian and Chilean dishes? The art form of capoeira and the sounds of Gal Costa’s Aquarela Do Brasil that give the impression that you are in the Brazil of the past?

Over the years, these countries have become my go-to places and safe havens for when the wind starts knocking on my window. Not all of them are easily accessible, but that’s part of their charm.

Although a few may have tourists here and there, you will mostly find locals spending their vacation time in most of these places, and if you arrive at the right time, you will also find me.

Below is my guide to my favorite beach vacations from Belize to Uruguay, plus a bonus Mexico recommendation.

1. Ramon’s village

Ambergris Caye, Belize

Due to the country’s use of English as a local language and its location near the United States, Belize is a quick escape from almost every major city in the United States.

To get to the islands of Belize, fly to Philip SW Goldson International (BZE). From there, take a shuttle bus to one of two ferries that go to the islands or take a short flight into San Pedro Regional Airport (SPR).

Once there, you have a few options. My favorite beach is Ramon’s Village in Ambergris Caye – the largest of all the islands. I gravitate to this specific destination because of the restaurants, bars and Garifuna food.

From here you can easily take a boat to go snorkeling, parasailing or visit Shark Ray Alley.

View of Playa El Tunco, El Salvador

Photo credit: Keshler Thibert

2. Playa El Tunco

El Salvador

Although not on the radar of most travelers, Playa El Tunco rewards its visitors by showing a side of the country (on the Pacific Ocean) that is not often seen 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 use the time to see the beauty of the country and hopefully get some pollo (chicken) camper. Luxurious accommodation located at the end of Playa El Tunco and overlooking the sea. A rocky barrier separates the public (Playa Las Flores) and private sides of the beach.

Although the private side gives you long stretches with almost no one in sight, the public side has the restaurants and fishermen who are happy to have the Americans come to visit. English is hardly spoken here, so here you have the opportunity to practice your Spanish. The locals will have a million questions for you and will share their lives and stories with you.

Pro tip: Take some money with you.

The streets of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

The streets of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Photo credit: Keshler Thibert

3. San Juan Del Sur


A beach town that serves as a stopover before heading deeper inland, San Juan Del Sur has an interesting history due to American William S. Walker, who used the place as a port of entry before declaring himself president of Nicaragua in 1856.

Once again, book your transportation before you fly to Managua International (MGA). You can take a regional bus, but I strongly recommend private transportation for the 2-hour trip. The relaxed vibe and attitude will grab you immediately. While here, I took long naps on the beach, ate late lunches, and lost track of time.

A prime surfing and snorkeling spot, you’ll find a few surfers popping in to catch some waves, party in town, before heading off the next day via the bus station. For families, there are vendors offering pony and donkey rides up and down the beach.

People are friendly and every day feels like Sunday. My only criticism is that a few locals tried 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 drive to the Caribbean side of the country and one of the most popular destinations. Deciding to avoid the crowds, I stayed at one of the resorts at Playa Herradura.

What I prefer about this area just a short drive from the town of Jaco is the creature comforts that I am used to coming from a Caribbean family – namely the food. While in Herradura, it tasted authentic. In town I noticed that a number of restaurants sourced their food from American companies. The taste was different, even a little bland.

Playa Herradura is the perfect place to spend time with friends. When I’m there, I like to meet up for a couple of drinks, explore the area that was the inspiration for the original Jurassic Parkand relax on the beach while watching the boats out on the water.

A seal sat on a boat in the Galapagos Islands

A seal sat on a boat in the Galapagos Islands

Photo credit: Keshler Thibert

5. Puerto Villamil Beach, Isabela Island

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

A short walk from the harbor where all the ferries to other islands are located is Puerto Villamil. It’s a strange feeling to relax on a beach where flamingos walk by, but that’s exactly what you want to experience.

This is a place with spotty cell service and only a few ATMs where you can relax and enjoy the scenery while trying to spot the diverse residents who call this place home.

Ask a local guide to take you around the island, go snorkelling or hiking, or try to spot the various penguins, turtles and puffins that swim by.

When you’re done, stop at one of the local restaurants along the beach and relax.

View of Iquique, Chile skyline

View of Iquique, Chile skyline

Photo credit: Keshler Thibert

6. Playa Cavancha

Iquique, Chile

Located in northern Chile, Iquique is an ideal entry point to the Atacama Desert and home to Empanadas Don Ignacio, which serves up some of the best empanadas in the country.

Iquique is one of the most unique cities in the country. Because Iquique was part of Peru before the War of the Pacific (1879-1884), you will undoubtedly notice a mix of cultures, foods and spices that are only found in this region.

Located next to the main artery of Avenue Arturo Prat Chacon, Playa Cavancha is a great place to watch the waves and take a sandboarding lesson. More often than not, the water is too turbulent to swim in, but the views are stunning as the city’s few tall buildings create a photo-worthy spot as the sun begins to set.

7. Playa Brava

Punta Del Este, Uruguay

Grab one 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 on vacation. Dating back to the 1950s, the place has attracted all sorts for its beautiful beaches and nightlife.

With many names – Monaco in the South, the Pearl of the Atlantic, the Hamptons in South America, Miami Beach in South America and St. Tropez in South America – this is where you can get away and meet American or Latin celebrities.

Praia do Rio Vermelho and Salvador De Bahia skyline

Praia do Rio Vermelho and Salvador De Bahia skyline

Photo credit: Keshler Thibert

8. Praia Do Rio Vermelho

Salvador De Bahia, Brazil

Most travelers prefer Rio de Janeiro, but Salvador is my preference. Relaxed and with several families as well as couples visiting Farol da Barra for some private time, Praia do Rio Vermelho does not have crowds, but there are many nightclubs nearby where travelers can practice their samba.

During the day, take a private speedboat tour of the area or visit the surrounding islands before watching the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean.

Punta Maldonado (El Faro) from the lighthouse

Punta Maldonado (El Faro) from the lighthouse

Photo credit: Keshler Thibert

Bonus: Punta Maldonado (El Faro)

Guerreo/Oaxaca state border, Mexico

It feels strange to me to talk about all these Latin American destinations without including Mexico. So while it’s not technically in Central or South America, I’d like 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 silent and removed. The loudest sounds you will encounter are the sound of children playing and the regional bus calling for customers.

Known as El Faro (The lighthouse), Punta Maldonado sits along the Costa Chica (Short coast) on the border of the states of Guerrero and Oaxacan. Reaching this destination means either flying into Acapulco International (ACA) or Puerto Escondido (PXM) and taking regional transportation that takes you straight to the beach.

It is known by locals for a slave ship that crashed off the coast, forcing its chained inhabitants to swim ashore, and there are many people in the area who trace their lineage to these swimmers. More like a fishing town, you will find many vessels tied to makeshift wharves and fishermen heading out for the day’s catch while their families take care of chores.

Hotels are located on the upper floors of a few local homes. The area is rough, but that’s part of the charm. It is safe, but no tourist money has gone into the area and you can see it in the infrastructure and architecture. The locals were repairing their maritime museum when I was there – they were redoing the ground and cleaning it.

A few restaurants are located over the water. It won’t be long before someone offers you a Victoria beer and a menu of fresh ceviche.

Pro tip: Carry cash as there are no ATMs and mobile service is spotty. Head up the road to capture the lighthouse keeper, which will allow you to enter for a panoramic view. Put a few pesos in the box before you leave.

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 intrigued that you got there, and delicious local food that makes the trip absolutely worth it.

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