Columbus did it with three small ships. The American pioneers followed suit in their "prairie schooners." But, according to Thor Heyerdahl, the pattern was set even earlier (centuries earlier, in fact) by pre-Columbian Indians rafting their way to Polynesia.
What they all have in common is a westward expansion to escape crowding, find new markets and opportunities, and embark into new territories. Fast forward a couple of hundred years, and the cruise industry is looking to expand out of its nascent Eastern Caribbean roots, first moving into the "bluer" pastures of the Western Caribbean.
In the beginning, "Exotic Western Caribbean" was a redundant phrase; with the exception of Jamaica and Cuba (which in pre-Castro days was a regular port of call and land-based vacation destination reachable by air or by ferry from Key West), most of the ports we now take for granted in the Western Caribbean were largely unfamiliar, and therefore "exotic" to the majority of Americans.
But it doesn't take long for the exotic to become the commonplace. The vast increase in Western Caribbean itineraries harks back to a post-September 11 era when cruise lines began establishing homeports, many of which lie on the Gulf of Mexico -- such as Tampa, Mobile, New Orleans and Galveston. Islands in the Western Caribbean are by far the most convenient to reach during three-, four-, five- or even seven-day cruises from these homeports -- hence the explosion of ship traffic there. The increasing popularity of Panama Canal transits has also created a need for new ports to take the pressure off the Caribbean-side standbys of Aruba, Curacao and the San Blas Islands. And so, the industry began casting about for new destinations to please the legion of frequent "been there, done that" cruisers.
When we talk about the exotic part of the Western Caribbean, by and large we mean the eastern coast of Central American countries Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica.
The Exotic Western Caribbean was once relegated to three niches of the cruise industry: eco- and expedition cruises, trans-canal sailings, and cruises of one week or less departing from Gulf Coast ports. Exotic Western Caribbean ports are still part of a large portion of trans-canal itineraries. But in recent years the market has expanded to include nearly every cruise length, price and demographic. Now most of the Western Caribbean's exotic ports can be reached on cruises departing from virtually every homeport in North America -- even beyond the usual Gulf cities. The only determining factor is the length of the cruise, which dictates the maximum distance reachable from the homeport as well as the number of port calls possible at the far western end of the itinerary.
East is east and West is west and the twain shall meet in Central America.
Because Central America is a relatively narrow piece of real estate, many of the same attractions can be reached from either the Pacific or Caribbean coasts. For example, in Costa Rica, San Jose (the capital) and a number of nearby volcanoes and rainforests are equidistant from Puntarenas or Puerto Caldera on the Pacific sides and Puerto Limon on the Caribbean coast. Likewise, ships call at both Guatemala's Puerto Quetzal and Santo Tomas de Castilla. This opens up a number of itineraries one wouldn't normally consider as gateways to the Western Caribbean, including Pacific coast sailings, though our focus here will be on the Caribbean ports. Of course, trans-canal itineraries can visit more than one of these countries, but not necessarily from the same body of water!
Though the countries of Central America share many attributes, there are differences, and those differences can be handy to know when it comes down to narrowing your choices. For snorkelers, Belize tops the list; divers will also want to include port calls there, but Roatan and the other Bay Islands of Honduras are world-class dive sites as well. Belize, Honduras and Guatemala are ground zero for the ruins of Classic Mayan civilization, most notably Guatemala's Tikal and Honduras's Copan, though Tikal is also offered by some ships as a shore excursion from Belize City. Further south, Nicaragua and Costa Rica are meccas for eco-tourists seeking close encounters with rain forests, volcanoes, white water rivers and wildlife (monkeys and parrots and crocodiles -- oh my!).
When to Go
Though there are ships sailing the region year-round, summer is the least favored time to sail and should be avoided unless circumstances make it the only available time to travel. For one thing summer and early fall are within hurricane season, and when hurricanes do hit the eastern edge of Central America they tend to be major storms, having spent multiple days strengthening over the open, warm waters of the Western Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico.
Even if you are spared the specter of playing tag with a hurricane, summer is also the rainy season -- not only in the Caribbean, but anywhere in the tropics. When the westward-moving hurricanes strike the north/south range of mountains that run down the interior of Central America the results are often torrential, resulting in flooding and mudslides. And then there's the heat: though Panama is uniformly, brutally hot and steamy throughout the year, the further north you go in Central America, the more seasonal differences are perceptible. Since much of the draw of Central America is its eco-tourism, soft adventure and exploration of Mayan architectural sites, choosing the deepest part of winter to travel will make your hiking, paddling or climbing more tolerable.
