Basking beneath palm trees on powder-soft sand, snorkeling warm turquoise waters amid multicolored fish, catching waves, hiking through rainforest to crystal-clear waterfalls, breathing in flower-perfumed air… a dream tropical vacation can be a reality, even on a budget.
Between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, 36% of the earth’s landmass is tropical, providing a multitude of enticing destinations, and balancing where and when to visit can reap huge savings. These are eight of the best affordable vacations in paradise.
1. Palawan, the Philippines
With 7641 islands in total, the Philippines is prime for tropical escapes. Palawan, in the nation’s southwest, has 1780 islands in its archipelago alone. The region teems with thundering waterfalls, huge caves, phenomenal snorkeling at WWII wrecks and coral reefs, swimming with whale sharks, and some of the cheapest scuba diving anywhere in the world. Idyllic El Nido is the jumping-off point for island hopping aboard a bangka (motorized outrigger) to translucent lagoons and hidden beaches framed by karst limestone cliffs.
The pure waters provide a natural bounty of prawns, crab and other crustaceans and fish; look out for danggit lamayo (dried rabbitfish marinated in vinegar, crushed garlic and peppercorn). Staying in a bahay kubo (thatched bamboo shack with woven rattan walls), homestay, hostel or budget hotel are all low-cost options; you can also get good deals on resorts outside peak season (March to May), though some activities close during the June to October wet season.
2. Goa, India
Goa is a tropical potpourri of Indian and Portuguese cultures. India’s smallest state’s least crowded, most pristine beaches, such as Palolem and secluded Butterfly Beach, are in the south, with glowing topaz-hued sunsets over the Arabian Sea. Water activities include kayaking, parasailing, and dolphin-spotting trips.
In the dense jungle, wildlife sanctuaries such as Cotigao are home to civets, gaurs, pangolins, leopards, monkeys and giant Indian squirrels, and plantations grow cashews and spices like turmeric, pepper, vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon. Colorful markets sell these and other local specialties such as cashew-based feni spirit, as well as dishes such as seafood thalis (with rice, fish curries, fried fish, pickles and flatbread) and garlicky, vinegary pork vindaloo, along with cheap clothes and handicrafts.
Guesthouses, hostels, beachside bungalows and resorts offer affordable rates. Much of Goa’s beachside accommodation closes completely between May to September during the monsoon; March/April and October/November are prime to avoid peak-season prices and crowds.
3. Bahías de Huatulco, Mexico
In southeastern Oaxaca on Mexico’s Pacific coast, Bahías de Huatulco is a unique and affordable eco escape. Its nine bays are home to 36 beaches. Santa Cruz’s emerald-green waters are just south of commercial hub La Crucecita, where you can arrange sailing and scuba excursions, and rent equipment including jet skis and kayaks. La Bocana is renowned for surfing and pre-Hispanic mud baths. Maguey has gorgeous white sand and snorkeling amid coral, rays and turtles. It’s part of the Parque Nacional Huatulco, with awesome hiking, biking and horse riding, and abundant wildlife including black iguanas, armadillos and dwarf porcupines. Up in the mountains, you can visit waterfalls and coffee plantations.
Minimize costs by dining on super-fresh seafood and local specialties like tlayudas (corn tortillas topped with black beans, pork fat and cheese) from rustic comedores. For accommodation, stay in rooms in private homes, simple hotels, or low-rise resorts and villas outside peak-season holidays (Christmas, New Year and around Easter) in the November to April dry season. Prices drop lowest in the wet season (May to October), though some places close in September and October.
4. Far North Queensland, Australia
World Heritage rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef in Far North Queensland, Australia. Bordered by sugarcane fields, its gateway city, Cairns, may not have a beach (compensated for by a sand-fringed artificial swimming lagoon on the reclaimed foreshore) but it’s the launching pad for reef trips, such as coral cay Green Island, and hinterland excursions including nearby village Kuranda, with artsy, hippie markets beneath the rainforest canopy.
Cairns makes a great budget-friendly base with a lively hostel scene, family-friendly motels and resorts, and bargain drinking and dining options, including tropical-fruit-filled market Rusty’s and high-spirited happy hours at Cairns’ bars and pubs. For a beachside stay, try Trinity Beach and Clifton Beach, both just north of the city. April/May and September/October, either side of the peak dry season, are ideal times for an affordable tropical holiday.
