Mexico has thousands of miles of Pacific coast, stretching from its northwestern border with California to its southern border with Guatemala. Most of this coast was populated with small fishing villages until the 1920's, when a new road system brought tourists. Luxury hotels sprung up in Acapulco, followed by Puerto Vallarta, which gained international fame in the 1960's, when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton filmed "Night of the Iguana" there and bought a seaside villa.
The Mexican government aggressively promoted the building of resorts along the Pacific coast during the 1970's, dubbing the stretch between Puerto Vallarta down to Manzanillo the "Costa de Oro," or "Gold Coast." But the entire coast, known as the Mexican Riviera in the U.S. cruise industry, is famous for pristine beaches set against stunning cliffs, coves and verdant jungle landscape.
The cruise industry actually owes a debt of gratitude to the Mexican Riviera. The scenic, tourist-friendly ports of call provided the backdrop for television's "The Love Boat" in the 1970's and brought towns such as Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas to the attention of Americans everywhere.
Today, the Mexican Riviera is the fourth most popular cruise destination in the world and is rapidly building a reputation as a Caribbean alternative, particularly as cruise lines are assigning newer and bigger ships to the region -- not to mention introducing year-round service.
Best Time To Go
The Mexican Riviera is truly a year-round destination. Temperatures remain balmy (in the 70's and 80's) most of the year. August and September can be on the hot side, with temperatures in the 90's coupled with humidity that can be a little unpleasant. Some cruise lines (such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival) offer year-round voyages, though the majority focus on itineraries from September through May.
The majority of Mexican Riviera cruises start in Los Angeles, although there are some cruises from San Diego and an occasional departure from San Francisco. Carnival, the biggest player in the market, opened a new port facility in Long Beach recently at the former "Spruce Goose" hangar adjacent to the Queen Mary.
Which Cruise Lines Sail the Mexican Riviera?
Major cruise lines offering Mexican Riviera itineraries for all or part of the year include Carnival, Crystal, Holland America, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean. Others, like Silversea, incorporate Mexican Riviera stops into long Panama Canal itineraries.
Choosing an Itinerary
Variety and flexibility are key reasons why Mexican Riviera cruises are so popular. Carnival runs extremely popular three-night cruises from San Diego and Los Angeles to Ensenada. They also offer a four-night cruise to Ensenada that includes a stop on Catalina Island. Royal Caribbean sails three- and four-night cruises from Los Angeles on the refurbished Monarch of the Seas, with stops in Catalina, Ensenada and San Diego. These short "Baja California" cruises are perfect for first-time cruisers, family reunions and wedding parties.
Beyond these, seven-day cruises are the most popular option in the Mexican Riviera market, although some lines offer 8-, 10-, 11- and even 14-day itineraries.
Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas are the traditional ports of call in a Mexican Riviera cruise. Acapulco and Manzanillo are two other frequent stops. The ports of Ixtapa and its neighbor, Zihuatanejo, are increasingly showing up on itineraries as well.
Not-To-Be-Missed Shore Adventures
For decades, Acapulco reigned as the ultimate Mexican Riviera resort town, a hangout for the international jet set. Though newer, trendier resort cities have sprung up in recent years, Acapulco hasn't lost its luster. The number of luxury resort hotels lining Acapulco Bay continues to grow. Four popular beaches -- Condesa, Los Hornos, Caleta and Caletilla -- provide numerous opportunities to enjoy water sports and sailing. Shopping in the high-end Zona Dorado district can lead to bargains, especially on European designer clothing and perfumes.
Acapulco's main attraction by far, though, is the cliff diving at La Quebrada. Throughout the day and early evening, young men make a perfectly timed, breathtaking dive from a steep cliff into a small cove of water below. The assembled crowd gasps and holds its breath until the diver surfaces, then climbs up the steep cliff to do it all over again.
