Cruising Mexico’s West Coast
by Lee Foster
The embarkation from Florida to the Caribbean, the sailing from Vancouver, British Columbia, to the Alaska Inside Passage, and the departure from Los Angeles to West Mexico are the three major patterns of cruise travel from the United States.
With cruise travel booming, due partly to repeat customers, many travelers ponder these three cruise territories as future vacation scenarios. The question arises: Just what are these three cruise areas like?
This article describes the pleasures of a West Mexico cruise.
The West Mexico or “Mexican Riviera” sailings are primarily winter ventures, departing from Los Angeles (or San Diego) for a week to ten days round-trip, sailing briskly south for two days, then stopping at several ports, such as Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta, before returning to Los Angeles.
Some ships positioned here for winter travel return to Alaska waters for the summer season. In the spring and autumn one-direction voyages can take you across West Mexican waters and through the Panama Canal as ships relocate between Alaska and the Caribbean. Each cruise line follows its own marketing judgment in placing its ships.
The three main attractions of a Mexican Riviera cruise are the dependable sunny weather in the region, the ambiance of the ship itself, and the ports of call.
CRUISING WEST MEXICO: ANTIDOTE TO THE WIND CHILL FACTOR
Though a fifth of all U.S. cruise passengers come from California, the true appreciators of winter sailing off Mexico are citizens of more northerly climes, ideally from West Yellowstone, Montana, the coldest place in the nation. Winter off Mexico means 65-90 degree temperatures. West Mexico enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year. Anyone who understands the words “wind chill factor” as more than an idle abstraction will appreciate the dependable sun and clear blue skies available off West Mexico.
Your ship travels south at full speed from Los Angeles or San Diego along the Baja, Mexico Coast. This 795-mile peninsula was named the “baja” or lower part of California, before political events severed California from Mexico. Baja is one of the world’s longest peninsulas, 100 miles longer than Italy. The rugged mountain and desert skyline rises abruptly from the sea on the eastern horizon.
During the months of January and February your route parallels the migration pattern of another sophisticated mammal species, the California (or Pacific) gray whales, which make an annual pilgrimage from chilly Arctic waters to warm the Scammons Lagoon at mid-Baja, and to other Baja lagoons, where they give birth and mate.
By the time your ship reaches the south tip of Baja, you are further south than the Mexican mainland city of Los Mochis, the most northerly place where tropical fruits grow well. A utopian colony settled in Los Mochis in the nineteenth century, fueled by the prospect of trading midwestern grain for tropical fruit.
The waters off Mexico are a lovely deep blue and are relatively calm. A few protected harbors have attracted sailors here since the era when Spanish galleons carried the silver of West Mexico mines, especially from the prolific mines at Alamos, back to the Spanish crown. Galleons, unlike cruise ships, needed to escape predatory pirates.
Baja is primarily a desert, but the mainland has a lush, tropical aura. Dramatic rock formations line the southern tip of Baja, the entrance to the Gulf of California, a long thin finger of the sea that is one of the most fertile fishing grounds on the planet. Mile-long schools of the fish, called yellowtails, are common. Dolphins are frequently seen in large clusters, especially near the southern tip of Baja.
AMBIANCE OF THE SHIP
The salubrious climate of West Mexico makes outdoor areas on a cruise ship important. By contrast, an Alaska cruise can be rather brisk, encouraging more indoor activities.
Carnival and Princess ships regularly ply these waters. Several other lines pass through the area when ships are repositioned between summer voyages in Alaska and winter traffic in the Caribbean.
Regardless of the position of the cruise ship in the Caribbean, Alaska, or West Mexico, the sumptuous food, nightly entertainment, and numerous shipboard activities are attractions, with the ship itself a major destination on the trip.
CABO SAN LUCAS: THE FIRST MEXICAN PORT
The three most typical Mexican Riviera ports your ship may stop at are Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta.
The special pleasure of a cruise ship is that you get off to spend the day in an exotic location and then return to the known comforts of the ship in the evening, without going through airport hassles and hotel changes required in conventional travel.
