Apart from those in select parts of Brazil, South American beaches usually get lumped in with Central America and are more often than not, overlooked. While major resorts tend to be lacking in comparison with Central America or the Caribbean, if you dig around you will find more than a few palm fringed gems and surf haunts. Access to fine seafood, generally cheaper than a Happy Meal at McDonald’s back home, is always readily available.
1. Fernando de Noronhoa, Brazil
Way out in the Atlantic, this small island frequented by supermodels and fashion designers is in the midst of a highly guarded marine reserve. You need to take a pricey flight from Salvador to even get here, and even then you have to be able to afford the luxurious rooms and overpriced food, but expected to wowed with a setting as fine as Machu Picchu.
2. Las Pocitas, Mancora, Peru
This surf hangout has recently gone chic with trendy health spas and boutique hotels. While the municipal beaches are better for surfing and people watching, this idyllic little stretch of turquoise water to the south holds dozens of small boutique hotels, all with a decent ceviche and Pisco Sour.
3. El Agua, Isla Margarita, Venezuela
A turquoise bay backed only by palm trees with oversized hammocks and seafood shacks. It might be more desolate and isolated compared to the rest of the island’s resort heavy sands, but it’s worth the trip.
4. Tortuga Bay, Galapagos, Ecuador
Itâ€™s not everywhere you can surf alongside marine iguanas and sea lions. There are dozens of fine beaches scattered around the Galapagos Archipelago, off the coast of Ecuador, but this is perhaps the most memorable.
5. Praia do Forte, Brazil
Just north of Salvador, miles of empty white sands paired with spicy Bahian food and some of Brazil’s top resorts. You won’t find the hordes of people like in Rio, but if paradisiacal is what you are after look no further.
6. State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
You really can’t leave out Ipanema and Copacabana, even if just for the retro cool factor. You can throw in more isolated spots like Azedinha beach in Buzio to spice it up. The beaches of this Brazilian department are the stuff of legends and continue to be the epicenter of the country’s beach scene.
7. Punta del Este, Uruguay
Nearby both Buenos Aires and SÃo Paulo, this is where the rich and famous come to see and be seen. You need money – tons of it – and a hot body if you want to fit in.
8. Parque Nacional Tayrona, Colombia
Near Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast, this is one of the most pristine beaches I’ve ever visited. It’s set within one of the top national parks in the country and they’ve just added chic new bungalows called ecohabs for a new wave of upscale visitors. Deeper in the park, there’s the small ruins of a Tayrona Indian settlement.
9. Los Roques, Venezuela
Tiny cartoonish tropical white sand cays surrounded by unspoiled reefs, most of them uninhabited, are a quick jaunt from Caracas and one of the top places on earth for bonefishing and a fine scuba hangout.
10. Anakena beach, Easter Island, Chile
A massive platform of stone moais stand just back from the sand at this truly South Pacific setting. The water is crystal clear, shallow, and tuna sashimi and kebabs are only steps away.
Paracas, Peru – You are going to be hearing quite a bit about Paracas in the coming years, though not quite yet. A slew of luxury resorts including a Double Tree and Libertador, as well a boutique hotel are set to open by 2010. The area south of Lima, not far from the Nazca Lines, Ica’s Pisco growing center, Sand dunes at Huacachina, and Paracas National Park has been so under explored outside of the backpacker crowd that it has been dying for some kind of development.
Asia Beach, Lima, Peru – The entire city of Lima empties out for the hour or so drive south every weekend from mid-December to March to Asia Beach. A satellite city has evolved where the same grocery stores(Wong, Plaza Vea), restaurants(Rafael’s La Central de Rafa, Punta Sal), and clubs (Cafe del Mar) spring up for a few months and then close the rest of the year.
Iquique, Chile – On the long empty northern coast of Chile, Iquique is by far the finest resort. Backed by massive condos and hotels and a constant stream of activity, the place is a hubbub of sunshine during the summer months when the water is finally warm enough for a dip.
Vina del Mar, Chile – During the summer months, via floods with Santiaguinos and residents of neighboring Valparaiso. The long time retreat of Chile’s elite swarms with bodies on several kilometers of beaches backed by high rises and hundreds of charming restaurants and nightspots.
Isla Baru, Cartagena, Colombia – Just a boat ride away, Isla Baru’s palm fringed sands and Caribbean waters make Cartagena’s city beaches seem like the Jersey Shore.
Montanita, Ecuador– Having been overtaken by Mancora just over the border in Peru, Montanita is still an excellent beach retreat and a lovely backpacker/surf hangout.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.