Cabo San Lucas
This party town on the southernmost tip of Baja California provides a stunning juxtaposition of sea, desert and mountains. Cabo has grown like the federal budget in the past few decades, with new resorts along the beach called "the corridor," frequented by celebrities from Jessica Simpson to John Mayer.
Aside from enjoying the beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife, water sports, such as snorkeling, scuba diving and parasailing, are popular and plentiful activities. The marlin fishing off of Cabo is legendary, and championship golf courses are noteworthy, as well. Cabo's large dock has several shops and open-air stalls, where merchants sell everything from woven baskets to shell necklaces and coral jewelry. The town itself offers few exciting highlights, other than rocker Sammy Hagar's "Cabo Wabo Cantina," where the mostly American crowd goes wild nightly.
Cabo's signature landmark is El Arco ("The Arch"), a rock formation at the tip of "Land's End," where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez. A boat trip there is a must, if only to come face to face with the hundreds of noisy sea lions who reside on the rock formations. Cruise lines offer a myriad of excursions around El Arco, from glass-bottom boats to catamaran sails. If you have time, hire a water taxi to take you to "Lovers Beach," the only beach in the world bounded by two different oceans. A whale watching excursion is another "must do," if you are there between December and March, when thousands of California gray whales and other species make their annual migration from colder climates.
This island, 26 miles from the Southern California coast, was made famous by the song "Twenty-six miles across the sea. Santa Catalina is the place for me...." In the 30's and 40's, Hollywood screen stars frequented the island's art deco casino. Today, the casino is defunct, but the island is a prime tourist attraction. Its main town of Avalon is lined with boutiques, shops and restaurants, all an easy stroll from the Green Pleasure Pier, where cruise ship passengers arrive.
Take a glass-bottom boat ride, or rent a bike for a few hours. (There are very few cars on the island, and most people get around in electric golf carts.) Don't miss a guided tour of the historic Avalon Casino. It's a peek into the World War II era, when young couples from the mainland would flock to the island every weekend to dine and dance to the music of the most famous big bands of the day.
This bustling seaport a few hours from the California-Mexico border is known for deep sea fishing, fabulous locally caught lobster, a seafront promenade and great shopping along Avenida Primera. In addition to its beautiful coastline, Ensenada is famous for "La Bufadora," an immensely strong blowhole where tourists gather to hear and see (and often, be drenched by) the geyser. Ensenada is also surrounded by a burgeoning wine district. If time allows, try to visit some of the wineries, such as Cavas Valmar and Bodegas de Santo Tomas. The wines are surprisingly good, and the prices can't be beat!
Mazatlan is not only a booming resort town, but also the largest port on Mexico's Pacific coast. Surfing, sailing and scuba diving are popular activities, and the town is a haven for sports fishing enthusiasts. Stroll along Mazatlan's 10-mile seaside promenade, and stop in a local cafe for a snack of shrimp tacos and beer. Dozens of merchants sell jewelry, woven belts and trinkets along the promenade.
More heavy-duty shopping opportunities can be found in town, in an area called the Golden Zone. Make sure to visit the historic "old town" section of the city, for its cathedral, marketplace and the central square, called Plaza Republica. Do try to take one of the open-air taxis, called "Pulmonias," up the steep hillsides for a breathtaking panoramic view of Mazatlan's bays and several small islands, and the legendary Sierra Madre mountain range rising behind the town.
Puerto Vallarta is known for its quaint cobblestone streets, "old world" charm, and thriving nightlife. The walkway along the bay is lined with sculptures, many of which are said to bring good luck to those who touch them. Puerto Vallarta's beaches, especially the unfortunately named Playa de los Muertos, are known for great swimming and other water sports. But, it's the jungle beach experience that sets Puerto Vallarta apart from other Mexican Riviera resorts. Take a boat trip to Yelapa Beach across the Bay of Banderas, tucked at the base of a jungle-covered mountain. A short hike takes you through lush tropical vegetation to a waterfall. You'll think you're on "Fantasy Island." Come to think of it, didn't that show come on after "The Love Boat"?