A beach is so much more than a sunny stretch of sand — although there are plenty of those, too, in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, where Hanya Yanagihara surveyed more than 9,000 miles of coast to come up with 13 of the continent's best strands. Here, on South America's east coast, you'll find not only tropical heat (and the hardbodies who come with it) but pebbled shores populated with penguins, unpeopled stretches where palm trees are your only company, and waves without end that attract fledgling and serious surfers alike. Call it the thinking man's beach guide — to mindless pleasures, to be sure, but also to much, much more.
Praia de Sibaúma, Natal
Good for: Scenery / Sun
Natal, the capital of Rio Grande do Norte State, is famous for its beaches, but Sibaúma, 90 minutes south of the city, is in a league of its own. The strand is bracketed by twin tidal pools (in the morning, when the water is low, you can watch white-and-yellow crabs scuttle into their rocky pockets), and the continuous one- to two-foot waves are perfect for bodyboarding. What's most striking about Sibaúma, however, is its absences: no garbage (just handfuls of green and burgundy seaweed tossed up by the sea), no tourists (just a few patient fishermen, thigh-deep out past the tide pools), and almost no development, in deference to an adjacent turtle sanctuary (just a solitary inn at the top of the cliff that backs the beach). This is not a typical tropical-fantasy beach: There's little shade, and the storm-colored water, while clean and nearly as warm as the air, is made silty in parts by the ceaseless surf. But one can believe, walking along its solidly packed sand, that it is wholly one's own — a fantasy of a different sort.
The 411: The five-suite Kilombo Villas & Spa — a well-intentioned but unrefined property with glorious views of Sibaúma — is a three-minute walk away, although staying here means near-complete dependence on its adequate but expensive restaurant (55-84-3246-5534; kilombovillas.com; doubles, $350-$483; entrées, $9-$30). Alternatively, Tocada Coruja Pousada, with a resident bird sanctuary and one of the area's most popular restaurants, is a short car ride away in Pipa, a pretty little village with some nice beaches of its own (55-84-3246-2226; tocadacoruja.com.br; doubles, $128-$379; entrées, $9-$21).
When to go: Bodyboarders will prefer the winter months of June, July, and August, but locals recommend late February and March, when the weather is warm but not sultry, the waves are manageable, and the post-Carnaval hangover means that everything moves in pleasant slow motion.
Praia dos Nativos, Trancoso
Good for: Sports / Sun
Sure, some of its most committed admirers now helicopter in from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo for a long weekend, but at its heart beautiful Trancoso, in Bahia State, remains a hippie town. There are the requisite bikini shops and open-air Thai restaurants, but here the storefronts are painted vivid shades of mint green and acid pink that complement, rather than compete with, the shaggy flame trees and clumps of pink-and-yellow ginger that surround them. At the end of the Quadrado, or town square, the lawn of the sixteenth-century Church of St. John gives way to a glorious overlook of the area's seven miles of beach. The main, two-mile Praia dos Nativos begins where the Rio Trancoso flows into the sea, and is speckled with cafés blasting Bob Marley remixes and with beachgoers of all ages. Just 15 minutes to the north, however, is Taipé — a tawny plain fringed with mangrove and coconut trees that is all yours: no sunbathers, no swimmers, and no noise save for the gentle surf. At times, the water is swimming pool flat, and so cool and sparkling that it's like gliding through soda pop.
The 411: Etnia Pousada — a fantasy of a tropical B&B, with eight bungalows, a pool, and a rustic-chic outdoor restaurant — is a pleasant 20-minute stroll inland (55-73-3668-1137; etniabrasil.com.br; doubles, $243-$304; entrées, $13-$18). If you'd rather be bang on the beach, Pousada Estrela d'Água is a cozy, crisply run resort with two pools (55-73-3668-1030; estreladagua.com.br; doubles, $455-$877). Among the Quadrado's more notable restaurants are O Cacau, with its riffs on traditional seafood dishes (55-73-3668-1266; entrées, $17-$29), and Maritaka, a swinging beer-and-pizza joint (388 Rua do Telegrafo; 55-73-3668-1702; entrées, $15-$30).