The list of which lines sail the Exotic Western Caribbean includes just about everyone catering to the U.S. market, from the economical to the extravagant, from Carnival to Seabourn and Silversea, and everyone in between.
The trans-canal contingent calling in the Exotic Western includes Holland America, which sends seven ships through the canal during the course of the year, four of which call at Exotic Western ports, followed by Celebrity with four; Royal Caribbean with three; and Princess, Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line, Swan Helenic, Seabourn, Silversea and Cunard, each with one.
There are also many Western Caribbean itineraries that include one or more of these exotic ports. Currently, the shortest itinerary that qualifies is Royal Caribbean's year-round five-night sailing out of Fort Lauderdale, followed by its six-night winter/spring sailing out of Houston/Galveston, both of which call at Belize City.
NCL pioneered the seven-night Exotic Western Caribbean itinerary with the inception of its "Texaribbean" sailings out of Houston/Galveston in 1997 on the original Norwegian Star (nee Royal Viking Sea). NCL now has four ships plying the seven-night Exotic Western trade (three out of Houston/Galveston and one out of Miami, calling at Belize City and/or Roatan). Carnival has four as well, one each out of Miami, Port Canaveral, Tampa and Houston/Galveston. Princess has one ship out of Houston/Galveston calling at both Belize City and Roatan on seven-night sailings. Royal Caribbean's seven-night sailings include one out of Miami and one out of Tampa. Each calls at Belize City. Carnival, Royal Caribbean and NCL sail the itinerary year-round; Princess sails fall/winter/spring. Holland America also has two seven-night itineraries, one sailing fall/winter/spring out of Tampa, with calls at Belize City and Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala, and the other sailing the winter season out of Fort Lauderdale, calling at Belize.
Additional Western sailings lasting longer than a week with exotic port calls are offered by Holland America (10 nights), NCL (11 nights), Royal Caribbean (9 nights), Celebrity (10 or 11 nights), Carnival (8 nights) and Silversea (14 nights). None of these sailings are currently scheduled for summer, but the three other seasons are represented.
Cunard's 28-night trans-Atlantic out of Southampton sails fall 2006, and calls at the Exotic Western Caribbean port of Puerto Limon in Costa Rica.
What to Do Ashore
Belize City, Belize
In a Nutshell: Formally British Honduras, the country of Belize is sandwiched between Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and Honduras. The three countries share the second-largest barrier reef in the world, and understandably draw scuba divers from around the world. Like the Yucatan, Belize also has numerous sites appropriate for snorkeling, and most ships offer snorkeling as a supervised shore excursion.
What to Do Here: Several cruise lines offer scuba diving excursions here for certified divers, though at the time this article was completed only NCL offered "Discover Scuba" (a supervised dive with instruction for uncertified divers) in Belize.
There is plenty for the non-snorkeler/non-diver in Belize. Cave tubing -- riding inner tubes on a river crossing underneath a range of hills through a series of caves -- is offered by most if not all lines calling here, as are zip-line canopy tours. Central America was the seat of classic Mayan civilization, and there are ruins to visit, most notably at Xunantunich, Cahal Pech and Altun Ha. Most lines combine two of these experiences for all-day excursions, i.e., zip-line and cave tubing, or cave tubing and Mayan ruins.
As for Mayan ruins, arguably the ruins at Tikal in Guatemala are one of the top two sites in the world, because Central America was the heart of "Classic Maya" civilization. As they spread to the north their culture was diluted, and the invasion and occupation by the Spaniards cut off the far-flung Maya communities from their central core. Holland America offers Tikal (reachable by air) as a Belize City shore excursion. It's pricey, but if you crave seeing the best the Mayans created, this is the trip for you.
Belize Fun Facts Trivia Question: Drivers in other former British colonies drive on the left as they do in Britain. Belize is an exception. Why do Belizeans drive on the right? See Trivia Answers Below
In a Nutshell: Roatan is one of Honduras' Bay Islands (Islas de la Bahia). Though a minor port compared to Honduras' other Caribbean harbor cities, it is the focus for most of the cruise traffic to the country. The Bay Islands are an above-water adjunct to the barrier reef that is their key tourism draw. There is history here as well; Dominica and Roatan were the destination of the forced migration of the last remnants of the Carib Indians. The Roatan contingent, finding little to keep them on the island, eventually dispersed throughout the mainland.
