A few years ago, after passing through the party strip north of Punta del Este, Uruguay – this was before the likes of Shakira, Martin Amis and George Clooney became regulars – I went walking around a lagoon surrounded by protected semi-wild pampas.
A breeze barely rippled the cool blue water; flamingoes, black-necked swans and seabirds browsed in the shallows. On a whim I walked up to a grassy ridge and stumbled through high reeds to find myself standing on an extremely long, straight, sandy beach. Looking in both directions, there was no sight of a towel, lounger, vendors, drinks stalls, not a soul.
Of course I dived in. The Atlantic was cool and clean. There were no powerful rips, rocks or awkward slopes. I experienced the pure delight of discovery, the luxury of a lone swim. If this were in Europe, I considered while drying off in the sun, it would not only be one of the loveliest beaches, but one of the most developed. There would be hotels, houses, hordes. Here, for now, population and packages were not a problem – and I dived back in.
To my knowledge, no one has ever walked around the edge of Latin America with an odometer, but wind scientists say the coast is around 31,000 miles (50,000km) long – and they should know.
Most of this lies within the tropics, subtropics and temperate zone, meaning that whatever the season, there’s always sunshine somewhere.
There’s usually a beach close at hand, too – and the choice is dizzying. The exposed Pacific is a hit with surfers, Brazil’s Atlantic coast is a globally recognised signifier for beach heaven, and the sheltered and balmier Caribbean seaside provides the backdrops for luxe magazine photoshoots and honeymoons.
But Latin American countries are, above all, cultural destinations. Europeans encountered the New World on its littoral and built great cities – Buenos Aires, Lima, Panama, Rio de Janeiro – to be ports and gateways. Latin Americans still live largely in sight of the sea.
Wherever you decide to pitch your towel during the kindly hours of the morning and afternoon will determine what you will do for the rest of the day.
In Peru, you’ll be eating the best ceviche in the world. In Brazil you might catch some live Afro-tinged choro music. Off Mexico’s Baja California peninsula you might see a hump-backed whale.
Foto: Baja California, Mexico Credit: Getty
Every region of each country has its own distinct beach scene, which has evolved around cultural roots as well as fashion and films, retail and recreation, hotels or campsites. Once you’ve decided what you want from a resort, you can think about the usual beach stuff: temperature, tide strength, touts and public toilets. Are you a keen swimmer? Then best avoid Rio’s roiling surf. But nearby Ilha Grande will suit. Do you like lush, verdant coasts? Avoid northern Chile and head for Peru or Costa Rica. Do you want stylish and slick, as in Nicaragua’s Costa Esmeralda, or raw and rough-hewn, as in Ecuador?
The following is a personal choice: 20 beaches or beach resort areas from around 20 years of bathing, basking and bumming on them. I’ve not been to every strip of coast – even the wind-power wonks haven’t managed that – and I keep discovering, so drop us a line if you have favourites of your own and secrets you are willing to share.
1. Jericoacoara, Ceará, Brazil
Best for: romance, watersports
Dunes and lagoons and the star attraction in Jericoacoara Credit: Getty
A five-hour drive – or 183 miles – north of the coastal city of Fortaleza is Jericoacoara (“Jeri”), a remote village surrounded by dunes and lagoons. While ultra-fashionable and popular with the yachting crowd from Rio and Sao Paulo, ensuring a glut of smart fusion restaurants and luxurious pousadas (inns) – Essenza is where Brazilian television stars and models congregate – its setting in an out-of-the-way national park gives it an extra facet. The main village sits between a wide white-sand beach, a chain of grassy hills and the towering Por do Sol (Sunset) dune, where crowds gather to sip cocktails and catch the “green flash” at sunset. An airport in nearby Cruz opened in June. TAP Air Portugal flies London Gatwick and Heathrow to Lisbon then direct to Fortaleza, and Air Europa flies Gatwick to Recife via Madrid.
Sunvil’s (020 8758 4774, sunvil.co.uk) 14-night north-east Brazil package ticks off Salvador, Natal, Jericoacoara and Praia da Pipa. From £3,649, including flights.
2. Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro
Best for: posing, promenading
Rio has more than a dozen beaches, large and small, each with its own USP. I like evening beers and bites and glorious sunsets at Urca. People watching on Copacabana. Botafogo for the view across to the Sugarloaf. But Ipanema is the place to stay, both in terms of hotels (the Fasano is the young buck challenging Copacabana’s grand old Palace), and hang out. Though backing on to a smart district, the beach is egalitarian (men, women, LGBT, families and singles mix freely) and a block or two inland are grill and buffet restaurants galore and shady bars – including Garota de Ipanema, where the song was written. It’s even OK for swimming – though the swell can get powerful anywhere along the coast. Walk west to Leblon or east to Arpoador.
Jacada Travel (0207 619 1380, jacadatravel.com) offers a private nine-night itinerary to Brazil focusing on the country’s beaches and natural landscapes, with stops in Florianopolis and Iguazu Falls, finishing with three days on Rio de Janeiro’s famous Ipenema beach. From £5,636 per person, excluding international flights.
3. Baia do Sancho, Fernando de Noronha, Brazil
Best for: marine wildlife
Fernando de Noronha is renowned for its sand Credit: BELO HORIZONTE/Fabricio Silva
Many people fly over this 21-island archipelago when heading for Brazil – but only a few people get to visit. That’s partly because numbers are restricted by the 300-400 seats available on the jets that come here – it’s 220 miles (354km) from Natal on the mainland – and also because it’s posh and pricey. Tourist infrastructure is limited, which keeps the beaches looking beautiful and practically empty. Strict conservation ensures some of Brazil’s best snorkelling and diving: rays, turtles and dolphins are routine sights. Beach buggies can be rented to get around and there is just one paved road on the one inhabited island. Paradise? Almost – and even popular Sancho beach is as beautiful as any cove in the Greek islands, but sunnier, quieter and cleaner.
Bespoke Brazil (01603 340680, bespokebrazil.com) has a 12-day north-eastern beach lovers’ holiday combining Fernando de Noronha with Porto de Galinhas and Olinda from £3,170pp, including all flights.
4. Ilha Grande, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil
Best for: honeymoons, wildlife, calm
There are many lovely beach spots along Brazil’s Costa Verde (the jungle-lined coast between the port of Santos and Rio de Janeiro) but Ilha Grande is a different order of beautiful. Strict conservation measures keep the 75 square-mile (194 sq km) rugged, densely wooded island car-free, and the hotels lying along the edges are small, mid-rise or low and well apart from one another. Footpaths cut through the greenery, one of the best-preserved remaining swathes of Atlantic rainforest. All the beaches are great, but Lopes Mendes on the south-eastern corner is social in a very Brazilian, laid-back way. Caiman, sloths, parrots and howler monkeys inhabit the island; Magellanic penguins and whales can sometimes be spotted offshore. A nice place to stay is Asalem (asalem.com.br), which combines a rustic setting and cool, white interiors. The fast boat from Conceicao do Jacarei is 15-20mins; ferry from Angra dos Reis 90mins.
Chimu Adventures (020 7403 8265, chimuadventures.com) has a nine-night Highlights of Brazil tour making stops at Rio de Janeiro, Ilha Grande, Paraty and Iguazu. From £1,435 excluding international flights.
5. Punta del Diablo, Uruguay
Best for: budget travel, riding
Only 112 miles (180km) from Punta del Este, this backpacker hotspot grew around a fishing village. Although numbers of visitors have steadily increased, many people still come here to camp amid the pine trees and sand dunes. Excellent local butchers can provide all that’s needed for al fresco barbecues, and there are some excellent parrillas (grill restaurants) too. To the south is Cabo Polonio, declared a national park in 2009, which boasts an off-grid township, genuine wilderness, a sea lion colony and quiet beaches around its namesake lighthouse. Just to the north is Brazil, if you fancy a day trip abroad.
