With most major cruise lines offering stops along the Mexican Caribbean or Riviera, here’s how to choose which itinerary to book.
All major cruise lines—Carnival, Princess, and Royal Caribbean, to name just three—sailing in Mexico offer two itineraries. You can either sail up and down the Mexican Riviera via the Pacific Ocean—often departing out of the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, 22 miles south of LAX—or cruise the Mexican Caribbean, along the Caribbean Sea from Cancun to Puerto Morelos (often referred to as Riviera Maya), likely departing out of South Florida (Fort Lauderdale or Miami).
Since it’s rare you’ll find a cruise traveling both coasts in a single sailing, this forces an impossible decision. You must pick one over the other. The Mexican Caribbean and Riviera offer beaches, water sports, arts and culture, and amazing food. Read on to discover the best choice for you, plus nitty-gritty details such as swimming conditions at the beach, shore excursions, landscapes and vistas, and local culture. But first, let’s define the regions and what towns are in each.
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What Is the Mexican Caribbean?
Referred to as Riviera Maya, Cancun is the largest city along the Yucatan Peninsula in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Nearby towns include bustling Playa del Carmen with its all-inclusive resorts and pedestrian-only Quinta Avenida or rustic and boho-chic Tulum. There are also two islands: Cozumel and Isla Mujeres. Cruises also stop in Puerto Morelos, mid-way between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. The landscape here is jungle-like, very lush and humid, a veritable carpet of green. This also means more rainfall, although showers tend to be brief.
What Is the Mexican Riviera?
Large towns hugging the Pacific Ocean south of the U.S.-Mexico border—such as Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, Acapulco, and Cabo San Lucas—are considered the Mexican Riviera. Nearly all have a malecon (paved esplanade along the waterfront), and the architecture is Colonial-like. Some cruises will also stop in Ensenada, about a two-hour car drive south of San Diego and home to a burgeoning wine region. Instead of tropical conditions, the landscape is arid, hot, and dry—and so are the outdoor temperatures. Think succulents and cacti.
Keep in Mind Sailing Conditions
Although it’s literally going to depend on the week of your cruise and if it’s hurricane season (technically June through November but more like August to October) or not, generally speaking, the waters tend to be calmer in the Caribbean Sea than on the Pacific Ocean. But keep in mind these are huge ships, and you won’t feel the rocking and swaying as you might in a small yacht or sailboat. But if you tend to get seasick, a Mexican Caribbean itinerary will feel more comfortable.
Swimming and Water Conditions
Dead set on snorkeling, diving, or swimming? The best places are in the Mexican Caribbean. Here, the Caribbean Sea is warm, and there is very little undercurrent. It’s also the northern section of the world’s second-largest coral reef—Belize Barrier Reef, super ceded only by Australia’s Great Barrier Reef—stretching to Belize and Honduras.
INSIDER TIPKayaking takes place in both the Mexican Caribbean and the Mexican Riviera, although calmer waters, particularly off the coast of Cozumel, are found in the Caribbean Sea.
Surfers prefer the Pacific Ocean, which is much cooler in temperature (bring your wetsuit!) and rife with more waves than the Caribbean Sea. This does not mean you can’t swim safely in the Mexican Riviera. You just need to know where to go. Most of the Cabo San Lucas resorts hug the beach, but these are beaches with soaring cliffs and undercurrents. That said, you will find some swimmable beaches in this region, such as Chileno Beach and Medano Beach.
What Small Towns to Visit
As any seasoned cruiser knows, get thee off the well-beaten path when in port. Unless your dream vacation is to drink beers at a restaurant like that at your local mall, skip Senor Frogs in Cancun or Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina in downtown Cabo San Lucas. In lieu of Cancun, get yourself to a sleepy fishing village like Akumal, where there are restaurants and cafes, and the snorkeling is heavenly.
Even Cozumel and Isla Mujeres are less populated—and cater less to tourists—than Cancun and Playa del Carmen, although Cozumel’s downtown can feel crowded on a port day. Tulum’s beachfront eateries are a great place to enjoy a fresh catch of the day and not be surrounded by mega-resorts: many here boast less than 20 rooms. To skip the Caribbean Sea altogether, book an excursion to a cenote, a natural swimming hole in the jungle, often paired with a trip to Mayan ruins.
Don’t rule out big towns along the Mexican Riviera, though: both Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta’s old towns may be packed with tourists on a port day, but you won’t see chain restaurants or obnoxious tour operators either. Instead, the colonial architecture, plazas, and romantic restaurants are a breath of fresh air. Near Cabo San Lucas—either on a self-guided or ship-sponsored shore excursion—the streets of Todos Santos and San Jose del Cabo are lined with chic boutiques, art galleries, and indie-owned eateries.
Shopping and Local Culture
Because you probably don’t need another diamond necklace or Tommy Hilfiger polo—two unfortunately common purchases in cruise ports with duty-free shopping—here are some tips about what to look for in terms of locally made art. Crafts in the Mexican Caribbean tend to be derived from the Mayan culture, which means embroidered cotton textiles, tablecloths, shirts and dresses, and other soft goods.
On both coasts, you’ll easily find Mexican pottery and silver (both jewelry and decorative arts for the home). There’s no shortage of galleries in the old town areas of Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlán selling rugs, woodwork, tapestries, handmade jewelry, pottery, leather purses, and more. Near Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo’s galleries are along cobblestone streets and every Thursday night between November and June is a gallery walk. Who knows, you may even find a painting you like and have it shipped home! On the Mexican Riviera, it tends to be more about Mexican folk art than it is Mayan art.