When to go: The best people-watching, weather, and water are from Christmas through Easter.
Praia do Espelho, Trancoso
Good for: Scenery / Sun
Ask 10 Brazilians to name the nation's most beautiful beach and you'll get 10 different answers — not surprising, given the country's 4,650 miles of coast. But even Cariocas who swear that the world begins and ends at Ipanema would have to agree that Praia do Espelho, an hour south of Trancoso, is one of the loveliest. Bookended by white limestone cliffs, the strand is bordered by a row of sweet, tidy bungalows and squat palms whose dry fronds chatter in the wind and whose droppings — smooth, pebble-hard nuts — freckle the sand. But the real attraction here is the water. During low tide (from morning through mid-afternoon), the sea peels back from the shore, exposing dozens of coral outcroppings that you can pick your way around as schools of glassy minnows flash past your ankles. From a distance, the ocean appears a tantalizingly unnatural aqua, but up close it's so clear and colorless that you can see every crevice and scuttling crustacean. This is not a beach for swimming, given the many rocky projections, but it is ideal for lazing away the day in the womb-warm shallows, an experience as relaxing as it is regressive.
The 411: Overnight at Etnia Pousada (see Praia dos Nativos, above). Praia do Espelho's sole dining establishment, Sylvinha's Place, also happens to be one of Bahia's best tables; call ahead, since Sylvinha herself won't cook unless she's expecting you (55-73-9985-4157; prix fixe, $26).
When to go: March, when the waves (and the crowds) are less formidable.
Blue Lagoon, Angra dos Reis
Good for: Scenery / Sports / Sun
It's happened to every traveler: You hear of a place with an unusually evocative name, and are inevitably disappointed by its failure to fulfill its promise. But when the sun is out, the Blue Lagoon does indeed sparkle an improbable aquamarine, the light glinting prettily off its modest waves. There is no beach to speak of on this no-name speck off Ilha Grande (the largest of the Angra dos Reis archipelago's 365 islands): Snorkelers navigate around its tree-thick shoreline, which is trimmed with yellow bamboo and exuberant sprays of ferns and orchids that press right up against the water's edge. Beneath the surface, schools of silvery fish whip past, and pockmarked rocks bristle with starfish and sea anemones.
The 411: The town of Angra dos Reis, on the mainland in Rio de Janeiro State, is a two-hour drive south of Rio, but for those who don't want to tackle the logistics of reaching the archipelago, the outfitter Blue Parallel — whose owner, Emmanuel Burgio, is among Condé Nast Traveler's Top Travel Specialists — can arrange airport pickups, cars and drivers, and guided tours of the islands in a high-speed boat (800-256-5307; blueparallel.com). On Ilha Grande, stay at Pousada Naturalia, a 12-suite inn that abuts the island's extravagant jungle — ask for a room with air-conditioning (55-24-3361-9583; pousadanaturalia.net; suites, $95-$115).
When to go: The energy — and thongs — of high season (December-February) can't be beat, but if you'd rather see sea life than scantily clad posteriors, go in late February and early March, when the weather's still warm and Cariocas have returned to the city.
Praia do Dentista, Angra dos Reis
Good for: Sports / Sun
From December through February, the tourmaline-green waters of Praia do Dentista swirl with the bikinied Cariocas who've made Angra dos Reis one of the country's chicest destinations. Located on Gipóia, the second-largest of Angra's 365 islands, Dentista can be accessed only by boat; indeed, on busy days, dozens of motorboats, sloops, and speedboats make its waters an impromptu marina. Here, everything — time, responsibilities, reality — feels suspended, sometimes literally: The crescent of white sand is so narrow that you'll spend more time bobbing in the warm, jewel-bright waters than lounging on the beach. The only other diversions are people watching, paddling to the floating no-name food-and-drinks shack, and watching the brief but spectacular equatorial sunset.
