Cruising to Mexico offers much more than sun, sand and sea. It's also a winning combination of the warm-hearted people, tasty local cuisine, the culture and traditions that make it a desirable vacation destination.
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Despite its popularity with land-based vacationers, Mexico is almost an afterthought of Caribbean cruising. Less famous than its Eastern Caribbean counterparts St. Thomas and St. Maarten, Mexico has hidden largely in the shadows of the Western Caribbean for decades – until now. Looking for diversity in their itineraries, more and more cruise lines are making Mexico their first priority – and they’re also managing to cater to those who’d rather drive, not fly, to their port of embarkation.
Mexico’s eastern coast and Yucatan Peninsula offer an enormous amount of activities for cruisers. Ports like Progreso serve as jumping-off points for excursions to the spectacular Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is on-par with Rome’s Coliseum and Egypt’s pyramids in terms of impressiveness. Dating back to 900 AD, most cruise lines that call on Progreso offer full-day tours to Chichen Itza that come complete with a boxed lunch and plenty of time to roam the sprawling site with your guide or on your own. Perhaps most surprisingly, cold beer is available for sale on-site.
For those who have seen the Mayan ruins, Progreso itself offers the average visitor more than might be expected – provided you take the (free) shuttle to the end of the pier, which stretches out for miles into the ocean. This is arguably small-town Mexico at its most authentic, and shopkeepers and restaurateurs are eager to please. In fact, some of the best guacamole and chips we’ve ever had were in Progreso.
Courtesy of Vilaine Crevette/Shutterstock
Others, like Costa Maya, have been specially designed for the cruise industry. With long finger piers located next to small villages featuring duty-free shopping, beachfront bars and even an on-site Aquarium, casual visitors don’t have to look far to find their own slice of Mexico. Excursions offered include beach breaks, tequila tasting, snorkelling, glass-bottomed boat rides, and even trips in a semi-submersible. Increasingly, cruise lines are also offering excursions to visit local artisans as passengers look for experiences beyond cervezas at Senor Frogs.
Both ports, however, are less-well known than the granddaddy of all Mexican ports: Cozumel. Cozumel has been satisfying cruisers of all types for decades now. Historically-minded visitors will want to stroll the city’s Old Town, or head across the strait to Playa del Carmen on the mainland for a trip to Tulum: the only ancient Mayan fortress to be built above the azure-blue seas.
Families will love Xcaret Park, which has been designed as part nature preserve, part entertainment venue. Xcaret offers over 40 different on-site attractions that range from river rafting along Paradise River to exploring a reconstructed Mayan village to wine tasting sessions at the Vino de Mexico Wine Cellar. There’s even a butterfly pavilion and a separate nature preserve known as Jaguar Island.
Courtesy of Experiencias Xcaret
Others will want to make the crossing by ferry (offered by all the cruise lines) over to Playa del Carmen for a day of shopping in nearby Cancun. Beach break excursions offered in conjunction with major resorts are offered by most cruise lines, as are tequila tasting tours. Increasingly, food and art-themed tours are also being offered to individuals, couples and families. On both the mainland and Cozumel Island, there is no shortage of outdoor activities, from diving and snorkeling to paragliding and zip lining. You really can do it all in Mexico!
Not keen to fly? You might be able to drive to your next Mexico cruise. Carnival Cruise Line is repositioning its best and brightest ships not to Miami, but to an almost unlikely port: Galveston, Texas. The trendsetting 2006-built Carnival Freedom is already there, and she’ll be joined by the line’s flagship, Carnival Breeze and her 2,974-guest fleet mate, Carnival Liberty, in 2016. Together, the trio will offer a variety of three, four, five, and seven-night cruises to the Western Caribbean, most of which offer a distinct focus on Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula.
Royal Caribbean is also making Galveston a priority, deploying Navigator of the Seas to the city on mainly weeklong runs to the Western Caribbean. Their focus isn’t as Mexico-centric as Carnival’s is, but Cozumel is a staple on nearly every Western Caribbean port offered by the massive ship.
Norwegian Cruise Line, meanwhile, is pinning their hopes on nearby Houston, banking that cruisers won’t want to make the two-plus-hour journey south to Galveston from both of Houston’s main airports: William P. Hobby and George Bush Intercontinental. Both Norwegian Jade and Norwegian Jewel will sail right from Houston’s own cruise terminal, calling on the Mexican ports of Cozumel and Progreso in addition to other Western Caribbean ports like Harvest Caye, Belize and Roatan, Honduras.
Don’t Forget the West
Drive-up cruising doesn’t begin and end in Texas: the Mexican Riviera is rapidly recovering after a recent downturn in cruise departures. Now, sailings to Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, and vibrant Puerto Vallarta are running full steam ahead.
Mexico’s Pacific Coast is a very special, unique place. From the arid desert landscape surrounding Cabo San Lucas and the Sea of Cortes to the lush mountain ranges that bookend Puerto Vallarta like some Alaskan port of call transported to warmer climes, the Mexican Riviera holds something for everyone. Mazatlan’s Centro Historico – or Old Town – is unparalleled, as is a stroll along Puerto Vallarta’s picturesque Malecon, with its numerous sculptures and statues. Cliff divers perform impossible feats, and the romantic Los Arcos (The Arch) in Cabo San Lucas draws lovers and photographers alike to admire its perch on the Pacific.
At the head of the pack, Carnival Cruise Line is restoring confidence in these classic West Coast sailings, offering year-round departures from Los Angeles (San Pedro) aboard the 2,124-guest Carnival Miracle. She offers a variety of itineraries, including the “classic” Mexican Riviera cruise calling on all three major ports, along with voyages that offer two days in Cabo San Lucas, plus a day in Puerto Vallarta.
Norwegian Cruise Line offers even more variety, with the 2005 Norwegian Jewel offering four separate itineraries ranging in length from six to eight days, all of which depart roundtrip from Los Angeles (San Pedro). Further to the south, the intimately-sized Norwegian Sun whisks 1,936 guests on longer 11-day voyages from San Diego that call on Acapulco, Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas. Together, both ships offer more dining and entertainment venues than any other ships in the region.
For a slightly more upscale offering, Holland America is sending their 1,350-guest Veendam on weeklong runs to the Mexican Riviera from San Diego in November and December of this year. It’s the perfect getaway for those who want to celebrate the holidays with sun and style on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Don’t forget a nice cold glass of Pacifico on-deck!
The “Love Boats” also make their triumphant return to the Mexican Riviera, with Princess Cruises sending the big-but-beautiful Crown Princess and her 2008 sister, Ruby Princess, to operate weeklong sailings from Los Angeles (San Pedro) throughout the 2015-2016 Winter season. These include a total of three days at sea and port calls in Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta.
The Caribbean may be the most well-known destination in the cruising world, but Mexico is quickly emerging as the true diamond in the rough.
Originally published in World Traveler Summer/Fall 2015 issue by Aaron Saunders.