It wasn't that long ago that cruise ships' Mexican Riviera itineraries consisted solely of Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas, and that almost all ships that visited there departed from Los Angeles on seven-day turn-arounds. Acapulco was generally reserved as a stop for repositioning trans-canal cruises; Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa was considered an extremely exotic port.
Prior to the events of September 11, Holland America's Statendam alternated 10-day cruises from San Diego with 15-day cruises to Hawaii, but the region's popularity really started blooming with the trend towards "homeporting." Cruise passengers in the West were given an alternative to flying across the country, the opportunity to take a tropical vacation without going to the Caribbean.
But, as these regional cruises became more popular with Westerners, a funny thing happened. They also became an alternate destination to the Caribbean for the rest of the country, and as a result, Mexican Riviera cruises have seen a growth rate of over 40 percent in the past few years. Holland America, Carnival, Princess and NCL have all deployed some of their newest, glitziest ships to southern California; Crystal has made it a staple of its winter itineraries. Carnival built a new terminal in Long Beach, which it shares with Princess. The port of San Diego has seen an increase in cruise ship traffic of almost 80 percent over the past few years, and once-exotic destinations along Mexico's Pacific coast have ramped up their shore services and piers to accommodate the influx of cruise passengers.
Holland America continues to innovate and raise the bar for the rest of the industry. It was the first line to go around the tip of Baja California into the Sea of Cortez, and to call at places like Loreto and La Paz; it now offers cruises with stops in Topolobampo, the gateway to Mexico's Copper Canyon.
With three southern California ports and a wide choice of cruise lines, ships, port stops and vacation lengths, Mexican Riviera itineraries will no doubt remain popular.
Choosing extraordinary excursions for these ports was no easy task because so many of them are unique and -- well -- extraordinary. We decided to select excursions that are offered by most cruise lines in any given port, and those that are specific to a particular area. We also included Ensenada and Catalina Island excursions, even though those two ports are not technically in the "Mexican Riviera."
As always, we encourage you to get more information on the Cruise Critic message boards, especially the Ports of Call board for the Mexican Riviera.
Night Divers and Sound and Light Show
Whether you see the world-famous cliff divers during the day or at night, seeing them is a requisite for anyone going to Acapulco. The night show presents more of a thrill, which is why we are including it here. Visitors can cab over to La Quebrada to see the show, but most of the ships offer shore excursions that include transportation, a sound and light show at the San Diego Fort, and a complimentary drink at the restaurant fronting the La Quebrada cliffs, providing the very best views. Average cost: $75 adult, $55 children.
Who Should Go: Everybody! This is truly a unique experience and great for families; even teens will be enthralled. Those with mobility impairments should stick with the ship excursions, as there are wheelchair-accessible viewing areas that may not be available to those going independently, and there are several sets of steps to negotiate for those who choose not to take the organized tours.
Why It's Extraordinary: Divers climb the cliffs by torchlight and then soar outward to dive into an area that's about 10 feet square, timing their dive to the highest flow of the waves. The tallest cliff platform is 130 feet above the water; the diver has nothing but torchlight to guide him. You'll find yourself holding your breath and ooh-ing and ahhh-ing during the show.
Note: The same dives take place during daylight. The advantage is that the divers are more visible, but again, the night dives provide more of a thrill since there is an added element of danger involved in the darkness.
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 Georgio's Cafe, a cliff-top restaurant with magnificent views over Land's End, Los Arcos and the Sea of Cortez. Average price: $36 adult, $20 children.
Who Should Go: This tour is suitable for almost everyone, although there are some stairs to go up and down at the cafe, 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 lucky enough to be in Cabo San Lucas during whale-watching season (mid-December to mid-March), and if you are somewhat adventurous, this is the tour to take. There are 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 guests, usually a maximum of eight). The Seaworld-trained 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: $64 adult, $44 child.