The 411: Overnight at Pousada Naturalia (see Blue Lagoon, above), on neighboring Ilha Grande. Or stay on the mainland, in the lovely little colonial town of Parati, where the affordable, unassuming Pousada Pardieiro makes a good base for explorations up and down the coast (55-24-3371-1370; pousadapardieiro.com.br; doubles, $134-$158); while there, don't miss the atmospheric Porto Restaurante, which serves modern interpretations of classic Brazilian fare (14 Rua do Comércio; 55-24-3371-1058; entrées, $13-$27).
When to go: If you're a party animal, Christmas and New Year's; otherwise, stick to early February, before the rains set in.
Lopes Mendes, Angra dos Reis
Good for: Scenery / Sports / Sun
Like most things that are worthwhile, reaching Lopes Mendes is work; in this case, a steep and muddy 20-minute trek from the village of Palmas, on Ilha Grande (see Blue Lagoon, above). But the payoff is pure heaven: a two-mile, caramel-colored crescent, and water a remarkable opalescent blue. With its consistent, clean breaks — in March, waves top out at three feet, but in winter they can reach 13 — Lopes Mendes is a treat for surfers of all stripes. All others should head to the west end of the strand, where breaking waves explode against massive outcroppings; one rock in particular is pitted with dozens of neatly arranged pockets, each of which holds, Advent calendar-like, a glossy black sea urchin. There is no development here — just you, the ocean, and the insistent crashing waves.
The 411: Pousada Naturalia (see Blue Lagoon, above) is the most convenient accommodation.
When to go: The biggest waves arrive during the equatorial winter (June-August); those looking for gentler surf should travel in summer (December-March).
Praia do Siriú, Garopaba
Good for: Scenery / Sports/ Sun
Just before you round the final bend on the road to Siriú, in Santa Catarina State, you come upon a field of dunes up to 130 feet high, whose sudden and surreal appearance is heightened by the scene of timeless normalcy across the street: a lovely, lush forest dotted with wood-frame houses and alive with the sounds of cowbells, roosters, and the locals' murmured conversations. From here, you hear Siriú — a protected state park with few houses and no commercial development — before you see it, its powerful, complaining waves breaking against a lonely windblown shore. The water is gray and cold and so thickly foamed that it looks beery, and the low hillocks behind it are hairy with pale-green sea grass. The waves arrive in long, unbroken pleats, with kids and sleek pros alike attempting to master them on longboards. Sunbathers can head to the beach's northern end, where at the foot of a seagrape- and bromeliad-strewn hillside sit a cluster of fat, smooth rocks, like sea lions lounging in the sun.
The 411: The most reliable accommodation is a 20-minute drive from the beach: Fazenda Verde do Rosa, a 36-bungalow property built of local materials (55-48-3355-7272; fazendaverdedorosa.com.br; doubles, $56-$180).
When to go: The area is liveliest from December through February, but serious wave riders can test their mettle from June through August.
Praia da Ferrugem, Garopaba
Good for: Sports / Sun
There are times when Ferrugem feels like Frankenstein — a grab bag of disparate elements knit unconvincingly into one. By night, it's a party, as kids turn the wide plain that precedes the beach proper into an impromptu dance floor. By day, it's two beaches: one a surfer's paradise, where waves crash against a stretch of white sand with such force that the sky blurs with mist; the other a lonely gray stretch where fishermen pick their way through silty waters. But the real oddity is the conical peak that bifurcates the hospitable northern end from its less picturesque southern half. Here, rock formations as sculptural and mysterious as Stonehenge stand vigil over silvery-blue waters. Follow the well-worn path to the top, but don't neglect the tidal pools at its base, where the chilly sea rushes in between giant gray stones, blanketing aubergine mollusks with foam.
The 411: Garopaba, a down-at-heel former fishing village (with a number of good little seafood shacks to prove it) is a five-minute taxi ride from the beach. Overnight at Fazenda Verde do Rosa (see Praia do Siriú, above), a 10-minute drive from the beach.
