Fortune favours the bold - if you're willing to go further off the beaten track, beyond the guidebooks and into local territory, there are still unspoiled stretches of sand to get to before everyone else does.
Cabo San Juan, Tayrona National Park, Colombia
First-time visitors here are easy to spot: They’re the ones overloading their iPhones with photos and asking each other why they’ve never been to Tayrona before. The answer is simple: Getting here is not easy. It’s a three-hour drive from Cartagena—under ideal road conditions that have never existed (in reality it is more like five). Road signs for the park are almost nonexistent; roads in the park are subject to flooding. But you forget all of that when step onto the beach at Cabo San Juan, with its twin horseshoe bays filled with warm emerald water and primeval rock piles.
The only comfortable accommodations in the park’s acres are the Ecohabs, a cluster of jungle huts overlooking the water. It’s a rustic take on luxury, where the sea breeze subs in for air conditioning, and the in-house restaurant is ...a restaurant (stick to simply grilled fish with coconut rice). To think of this as austerity is to get it all wrong. You’re surrounded by 30,000 acres of lush jungle and miles of unspoiled beach—everything else is just noise.
Little-known fact: Miles of uncrowded golden sand edged by cerulean-blue ocean can still be found a short drive from a major European airport. Savvy travelers tend to describe Comporta in terms of other places: Tulum 20 years ago, Ibiza in the ’70s, Montauk before the Hamptons crowd moved all the way east. The comparisons follow a formula: Pick a once-undiscovered beach town and the magical era before the masses got the memo.
Comporta still has a few years before Lisbon’s recent tourist boom trickles south, but in-the-know Europeans have been coming for decades, drawn by the low-fi lifestyle and rustic, sun-scorched beauty. You’d be well advised to do as they do: Book a villa, shop the roadside farm stands, fishmongers and wine merchants, and stay in after sunset. And of course, spend your days in the sand.
The ferry ride from Piraeus (outside Athens) takes four hours each way—just long enough, it turns out, to prevent day-trippers from descending on Koufonisia in hordes. This under-the-radar archipelago is composed of two inhabited islands and a third reserved for archaeological digs.
Pano Koufonisia, the main island, boasts enough tucked-away beaches and small tidal enclaves that a private strip of sand is always within walking distance. The Hotel Aelos, set on the hill outside of town, has the whitewashed, sugar-cube look you expect from your Greek-island lodgings; book one of the first-floor rooms with a bougainvillea-wreathed terrace overlooking the pool. The beachfront bar Kalofego has the liveliest day-drinking scene, but before the sun sets, cool off at the Devil’s Eye Piscina, an Instagram-baiting swimming hole carved into the rocky coastline. Once you jump in, the only exit is through a watery passage that leads out to sea. The experience is well worth the journey. The same could be said for Koufonisia itself.
Benguerra and Bazaruto, Mozambique
In the ’60s, the tropical islands off Mozambique’s coast drew a bohemian international crowd to their pristine white beaches. Then came a long civil war. The conflict ended 25 years ago, but the southeastern African nation is just now reclaiming its bygone heyday.
Two islands—Benguerra and Bazaruto—are leading the charge. The high-end safari operator AndBeyond, recently transformed a dilapidated fishing lodge on Benguerra into 14 individual oceanfront casitas, with private plunge pools and outdoor showers. The beach bar, made from a reclaimed fishing boat, should be your first stop after a day of snorkeling at Two Mile Reef a few hundred yards offshore. Keep an eye out for dugong, a docile—but easily started—sea cow that delirious sailors of yore took for mermaids. Bazaruto, the larger island, has wider beaches and more rugged terrain: Clamber up the 300-foot sand dunes for the best views of the archipelago. Stake out one of the thatched-roof cottages in the gardens of the Anantara Resort & Spa , where you can snack on just-picked mango and feast on fresh Mozambican prawns that the rest of the world has to defrost before eating.
Todos Santos, Mexico
There are a lot of unmarked roads in Mexico’s Baja California Sur. You see them from the smooth highway that connects the sleepy town of Todos Santos to the glossy resorts of Los Cabos an hour south, their dusty trails carving mysterious paths through fields dotted with tall saguaro cacti. They look a little intimidating, but as one local said during a recent visit, “when you see a dirt road in Baja, you should take it. There’s always something interesting at the other end.”
And, as the saying goes, fortune favors the bold—and those who’ve rented a car with four-wheel drive. For the slow exploration of these roads yields a trove of discoveries: An oasis where the mouth of an underground spring feeds a grove of palm trees with fronds as green as a desert mirage. Or, a secluded beach where cerulean waves crash between a craggy, mermaid cove.
This wild sense of possibility has drawn a small stream of travelers to Todos Santos for decades. Some come to surf the nearby breaks, widely regarded as among the country’s best. Others, to wander the cobblestone streets lined with tiny artisan shops and refurbished haciendas in the old part of town. The area is so enchanting that in 2006, the Mexican government designated Todos Santos a Pueblo Mágico—one of just 100 or so small towns honored for its natural beauty, cultural riches, or historical relevance.