Ultimate Travel (0207 386 4622 theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) has a 12-night Eastern Uruguay itinerary including three nights at Punta del Diablo priced from £5,890, including flights.
6. José Ignacio, Uruguay
Best for: luxury, gastronomy
Where “Punta” to the south is built-up and brash, José Ignacio is smarter, more cosmopolitan and a tad quieter – avoid the Christmas to mid-January ultra-high season. Buenos Aires’s best chefs decamp to open pop-ups here in summer and star DJs are flown in for al fresco club nights. The beaches are tan-coloured, curvaceous and pretty, as are the bods doing selfies on the boardwalk over the dunes; a lighthouse and small fishing fleet keep things real. There’s a good range of bespoke hotels (Playa Vik is stunning, playavik.com) as well as grand beach houses for rent. Paddle-boarding and biking are popular, and there are plenty of families here if you’re with young ’uns (kids are made welcome in restaurants in all of Latin America).
A tailor-made 10-day trip to Uruguay with Last Frontiers (01296 653000, lastfrontiers.com) taking in Montevideo, Colonia and the Unesco-listed Fray Bentos site then winding down with a few days in José Ignacio, costs from £2,440pp, including international flights.
7. Cariló, near Pinamar, Argentina
Best for: swimming, asados (barbecues)
Argentina’s warmest seas are off Buenos Aires province, with sandy beaches stretching across some 500 miles (800km) of coastline, most backing on to the low-lying fields of the pampas. Cariló, close to the resort town of Pinamar, is a rustic-looking but well-heeled designer pueblo of dunes and shady pines with most of the accommodation in small wooden houses. Set off on hikes, horseback or quad bike to explore the area, and trip into Pinamar for lunch at Los Troncos, a legendary pit-stop for pastas, seafood dishes and variations on the theme of cow. Sunny from late November to March, but avoid January when families relocate from Buenos Aires.
Black Tomato (0207 426 9888, blacktomato.com) arranges luxury bespoke holidays in Buenos Aires and Cariló from £5,000pp, includes transfers, accommodation and tours.
At a glance | The 20 countries with the most species of bird
1- Colombia: 1,826 species
2- Peru: 1,804
3- Brazil: 1,753
4- Indonesia: 1,615
5- Ecuador: 1,588
6- Bolivia: 1,427
7- Venezuela: 1,364
8- China: 1,240
9- India: 1,180
10- DR Congo: 1,087
11- Mexico: 1,081
12- Tanzania: 1,052
13- Kenya: 1,034
14- Myanmar: 1,013
15- Argentina: 998
16- Uganda: 987
17- Thailand: 925
18- Sudan: 915
19- Angola: 905
20- Panama: 879
Source: Birdlife International
8. Zapallar, Chile
Best for: wine buffs, fly-drives
There are many beaches to explore north of the arty city of Valparaiso, but the prettiest and best preserved is Zapallar, in a horseshoe-shaped bay backed by wooded hills dotted with old mansions and upscale holiday homes. Make day trips down to Chile’s best-known beach resort, Viña del Mar, the Casablanca Valley – source of much of that affordable chardonnay and sauv blanc – and Pablo Neruda’s beach house at Isla Negra. Since January 2016, BA flies direct to Santiago, which is an hour and a bit away by taxi.
Pura Aventura (01273 676712, pura-aventura.com) has a tailor-made 15-day Central Chile Uncovered: Vineyards & Volcanoes itinerary, which ends with two nights in Zapallar. From £3,460pp, excluding flights.
9. Máncora, Piura, northern Peru
Best for: adventure, wildlife
Peru sells itself to the mainstream through ancient ruins, beautiful colonial-era cities and, more recently, gastronomy. But it’s long been a surfing hotspot and the 1,500-mile (2,415km) Pacific seaboard boasts a string of good breaks and enticing beach resorts, with the best in the north, where the skies are clearest (the south is prone to dense fog and haze) and there are mangrove forests, tropical valleys and dry forests as well as stretches of desert. Máncora, with its long, clean, sandy beaches, low-slung cabins and small hotels and excellent restaurants (book a table at Donde Teresa, a top-notch fish and seafood eatery run by celebrated local chef Teresa Ocampo), is the preferred hangout of the Peruvian jetset. There’s a lively kite and surfing scene, but the warm waters are often calm. Nearby there’s riding, cycling, wilderness hikes and a canopy tour, plus whalewatching from August to November.
