Top 5 Mexican Cruise Ports Serve Up Sun & Fun
Some of the richest and non-touristy Mayan history is found south of Progreso in Uxmal. Photo by David Dickstein
Visitors to Cabo San Lucas can get up-close and personal with dolphins. Photo by David Dickstein
By David Dickstein
For the cruisers seen on YouTube stumbling back to their ship wearing a sombrero and sunglasses to hide glassy eyes, it’s proximity to a cantina for cervezas and shots. Another group will say it’s all about local culture – the people, history, music and food. Others are swayed by the variety of shore excursions or access to a luxurious resort for a day of fun and sun. Then there’s folks who just want a safe place to walk around.
What makes for a great Mexican cruise port is truly in the eye of the beholder, bloodshot or otherwise. With 18 cruises to Mexico under my gradually expanding belt I’ve seen the beelines adult passengers make for the closest and/or hottest watering holes once off the gangway. They don’t explore, shop, swim, snorkel, swim, zipline or do museums. They do Señor Frog's, Carlos and Charlie’s, Margaritaville and other whistle-wetting oases, and the bonus for thirsty 18 to 20 year olds is they can do on Mexican land that they can’t do at sea on cruise lines that follow U.S. law, even in international waters.
No judging here, but loud and lewd bars and the type of crowd they draw aren’t my scene, and not what earns a spot on my top five Mexican ports list. Either does violent crime. That’s why drug gang-infested Acapulco didn’t make the cut, not that it matters much with nearly every cruise line steering clear of the country’s notorious murder capital through at least 2021. Feeling lucky? Then roll the dice with Norwegian and its sister brands Regent Seven Seas and Oceania.
Of Mexico’s 22 cruise ports, roughly a dozen are served by the big players. From that pool of ports do we draw the top 5, or as said south of the border, los cinco mejores.
How does one of Mexico’s most unsightly ports get top billing? Because just as with books and covers, you don’t judge a dock by its surroundings. Progresso, on the northern coast of the state of Yucatán, is gateway to many key and cool places, but more than that, it hasn’t been sanitized (read: overdeveloped) by the cruise industry. Yes, it’s an important port of call for the lines, especially Carnival, and they’ve wisely left it to the locals. That’s how it should be with ports still considered safe to roam around beyond the security gates. For any that aren’t, bring on those enclosed, right-off-the-ship retail-dining-entertainment villages. Carnival has announced plans to do just that in Ensenada, where there’s been an uptick in unsavory activity.
Progreso’s shopping complex, a few minutes’ walk from the ship, is your portal to the outside world. It’s humble and unhurried, and, best of all, there’s not a Diamonds International, Del Sol or Cariloha store in sight. If tanzanite, color-changing shirts or bamboo bedding are your desire, wait for the next port.
Ship-coordinated shore excursions start here, taking those booked to places ancient and authentic – once beyond four miles of unaesthetic road made even uglier by stacks of concrete blocks. One to two hours away by air conditioned coach are three important Mayan ruins: Chichen Itza, Izamal and Uxmal. The former, one of the “New 7 Wonders of the World” and graced by the iconic 98-foot-high El Castillo pyramid, is the most crowded and touristy by far. The latter is the least in both categories, and although it lacks the must-see distinction Chichen Itza enjoys, what sets this ancient city apart from many other ruins is a layout arranged according to astronomical events and not geometrically.
Another plus with Progreso is the money saved on a shore excursion or taxi to a public beach or downtown by climbing aboard a free shuttle sponsored by a local tour company. Buses run every 20 minutes and stop service an hour before your ship’s departure.
Most tours go through Merida, the Yucatán Peninsula’s cultural capital and the state’s largest city at just under a million, 60 percent Mayan. Unspoiled by tourism is this cosmopolitan, yet provincial gem rich in colonial history. A 45-minute drive south by shore excursion or cab rewards the downtown visitor with charming plazas, vibrant markets, cool art galleries and restaurants worthy of missing out on the pre-paid grub back on the ship. Locate Hermana Republica, Museo de la Gastronomia Yucateca or Restaurante Zamna using your smart device’s navigation app and you’re on your way to some of the best traditional Yucatán-style dishes in town. Order like a local and start with the sopa de lima, a tangy lime soup with shredded turkey or chicken, tomato, onion and tortilla strips.
#2: Cabo San Lucas
The port of Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo and Mother Nature’s El Arco is located on the tip of the 800-mile long Baja California Peninsula with the Sea of Cortez on one shore and the Pacific Ocean on the other. This watery mix and having a desert just an hour away enable cruise lines to offer an eclectic array of shore excursions at the most-called port on Mexican Riviera itineraries.
