D
uring the interminable winters of the American Midwest, I often find myself scrolling through travel websites, looking for airfare deals. The destinations beckon — Bonaire, Belize, Bahamas — and my mind wanders to past adventures in those places. I close my eyes and can almost hear the crash of the surf, the clank of dive tanks on the dock, the cry of gulls, and the clink of a pair of Belikins right out of the cooler. Then I click “Book Ticket”.

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One of the sublime joys of a tropical vacation is the beer. By tropical vacation, I don’t mean sitting by the pool at an all-inclusive resort. I mean sailing, surfing, diving and sweating it out in the jungle, the beach or in a kayak. And by beer, I’m not talking about anything you can find at your corner liquor store in Manhattan (Kansas or New York), or even those Mexican imports with the clever TV ads. I’m talking about the ones that come in brown bottles with peeling labels and caps that you knock off on the edge of a table, beers with names like Belikin, Polar, Banks, Sands, Sol, Belashi, Kalik or Three Coins.

Back home, I love my craft-brewed IPAs and oatmeal stouts, but when I’m lounging on a lazy afternoon under a palapa on a Caribbean island, a cheap, watery local brew beats any Portland hipster beer every time. There is a sense of place with the tropical beer that extends beyond the taste. The bottle, of heavier glass, has probably been washed out and reused a hundred times. The dust and chips on it tell their own stories of late night revelry and lazy afternoons. The labels often show simple designs that reflect a nostalgic air of an earlier time before big resorts and cruise ship ports. They peel easily, aided by the humidity that causes profuse sweating on the bottle and the forehead it cools: free air conditioning with your beer.

Tropical vacations usually mean spicy foods — the curries of Sri Lanka and Thailand, the salsas of Latin America, the Creole stews of the Caribbean — and nothing goes better with those foods than a cold beer. Hoppy ales and dark porters are better left for more temperate climes and more temperate foods. Spice demands a lager or pilsner; the lighter the better. Back home on a winter evening, those tropical beers (if you could even find them), so light on body and flavor, would languish in the back of the fridge. But when you’ve returned at dusk from a day of diving or surfing, covered in sand, sunburned and salt crusted, there is nothing better.

Travel means leaving your comfort zone and getting a taste of a local culture. Do yourself a favor: skip the burgers and Budweiser. Get off the main street with its souvenir shops and Señor Frog’s. Skip the air conditioning. Go explore a few blocks. Find the town plaza where the locals gather to gossip and the kids kick a soccer ball around. Here’s where the real tropics are found. Take a chance, buy a taco from that cart on the corner. Then go to the shop and buy a Sol and sit on the curb under a tree and eat and drink. For a few minutes, be a local.