The Daily Telegraph - Add the reef to the South American rainforest
September 22, 2007

It’s not just in Rio that a beach break can make the perfect end to a Latin American holiday.

Imagine a solitary hammock strung between two palms; bleached-white powdery sand; silver fish leaping out of an azure sea. Where are you? You're probably thinking of the Maldives or Phuket or Tahiti. How about South America? Some of the world's best beaches are in a region more often associated with Inca ruins, jungle and carnival.

Brazil has a coastline of more than 4,000 miles, ranging from steamy islands in the north-east to rugged, surf beaches in the south. Some stretches are being readied for charter flights and expansive resorts; others are being smartly developed with the long term in mind.

Among the latter is the island of Fernando de Noronha, off the north-east coast. It is the same distance from Britain as Barbados, but the hottest weekend destination for Brazil's bohemian jet-set, who fly in from overcrowded São Paolo and Rio.

The island probably doesn't look too different from when the Portuguese explorer Amérigo Vespucci stumbled across it more than 500 years ago, rising from the jade-green Atlantic with dramatic rock formations, pristine beaches and sweeping bays filled with hundreds of spinner dolphins. Its future looks secure, too. Visitor numbers are capped, movement around the island is monitored and it is hard to obtain permission to build - all policies that have helped make it one of the country's most desirable weekend destinations.

Christiana, a tourist from Rio, told me: "It's our dream. It's the same price as a vacation in New York or London, but everyone wants to come here." I took off from Recife on the mainland, flying an hour north, which set me back £200. The runway on Fernando de Noronha stretches almost the entire breadth of the island and was an old military airstrip used by the Americans during the Second World War. At the tiny terminal, we queued to pay the mandatory green tax, which at £8.50 per person per day is again not cheap by Brazilian standards, but no one seems to mind. When the word about Fernando de Noronha gets out, the price tag can only go up.

I stayed at the pousada (guesthouse) Solar de Loronha, beneath the landmark Morro do Pico rock, which rises like a gleeful thumbs-up. The best way to get around is by beach buggy and half a day traversing the potholed roads is enough to get your bearings and find your favourite beach.

Sanchos is probably the island's most perfect: a languorously sensual crescent of golden sand with just one set of footprints the day I visited. I draped my clothes over a branch and went for a swim with my guide, Fabio, a serious free diver who casually descended 65 feet with one breath. The aquarium-style visibility means that non-divers can see what is usually reserved for the subaqua sort.

Surfers head to Cacimba do Padre, where the tumbling waves attract international players. Atalaia is for children, who can gaze upon friendly, tropical fish playing in shallow tidal pools. My favourite was Baia do Sueste, where snorkelling on the western side of the bay virtually guarantees sightings of green turtles. I saw at least a dozen, each the size of a dining-room table, and they were completely unbothered by my overexcited splashing.

Fernando de Noronha is special, but it isn't unique. Around the curvaceous rump of Brazil is the old colonial capital of Salvador, a bustling base for beach-bumming around sultry Bahía state. The best known spot is Morro de São Paolo, a former hippy hangout on the island of Tinharé, with a few stylish but simple pousadas. More intriguing is Boipeba island, a short boat-trip away and Brazil's barefoot-chic beach experience. Like Fernando de Noronha, it is also an environmentally protected area, with an economy shifting from coconuts and fishing to small-scale tourism.

A few more luxurious pousadas are opening at Moreré, but it's all fairly basic on the beach. Former fishermen arrange snorkelling trips while grandmothers prepare "moqueca" stews, made of palm oil, coconut milk and prawns, which their grandsons serve in makeshift eateries. At low tide, the same boys can be seen kicking a ball around the expansive beaches, which are punctuated by goalposts. You can spot the next Ricardo Kaká while lazing in tidal pools between the sandbanks, beside an offshore floating bar serving cold beer and caipirinha cocktails.

Brazil's north-east offers the ideal rest cure for tourists wanting to wind down after exploring archaeological ruins or trekking in the jungle. The beaches - plus our selection below from around the continent - can provide the perfect way to round off a holiday.


Southern Brazil
Down in the south, the climate cools and there is a distinctly Mediterranean feel to the fishing villages, markets and seafood restaurants. The island of Santa Catarina, flanked by long, golden beaches, is a perfect base for exploring the coast.
An hour south is Praia do Rosa, renowned for its surfing and the destination of wealthy Argentinians. The Vida Sol e Mar has stylish, glass-fronted villas (skip the cabins out back) and a surf school, where 30-year-old Rodrigo guarantees to have you standing up during your first lesson. During the cooler months of July to October, the whale-watching is at its best; the southern right whale comes here to give birth.
For serious pampering, an hour north of Santa Catarina is Ponta dos Ganchos resort, where the slickest rooms have private saunas and plunge pools. The beach is nothing more than a flick of a sandy cove, but the decks, hammocks and loungers more than make up for it.
Add on to a trip to Iguazu Falls, or to a city break.

