Your Ultimate Cruise Guide

Best Mexican Riviera and Baja Shore Excursions

Mexico has shown itself to be a resilient cruise destination. After hitting a rough patch because of security jitters and crime in the early 2010s, cruise visits to Mexico came roaring back in 2013 and 2014. With more security measures in place, more ships are calling in Acapulco in 2015 than at any time the past few years. The bustling historic port city of Mazatlan also survived security concerns and fully recovered, enjoying as much popularity as ever as a port of call.

Carnival Cruise Lines and Princess Cruises have the largest presence in Mexico. Carnival's home base for its wide-ranging schedule of two- to 13-day Mexico sailings is Long Beach, while Princess offers seven- to 10-day cruises from Los Angeles (San Pedro) and 10-day Mexico itineraries from San Francisco. Norwegian Cruise Line sails from Los Angeles on seven-day turnarounds and from San Diego on four-day cruises and some 11-day sailings. Holland America Line offers several seven-day itineraries from San Diego.

The short two- to four-day Mexico cruises from southern California typically visit California's Catalina Island and Ensenada, a port on the northern part of Baja California. The seven-day itineraries hit destinations that make up what's called the Mexican Riviera: Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. A few of the lines' longer itineraries travel deep into the Sea of Cortez for excursions to Loreto and La Paz or farther south to Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo and Acapulco.

(For more on cruises to Mexico's west coast, read Mexican Riviera Cruise Basics or Sea of Cortez Cruise Basics).

Here are some of our favorite excursions offered in the ports you find on a Mexican Riviera cruise.

Acapulco beach (photo: Rafal Kubiak/Shutterstock


Cliff Divers

Anyone visiting Acapulco must see the world-famous cliff divers plunge 130 feet into the Pacific Ocean. Ships calling at Acapulco offer various shore excursions that include transportation and, typically, a visit to historic San Diego Fort and a drink at the restaurant fronting the La Quebrada cliffs, which provide the best views.

Who Should Go: Everybody. This is a unique experience and great for families; even teens will be enthralled. Those with mobility impairments are accommodated in areas that are wheelchair-accessible.

Why It's Extraordinary: Divers climb the cliffs -- by torchlight at night -- and then soar outward to dive into an area that's about 10 feet square, timing their dives to the highest flow of the waves. The tallest platform is 130 feet above the water. You'll find yourself holding your breath and ooh-ing and ahh-ing.

Cabo San Lucas

Land's End Catamaran Sail and Scenic Drive

The rock formations at the tip of the Baja Peninsula are renowned worldwide, and this is a way to get up close and personal with them. Called Los Arcos (The Arches), these towering rocks straddle two bodies of water, the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. The scenic drive portion is short and takes visitors to a cliff-top restaurant with magnificent views over Land's End, Los Arcos and the Sea of Cortez.

Who Should Go: This tour is suitable for almost everyone, although because there are some stairs at the restaurant, it's not suited to guests in wheelchairs. It's particularly appealing to nature lovers and nature photographers.

Why It's Extraordinary: It's the best way to get a sense of the magnificence of Los Arcos. As appealing as they are from a distance, they are truly awe-inspiring close up.

Whale Watching by Zodiac

If you are adventurous and lucky enough to be in Cabo San Lucas during whale-watching season (mid-December to mid-March), this is the tour to take. You can find other whale-watching tours with larger vessels, but for a personalized experience, the Zodiacs and their guides provide the best option. (Zodiacs are inflatable boats that hold a small number of passengers, usually a maximum of 15). Captains take the boats a safe distance into the Sea of Cortez or the Pacific and find gray and humpback whales during their birthing season. Average cost: $90 adult and child.

Who Should Go: This trip is particularly suited to the adventurous nature lover who is not concerned about being in a smaller boat on the open seas; the photo ops are incredible. Children younger than 7 are not allowed, and boarding/disembarking is very difficult for completely non-mobile guests.

Why It's Extraordinary: With luck, you will see the blow spouts of whales right from your ship as you sail through this region, but to get within a couple of hundred feet of these creatures, at sea level, and watch them swim, jump and cavort, is an amazing experience.

