Mexico, Central America, & the Caribbean
Mexico, Central America, & the Caribbean
Top places to go in Mexico, Central America, & the Caribbean in 2020
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An international vibe, Dutch history, and desert landscapes make Aruba more than a laid-back, beachy destination. Aruba is an undeniably cosmopolitan island, with dining and shopping that wouldn’t be out of place in the world’s most stylish cities. The Kitchen Table by White’s tasting menu takes tastebuds for a walk on the wild side with dishes like duck tortellini or Netherlands-style apple tart served in a minimalist-design setting with only 16 seats, while Laurent Tourondel’s BLT Steak at The Ritz-Carlton, Aruba is where you’ll find the island’s best New York strip and indulgent sides like truffle mac and cheese. Aruba is also popular with musicians, celebrities, and Instagrammers, like Swedish “Yoga Girl” Rachel Brathen, who has a restaurant (Nourish) plus a studio with stand-up paddleboarding and yoga classes. Shopping at the island’s diverse boutiques ranges from masks and animal figurines crafted from mopa-mopa tree buds at Mopa Mopa/The Mask to colorful locally-designed apparel for men and women at Trash by Ronchi. The island is home to the Caribbean’s latest crop of music and art festivals, including Soul Beach Music Festival held every Memorial Day weekend and Island TakeOver in late October, joined by Fashion Week in April and Aruba Art Fair in November. And yet even with all these glitzy factors, Aruba’s got everything you’d expect in a perfect Caribbean vacation, from snorkeling at a shipwreck in Malmok Bay to lounging at Eagle Beach (consistently ranked as one of the world’s best beaches). The island is also an adventure paradise, with off-beat experiences you won’t be able to find on other islands like off-roading in the desert or foraging for edible plants with Taki Aruba instead.
Click past the slew of all-inclusive and chain hotels when booking your stay for cool properties in Aruba that are family-owned. Overwater villas are a new arrival to Aruba at Aruba Ocean Villas. Boardwalk’s cute and bright casitas, stocked with original art by locals, are a few steps from Eagle Beach, with a pool tucked among lush jungle-like foliage.
Shoulder season (spring and fall) is key if you want to land the best table at dinner and don’t want to elbow your way through crowds. Summer is blazing hot (don’t even think about booking a hotel without a pool) while winter is when cruise ships dock, dumping thousands of passengers on the island during the day. Also, because Aruba is one of the few Caribbean islands south of the hurricane belt, it’s generally hurricane-free.
Aruba is called “one happy island” for a reason. “Fusion of the World” food tours take your palate on a trip.
White sand beaches, warm water, and friendly locals are found fewer than 200 miles south of Florida, across the Bahamas’ 700-plus islands and cays that stretch out over 100,000 square miles of pristine ocean. In September 2019, Hurricane Dorian struck two islands (Grand Bahama Island and the Abacos) causing severe damage. And while those islands might not be ready to welcome visitors just yet, 14 others including Nassau and Paradise Island, Eleuthera, Andros, Bimini, Exumas, Cat Island, and Long Island are all undamaged and ready to use tourism dollars to support their island neighbors. In 2020, the best thing you can do to help the Bahamas is to visit the Bahamas. Thankfully, the islands provide so much beauty, amusement, relaxation, and tasty food and drinks that it’s well worth the trip. From continued development at Baha Mar in Nassau (a water park and the Sugar Factory, which includes a carousel bar and a candy shop with more than 500 confections, are due to join the dozens of restaurants, bars, and hotels already there) to swimming with spotted pigs in the clear waters off the Exumas to surfing in Eleuthera to getting an Ayurvedic massage and practicing yoga at Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat in Nassau, the islands have something for every type of traveler. But whichever island you choose, you’re pretty much guaranteed warm sun, colorful reefs ideal for snorkeling and diving, miles of soft pink or white sand, and more conch than you can crack and eat.
With so many islands, the accommodation options are endless, from sprawling luxury Paradise Island resorts like the swanky Ocean Club, A Four Seasons Resort and the massive playland that is Atlantis, to smaller, secluded hotels like the five-bungalow Shannas Cove on Cat Island and the glamping tents at the Other Side Hotel on Eleuthra. In November, sleepy South Andros Island will welcome its first new property in nearly 20 years when Caerula Mar Club debuts. Bryan and Sarah Baeumler, celebrity designers with a TV show on HGTV Canada, restored and redesigned an abandoned hotel, turning it into 18 oceanfront suites and six villas. Still to come, illa Bimini Resort & Residences recently broke ground on 54 villas and a five-star boutique hotel across three private islands north of Bimini.
The Bahamas are a tropical climate that’s sunny and warm October to May. May brings a rainy season, although often that can mean a brief shower once a day. Peak hurricane season lasts from August through the end of October.