Cabo San Lucas is a dramatic and rocky landscape at the southern tip of the Baja peninsula. In the early 70’s a paved road along the 1,065-mile length of the peninsula made Cabo San Lucas accessible to travelers beyond the former elite of fly-in fishermen and four-wheel-drive enthusiasts. Commercial jets and then cruise ships followed as the area developed. A commercial ferry boat links Cabo with Puerto Vallarta, traveling daily between the two destinations, carrying cars, trucks, and passengers. A paved loop road around the southern tip allows explorers to drive a circle route between La Paz and Cabo San Lucas.
Usually the ship will allow you part of a day ashore at Cabo San Lucas. An extensive craft-selling operation greets you at the dock. The settlement, with its defunct fish cannery, is noted for outstanding sport fishing. Charter fishing trips, which land substantial catches, require 4-8 hours time, so be sure that your cruise departure time permits. However, everyone can enjoy the small boats that carry you out to see the dramatic rock formations, with their abundant bird life and seal rookeries, at the Cabo tip. Glass bottom boats allows you to see needlefish and sea bass in the clear water.
Several major resort hotels flourish here at choice seaside locations. Solmar, a short walk west from the dock, occupies an enviable position right at the Baja tip. East of Cabo San Lucas is the small town of San Jose del Cabo. Beyond that, on the road to La Paz, the village of Miraflores is known for its leatherwork artisans. Some of this leatherwork is available dockside at Cabo.
Spend the day looking around the craft displays and walking the area. Take the 20-minute tour boats out to see the rocky tip, fish on a charter boat (if you have time), or relax on the beach.
Swimming at the peninsula tip is rather chilly because the cold Pacific waters meet here with warm water from the Gulf. A taxi can take you to more protected, warmer beaches, near San Jose del Cabo, about 20 miles east. These are excellent beaches for snorkeling, so be sure to bring a mask. The fish life is abundant, and triggerfish or sea bass can be observed or caught if you are so inclined, even with a hand line. Some meat as bait, a hook, and a small steel leader are required because the fish have sharp teeth. You can float out with a snorkel and watch the fish bite.
Seafood restaurants are a specialty at Cabo. Frying fish in garlic (pescado de ajo) is common.
A stop at the tip of Baja gives you only a taste of the cultural and natural world stretching along the peninsula to the north. An ambitious string of Jesuit and Dominican missions flourished north from here in the 17th century, long before the Franciscans founded missions in California. The Baja town of Loreto boasts a pleasing museum to this earlier era, when paintings of Italian masters hung in the Borgia family-sponsored mission of San Ignacio at mid Baja. Deserts in Baja promote a meditative tranquillity, a spare sense of fragile life. The isolation of Baja has encouraged the development of unusual plants, such as the boojum tree, which seems to twist and dance in the air.
Mazatlan offers the traveler ample beaches, lively restaurants, plus a major traffic in art and crafts from throughout Mexico.
Commercial fishing boats operate from this vital west coast port and protected harbor, which has attracted ships since the seventeenth century.
Described as the Pearl of the Pacific by appreciative Europeans and as the Place of the Deer in the local Nahuatl Indian language, Mazatlan has always been an important land-sea crossroads. Lush tropical vegetation, especially palms, marks Mazatlan as a broad transition zone between the cactus and thorn forests of the north and the denser jungles south to Puerto Vallarta.
The best overall views are from the major hills. Ask a taxi to take you to Cerro de la Nevera. Park for a moment at the high point to view the older part of town and the beaches extending to the north. From another hill, simply called Lookout Mountain or the Mirador, you get a good view of the port and the town. The main town begins at the base of the hills and then fans north along the coast, with the newer hotels in the northern area. If you are energetic enough to walk a half hour up a hillside, you can view the harbor and the sea from a third promontory, 505-foot El Faro Lighthouse, billed as the highest natural lighthouse in the Western Hemisphere.