5. Manabí, Ecuador
Palm-studded beaches, spectacular rock formations and fiery red sunsets characterize the province of Manabí, midway along Ecuador’s coast. Playa Santa Marianita is popular for kite-surfing and swimming; family-friendly Playa de Cojimíes has gentle waves; and Playa Canoa is a favorite for surfing, cliff-top paragliding and kayaking explorations.
Horseshoe-shaped Playa de Los Frailes hides within the Parque Nacional Machalilla, with green macaws, capuchin and howler monkeys, anteaters, and jaguars. Fishing village Puerto López is the gateway to the park’s Isla de la Plata – an infinitely more affordable alternative to Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands, with sea lions, giant manta rays, blue-footed boobies, turtles, albatrosses, frigatebirds, and humpback whales.
You can stay cheaply at hostel dorms or thatched huts, guesthouses and B&Bs, and contemporary hotels. Beachside stalls, food carts and markets have local fish-based specialties like ceviche jipijapa (cured raw fish topped with spicy peanut sauce) and bolón (deep-fried balls of green plantains and cheese). The December to May wet season is the best time to visit as refreshing coastal rainfall is generally short-lived; avoid major holiday periods (Christmas/New Year; Easter) for the best deals.
6. Lombok, Indonesia
Ringed by pearl-white, coral-pink and black volcanic sand beaches, Lombok is a fantastic place for an active tropical vacation. In the south, reefs, inlets and bays such as Pantai Mawi provide world-class surf breaks. Climbing through the jungle to Indonesia’s second-highest volcano, sacred Gunung Rinjani is a multiday adventure. Easier treks include spectacular waterfalls such as Air Terjun Sindang Gila. Offshore, between Lombok and its famous neighbor, Bali, the Gili Islands – Gili Trawangan (‘Gili T’), a backpacker favorite for its moonlight parties; traditional Gili Meno; and laid-back Gili Air – are blissfully free from motorized transport.
On Lombok and the Gilis, you can eat cheaply and deliciously at warungs (small, simple eateries) sizzling up skewered-meat satays and grilling fish over coconut-shell charcoal. Beach huts, hostels and bungalows all offer affordable accommodation. The wet season, from October to April, is the cheapest time to go (especially if you skip the busy Christmas holidays).
Newly minted as a republic in 2021, Barbados is one of the most affordable, all-rounder destinations in the Caribbean. All of its sugar-sand beaches are public, even in the west along its flashy Platinum Coast. Strolling distance from its architectural treasure of a capital, Bridgetown, you can snorkel with seahorses, turtles and rays from Brownes Beach, or paddle out on an SUP or kayak.
Surfing is epic off Bathsheba on the wild Atlantic-facing east coast; Freights Bay, in the south, has gentler waves. The south and east are typically the most economical places to base up. Save money by picking up fresh produce at markets and seeking out cheap bites like cutters (filled salt-bread sandwiches) from roadside stalls and rum shops.
Reggae bands play free gigs all over the island. Next to the fish market, diving into mountains of grilled fish and sides accompanied by ice-cold beers and DJ tunes at Oistins Fish Fry is an unmissable island experience. Barbados’ location outside the hurricane belt gives you a bigger window to visit (mid-April to June and November to mid-December hit the sweet spot for great weather outside the peak Christmas-to-Easter period).
8. Vanua Levu, Fiji
Wind down to “island time” in the South Pacific on Vanua Levu. Fiji’s second-largest island is an unspoiled slice of tropical paradise with white-sand beaches, coconut palms and fragrant frangipanis. Underwater, dive sites such as Rainbow Reef and Namena Marine Reserve have kaleidoscopic coral reefs with marine creatures including hawkbill and green sea turtles. Vanua Levu’s rugged interior shelters waterfalls, swimming holes and highland villages.
You can feast cheaply on dishes like kokoda (raw fish marinated in coconut cream, tomato and lime, accompanied by rice) and banana leaf-wrapped fish, meat and vegetables cooked in a lovo (underground oven), and experience Fijian hospitality in a traditional bure (thatched hut), local guesthouse, hotel or budget resort. Prices are lowest during the warm November to April wet season.