The Caribbean boasts amazing white sand crystal clear water beaches. But it also stands out for its really high prices for accommodation, food and services. While this is true for most commonwealth island nations in the Caribbean, there are plenty of alternatives! And no, you do not need to book an all-inclusive resort to have an amazing Caribbean beach vacation. So here are some of my favorite options.
A beach famous for its all-inclusive resorts, there is more to Varadero than you might think. While many Canadians and Europeans flock here on packages, you can actually do it yourself on a shoestring budget. To get to Varadero, simply fly to Havana and take a 3 hour bus ride to the beach. Alternatively, take a charter flight directly to Varadero airport. Once here, look for a casa particular. These are basically homestays similar to AirBnB. They are fully registered with the government and cost anywhere between $20-30 USD per night for two people. The families will typically offer meals as well for $5-10 USD. And if you eat like a local, you can really go cheap. A Cuban pizza or sandwich cost less than a dollar, and for a couple of bucks you can get a full meal with rice, pork and salad.
Caye Caulker, Belize
Belize doesn’t typically stand out as a budget destination, but it’s actually less expensive than you might think. Of course, if you use taxis and stay in chain hotels, it will cost you a buck. But places like Caye Caulker can be done on the cheap. The small island is easy to get to – take a bus from the Belize City airport and then hop on a ferry boat to get there. There is plenty of accommodation on the island, including a few hostels. For example a dorm can cost around $15 per night. Make sure to go during lobster season, since you can get fresh grilled lobster for less than 10 bucks! Other meals can be had even cheaper. Beer and drinks are also a bargain. Plus, anywhere you go, you will be beachfront, with pristine Caribbean waters only a few steps away.
I tend to stay away from recommending destinations in Honduras due to security concerns. However, Roatan is the one place that is safe and lovely to visit. The island is located just off the Caribbean coast of the country, and is a stretch of absolutely pristine blue sea waters and beaches. The cheapest way to reach Roatan is by ferry from La Ceiba, but flight deals sometimes come up as well. There are some all-inclusive resorts here, but you can also find your own accommodation for cheap. Food in Honduras is super affordable and you’ll never go hungry with hearty portions of rice, beans and grilled meats or fish. Additionally, you can easily reach the Copan ruins from Roatan, as they are located not too far away. Finally, Central American hospitality is free and you won’t find friendlier people anywhere else.
Corn Islands, Nicaragua
Corn Islands are a similar destination to Roatan. Also located off the Caribbean coast, these belong to Nicaragua. Bonus – Nicaragua is even cheaper than Honduras! Once again, getting to Corn Islands means investing a bit in the flight from Managua. Alternatively, you can take make your way to Bluefields and then take a ferry, but this is for the adventurous traveler only. There are no big resorts here. Rather, you’ll find smaller hotels and hostels, starting at $10 per night. Meals in Nicaragua are also dirt cheap and really tasty. You will likely arrive on Big Corn Island, so it’s a good idea to go on a day trip to Little Corn Island. Both are picturesque places, where you can just hang out in a hammock and swim in the warm Caribbean waters.
Kuna Yala, Panama
Not only is Kuna Yala affordable, it is also completely unique. Located on the Caribbean side of Panama, it is an autonomous indigenous territory. That means that the Kuna’s administer the hundreds of pristine Caribbean islands the way they see fit. There is little electricity or WiFi and barely any development, which makes for the perfect disconnect. The easiest way to get to the islands is to purchase a package once in Panama City. The round-trip transportation cost is about $70-80 per person. Accommodation is really affordable – around $30 per person with all meals included. Be warned, however, that both accommodation and food are really simple. You will likely stay in a sand-floor hut on the beach and eat rice with fish or chicken for the duration of your stay. If you prefer something a little more developed, then Bocas del Toro is a good and still affordable alternative.
All of the Northern Caribbean coast of Colombia boasts lovely beaches and great prices. While Cartagena is the one you’ll hear of most, I actually think that Tyrona makes for a better Caribbean experience. The national park is located a few hours away from Santa Marta and there are only a few families living here. That means that you can camp inside the park or stay at nearby destinations like Santa Marta or Taganga. All of these places offer great beaches, really affordable hostels and delicious Colombia fare. One of my favorites is getting fresh grilled fish from the locals right on the beach – such a bargain!
Isla Margarita – Isla Esparta, Venezuela
First of all, a word of caution. Right now, Venezuela is not the safest place to travel to. While reports say that Isla Margarita is fine, the rest of the country should be visited only if you are well informed and prepared. This is due to the political situation here. However, hoping that Venezuela will sort things out sooner than later, I’ve included it on the list – otherwise it would not have been complete. The Margarita Island is located off the northeastern coast of the country. It offers dozens of amazing Caribbean beaches, diving, snorkeling and picturesque views. It does have some resorts, but there are plenty of private and shared accommodations that are really inexpensive. Same goes for food and transportation – you can find a wide range of options catering to different types of tourists.
The truth is that the Caribbean doesn’t have to be expensive. It also doesn’t need to come with large groups of loud drunk tourists. Instead, head to some of the less explored areas and enjoy the pristine beaches backpacker style. Flashpackers can also rejoice. All of these destinations offer reasonably priced comfort backpacking options!