Back downtown, the fabled Spanish era of silver- and gold-laden galleons can be recalled at the Old Spanish Fort. Today only a battlement and a spare cannon remain.
Mazatlan’s downtown area stretches along a five-mile arc of cream-colored sand beach between the green jungle and the azure Pacific. The town behind the beach is protected by a combination seawall, boardwalk, and waterfront boulevard, “malecon” in Spanish. This long promenade is the defining characteristic of the city, with the urban area flourishing in the blocks between it and the protected inner harbor. Along the seawall, a stone Fisherman’s Monument reminds visitors of the industry enabling people to survive here.
Much of the vitality of the city can be seen along this seawall, as small-scale fishermen unload their boats and sell the catch. Local daredevils dive for a few dollars into the wave-filled crevices from a 40-foot platform known as Glorieta rock. The local populace enjoys an evening stroll in the hour before sunset.
The seawall begins its existence with the appropriate name, Olas Altas or High Waves street, which metamorphoses to Paseo Clausen as the road continues. Along the streets by the seawall you’ll find many craft and art stores, such as Indios. Exquisite silverwork is their specialty.
Senor Frog’s and Shrimp Bucket are two appealing restaurants along the seawall. Senor Frog’s is restaurant as party, amounting to a pulsating disco with irreverent decor, ranging from license plates to graffiti. The meal starts with a platter of fresh vegetable sticks, including jicama root, and ends with a complimentary kahlua. Try the grilled shrimp, washed down with the locally-brewed Mazatlan beer, Pacifico. Senor Frog’s does a brisk business in T-shirts celebrating itself. Shrimp Bucket, more subdued than Senor Frog’s, is owned by the same innovative restauranteur, Carlos Anderson.
Mazatlan boasts several good restaurants in less visible places, such as Mamuccas (on Bolivar Street). Mamuccas’s plain ambiance belies its local reputation for shrimp, fish, and squid. The menu is long. Try the Shrimp 50 Megatons (shrimp in a chili sauce) or the Calamera Mata Indios (Squid Indian Killer, fried squid).
A few blocks into the city from the seawall lies the Immaculate Conception Cathedral and town square, typical of Mexican city plazas. Shoeshine boys work aggressively on the shoes of elderly men, who pass their time in front of the ornate bandstand. Brass bands serenade here on Friday afternoons. The blue-and-gold Moorish motifs on the Cathedral are architecturally noteworthy.
A block from the square is the Mazatlan open air market, Mercado Municipal, the most substantial such market on the west coast. There you’ll see a cornucopia of tropical fruits, such as mangoes, bananas, papayas, and pineapples, plus mounds of tomatoes and chiles, and whole carcasses of freshly-slaughtered cattle.
To see the market, square, and town you can walk on your own or ride to destinations in cabs and pulmonias, three-wheeled open mini-cabs. Pulmonia means pneumonia in Spanish, a reference to the vehicle’s breeziness, especially in the cool of the evening.
With the surge of traveler interest in the sea as a subject of meditation and wonder, it was appropriate that Mazatlan installed an aquarium to celebrate the ocean heritage. Acuario Mazatlan is a half block off Avenida del Mar, a third name for the seawall. The complex includes 52 seawater tanks, showing sharks, seahorses, and over 250 species of reef fishes, with information in Spanish. The facility includes a small marine-life presentation area and art gallery.
Besides the downtown, there is a modern tourism resort area starting with the Playa Mazatlan Hotel, the first hotel-right-on-the-beach. You can walk there along the seawall, but take a taxi if the distance seems too great. Playa Mazatlan Hotel has always been one of the liveliest hotels in Mazatlan. The veranda, overlooking the beach, lets you view a parade of craft sellers plying their wares. Craft sellers, especially those with colorful wool blankets, cotton shirts, abalone jewelry, and baskets, amount to a daily open-air show. Some of the craft sellers journey from as far away as Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Three times a week the hotel puts on a Fiesta Mexicana show. From these beaches you can take a parachute ride, pulled behind a speedboat.
