We’ve all seen those gringo vacation guides touting Latin America’s “undiscovered” natural wonders, or its backpacker-friendly bohemian beach towns, or even directing affluent tourists to luxurious resort compounds free from pesky townspeople. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with standing shoulder to shoulder with globe-trotting retirees as you behold some breathtaking panorama, or splashing around under a crystal clear natural waterfall with a couple of adventurous spring breakers.
But when we’re spending that quality time with la familia down in Latin America, taking a short trip usually means something entirely different from those glossy, paradisiacal images propagated by the tourist rags. In fact, the go-to vacation spots for most Latin American city dwellers are rarely found on top 10-lists, and some wouldn’t merit more than a passing glance from your typical international tourists on the hunt for natural beauty and some perceived cultural authenticity.
On the contrary, these are places that have made their way into the hearts of local communities through time-worn tradition, becoming places of collective identity and memory, beloved more for their local color than their sublime landscapes (though admittedly, we often get two for the price of one.) So, to honor those unabashedly local spots that feel like home for so many of us, we’ve put together this non-comprehensive list for future travelers looking to keep it real.
Of course, we couldn’t possible cover every beach, river, waterfall, and mountain, so we’ve stuck to some of the more emblematic spots favored by capitalinos from Santiago de Chile to Santo Domingo. But we’re also looking to keep this interactive, so feel free to post your own tips in the comments and keep this guide growing.
San Rafael (Dominican Republic)
While most international tourists choose to bypass Santo Domingo entirely – flying directly into international hotspots like Puerto Plata or Punta Cana – capitalinos looking for a long weekend of sun and surf head p’al sur. More adventuresome viajeros might make the precarious journey to the virgin beaches of Pedernales, on the Haitian border, but most opt for the southwestern province of Barahona, where San Rafael is the beach of choice. Located about three hours southwest of the capital, San Rafael may not boast luxurious beach cabanas, but copious servings of rum and a cacophony of bachata playing from transistor radios more than make up for it.
Valle de Bravo (Mexico)
Situated in the far west of Mexico State, Valle de Bravo offers well-heeled Mexico City residents the perfect combination of small-town colonial charm and luxurious lakeside recreation. A mere two hour drive from the capital, Valle de Bravo sits along the banks of the stunning Lake Avándaro, flanked by dramatic rock formations and a large natural park. Yearly attractions include auto races and rock concerts, but most Chilangos just come for a relaxing weekend by the picturesque malecón, with some sailing and waterskiing thrown in for good measure.
Boquerón (Puerto Rico)
Photo: Louis O’Halloran
Puerto Rico’s west coast is starting to get some much deserved attention from international travelers, but the picturesque fishing village of Boquerón – located in the municipality of Cabo Rojo – is still an unapologetically local destination. Consisting of a strip of colorful clapboard houses, Boquerón gets raucous when boisterous Sanjuaneros descend on the town’s no-frills nightlife spots after a day soaking in the sun at the nearby Balneario Boquerón public beach. It may be on across the island from the capital, but in Puerto Rico, that only means a two and a half our drive for a refreshing change of scenery.
Semuc Champey (Guatemala)
This Guatemalan natural monument is so isolated in the country’s dense tropical forest that it was only discovered (or probably re-discovered) in 1950. And while most capitalinos prefer to spend their long weekends on the black sand beaches of “El Puerto,” the more adventurous make the seven-plus hour drive to behold this incredible, 300 meter limestone bridge on the río Cahabón. Semuc Champey was long viewed as something of a local secret, but recently more and more international backpackers have been braving the long trek to bathe in the cool, crystal-clear water and explore the surrounding cave system.
Playa Santa María (Cuba)
Sure, Havana’s only two hours from the world-famous resort town of Varadero, but Habaneros know that world-class beaches are only a 80-cent cab ride away. The so-called Playas del Este are actually part of the capital’s easternmost municipality, Habana del Este, but popular spots like Guanabo and Cojímar have an unmistakable small-town feel.The real gem of the Playas del Este, however, is the understated Playa Santa María, which trades beach town charm for a long strip of pristine white sand.
For a truly authentic experience, get ready to wait a few hours for la 400 to bring you back to La Habana Vieja – or just stick your thumb out and hope someone gives you “botella.”
La Paz residents have plenty of options for a refreshing day trip – from the otherworldly landscapes of Valle de la Luna in the Zona Sur, to the spiritually charged expanse of Lake Titicaca; but if you’re looking to escape the harsh mountain climate, Rurre’s probably your best bet.
Situated on the río Beni, at the convergence of the Amazon jungle and the Bolivian Pampas, Rurre is an unassuming town that offers excursions into some of the country’s untouched natural wonders. Paceños willing to brave the nine-hour drive down the world’s most dangerous road, and a few days without an ATM machine, are duly rewarded with a steamy, visually stunning tropical getaway. Just remember to pack the bug spray.
While surfer dudes and beach hippies from far and wide flock to southern coastal towns like Montañita and Salinas, Quiteños tend to stick closer to home, opting instead for this lively resort city in the Afro-Ecuadorian stronghold of Esmeraldas. Atacames’ handsome beach and dramatic rock formations are nice enough, but it’s really just a backdrop to the massive beachside party that plays out on long weekends and religious holidays.
By day, makeshift kiosks lining the beachfront blast Carlos Vives and serve up signature caipirinhas, while after sunset the town’s main drag turns into a buffet of dance clubs pumping the latest reggaetón hits. Don’t be surprised to find visitors from as far away as Cali, Colombia making the pilgrimage to this quintessential South American party beach.
Lima may have beaches of its own, but they’re not exactly picturesque tropical getaways. Luckily, for a proper beach excursion Limeños need only drive four hours to the southern coastal town of Paracas, which is flanked by the starkly beautiful Reserva Natural de Paracas.
The town itself has all the requisite vacation accoutrements, with plenty of fancy hotels, unpretentious bars, and a bustling malecón to keep everyone satisfied; but the real destination is the Reserva’s arid, rocky beaches like La Mina and Playa Carhuas. Paracas’ proximity to the Nazca Lines means there’s bound to be an international tourist or two soaking in some sun after a flyover, but Peruvians tend to skip the touristy stuff and get right to sunbathing.
Ojo de Agua, San Antonio de Belén (Costa Rica)
At this point, American expats are just a part of the landscape in Costa Rica, and Ticos are used to sharing their beloved vacation spots with foreign retirees and backpackers alike. But there is still at least one folkloric family getaway that the capital-area’s middle classes turn to for a day of Gringo-free waterfront relaxation. Admittedly, Balneario Ojo de Agua isn’t exactly a stunning natural wonder, but it’s hard for anything in Costa Rica not to be at least mildly breathtaking.
Situated alongside a small lake, Ojo de Agua offers pools filled with natural water, a golf course, and rowboat rentals to cruise along the lake’s tranquil waters. With 75 years in operation, the recreation center is understandably starting to show its age; but Ticos still keep the tradition alive with over 15,000 monthly visitors.
Photo: Jorge Barrios
Chile’s temperate climate doesn’t make for the most photogenic beaches, but that doesn’t stop Santiaguinos from riding out the summer months in this traditional Chilean vacation town. Sure, the cold water may deter most from splashing around in the choppy waves, but Chilenos are happy serving up some chilled white wine in a sliced melon, breaking out a bucket of boiled eggs, and relaxing.
Only an hour and a half’s drive from the capital, Cartagena offers the usual beachside trinkets and artisan crafts, and there are plenty of economic hotels and bars to satisfy droves of college students and vacationing families. But when it comes to night life, local tourists prefer strumming guitars and chugging wine around a beachside bonfire.