Many lucky families are already planning their annual vacations. I’m hoping that travelers will turn their eyes southward, and consider some of the fantastic destinations in Latin America that are cleaner, safer and more comfortable to visit than ever, and that provide rich opportunities to share in their culture and history.
While many Americans still believe the world South of the Border is just a Banana Republic, the fact is that many Latin American countries have experienced booms and grown up to become strong, safe democracies, with many of them focusing on eco-tourism, history and tradition. So here are six Latin American destinations that might not immediately spring to mind for a holiday, but are definitely worth a visit. Some of them might just become flooded with tourists in the coming years, so catch them now, in their untainted glory.
1. Holbox Island, Mexico
After flying into Cancun, most people go south in search of pristine beaches along the Riviera Maya. But if you go in the opposite direction, just North of the Yucatan Peninsula is the island of Holbox. A protected natural preserve encompasses most of the island, where sea turtles and migrating whale sharks bask along the coast. Most hotels are small, quaint and cheap!
2. Cartagena, Colombia
Yes, Colombia. Many of us shied away from Colombia because of the drug and rebel violence that plagued the country in the 80s and 90s, but things have changed and Cartagena is the place to visit. A small city on the Caribbean coast, this picturesque Colonial town with world-class restaurants and fine beaches has also become a favorite cruise ship destination.
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3. Santiago, Chile
All the political violence of the 70s and 80s is gone. Pinochet is dead and Santiago is booming. It’s considered one of Latin America’s most modern cities and it placed near the top of The New York Times “41 Places to Go in 2011″ list. Santiago is packed with new art galleries, boutiques and restaurants and has a blossoming urban scene.
4. San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
Nicaragua has grown up to become the up-and-coming Central American country, ranking only after its more famous neighbor Costa Rica. San Juan del Sur is the epicenter of this new tourism revolution. This former fishing village is two and a half hour drive south from Managua. The town and its beaches are famous among adventure travelers and retirees, the former who come in search of world-class surfing, and the latter who prefer the quaint seafood restaurants along the beach. A number of both Nicaraguans and American expats have opened boutique hotels and restaurants. Also, housing developments are sprouting up in the vicinity, so hurry up and visit before the area becomes over developed.
5. Veraguas, Panama
This is not a town but a province, with its largest city being Santiago. But you want to go south of Santiago to the small villages of Bahía Honda and Santa Catalina on the Pacific coast. For the last few years, Panama has become a choice place for retirees looking for deals, but development in many rural areas has been slow. In Bahía Honda and Santa Catalina, one finds Nature at its purest. In Bahía Honda you’ll find a community of native Nagöbe Indians and in Santa Catalina world-class surfing. Nearby are caves, rivers, mangrove forests, and the Ciboa National Park, a group of 38 small islands just off the coast, which have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
6. Havana, Cuba
The Obama Administration has lifted a number of restrictions and opened travel to Cuba to such a degree that nearly a million Americans visit the country each year. Also, Cuban president Raul Castro has focused much of the last few years on opening up the country to foreigners. What Europeans and Latin American tourists already knew was that Cuba is an exotic country with hotels and restaurants as good as you’ll find anywhere in the world. To go you’ll have to join a tour group of artists, scholars, musicians, etc. since only such organized groups can legally travel to Cuba from the U.S.