Thanks to its outspoken president, Hugo Chávez, Venezuela has lost a lot of its (American) tourists - but none of its beauty. The Los Roques archipelago is one of the most astounding clusters of islands off South America. Enjoy lazing, snorkelling and some of the trickiest fishing in the book: for bonefish.
From the capital, Caracas, board an old Dakota aircraft for the 20-minute flight to the main islet of Gran Roque. Porters carry luggage in wheelbarrows along the sandy track to the chic retreats. The most stylish posada is Malibu, set back from the beach and run by a Sicilian couple, Antonio and Antonella, who prepare the island's tastiest food.
There is no accommodation in Los Roques away from Gran Roque, so you can explore only by taking day trips or by chartering a sailing boat - which, with a crew, costs roughly the same as the pricey guesthouses. Lie back while staff prepare your dive equipment and your dinner.
Add on to an Amazonian adventure or a trip to the world's highest waterfall, Angel Falls.

On the Pacific coastline, close to the Costa Rican border, San Juan del Sur is a laidback fishing village with rustic seafood restaurants and beatnik watering-holes.The best place to stay is stylish Pelican Eyes, popular with wealthy Americans who are buying up the coastline and building surf camps as far north as Las Salinas. Some of the beaches are so remote they are accessible only by boat.
In one of the bays is Morgan's Rock Hazienda and Ecolodge, Nicaragua's leading luxury hotel, hidden in a lush nature reserve with its own private crescent beach and an organic farm. Guests can ask to be woken by the night guard when turtles come ashore to lay their eggs (best chance between August and January).
On Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, the Corn Islands have currently only limited infrastructure but are sure to catch the tourism wave.
Add on to a tour of Nicaragua's colonial towns of León and Granada or after volcano trekking the Pacific "Ring of Fire".

Punta del Este, Latin America's hedonistic hotspot, is the true beach hideaway of the rich, where high-end hotels and high-rolling casinos split the stunning sands of Brava and Mansa. Along the coast is La Barra, with the seafront's best boho-chic shopping and nocturnal dance floors.
Those in the know head directly to Jose Ignacio - the most swish summer destination of the well-heeled smart set, with long stretches of golden sand, St Tropez-style beach-cafés and celebrity-chef restaurants. Stay with the stylish at Posada del Faro, a whitewashed boutique hotel, and lunch on the beach with the bikini-clad at La Huella.
If you need a break from all the sex appeal, farther east are the remote sand dunes of Cabo Polonio. The only distraction here is Argentina's polo players, who come to ride bareback along the beach.
Add on to a shopping break in Buenos Aires.

The Galapagos Islands have some lovely beaches and charming eco-friendly hotels, but few people choose to stay overnight on land. This is a good way to get to know the islands more intimately, with guided hikes through tropical forest, mountain biking or by studying Darwin's discoveries from the comfort of your own hammock.
If you think it's too wasteful to laze on a Galapagos beach, head back to the dry tropical forests and coral reefs of Ecuador's Pacific coast. The coastal-hugging Machalilla National Park extends as far as Isla de la Plata, 15 miles offshore, with its nesting colonies of waved albatrosses, frigates and sea lions. Humpback whales migrate past here between June and September.
Back on the mainland, there is lodge accommodation high on the cliffs overlooking Machalilla, which itself is teeming with wildlife. When you tire of raising the binoculars, head to the spectacular Los Frailes beach and consider a gentle snorkel off the coral reef.
Add on to the Amazon or high Andes.


The northern coast is opening up, with beaches such as Máncora becoming increasingly well known among surfers. Just north of here is lovely Playa Punta Sal, almost two miles of sandy beach with simple accommodation.
Add on to Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines or Lake Titicaca.

There are hundreds of idyllic islets in the San Blas Archipelago, home to the Kuna Indians, who retain regional autonomy and are cautious about tourism development. They run many of the thatch-roofed rustic hotels and carry tourists between islands in dugout canoes.
Add on to ecotourism in Costa Rica or a cultural visit to Cartagena, Colombia.

Off the Caribbean coast, the six tropical Bay Islands lie beside the world's second-largest barrier reef. Roatán island draws huge numbers of divers and is an excellent place to take lessons. You can swim with dolphins at Anthony's Key, explore the cloud forest or indulge in the fancy hotels around Sandy Bay.
Add on to a trip to the Mayan ruins of Copán.

A short hop from Cartagena are the Rosario Islands, with white-sand beaches, coral reefs and some stylish new accommodation. Farther north are the remote Caribbean islands of San Andrés and Providencia, of which the latter is a much better bet. It has only one road, rugged mountains, good snorkelling and a lively nightlife.
Add on to colonial Cartagena.

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with Journey Latin America (