When to go: Peak season (December—February) is a must: Without the crowds, the area feels desolate, and the waters are uncomfortably cold in the off-season.
Praia do Rosa, Garopaba
Good for: Sports / Sun
There are prettier stretches than Praia do Rosa, the state of Santa Catarina's most beloved beach, but few are as purely likeable, with perfect cream-colored sand, manageable waves, and vibrant bursts of local color: food stands shaded by ketchup-colored umbrellas, peddlers hawking a rainbow of bright sarongs. Located 60 miles south of the state capitol of Florianópolis, Praia do Rosa has an all-things-to-all-people appeal that assures a lively, democratic scene: Young couples stroll hand in hand, and fiftysomething women, their flesh spilling over their bikinis, power-strut past hard-core surfers. Sea crabs translucent as glass scuttle underfoot, and beachfront restaurants sell burgers and beer. When you grow weary of the people watching, you'll find the steel-colored sea as welcoming to swimmers as it is to surfers — there are no sandbars or sudden drops, and it's not until you're deep into the bay that the ground gently falls away and all sound at last recedes.
The 411: Book at Fazenda Verde do Rosa (see Praia do Siriú, above) — just minutes away.
When to go: High season is December through February, but from July through October the area is a breeding ground for migrating southern right whales.
Playa Brava, José Ignacio
Good for: Sports / Sun
Not even an aggressively blue sky can turn the bottle-green waters off Uruguay's southern coast postcard-pretty. But not to worry: The real beauty here is on the beach. Pinkish beige and powder soft, it's patrolled by throngs of Argentines and Uruguayans of all ages ... although that's where the diversity ends. Nearly all of the beachgoers possess an effortless beauty that runs the gamut from matter-of-fact good-looking to preternaturally stunning. The beach is 30 minutes northeast of the more heavily touristed Punta del Este, a coastal community often compared to Miami for its condo-lined waterfront and cosmopolitan-fueled nightlife. José Ignacio, however, reminds you that silence and space are more exclusive than glitz and glamour. Until very recently a fishing town, it still exudes a low-key cool, and the strict zoning laws ensured the construction of only a few wood-and-stone vacation houses overlooking the low, grassy dunes. Preeners and soccer players colonize the northern end of the beach, and the scene becomes more laid-back as you move south toward the lighthouse. Here, surfers and families wade into the brisk water, taking care to avoid the occasional jellyfish carcass.
The 411: The inn closest to the beach is the breezy white-stone Posada del Faro, whose 12 airy, clean-lined rooms look out on either the ocean or the pool (598-486-2110; posadadelfaro.com; doubles, $220-$400); spend an afternoon with a drink and a light lunch at the beachside Parador La Huella (Calle Los Cisnes and Playa Brava; 598-486-2279; entrées, $11-$20). Alternatively, stay at the slightly more distant Posada de Piedra, whose six effortlessly elegant suites offer sweeping views of the property's wide, well-maintained lawns (598-42-774-126; posadadepiedra.com; suites, $135-$235).
When to go: High season (December-February) brings South American society types. For a more relaxed vibe — and lower rates — visit in March and early April.
Playa la Vicera, Puerto Madryn
Good for: Scenery / Wildlife
A bouncy 10-minute drive from El Pedral Lodge (the nearest accommodation) deposits you at the eastern end of this epic Patagonian strand, where a thick carpet of polished pebbles and amethyst-purple abalone shells gives way to a sprawl of sand the color of well-steeped tea. The shallow waters are green and red with seaweed, but past the breakers the ocean shades into royal blue. Here, you'll see backstroking penguins and cormorants dive-bombing for sea bass. Reaching the opposite end of the beach — where a colony of penguins, their feathers glossy with seawater, make tentative, waddling trips to and from the water's edge — requires a 40-minute ATV ride over a plain strewn with stones and bones bleached white by the ceaseless Patagonian sun. There are sea elephant vertebrae the size of a child's pelvic bone, penguin rib cages dangling strips of skin and tufts of feathers, and beaks and crab claws and leathery scraps of cormorant feet. It's an astonishing landscape, an inverted graveyard, the bright-white bones making for thousands of memento mori. The beach is backstopped by a modest mountain, and it's here that you might witness the heartbreaking sight of a solitary sick penguin, tottering into the hills to die alone amid this harsh and beautiful terrain.