A few blocks beyond the Playa Mazatlan is the major cultural resource of Mazatlan, the Arts and Crafts Center, devoted to an elaborate display of Mexican art and artisanry. The walk to the Arts and Crafts Center passes a non-stop bazaar of small craft shops. At the Arts and Crafts Center you can see several artisans at work at any given time. Perhaps a weaver, wood carver, and metalsmith will be making their artifacts. This is the best place in West Mexico for a cruise ship traveler to find, under one roof, an elaborate array of Mexican artistic genius, works in everything from fabric to onyx.
Beyond the Arts and Crafts Center are several notable resort hotels, such as El Cid and Camino Real Mazatlan, that cater to the fly-in traveler.
Besides the downtown and the Arts and Crafts Center area, boat tours are available at the Mazatlan harbor. A three-hour pleasure yacht trip, called Fiesta Mazatlan, departs from El Faro dock and amounts to a margarita-enhanced view of the harbor, fishing fleet, and city. The daily joviality aboard the Fiesta Mazatlan tour approaches, but does not exceed, the passions of Carnival that surge through Mazatlan in February, just prior to the abstemious period of Catholic Lent.
Mazatlan is the largest Pacific port in Mexico, giving substantive employment to a portion of the city’s people. About 37 million pounds of shrimp are processed here and exported each year, mainly to the U.S. and Japan. Perhaps an equal poundage of travelers is imported. A ferry journeys daily from Mazatlan to La Paz in Baja, taking trucks and cars, local people and travelers.
Directly from the cruise ship or once in town, you can charter fishing boats and pursue legendary black marlin, bill fish, sailfish, sea bass, red snapper, and other finned trophies in the temperate waters, which rarely fall below 68 degrees. Some big fish get away, but about 5,000 trophy-size examples are caught each year in Mazatlan. Fishing aficionados argue that Mazatlan has Mexico’s best fishing. However, be sure that the charter boat’s schedule allows you enough time to get back for your cruise ship sailing.
Non-fishing boat trips can be made to the several small islands near Mazatlan. The trips are popular with travelers who want to snorkel, view wildlife and birds, collect shells, or savor a Mazatlan world beyond the urban area. As with the fishing charters, check locally for trip availability and coordinate times with your cruise ship departure.
Puerto Vallarta has developed from its seaside village status to a small city since the filming here of Night of the Iguana, starring Richard Burton and Liz Taylor.
Cobblestone streets that self-enforce speed limits, houses perched perilously on the hillsides, and the fortunate wedding of sea, sandy beach, and jungle on a wide arc of bay are defining elements of the city. The dust and diesel smell of unmuffled trucks and buses, ongoing construction of new condominiums or hotels, and the wail of mariachi music are other sensations that strike a visitor.
The city lies at the base of the Sierra Madre Mountains in a latitude more tropical than Mazatlan. Cutting through the town, the Rio Cuale flows into Banderas Bay. Pink bougainvillea and yellow jacaranda accent brightly the deep green palette of nature. If you walk quiet side streets, you will hear the song of caged tropical birds.
Two thirds of the city lies north of the river, including the downtown or zocalo and some prime beaches.
When strolling through town, a focal point for the eye is the Church of Guadalupe, a block off the small main plaza. On the plaza a statue honors town founder Ignacio Vallarta. The Municipal Market, with 165 shops in a building next to the river, is a good place to search for leather bags, colorful shirts and dresses, and silver jewelry. Here the local people also buy their meat, fish, and vegetables.
Boutiques and gift shops are plentiful along Avenida Juarez, north of the river, and on Lazaro Cardenas street, south of the river. Shopping and beaches, rather than thickly-textured cultural history, are the attractions of Puerto Vallarta.
Within the town the seawall promenade or malecon is pleasant to walk. Several restaurants and bars face the sea along the malecon. The Oceano Lounge, the first floor of a complex including a restaurant and hotel, is a comfortable bar at which to imbibe excellent Mexican beers, peruse the locals, and notice wall decor of early Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe photos. The aging leather and rattan chairs, slowly-turning overhead fans, and potted palms give this small bar its unique feeling.
