“I dig my toes into the sand
The ocean looks like a thousand diamonds strewn across a blue blanket.
I lean against the wind, pretend that I am weightless and in this moment I am happy”, Incubus
Many people trapped in busy working days have a paradise like beach set as their computer’s desktop image. That induces some day dreaming about the places one would like to go on vacation one day. When free time comes around and you start looking into those places you’ve seen in the travel agencies posters or online, you can get scared by the prices quoted for a week stay in beach front resorts, serving exotic fruity cocktails by day and lobster by night. Most of us have dream of this kind of vacation where it’s all about blue waters, white sand, hammocks hanging in between palm trees.
Who doesn’t want to be pampered, right?
After traveling around for a while, I have come to realize that vacations in exotic beach destinations don’t have to cost a fortune and, although it is great to get your body massaged and by a lady with a pretty flower in her hair, it can still be pretty amazing to enjoy these destinations for their natural beauty, focusing on that rather than on the luxurious accommodations. Luxury is very enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, but would you rather do a trip on a budget or no trip at all?
Choosing the latter option, we have visited a variety of places that have fulfilled our beachy dreams, without ripping our pockets apart: on the most expensive of those below, we still managed to keep expenses below USD30 per person/day. Much lower in many cases. We didn’t have drinks out of a pineapple but we did have fresh coconut water! We might not have gone for spas, but we did massage each other and that’s even more romantic. We were not pampered by our hotels, but we were welcomed by small guest house owners and nature itself.
These places are perfect spots to sing the “Wish You Were Here” song by Incubus. They might be expensive to reach depending where in the world you’d be coming from, but once you are there, relax…
It’s paradise and it doesn’t cost
a life-time in savings!
India is paradise for budget travelers and, although Goa can easily get more expensive than the average Indian town, it’s still a great affordable option for beach vacations. By Goa, I absolutely mean South Goa, around Palolem beach. After visiting overcrowded North Goa (Baga and the likes) I couldn’t help but think of what all those people were missing out on!
Palolem has human activity going on, but just the right amount. The waters are inviting and so is the long strip of sand, perfect for those sunset walks. At night, the stretch of beach is illuminated by candle lights at the numerous restaurants that serve typical Indian dishes and the freshest seafood. This is one place on Earth I am coming back to for sure!
Accommodation & meals (January 2010): We stayed in a very rustic hut on a beach that had about 10 rooms like ours. As it wasn’t too packed, it felt like we almost had a private beach for ourselves! The room cost about USD10 per person, including bucket showers as there was no water pressure. But that was part of the hippie experience! ;) You can easily get meals for about USD5 or even less, depending what you order. Tip: try the Goan seafood curries!
2. Koh Samui, Thailand
When we went to Thailand it was only a short vacation as Ashray was joining a new job. We didn’t really have much time to make it out of Bangkok, which we absolutely loved and want to come back with more time for sure! Still, I really wanted to make it to one of the islands that Leonardo DiCaprio did such a good job luring me into, in the movie The Beach. And so we went to Koh Samui for one day… One day only, flying in early in the morning and out as late at night as we could!
We rented a bike and went all around the island, swimming in 3 beaches and eating seafood and local delicacies in 3 different restaurants. After this amazing day we turned the song “Beverly Hills, that’s where I want to be!” into “Koh Samui, that’s where I want to be!” and sang it countless times, specially when life in Dubai offered sucky days. Koh Samui is zen in the shape of an island!
Accommodation & meals (July 2010): We didn’t spend the night in Koh Samui but you can easily check online accommodation to suit the size of your pocket: USD 15 for a backpackers hostel, double that for a guesthouse and triple or quadruple that for beach fronted properties. There is always an option to better suit your budget. We didn’t exactly count the cents for meals in Koh Samui, as it was just one day we feasted like kings, but it is fairly easy to score good meals for USD5 and under. This is actually expensive by Thailand standards, but not that bad when considering a paradise beach holiday, I would say.
Mayan Riviera might not be the cheapest beach destination in Mexico, once it is very popular and full of American tourists and my experience tells me that, places with American tourists tend to have inflated prices. The case is that Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum and areas in between are much more than the big all-inclusive resorts this place is famous for.
The beaches are undoubtedly beautiful: the water in Cancun is swimming-pool-like blue. Isla Mujeres is a short ferry ride across Cancun and a different world all together: the vibes on islands are just so cool! Playa del Carmen is a smaller town and somehow more “authentic” than Cancun (which is really divided into town center and hotels strip, and their respective people) and Tulum has a beach that extends forever and that can be appreciated from the top of a Mayan archaeological site. Complete this with the ever present and delicious Mexican food and the friendliness of locals and all I can ask is: what’s there not to like in this region?
Accommodation & meals (December 2011): from luxury accommodation to budget hostels and guesthouses, there is a little bit of everything in the Mayan Riviera. In Cancun we experienced the best value for money stay of our last 5 months traveling around Latin America. Hacienda de Castilla, in downtown Cancun, cost a mere USD10 per person and the spacious room had 2 double beds, towels shaped up as swans, an incredible variety of bathroom amenities nicely placed in a basket and even an outdoors pool. Meals in Mexico can be very inexpensive, in both restaurants and even clean street food stalls. If you can spare USD10 a day for food, you’ll feast pretty damn good!
4. Gili Air, Indonesia
We had never heard of this place until we went to Bali and understood that there is such a variety of islands in Indonesia with immense potential. Gili Air (where “air”, funny enough, actually translates into “water”) has 2 other sister islands, Gili Meno and Gili Trawangan, and together form an archipelago with breathtaking beaches and views. This is not a very sustainable place though: all fresh water has to be taken to the island by boat, for example. We’re talking about a very tiny piece of land with no roads, where the most advanced means of transportation is a horse cart!
Gili Air has the right ingredients for a vacation of pure bliss. Less people, beautiful beaches, affordable prices and a variety of diving sites easily reached by boat on day trips.
Accommodation & meals (February 2011): We stayed in a hut with private bathroom and fresh water (note that some places offer salt water showers straight from the sea, and these are usually more affordable stays) for USD9 per person. This included breakfast with omelet or pancake options. Not bad, right? There is a variety of restaurants and beach shacks mainly around the area where the boats dock, offering international food and fresh fish. Once again, 3 to 5 USD can get you a great meal. And you won’t feel like splurging in this island… as there are really no places for that!
5. Samara, Costa Rica
We spent a week in Samara and I didn’t want to leave. What did we do there? Not much, to be honest, but that is exactly the point. Days went by walking up and down the dark-ish sand beach, reading and writing under the coconut trees. To have a little bit more activity while in Samara, we signed up for a beginners surfing class. Samurio, our instructor, was our key to understanding that it’s not as simple as it looks. The waves were medium gentle and so that helped a couple of newbies like us trying to stand up on our surfing boards. After 2 days of countless attempts and a few rage attacks – Zara vs The Waves! – I think I must have stayed up on the board for a total of 5 seconds.
Samara is one of those places where I would love to have a vacation house one day. I have to practice my surfing in the meantime, not to put the local surfing scene to shame.
Accommodation & meals (February 2012): We stayed in a rustic hotel right on the beach. Mosquitoes aside, it was a pleasure to let the hours go by as the hammocks would swing with the light breeze. The private room with bathroom cost us USD20 per person. Meals in Samara are not necessarily that cheap, but you can get a very good “Casado” for about USD6 in the town center. Alternatively, stay at a hotel with kitchen, like we did, and prepare your own food with the yummy local vegetables.
“The world’s a roller coaster and I am not strapped in.
Maybe I should hold with care, but my hands are busy in the air”