Carnival's Mexican Riviera Cruise

Isla Ixtapa's Playa Coral.  Great sheltered cove for snorkeling.
Isla Ixtapa's Playa Coral. Great sheltered cove for snorkeling.
Manzanillo's waterfront showing the infamous blue marlin on the right.
Manzanillo's waterfront showing the infamous blue marlin on the right.
Approaching Cabo San Lucas.
Approaching Cabo San Lucas.
Acapulco's Isla Roqueta - where the locals come to vacation.
Acapulco's Isla Roqueta - where the locals come to vacation.
Good for browsing, dining, and a Sol in the shade - the village of Zihuatanejo.
Good for browsing, dining, and a Sol in the shade - the village of Zihuatanejo.

Carnival’s Mexican Riviera Cruise

Taking a cruise has become a steadily growing share of the tourist market over the last twenty years. The average annual growth for the world market has been 7.4% since 1990. In 1990 there were almost 3.5 million cruise passengers in North America. That number was up to almost 10.25 million in 2007. Worldwide the numbers have grown too, from 3.77 million in 1990 to 12.56 million in 2007.* Miami, the world’s busiest cruise terminal, sends luxury ships to all corners of the Americas on a daily basis. Mediterranean cruises are also increasingly popular as are cruises in the Far East. Like anything there are advantages and disadvantages to taking a cruise and they often revolve around money, time, and expectations.

Getting there.

Do you like tropical, or northern temperate, such as Alaska’s panhandle? Mediterranean, or the historic ports of Canada’s Maritime provinces? While cruise boats offer excursions into the hinterlands, their duration usually depends upon how long the ship will be in port, which is usually about one day. The cruises that I have taken had limits in terms of my own geographical interests. Since I live near San Diego, the most popular cruises are down the Mexican Riviera, or Mexico’s Pacific coast. Ports of call include Acapulco, Zihuatanenjo/Ixtapa, Manzanillo, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, Cabo San Lucas, and Baja. There are also cruises to Hawaii, but it’s five days at sea just to get to the islands. Does the Mexican Riviera float your boat? Considering the recent dangers and travel warnings about Mexico, taking a cruise there might be a good option. I took a nine day cruise from San Diego with the following stops: Acapulco-Zihuatanenjo/Ixtapa-Manzanillo and I was disappointed at the ports of call. Since I like to sight-see on my own terms, I was interested in getting off the boat and exploring. Excursions sponsored by the cruise line tend to be pricey, rushed, and they push shopping to no end as they herd you from one tourist trap to the next. More about that later. The first stop, Acapulco, had only one site that intrigued me – the Fuerto de San Diego, which fortunately was right across from the cruise terminal. I wasn’t terribly interested in seeing the cliff divers so I wanted to do some snorkeling on Isla Roqueta. After visiting the fort, all but one hour, I headed to Isla Roqueta. The beach is definitely for locals. The water was murky, the beach polluted, and it just wasn’t very pleasant. Okay, so we chalked it up to an interesting local experience. We bargained down a cab ride there, took a short dingy ride to the island, and saw how plebian Mexicans recreate, and decided to walk back to the boat. My take on Acapulco: it has seen its golden days as a world class resort, maybe in the nineteen seventies when The Love Boat would play it up, but my overall impression was that it was dirty, crowded, and not worth visiting. The water isn’t even that clear and nothing compared to the Yucatan resorts on the other side of Mexico. Later, we walked into town and I found this experience the most interesting just browsing the various shops and taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of Mexico. The next day the boat arrived in the quaint little town of Zihuatanejo. While scenic there’s not much to do there except sit on the beach, shop, or dine at a restaurant. The cruise line offered excursions, and I took the one to Ixtapa. I wanted to do some snorkeling and apparently Ixtapa island had a nice sheltered cove with coral formations at Playa Coral. The snorkeling turned out to be good, but the sponsored excursion was another story. The tour guide couldn’t keep her mouth shut and went on blathering about the beauties of the local area. I didn’t need someone to narrate the view from the bus window. I would have tipped her just for keeping her mouth shut for a few minutes. Fortunately there was another tour coordinator, who spoke much better English, and he just showed us the way to Playa Coral once we got on the island. Otherwise we would have had to hear this lady talk another fifteen minutes trying to orient us to the obvious. The planned excursion only allowed a total of two hours on Ixtapa island. The last stop of this cruise was Manzanillo. Why they even bother with this port of call is something of a mystery. Its claim to fame rests on the fact that it is the largest container port on Mexico’s Pacific coast – not exactly your ideal cruise destination. Furthermore, the terminal is at least three miles away from the city, which has little to offer. So, the only thing you can do is take an excursion or sit in a café in Manzanillo and drink all day. There is one resort called La Hadas, but unless you take a taxi there or a cruise-sponsored trip, your options are limited in Manzanillo. The final stop on this cruise was strangely unplanned. While heading back toward San Diego, there was a medical emergency on board and the boat moored off Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Baja. While nobody was allowed to get off, except the hapless patient, the views of Cabo were spectacular. People crowded the upper decks for a photo opportunity. My final take of the Mexican Riviera was disappointment. Perhaps Baja would have been nicer. It all depends upon what you want from the port of call. If shopping is your thing, perhaps this itinerary would have been suitable, but I prefer a mix of interesting beaches where I can put on my snorkel mask, and some history and culture in the port cities.