The beaches are the great asset of Puerto Vallarta. Sunning, swimming, snorkeling, and parasailing (being pulled by a speedboat while harnessed in a parachute) are popular pastimes.
Relaxing and enjoying the sunset, perhaps over a local seafood dinner, is a pleasure equally accessible to all visitors. Charter boats do a brisk business in fishing, especially during the annual deep sea fishing tournament in November.
The main beaches north of town include those at major hotels, such as the Fiesta Americana and the Holiday Inn. The palapa environment of Fiesta Americana is particularly pleasing, drawing many locals for the breakfast buffet.
On the north edge of the city are docks for cruise ships and the ferry boat, Puerto Vallarta, which shuttles between here and Cabo San Lucas in Baja. A sheltered marina hosts private yachts and sailboats, it’s style very reminiscent of Greece, and the beautiful marinas on the Mediterranean coast. On odd-numbered years, sailors race here from Marina del Rey in an event called the Regatta del Sol.
South of Rio Cuale is the city’s most popular beach, Playa Muertos. The action here includes vendors selling wares, fish being roasted on sticks, travelers sipping rum and tropical fruit drinks under thatch palapas, and mariachi bands serenading whoever will pay. This is the place to see or be seen. Restaurant El Dorado, on the beach, hosts the spectrum of Puerto Vallarta life, drawn by the ambiance and good seafood.
Further south, successive beaches dot the landscape until you reach the major beach known as Mismaloya, a lovely setting in the cove of Boca de Tomatlan. The jungle behind Mismaloya was the site for part of the filming of Night of the Iguana, but there is nothing to see today except jungle, despite the existence of a Garden of Eden Restaurant at the filming site.
Mismaloya beach is sheltered by hills and includes an open-air restaurant. On the drive to Mismaloya, you pass Los Arcos, arches hollowed by pounding surf in offshore rocks.
Aside from the town, if you have the time, take the day trip out to the island of Yelapa. The yacht Sarape leaves Puerto Vallarta at 9:00 a.m. and returns at 4:30 p.m. Yelapa’s attraction is its absence of electricity, phones, and TVs. For a number of confirmed expatriates and day trippers, Yelapa is seen as a paradise. There is a modest hotel, the Lagunita Yelapa, and some locals will rent their thatch houses.
The seafood restaurant at Yelapa offers up the bounty of the local fishermen. A walk or mule ride inland can also take you to a 150-foot waterfall. The white sand beaches offer good swimming and snorkeling.
For the cruise traveler who might be a potential fly-in visitor, Puerto Vallarta offers notable luxury resort hotels. Besides the Fiesta Americana, north of the city, another leading contender for deluxe accommodations is the Camino Real, nestled in its own spacious cove south of the city. There are also charming small lodgings that are much less expensive, such as Casa Corazon.
The Mexican Riviera, with its climate and intriguing foreignness, enjoys an honored winter role in the cruise travel world flourishing near the U.S.
IF YOU GO: CRUISING THE MEXICAN RIVIERA
A local travel agent, especially one well informed on cruise travel, can supply you with brochures from the major companies that cruise the region. Carnival (www.carnival.com) and Princess (www.princess.com) are among the players.
Air flights into Southern California place you at Los Angeles International, 18 miles from the embarkation point at Pier 93, San Pedro. Another nearby airport is at Long Beach, 12 miles from Pier 93, San Pedro. Be sure to check with the cruise line about your transfer from the airport to the ship. Allow plenty of time for flight delays and ship boarding because a late arrival can mean an expensive flight south to pick up the ship a few days later. For a bus shuttle from Los Angeles International to Pier 93, San Pedro, contact Super Shuttle.
San Diego’s airport is relatively close to the cruise ship terminal in the downtown area.
For further information contact Mexico Tourism Board, 2401 W. 6th Street, 5th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90057, 213/351-2069; www.visitmexico.com.