Sailboats and yachts in Catalina Harbor (photo:  cvalle/Shutterstock

Catalina Island (California)

Catalina, Botanical Gardens and Glass-Bottom Boat Ride

Even though this little island is just off the coast of Los Angeles, it seems a world away. Catalina has attracted visitors since the mid-1820s, but it boomed in the 1920s when William Wrigley Jr., the Chicago chewing gum tycoon, bought the island to develop as a resort. On the tour, you'll explore Catalina's beautiful nature and learn about the Wrigley family. You'll see panoramas of Avalon Harbor and climb the hills near Mount Ada, the colonial mansion that was the original Wrigley estate. You'll walk through the Catalina Botanical Gardens, built in 1935 by Wrigley's wife, Ada. At nearly 38 acres, the gardens hold plants from nearly every continent, including a large desert plant collection and California natives that thrive in the island's temperate climate. At the center is the hilltop Wrigley Memorial, completed in 1934. The tour ends with a glass-bottom boat ride at the island's Undersea Gardens.

Who Should Go: Families (with children from age 5), nature lovers, seniors, photographers, first-timers and romantics. Not recommended for travelers with walking difficulties.

Why It's Extraordinary: It's hard to imagine that just 29 miles from the smog, traffic and congestion of Los Angeles, there is a paradise with so many ecological wonders. Catalina Island and the town of Avalon are small; this tour allows you to get close to the natural delights and leaves time for shopping and strolling.


Baja California Wine Tasting

It might seem odd to travel to Mexico for wine tasting, but this region of Baja California is becoming well-known for its wineries. You'll board a motorcoach, and your guide will discuss the history of Ensenada and the Baja area as you travel a few miles northeast and about 850 feet above sea level to the Calafia Valley, perfectly situated for grape-growing for wines. At two wineries, Casa Dona Lupe and L.A. Cetto, you'll see the use of old-world techniques for making not only wine but also sherry and brandy. You'll tour the vineyards and enjoy a wine-tasting accompanied by cheeses and crackers. When you return to Ensenada, you'll have plenty of time for shopping.

Who Should Go: This tour is great for adults and seniors, particularly those who enjoy wine and spirits.

Why It's Extraordinary: You'll tour wineries that have been making wine and spirits for generations in an area of Baja California that is becoming renowned for wine-making.


Deep Sea Fishing

Imagine catching a six- to 10-foot marlin or sailfish and sending the photo back to your buddies. That's entirely possible in these waters. There's a strict catch-and-release policy, but the trip itself -- and the likelihood that you'll catch one of these monsters -- is fantastic. The boats leave from the tender dock, which is just a few steps from the artisan stalls of Zihuatanejo; there will be time for a walk and shopping on your return. Drinks (beer, water and soft drinks) are included, as are boxed lunches.

Who Should Go: Avid anglers, of course, and anyone else who enjoys an adventure on the sea. Families, seniors, adventure-seekers, couples and first-timers who want to experience deep-sea fishing will be happy on this trip.

Why It's Extraordinary: Who would pass up a chance to play Old Man and the Sea for a day? The bragging rights alone, inherent in the photos of you with your monster catch, will be worth their weight in gold when you get back home.

Kayaking in the Sea of Cortez near La Paz (photo:Stephen N Haynes/Shutterstock

La Paz


Excursions include trips to the Sea of Cortez's Balandra Bay and Paradise Cove, world famous for kayaking because the tranquil waters, coral reef and secluded inlets are perfect for a kayaking trip. In fact, at some points the water is so shallow, you can get out of your kayak and walk. This trip takes you along the shoreline and into ancient mangrove forests where you can see egrets, herons, pelicans and frigate birds in their natural habitat. Bring a camera. There's time to relax on the beach and go for a swim after kayaking.

Who Should Go: This trip is suitable for everyone -- from active seniors to younger children (although babies and toddlers might be difficult). It's especially appealing to nature lovers, soft-adventure types, photo buffs and first-timers. Romantics will appreciate the two-person kayaks.

Why It's Extraordinary: The secluded and tranquil waters near La Paz are perfect for a first foray into kayaking, and the peace, beach lounging and natural scenery are soul-soothing.


