Caribbean, Pacific, Atlantic... Latin America has a whole lot of coast.
Choose your patch of sand wisely and you’ll soon discover that along it lie some of the most beautiful, unspoilt and idyllic beaches in the world: from the dramatic beaches of the Mexican Pacific to Brazil’s seemingly never-ending chain of laidback seaside towns, via the Caribbean islands of Central America, Colombia and Venezuela, there are countless slices of paradise to call your own for a few days.
To help you make your decision, we’ve created this guide to the best beach destinations across Central and South America.
Beach culture goes right to the core of the Brazilian soul. From the golden sands of the south to the dune-backed seaside of the far northeast there is an overwhelming array of sandy beaches to choose from... believe it or not, you’ll even find them along the banks of the Amazon! Due to the huge size of the country, most visitors choose to base themselves around Rio for fantastic city beaches and the stunning Emerald Coast, or Salvador for vibrant Afro-Brazilian culture and the tropical beaches of Bahia.
Most popular beaches: From south to north, Florianópolis, Rio’s Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, Búzios, Morro de São Paulo, Praia do Forte and Jericoacoara.
Hidden gems: Ilha Grande, Trancoso and Caraíva, Boipeba, Pipa.
Cuban beaches are dazzling and pristine – the bright turquoise waters of the Caribbean, fringed with palm groves, have to be seen (and preferably swum in) to be believed. Visitors can choose between isolated cayes or a small number of more developed resorts, while the relatively small size of the country means that you can see Cuba’s sights, from unique Havana to the fairytale landscapes of Viñales, and yet never be far from a blissful beach.
Most popular: Varadero, Guardalavaca.
Hidden gems: Cayo Levisa, Cayo Las Brujas, Cayo Ensenachos.
Mexico’s Caribbean coast certainly lives up to expectations, with a purity of colour – white sand and crystal-clear turquoise sea – that calls to mind a picture-postcard. Cancún is the main gateway and the astounding Mayan ruins hidden in jungles or jutting out on clifftops are easily combined with time on the beach.
Visitors to Mexico’s elegant and character-filled colonial cities tend to opt for the beaches of the Pacific: for example Oaxaca might be paired with the hippie heaven of Puerto Escondido. A further option is Baja California, particularly if you are visiting the Copper Canyon or elsewhere in the north of Mexico.
Although Mexico’s coastal treasures have gone far from unnoticed by the mass market, it is surprisingly easy to bypass the crowds and high-rise all-inclusives. Even near Cancún there are many secluded pockets of the Caribbean and some extremely stylish properties to choose from, and there are huge unspoilt stretches of coastline all along the Pacific and Gulf coast.
Most popular: the Pacific coast around Acapulco, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta, the Mayan Riviera south of Cancún, the upmarket resort of Cabo in Baja California, and Balandra (near La Paz).
Hidden gems: Tulum and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, Zihuatanejo, Puerto Escondido.
A thin isthmus dividing the Pacific and Caribbean, Central America is blessed with beaches of all descriptions. Some of the best are to be found on the small, idyllic islands that dot the Caribbean shores of Belize, Panama, Nicaragua and Honduras, but there are also some dramatically beautiful wild beaches on the mainland, particularly in Nicaragua and in Costa Rica, where the rainforest spills down onto the golden shore.
Most popular: Amergris Caye (Belize), Bocas del Toro (Panama), San Blas (Panama), the Corn Islands (Nicaragua) and Roatán (Honduras).
Hidden gems: We love Morgan’s Rock in Nicaragua and the Pearl Islands in Panama.
An oft-overlooked beauty, Venezuela’s coastline is studded with archetypically Caribbean beaches. Los Roques, a scattering of coral-flanked islands – most of them nothing more than a deserted sand bar – just 40 minutes by air from capital Caracas, could be the blueprint for paradise.
Most popular: Isla Margarita is Venezuela’s most famous beach destination and the only one yet discovered by the mass market. The archipelago of Los Roques, though still completely unspoilt, is a popular choice for the few that venture beyond. See our choice of island destinations.
Hidden gems: almost anywhere on the Caribbean Coast – Mochima National Park, Morrocoy National Park and Puerto Colombia are some of our favourites.
Colombia’s beaches are the ideal combination of spectacular and unspoilt. The Caribbean coast, home to the breathtaking city of Cartagena, is palm-shaded and tropical, with beauty spots such as Tayrona National Park enticing increasing numbers of visitors with their laidback, barefoot charm.
Most popular: the Rosario islands are often combined with Cartagena.
Hidden gems: The Caribbean island of Providencia, and Tayrona National Park, which shelters a string of stunning and secluded beaches.
For those wanting to add a quick and easy beach wind-down to a holiday in Argentina, Uruguay provides a welcome answer. The fashionable resort town of Punta del Este, hugely popular with sun-seeking porteños, is just a short hop from Buenos Aires by hydrofoil and road, making it an excellent choice if you feel your trip would be incomplete without a dose of sea and sunshine.
Most popular: Punta del Este.
Hidden gems: Continue further along the coast towards José Ignacio for some more low-key beaches away from the glitz of Punta del Este.
Peru & Ecuador
Los Frailes, Ecuador
For a beach wind-down after an exhilarating holiday in the Peruvian Andes, head for the warm waters of Máncora, a laidback beach town beloved of surfers. Further south the often spectacular Pacific beaches of Ecuador are growing in popularity, with untouched rainforest and wildlife-spotting possibilities as well as rugged coast.
Most popular: Máncora (Peru)
Hidden gems: Isla de la Plata (Ecuador), Mantalilla National Park (Ecuador).