Island hopping by boat requires a bit of planning (and spending) but it’s worth the trouble of leaving your patch of soft sand for another, if just for the scenic boat ride. Water taxis provide short service between Nassau and Paradise Island; Great Exuma and Stocking Island; and Eleuthera and Harbour Island. The inter-island ferry service is Bahamas Ferries, which travels from Nassau to Harbour Island, Eleuthera, Long Island, Andros, and the Exumas, and service has resumed to Grand Bahama Island and the Abacos. Sometimes flying between islands can be the same price and take much less time—and the view from above is just as stunning.
OK–let’s point out the obvious. In the last year, Guatemala has gotten some seriously bad, and seriously unwarranted, press (see: all the idiotic claims of caravans). Earlier this year, we published an article specifically pleading with readers to not only not be afraid of this country, but advising them as to how easy it is to fall in love with it. And you know what happened? We received dozens and dozens of emails from readers who likewise absolutely adore Guatemala. And how could you not? It is a truly remarkable country—a varied land that brings to life every child’s imagination of mysterious far-away wonders. Think wild jungles, ancient ruins, volcanic lakes. And then there are the cities: the namesake capital, Guatemala City, a vibrant metropolis of museums and culture; Antigua, a colorful town of crumbling cathedrals and hidden courtyards; Flores, a village isolated on a lonely island, floating in a great lake as though it were a Latin-American Venice. But, as is so often true of the best destinations in the world, it is ultimately the friendliness of the locals who live here that becomes its defining trait. And Guatemala, despite what so many politicians may have said, is a country of astonishingly kind and hardworking people.
This year, we named not one, but two hotels in Guatemala as some of the very best in the world in our 2020 Fodor’s Finest list. Francis Ford Coppola’s La Lancha, just outside the Mayan ruins of Tikal, is a spectacular resort buried in the jungles. And Casa Palopó, on Lake Atitlan in the highlands, is about as glamorous as you can get.
November to April is considered the dry season, but you still may be OK in October or May. The summer months may be dicey, but discounts will be aplenty.
There are 11 villages that surround the serenely beautiful Lake Atitlan in the highlands. Ask your hotel to organize a private boat for a day. It will cost $110, but you’ll be able to wander the lake at your leisure and visit as many of the towns as you like.
Montserrat is the epitome of a serene, tropical getaway. The Soufrière Hills Volcano, now a popular tourist sight, is the reason for the island’s calm and mysterious vibe. A series of volcanic eruptions in the 1990s has left the island with a population of fewer than 6,000 people. But as the “emerald isle” of the Caribbean, its soaring peaks and lush rainforest-covered hillsides are the most fascinating thing about Montserrat. Proof of this is at Montserrat’s National Trust Botanical Gardens, which features a host of nature trails and indigenous flora. While the effects of the disastrous volcanoes can still be seen in Plymouth, the island’s former capital that was completely destroyed, Richmond Hill and the Montserrat Observatory provide the most stunning viewpoints of the untouched isle. For fun in the sun, visit any of the island’s eight black-sand beaches (like Little Bay Beach for rum and music) or Rendezvous Beach, the island’s sole white-sand beach.
Lodging options in Montserrat are limited, but the few places to stay on the island are budget-friendly and comfortable. If you want a full-service lodging near the airport, stay at the Tropical Mansion Suites. While it has its own great amenities, it’s also close to restaurants and a nightclub. A more private and serene option is the Miles Away Villa Resort, completely surrounded by the lush greenery that Montserrat is known for and just minutes away from Lime Kiln Beach.
Montserrat enjoys the warm tropical climate of the Caribbean, but the best time to visit is during the summer months, especially August and September when the turtles take over the beaches. If you plan to visit during winter, expect cheap resort prices and lots of rain.
While the Soufrière Hills Volcano is a popular tourist site in Montserrat, be sure to check in with the Montserrat Observatory for the status of the volcano. The last eruption of the Soufrière Hills Volcano was in 2012.
Costa Rica has long been a mecca for tourists eager to explore its many beaches, rain forests, and stunning biodiversity, but its capital city of San Jose has mostly remained a fly-in/fly-out destination. Luckily for anyone with taste buds, more visitors are spending more than just one night here and a food scene with a focus on all things local and eco-friendly continues to thrive. Costa Rica has always been at the forefront of sustainability, and the country continues to lead the fight against climate change, winning the United Nations 2019 Champions of the Earth award, the UN’s highest environmental honor. An ambitious plan to decarbonize its entire economy has the country scheduled to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and 100% renewable electricity by 2030. One surprising benefit to this whole saving the planet business can be seen in the San Jose food scene. No longer content with being a land of just rice and beans, Costa Rican chefs have been encouraged to utilize the overwhelming bounty of produce grown here, creating a culinary renaissance that is 100% local and 1000% delicious. A rising number of restaurants in San Jose now get their ingredients from farmers’ markets or directly from the fincas (farms) that surround the city. Many eateries, like Al Mercat in the trendy Barrio Escalante neighborhood, even have their own fincas to help create true farm-to-table menus that focus on the freshest, most innovative takes on Latin American dishes. From fine dining establishments like Restaurante Silvestre to low-key eateries that embrace Indigenous recipes like Sikwa, San Jose is seeing an influx of talented chefs redefine just what Costa Rican food means.