What to Do Here: Despite its rich past, ecology and geology more than history draw Roatan's visitors. Here you can find shore excursions exploring the forest canopy, including what has become the ubiquitous zip-line experience, kayaking, visiting Gumbalimba Park, or just kicking back on Tabyana Beach (bring your Deepwoods Off!).
But the snorkeling, diving and dolphin experiences, most of which come from Roatan's seminal reef-tourism developer, Anthony's Key Resort, are what most people come to Roatan for.
Roatan Fun Facts Trivia Question: The extensive barrier reef stretching from Yucatan to Honduras; its larger cousin, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia; and the fringing reefs off Florida and the Bahamas all have one thing in common: They all sit off the eastern shore of their continents. Why is it that the eastern edges of continents seem most hospitable to the creation of coral reefs? See Trivia Answers Below
Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala
In a Nutshell: There are three areas of interest for cruisers going ashore in Guatemala: eco/adventure tourism, ancient Mayan ruins of the Classic Era, and tropical agriculture and modern Guatemalan history (in Guatemala, as in much of Central America, modern history and agriculture are irrevocably bound together).
What to Do Here: Holland America offers an excursion by air to the magnificent Mayan site of Copan in Honduras, known as "the Paris of the Maya World." It's not cheap (about $450 per person), but it is an awe-inspiring experience. For those wishing to see ruins on a smaller scale more easily reachable and at a more affordable price, a shore excursion to Quirigua National Park, which is devoted solely to the Mayan archeological site there, lasts about 4 1/2 hours and runs about $70 per person. For those looking to spot birds, exotic plants and other flora and fauna there is kayaking or motoring on various rivers, and hiking in the 500-acre Hacienda Tijax eco-farm.
Guatemala Fun Facts Trivia Question: Guatemala has been granted a prestigious honor on the world stage achieved by only one other country in Central America (Costa Rica). Not only that, Guatelmala has done it twice, while Costa Rica did it only once. What is "it"? See Trivia Answers Below
Puerto Limon, Costa Rica
In a Nutshell: Arguably, no nation in the western hemisphere is more synonymous with eco-tourism than Costa Rica. Few countries in the entire world have been so successful in finding and maintaining a balance between commerce and conservation than this progressive nation, though most of the protected territory is within its numerous national parks and reserves, and there is increasingly active development outside park boundaries.
Costa Rica has forests in virtually every ecological niche from temperate dry hardwoods to tropical rain forest. Its mountainous terrain creates rushing streams and rivers, attracting kayakers and rafters. One of the earth's most seismically active regions, Costa Rica has three ranges of volcanic mountains with several active volcanoes.
What to Do Here: To get up close and personal with an active volcano, tours to visit Arenal Volcano are extremely popular, as is hiking in the rain forests at ground level or across suspension bridges in the canopy; Costa Rica is credited by many as the site of the creation of zip-line canopy tours.
Though the Corobici River is top choice for those calling at Puerto Caldera or Puntarenas on the Pacific coast, the river trip of choice out of Limon is the Reventazon. There are also self-guided kayaking, and canoe trips through lakes and estuaries paddled by experts. For those wishing to experience the rainforest canopy with less exertion, there is an extensive aerial tram tour situated near the capital, San Jose.
Costa Rica Fun Facts Trivia Question: Costa Rica is called the "Switzerland of the Americas" for three reasons; what are they? See Trivia Answers Below
Fun Facts Trivia Answers
Belize: When the Pan-American Highway -- the linked system of thoroughfares joining North and South America -- was designed, Belize was required to switch from left-side to right-side driving so the orientation would be consistent from country to country throughout the length of the highway. As it turned out, Belize was bypassed by the Pan-American Highway, but the right-side protocol remained.
Roatan: Simply stated, continental drift. Coral needs sunlight to thrive, and due to continental drift, the moving continents leave shallow shelves on their eastern shores as they creep to the west, whereas their western shores possess much sharper dropoffs.
Guatemala: It is winning the Nobel Prize. Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias won for Literature in 1967 and fellow countryman Rigoberta Menchu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Costa Rican Oscar Arias Sanchez won for Peace in 1987.
Costa Rica: 1) It has no military and maintains a position of neutrality. 2) It is mountainous. 3) It is roughly the same size as Switzerland.
--By Steve Faber. South Florida-based Faber is a longtime contributor to Cruise Critic. Beyond our Web site, Faber's work has appeared in a myriad of outlets, including Cruise Travel Magazine, "The Miami Herald" and "The Total Traveler Guide to Worldwide Cruising."