Journey Latin America (020 8600 2882, journeylatinamerica.co.uk) can do an 11-day Peru holiday, with four nights at Kichic in Màncora, plus a trip to Machu Picchu, from £3,081pp, covering flights, transfers, excursions and B&B in good hotels.
10. Puerto López, Machalilla National Park, Ecuador
Best for: birding, Italian food
Within a four-hour drive from Guayaquil – Ecuador’s biggest city and busiest airport – is a cluster of cool, little beach towns, including sometime hippie hub Montañita, serene Salango and pretty Puerto López. This last is best as a beach base as the small town has plenty of places to eat as well as a fine strip of sand. A bunch of Italian expats run some smart hotels and their presence has also raised the bar in local restaurants. Surrounding the town is the deep green forest of the Machalilla National Park, a rare and precious area of protected dry coastal forest and tropical scrub desert. Offshore is Isla de la Plata, a sort of poor person’s Galapagos, and home to several species of booby, frigatebirds, waved albatrosses and sea lions – reached in 1-1.5 hours by bouncing speedboat from Puerto López.
Ecuador specialist Select Latin America (selectlatinamerica.co.uk) has a 14-night Cloudforest, Amazon & Pacific itinerary that stops at Quito, Bellavista, an Amazon lodge and finishing with three nights at Puerto López. From £2,778, including domestic flights.
11. Parque Nacional Tayrona, near Santa Marta, Colombia
Best for: snorkelling, history
Colombia’s Caribbean coast is cliché perfect – balmy turquoise seas, hammocks and hummingbirds – and still relatively undiscovered. Completing the paradise theme are podlike two to four-berth wooden huts known as Ecohabs (ecohabsantamarta.com), tucked in to a hillside overlooking the golden sands of Cañaveral beach. A spa and excellent fish and seafood restaurant are on site. Once you’re done dozing, dreaming and wading through that Gabriel García Márquez novel, there’s good birding and hiking in the surrounding forests – part of the Tayrona national park – or you can hop in a taxi to Santa Marta or go for a day trip to Cartagena de Indias; the former is Colombia’s oldest city, the latter its loveliest. Busiest January to February.
Latin Routes (020 8546 6222, latinroutes.co.uk) offers a 14-day tailor-made holiday to Colombia that includes Bogotá, the coffee region, Cartagena, Santa Marta and two nights by the coast, just outside Tayrona National Park. From £2,454 per person, including flights.
12. Isla Holbox, off Yucatán peninsula, Mexico
Best for: calm, whalespotting
This 26-mile-long island off the north east of the Yucatán peninsula is part of the 380,000-acre Yum Balam biosphere reserve. Golf carts are used rather than cars, buildings are low-slung, and there are as many flamingoes, pelicans and frigatebirds as resident islanders. Small, stylish hotels – Cuban-owned Casa Sandra (casasandra.com) is an art-filled beauty – open directly on to the super-soft sand and the seafood and fish restaurants are top-class. That this well-preserved haven of holiday loveliness and natural wonders lies within a two-hour drive and a short ferry ride of Cancún makes it even more desirable; if the Riviera Maya is Mexico’s Costa del Sol, then Holbox is like a secret, tiny, exclusive Canary Island. Between June and October, there’s more rain and more tourism – but there are also magnificent whale sharks to be seen.
Scott Dunn (scottdunn.com, 020 8682 5030) offers a nine-night Mexican adventure including luxury accommodation throughout with six nights at Casa Sandra on Mexico’s beautiful Wild Island of Holbox, international flights, transfers and boat transfers. Prices from £4,300pp based on two sharing.
13. Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico
Best for: sea angling, dining
Andy and Red moved to this Pacific idyll after their time in prison in The Shawshank Redemption. Though it can get a tad busy when cruise ships anchor off shore, for the most part Zihua – as it is affectionately known – is just the right balance of nature and nurture, with a small village, beaches for selling fish as well as swimming, and adobe-walled villas climbing its steep wooded slopes. Excellent Mexican food – grilled snapper, fish tacos and mahi-mahi fajitas are the staples – is found along its cobbled streets and among the mangroves. Humpback whales and turtles can sometimes be seen close to the bay. The neighbouring purpose-built resort of Ixtapa, while less pretty, is useful for watersports and excursions.
A 16-night Mexico itinerary with Audley Travel (audleytravel.com, 01993 838670), combining Mexico City, Chihuahua, the Copper Canyon and six nights in Zihuatanejo, is priced from £5,170.
14. Santa Teresa and Malpaís, Peninsula Nicoya, Costa Rica
Best for: surfing, yoga
“The juice was awesome.”
“Man, I was caught inside in a mean bowl.”
“Yeah, dude, you were nearly in the soup.”
A fairly typical snatch of dialogue you might overhear at the surf schools (where the young hang out) and glitzy beachfront hotels (where the silver surfers abode) around this funky resort strip. It really is an excellent place to learn or improve your board skills on the inshore reef, beach and point breaks after you’ve done the volcanoes and sloths and all the wild stuff Costa Rica excels at, and there’s a great choice of informal pizza/burger shacks and smart hotel eateries. The long, tree-lined beaches are stunning, with ocean-view yoga dens for those who prefer just to watch the rollers.
Geodyssey (geodyssey.co.uk) has seven-night packages from San José to Malpais/Santa Teresa on Costa Rica’s north Pacific coast in high season (January-end March) ranging from £635pp based on standard room at mid-range Manala Boutique Hotel staying on a B&B basis with shared shuttle bus transfers to £2,385pp for a superior one-bedroom villa at Flor Blanca staying on a room only basis with private transfers.
15. Hopkins Beach, Belize
Best for: diving, budget holidays
Homely Hopkins Village is an ideal rest-stop between the Mayan sites inland and the diving spots that dot the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef running parallel to Belize’s Caribbean seaboard. Where many cayes are a bit slick and touristy, and some of the mainland towns just too gritty for a relaxing holiday, Hopkins mixes local Garifuna culture – drumming is a revered art form among these unique Afro-Latin people – with gringo needs like nice rooms, honest food, plenty of hammocks and supplies of local rum and iced beer. Hire a bike and explore the one main unpaved – drag, bed down in one of the beach villas and catch a water taxi out to snorkel the wonders of the reef.
Naturally Belize (020 8274 8510, naturallybelize.co.uk) can fix a seven-night stay at the Hamanasi hotel in Hopkins, from £1,852pp, including internal flights and vehicle transfer to Hopkins, daily buffet breakfast, à la carte lunch and dinner, snorkelling/diving the barrier reef, a Mayan ruin trip or a visit to the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve.
16. Emerald Coast, Nicaragua
Best for: value, volcanoes, surf
Nicaragua’s Pacific coast finds itself experiencing that rare moment when a resort has excellent hotels, great dining and enough visitors to make all the necessary services available, but before major developers or mass tourism have arrived. The Emerald Coast, a 30-mile (48km) section of forest-fringed sandy coves between El Astillero and Playa Guacalito, has some outstanding beachfront properties – Aqua, Mukul and Rancho Santana are among Central America’s best luxury hotels, and all boast first-rate spas – but when you’re down on the beach it all feels quite wild, thanks to dramatic bluffs and rocky outcrops. Walkers can head into the greenery to find birds or head inland for volcano hikes, golfers can sweat on manicured greens, surfers can find excellent breaks at Popoyo or Colorado. There’s something for everyone. A local airport opened at the end of 2015.
Steppes Travel (01285 601050, steppestravel.com) offers a 14-day holiday to Nicaragua, including the Pacific coast beaches, from £3,795pp, including international flights, domestic flights and transfers, accommodation with some meals and a private guide.