The 411: Reaching the charming eight-room El Pedral Lodge is an adventure in itself: A two-hour flight from Buenos Aires delivers you to the one-horse town of Trelew; from there, it's a one-hour drive down a lunar, unpaved road to a stretch of ranchland that feels, truly, like the ends of the earth. The inn itself, an improbable white-and-red Victorian, is where you'll eat four scrumptious fresh-cooked meals a day; between gorgings, guests ride horses, go on guided hikes, and fish — all included in the room rate (54-11-4311-1919 in Buenos Aires; elpedrallodge.com; doubles, $104-$138).
When to go: Although penguins and sea lions can be seen year-round, different months bring different species to northern Patagonia's shores: Right whales breed from June to December, and orcas approach from October to April.
Punta Ninfas, Trelew
Good for: Scenery / Wildlife
It's a 20-minute scrabble down a 300-foot cliff to reach Punta Ninfas, one of the most spectacular stretches of Patagonia's wildlife-rich shores. In the spring (September—October), the beach is home to as many as 36,000 elephant seals, which spend the season mating in its cold, navy waters, and linger through the summer and fall, lolling in blubbery pods. (From October through April, the beach also serves as a pit stop for orcas, which swallow the newborn seals in a single gulp.) The main draw is the seals themselves (16th-century Spanish sailors mistook them for sea nymphs, hence the point's name); however, the area is also a bird-lover's paradise. There are penguins, cormorants, terns, and even flamingos, which skim the water in flame-pink boomerang formations. Equally affecting, however, is the pebbled beach, a testament to this singular landscape's harsh beauty and the transience of life itself: The ground is littered with the carcasses of penguins and cormorants, sad and perfectly preserved, their wings spread as if in flight.
The 411: At El Pedral Lodge (see Playa la Vicera, above) guided tours of the area are included in the room rate.
When to go: There's good animal-spotting year-round, although climate change has altered some migratory patterns; flamingos, for example, which used to pass through in May or June, have lately been appearing a month earlier.
Punta Tombo, Trelew
Good for: Scenery / Wildlife
To reach the Punta Tombo Provincial Reserve — home to half a million Magellanic penguins — means a rattling, dusty 90-minute drive from windswept Trelew. Entering the grounds, one sees a lone penguin standing so perfectly still that only the breeze ruffling its feathers reveals it to be real. Farther on, you encounter your second, third, 20th, and then 100th penguin, crouching in the shallow burrows in which they lay their eggs, or flapping their wings while squawking their harsh cries. Eventually, their numbers become almost comical — hills that stretch to the horizon are crowded with penguins standing sentry, like some vast military brigade, although here the soldiers are two feet tall. There are no trees (Patagonia is simply too windy), and the creatures' only company are the delicate llama-like guanacos and the occasional armadillo, which attempt to eat the penguins' eggs before being set upon by the pecking, screeching parents. The densest concentration of penguins can be spotted from the lookout over the beach, where they emerge from the dark, brilliant waters doing a funny backwards shuffle.
The 411: You don't need a guide at the park, but under no circumstances should you touch the penguins: Their beaks are sharp, and they're quick to snap at proffered fingers. Stay at El Pedral Lodge (see Playa la Vicera, above), but because the penguin preserve is in the opposite direction from the airport, it's most efficient to come here straightaway or to make this the last stop before boarding your flight back to Buenos Aires.
When to go: There are penguins year-round, but the greatest number arrive in the spring (September-October).