When people think of beach destinations in South America, Brazil often comes to mind, with famous Ipanema and Copacabana along the country's more than 4,500 miles of Atlantic coastline. But a world-class reputation means crowds; for a restful and relaxing vacation, consider another South American country with a warm climate, a captivating atmosphere, and surprisingly little hype: Colombia.
The Caribbean coast city of Cartagena makes the most convenient base for travel to most of these beaches.
It's just a short plane ride from Bogota and a charming city to explore before making a smooth segue to the perfect beach holiday, with white sandy beaches, hot weather, and a friendly population.
Isla de Providencia
The 5,000 residents of this tiny island off the coast of Nicaragua belong to Colombia politically, but their culture reflects their Caribbean geography. The people primarily speak English and Creole, and you're more likely to hear reggae music than salsa here. The island's location on the world's third largest barrier reef makes it a prime destination for snorkeling and scuba diving.
Tayrona National Park
On the Caribbean coastline where the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta meet the sea, this national park outside Santa Marta encompasses a stunning beach with a rainforest backdrop and rich biodiversity. Hiking trails connect several stretches of sand in the park, but strong rip tides can make swimming dangerous.
The park also contains the ruins of an ancient city of the Tayrona people. You can pitch a tent or rent hammocks for the night at several campsites in the park.
San Andrés Island
In the same Colombian department as Providencia Island, San Andres sparks slightly more fanfare with its higher profile beaches and comparatively robust nightlife.
Less than two hours by air from the mainland, San Andrés draws both Colombian and foreign travelers. Many of the big hotel chains operate properties on the island, and they often sell all-inclusive packages. Independent travelers can also choose from a variety of apartments to rent.
Named for its startlingly white beach, Playa Blanca on Isla de Barú often gets called the best beach in the country, though it can get crowded with day-trippers from Cartagena. The 2.2-mile stretch of powdery sand leads to crystal clear water and a superlative snorkeling experience. You can take a ferry from Cartagena to reach the beach, and it can be quite slow, but the trip makes for a nice few days. There are many options for overnight accommodations, from hostels to hotels to hammocks under the palms. Tour companies also run speed boats over to the island on 8- to 12-hour day trips, which often include lunch, snorkeling gear, and umbrellas and beach chairs.
For a remote, back-in-time experience, make the trip to Capurganá near the border with Panama. Ringed by lush jungle, the beaches in this area attract divers, backpackers, and travelers looking to "get away from it all." The car-free village with its sparse technology encourages visitors to completely unplug and immerse fully in the abundant natural beauty.