17. Little Corn Island, Nicaragua
Best for: isolation, fishing, reggae
Jade waters surround this car-free islet off the Mosquito Coast. Narrow tracks cut through dense forest and groves of mango, coconut and breadfruit trees. Short of renting a private island, pitching up here for a few days at one of the chic lodgings such as Yemaya (yemayalittlecorn.com) is as close as it gets to a desert- island disappearing act. All the beaches are worth a walk and a wade. Cocal is long and white. Jimmy Lever is scenic but more exposed. Dining is generally informal: seafood broths and lobster are widely available, as are reggae beats.
Cox & Kings’ (0203 642 0861 CoxandKings.co.uk) offers a 10-night private tour to Nicaragua, including three nights on the Corn Islands is from £2,270 per person including flights via Houston with United Airlines, private transfers, excursions and accommodation with breakfast daily. Price valid for travel April- June and September-October.
18. San Blas islands, Panama
Best for: ethical travel, snorkelling
A rare example of islands managed by their original inhabitants – in this particular case the Kuna people – this group of 360-odd small islands off Panama’s northern coast are very clean and serene. Accommodation is basic cabañas, hammocks and a few bamboo-and-palm lodges; Big Orange Island has nice huts built on the water. The Kuna prepare and serve breakfasts and seafood lunches and dinners on all the inhabited islands. No scuba diving is permitted around the islands, but snorkelling is allowed and ideally suited to exploring the shallow reefs where turtles, octopuses and small sharks are not rare sights. The money you spend during your stay will go mainly on health and education for the locals. The San Blas Islands can be visited as a day-trip from Panama City or, for the time-rich, by chartering a sailboat.
Exsus Travel (020 3613 5644, exsus.com) offers a 10-night “Ultimate Panama Honeymoon” itinerary making stops at Panama City, Boca Brava and the San Blas Islands. From £4,450 per person including flights.
19. Playa Ancón, Cuba
Best for: history, music, ice cream
Cuba’s larger islands and the resort enclave of Varadero have a fundamental flaw: they totally disconnect visitors from the culture they came all this way to experience. Playa Ancon, a long strip of white sound that juts out on the southern shore of Sancti Spiritus, has all the essentials beach-lovers demand – a fabulous sunset, warm seas, decent fish dishes and excellent rum cocktails at the (admittedly) package-oriented hotels, and a fabulous sunset. But seven miles inland is Trinidad, perhaps the most alluring of all Cuba’s provincial towns. Founded in 1514, it’s a cobbled colonial jewel, all adobe single-storey buildings, cowboys on horseback, and homestays – where you can engage with locals. Great also for day trips to Cienfuegos, another handsome city, and the Bay of Pigs.
Veloso Tour’s (0208 762 0616, veloso.com) 10-night Escambray itinerary makes stops at Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad, finishing with three nights on Playa Ancon. From £2,461, including flights.
20. Maculis beach, El Salvador
Best for: splendid isolation, sunsets
Always wanted to be the first to know about a perfect beach? Then head to the southern tip of friendly, largely undiscovered El Salvador to Maculis. A perfect strip of clean, swimmable sea and deep-golden sand, it is still in pre-hotel mode. Fortunately, Pascal Lebailly and Joaquín Rodezno, the charming owners of renowned Suchitoto hotel Los Almendros de San Lorenzo, hire out their gorgeous beach house, Los Caracoles, to couples and family groups with or without staff, including cooks. The rate is from as little as $250 (£179) per night and the guys will arrange your transfer from Suchitoto or Salvador airport – reached by direct flight from Madrid. There are great family-run eateries nearby, fresh coconuts from trees, and tropical fruit is cheaper than mineral water. The next Nicaragua? Quite possible, so go now.
Book directly via losalmendrosdesanlorenzo.com/villa-los-caracoles or through Cox & Kings.
For more beach holiday ideas, see the website of the Latin American Travel Association (lata.travel).