You’ll find a startling amount of chain hotels in San Jose, but there are quite a few gems too. The gorgeous Hotel Grano de Oro does its best impression of an old coffee plantation house, complete with a lush courtyard, dark wood interiors, and a rooftop pool; the on-site restaurant of the same name is also one of the city’s most long-standing culinary legends. For a more down-to-earth and colorful experience, spend the night at Hotel Aranjuez, a family-run spot close to Barrio Escalante that proudly touts its use of solar panels and its recycling and composting programs.
Avoid the rainy season by visiting in mid-December through April, although beware that the time between Christmas and Easter will be the most crowded and expensive. May and November are especially lovely times to visit; you’ll avoid the crowds while still missing the worst of the occasionally torrential rains.
You’ll find the most exciting restaurant openings in up-and-coming neighborhoods like Barrio Amón and Barrio Escalante. Take the time to explore Mercado Escalante, a collection of recycled shipping containers that now house a boutique clothing shop, coffee shop, a pizzeria, several bars, a colorful dog park, and a parking lot that holds a rotating collection of street art from local artists.
A Caribbean island paradise with French flair, St. Barth’s has long been a playground for the rich and famous. Its capital city, Gustavia, is lined by designer shops, independent boutiques, chic restaurants, bars, and the marina where billionaires dock their yachts. Thanks to investments from local business owners, St. Barth’s was one of the first islands to get back up and running after being devastated by Hurricane Irma in 2017. Exploring the island now, you would hardly know how badly damaged it was. (Ask the locals though, and they will tell you some harrowing tales.) Spend your days as the celebrities do, hanging out at a beach club like Shellona or yachting around the island, stopping at scenic spots like Colombier Beach, which is only accessible by foot or boat. In the evening, head into town for dinner at La Guérite followed by drinks and dancing at hotspots like Bagatelle or Le Ti.
Seven out of the island’s 10 five-star resorts are now fully open and operational, and the last one—Le Guanahani—is slated to reopen in October 2020 following a complete renovation. Stay there or at Le Sereno, a member of Leading Hotels of the World, on the protected Grand Cul de Sac with just 36 rooms and suites, an Italian restaurant, a luxurious spa, and a pool.
Winter (mid-December through February) is high season, so you’ll get better rates by visiting during the shoulder season (mid-April through June and mid-November through mid-December). You might want to avoid hurricane season (June through November).
The Grand Cul de Sac is home to a colony of sea turtles, and guests of Le Sereno can get up close and personal with them by borrowing snorkeling equipment or a glass-bottom kayak.
The “Capital of the Mayan East” may be the second-largest city in the Yucatán State but embodies the alluring charm of a quaint town. You’ll enjoy a sense of peace as you stroll by the pastel colonial structures and 19th-century mansions that line Calzada de los Frailes in the historic downtown quarter. Charming eateries on the picturesque street serve Yucatecan specialties such as creamy papadzules (a vegetarian enchilada-esque dish covered with a sauce made from pumpkin seeds) and savory-sweet marquesitas (crispy crepe-like pancakes filled with cheese and chocolate). Unique boutiques offer modern designs with Mayan infusion, including clothing at Caravana, Daniela Bustos Maya, and Valladolid Folks. Authentic handcrafted souvenirs can be found at KuxTal Galería de Arte Popular and Dutzi. Chukum-Ha, a newly-discovered 130-foot cenote, is the perfect place to cool off after a day of exploring downtown’s cobblestoned lanes, churches, and San Bernardino Convent. As dusk settles, there’s almost always a cultural demonstration of Yucatecan folk dancing or music to be found somewhere in town.
Don’t miss the opportunity to spend the night in a historic building while in Valladolid. Book a room at the 17th-century mansion Meson del Marques set on the main square across from the Catedral de San Servasio. For a stay that’ll ignite your senses, reserve the one-suite residence at the Coqui Coqui Perfumeria near the Convent of San Bernardino de Siena.
Plan your trip around local festivals such as the Virgen de la Candelaria on February 2 and the largest event to celebrate the city’s anniversary from May 20 to June 4.
Make a half-day trip out to the mustard-hued Izamal Pueblo Magico. Climb several Mayan pyramids and visit monasteries, churches, convents, and charming laneways all doused in yellow. Authentic Yucatecan cuisine and artisan crafts can be enjoyed at Kinich Izamal.