A few other things to consider…

Saving money.

Taking a cruise probably saves you money if you don’t spend lavishly on your suite. On the cruises we took we booked the no-frills suites without windows, and I found them to be comfortable down to the fold-out beds. Some of the cabins can be a little crammed but that’s something I can live with. The next big money saver on your cruise is the food. While many cruise lines now have fancy restaurants to add to your dining experience, they might require additional expenses. If you stick to the cafeteria-style dining, which is included in the price of the cruise, the food is not bad, there is plenty of choice, and there’s always some grill or stand open close to 24 hours a day. Some cruise lines have better food than others. For instance, we enjoyed the food aboard Royal Caribbean more than Carnival, but Carnival’s wasn’t bad and they had some food option available 24/7. The third biggest money saver is transportation. Obviously the boat is in perpetual motion except when you make it to a port, so you aren’t paying the extra money on airfare to get there. This is a moot point because many pay airfare to get to the cruise terminal but cruise lines and travel agents often offer huge discounts of up to 75% if you are flexible and time it right.

Cruising with kids.

Kids typically love big boats. Sensation overload - there’s so much to explore and do. Some cruise lines are better than others with accommodating kids. It also depends upon the currency of the boat. Newer built ships will probably have better facilities. It can also depend upon how long the cruise is. The longer the cruise, hopefully the better the daycare facilities, but this is not set in stone. We found that Carnival had exceptional facilities and programs to accommodate kids. Keep in mind hours are limited, but the cruise lines take into account functions such as midnight balls, etc. Also, daycare and play facilities are not dumping grounds for kids. You will be required to pick them up during certain hours when the facilities close for one reason or another. Better daycare programs have planned and structured activities for your kids. Call the cruise line or travel agent to get details. Online blogs and forums are also very helpful in getting feedback about which cruise line offers what.

The boats have their quirks.

Look online and you can get some stats and facts about the boat you will be taking. The year it was built is important. When we cruised Royal Caribbean’s Sovereign of the Seas, which first sailed in 1988, it was clearly dated, especially compared to Carnival’s Spirit, which first sailed in 2001. The former’s pool deck had a perpetual stench that reeked of urine. Equipment on board these vessels gets corroded with salt and sea spray everyday, and the maritime environment takes its toll. Maybe that’s why Sovereign of the Seas was relegated to the short three day cruises. Would this type of corrosion and stench be acceptable aboard a Disney cruise for instance? Disney’s quality control is legendary but that ethic doesn’t carry over to every cruise line. It’s something to think about. The next thing to consider is the relatively frequent news reports about crowds of people getting sick, usually from the food. Salmonella outbreaks aboard cruise lines are not infrequent. While I haven’t heard of this recently I’m sure there are a hand full of people who get sick on every cruise, most likely from food-borne illnesses. To date, we’ve been lucky and I’m sure the cruise lines are painfully aware that bad publicity hurts.

* Cruise Lines International Association. (n.d.). Retrieved June 6, 2009, from http://www.cruising.org/

Other hubs by jvhirniak:

Historical Nassau (Bahamas).

God, Gold, Glory, and Spice: When Portugal and Spain Ruled the World.

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