Cabo has a spring breaky vibe, and the hub of the action is cantina-lined Medano Beach. Easily walkable from where the ship tenders make their runs, this public beach is also home to myriad watersports and tours. Several resorts here offer all-inclusive day passes, and none has ever disappointed. That said, they’ve never wowed us like two resorts near the marina. Playa Grande Resort offers gorgeous hacienda-style grounds with multiple pools, great food and activities for the whole family. Its swankier, more adulty sister property farther up the hill is Grand Solmar Land’s End. Licensed taxis are plentiful, but not all that necessary since the touristy section is easily explored by hoof. By flipper, conveniently located in the marina, is Cabo Dolphins, easily the port’s top-selling experience for families.
Dining-wise, the establishments along the marina’s parameter are fine – as in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf restaurants fine. If you prefer a more relaxed meal, do lunch instead at nearby Maria Corona, La Golondrina and Mi Casa.
#3: Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta is the jewel of the Mexican Riviera, welcoming over 300,000 cruisers a year with whatever vibe they’re looking for.
Want to party? Head to the clubs along the sculpture-dotted Malecon, a mile-long shoreline promenade that hugs downtown. Chances are you won’t be there after dark – one of the few downfalls of cruising – but a hip and happening scene can be had by day.
Want luxurious relaxation? Beachfront Villa Premiere in Centro (downtown) offers a boutiquey blend of retro architecture and modern amenities – the perfect day pass escape from the masses. So is Grand Miramar in the exclusive Conchas Chinas neighborhood. The hilltop property isn’t walkable from Centro, but once there by cab, seclusion and stunning views of Banderas Bay await, along with upscale restaurants and bars.
Puerto Vallarta’s culinary scene gets more sophisticated and distinguished every year. Highly recommended is the cuisine at Café des Artistes, Playa Los Muertos, La Palapa, Medregal and Tintoque. The port town’s art scene is no slouch, either. If contemporary Mexican fine art is your pleasure, feasts for the eyes are found downtown at Colectika, Corsica and Peyote People galleries.
This island delight off the Yucatán Peninsula is where snorkeling and other water-based activities abound, not to mention a happening bar scene and dozens of exciting shore excursions ranging from deep sea fishing to a super-fun family day at all-inclusive Chankanaab Park.
With the number of Cozumel visits now in the double digits, we pretty much do one of our two favorite activities depending on whether we want rough or smooth. The Extreme Cozumel Offroad 4x4 Adventure, offered through the ship or in advance on the internet, combines driving, exploring, eating and swimming. The buggies are easy and fun to drive through coastal vegetation with stops to pick up shells and check out a small Mayan ruin. After jettisoning the 4x4s, you’re bussed to a tequila tasting before pulling up to the El Cid La Ceiba resort for a terrific lunch, strong drinks and an hour or so of leisure at the hotel's pool and adjoining beach. Facilities are first-rate, which is why for the times we want to be pampered instead of pumped, we’ll buy $49 per person, all-inclusive passes to enjoy all the facilities including the resort’s gym and showers. The beautiful property is just a 10-minute walk from the ship, the snorkeling is epic and so is the wireless connectivity.
The least touristy of the three major Mexican Riviera ports offers up a full day of fun and adventure, but the most popular experience, according to shore excursion directors of any cruise line, is the calmest. A city tour is a must for first-timers, and whether you go by bus or foot, everyone winds up at the main square in the heart of downtown. Ample time is spent at the landmark Basilica of the Immaculate Conception built in the late 19th century.
Not enough pulsating adrenaline for you? Then opt for a half-hour van trip toward the Sierra Madre mountains, where Huana Coa Canopy Adventure Park has you ziplining, hiking kayaking and much more. Afterward, smiling workers of Los Osuna tequila distillery will happily pour you samples of the local potent potable made from the blue agave grown here on a 143-year-old plantation.
Need to get away from the cruise scene altogether? A solid pick for a resort getaway is El Cid El Moro. Can you tell I’m a fan of the El Cid portfolio of properties? A cheap 20-minute cab ride from the ship, El Moro has a ‘60s Acapulco vibe and modern amenities, plus dining options you won’t find on a ship; the palm-roofed, beachfront La Concha Restaurant has a winning menu and view to match – Las Tres Islas is a sight to behold – and the swim-up La Conchita Bar is the perfect pick for casual food and refreshing drinks best enjoyed wet. The staff is so friendly and the place is so clean and loaded with activities, plus an adult pool if the family one, which is freaking enormous by the way, is too lively. I see a week’s stay there in my future – El Moro is that wonderful.
Almost every shore excursion in Mazatlán allows for time to have an adios cocktail near the dock. The choice is yours – you’re on vacation! – but please take this advice from a cruiser well-seasoned in Mexico: Drink responsibly and remember that this isn’t Vegas, where what happens there stays there. As cruise directors always warn at the welcome show, “What happens on the ship goes on YouTube.”