Snorkeling on Coronado Island

The charming town of Loreto, which backs up to the Sierra de la Giganta range just beyond the desert, faces the stunning Sea of Cortez. Snorkeling excursions take full advantage of the pristine, azure waters of the sea, filled with wildlife, including seabirds, seals and possibly whales. Excursions go by open-air motorized skiff to the lovely white-sand beach on Coronado Island just off of Loreto. The three-mile-long beach is paradise for snorkelers, and you can set out from the beach to see the colorful sea life. A light lunch and short nature walk is also included.

Who Should Go: Nature lovers, photo buffs, soft-adventurers, families with older kids and couples will appreciate the beautiful scenery and natural wonders.

Why It's Extraordinary: The scenery in the sun-drenched island of uncrowded, picturesque beach and pristine water is unforgettable.


Cuyutlan Turtle Experience

This area is a breeding ground for many species of endangered sea turtles, and the eco-center El Tortugario is working hard at preserving the creatures. Visitors get to see the turtles at various stages of life, from eggs and hatchlings to adults, which sometimes reach immense proportions -- five feet across or more. It's also a sanctuary for other indigenous animals: iguanas, crocodiles and several species of birds. Depending on the time of year, you may be able to help release baby turtles (August to January). The tour also includes lunch and a visit to the 19th century Salt Museum in the historic town of Cuyutlan.

Who Should Go: Families (young kids will love the hands-on exhibits), seniors, nature lovers, photo buffs. Suitable for anyone; it's a tranquil excursion.

Why It's Extraordinary: It's not every day that you get the opportunity to learn about and see, up close, these sea creatures, and green sea turtles are listed as endangered. The tour not only allows you to experience the natural environment of this region, but it also explains what is being done to preserve the natural habitats of these animals. It's a terrific way to get young kids involved in environmental issues.

Old wooden door in Copala, Mexico (photo:Bruce Raynor/Shutterstock


Sierra Madre, Copala and Concordia

This half-day tour takes you away from the water and into the colonial interior of the Sierra Madre mountains. During this trip, you visit two towns established in the 1500s, learn about the history of the region and see handmade pottery, Mexican tiles, furniture and bricks being created by artisans. Lunch is included in the charming hill town of Copala.

Who Should Go: The air-conditioned motorcoach makes this trip suitable for almost anyone, but the cobblestone streets of Copala might make wheelchair access difficult. This trip is especially suited for history buffs, architecture lovers, photographers and anyone with an appreciation of the arts and culture of Mexico.

Why It's Extraordinary: The Gold Rush didn't just happen in California; these mountains were the scene of many bloody battles for land that was rich in the ore and predated the California gold rush by more 300 years. The Baroque architecture of the church of Concordia is renowned in the region.

Puerto Vallarta

Jungle Zip-Line Adventure

Soar above the tropical rain forest in the mountains behind the city of Puerto Vallarta, suspended by a series of cables and ropes. Glide from platform to platform, tree to tree, with some of the heights reaching a dizzying 90 feet above the ground. This is one of the most elaborate and adventurous of canopy experiences offered anywhere.

Who Should Go: Adventure- and thrill-seekers in good health. The minimum age for this tour is 8 (minimum height is 4 feet); be prepared to get dirty.

Why It's Extraordinary: This is one of the few tours of this type that offers a "Tarzan swing" from one platform to the next, rappelling, horizontal traverses and 14 observation platforms. (Most courses typically have three to five.)

Yelapa Beach, Mexico (photo:karamysh/Shutterstock

Yelapa Beach Snorkeling and Sailing

An escape from civilization, idyllic Yelapa Beach south of Puerto Vallarta can only be reached by boat. The trip takes you to beautiful, uncrowded snorkeling sites where you use the boat as a platform. Then, you spend the day at Yelapa Beach, where you have lunch and relax. The trip back is party time, which includes margaritas onboard (soft drinks for kids).

Who Should Go: This trip is suitable for everyone, from young kids to seniors, and is a terrific multigenerational family outing. Wheelchair access at the beach stop is limited, though.

Why It's Extraordinary: Yelapa is a nice change of pace and a chance to enjoy a secluded Pacific Ocean beach. The trip on the catamaran to get to the site is fabulous, with the entire Bay of Bandaras and the city of Puerto Vallarta visible from the deck.

--Updated by Laura Del Rosso, Cruise Critic contributor

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