Who Should Go: This trip is particularly suited to the the adventurous nature lover who is not concerned about being in a smaller boat on the open seas; the photo ops are incredible. Children under 11 are not allowed, and boarding/disembarking would be 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 just a couple of hundred feet of one of these creatures, at sea level, to watch it swim and jump and cavort, is an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Even though this little island is just off the coast of Los Angeles, its ecosystems are a world away. This rigid-hulled inflatable raft takes you along the coastline to see the many species of wildlife that are abundant here, like red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, harbor seals and sea lions. After the coastal tour, which covers 10 miles of shoreline, the raft ventures out two to three miles into the Pacific to try to locate the dolphins that call this area home. During the period from December to March, you might see migrating whales as well. Average price: $62 adult, $52 child.
Who Should Go: Families (with children from age 5), nature lovers, seniors, photographers, first-timers and romantics.
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 up close and personal with the natural delights while still leaving time for shopping and exploring on your own.
Fox Studios and Rosarito
It might seem odd to have to travel to Ensenada to visit a movie studio, but this is one of the best. Originally built for the movie Titanic, the Fox Studios Baja is a working component of movie-making and allows visitors a rare behind-the-scenes look at how cinematic magic is created. The town of Rosarito Beach is charming, with great beaches and shopping, and the approximately 60-minute drive along the seacoast offers spectacular views. Some tours include lunch and some don't, so make sure to check first. Average cost: Without lunch, $29 adult, $24 child. Tour with lunch: $60 adult, $45 child.
Who Should Go: This tour is great for families and movie buffs, and for anyone who loves the history of the Titanic since the models used were all to scale and accurate.
Why It's Extraordinary: The exhibits include actual sets that are or have been used in movies, props, makeup, and visual and sound effects. There are hands-on interactive exhibits where guests can try their hand at makeup and lighting. It's a real, live, actual movie studio.
Oasis Horseback Ride
The charming town of Loreto, facing the coast of the Sea of Cortez, backs up to the Sierra de la Giganta range just beyond the desert. The horseback ride takes advantage of the unique location by having the horses follow streams through immense and distinctive rock formations to a natural pool where you (and your horses) will rest and cool down. Depending on the time of year that you visit, it's possible to see the blooming wildflowers that carpet the desert floor, or to see the stark silhouettes of the different cacti against the mountain backdrop. Average Cost (adult and child): $80.
Who Should Go: Anyone who can handle a horseback trek through relatively gentle terrain should try this, although age is limited to those over 10. Nature lovers, photo buffs, soft-adventurers, families with older kids, and romantics will appreciate the unique scenery.
Why It's Extraordinary: The Sierra de la Giganta range looks like a movie set, with jagged peaks sawing at a sky that is almost constantly blue and clear. The desert in front of the mountains can be stark and arid or filled with wildflowers, but either way, on horseback, you'll feel as though you have a starring role in an old John Wayne flick.
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 them. Guests 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 fauna: iguanas, crocodiles and several species of birds. Some trips to the eco-center include a boat trip on El Palo Verde lagoon and some feature canoeing through the El Paraiso estuary; check your ship's description to see which one is offered. Average cost: $68 adult, $47 child.
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 the Green Turtle is close to extinction. 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 endangered animals. It's a terrific means by which to get young kids involved in environmental issues too.
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 guests will visit two towns established in the 1500's, learn about the history of the region, and see handmade pottery, Mexican tiles, furniture and bricks being created by local artisans. Lunch is included in a "typical" Mexican restaurant in Copala.
Who Should Go: The air-conditioned motorcoach makes this trip suitable for almost anyone, but the cobblestoned 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 style of Mexicana.
Why It's Extraordinary: The gold rush didn't just happen in California; these mountains were the venue of many bloody battles for land that was rich in the ore, and predated the California gold rush by over 300 years. The Baroque architecture of the village of Copala is renowned in the region, and anyone who appreciates the history of architecture will have plenty to explore.
Pichilingue (La Paz)
Some of the shore excursions provided by the ships offer Paradise Cove for kayaking, and some offer Tecolote Beach; either way, the tranquil waters of this region are perfect for a kayaking trip. In fact, at some points the water is so shallow that you can get out of your kayak and walk if you choose to. 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! A beach stop is usually part of this trip, time permitting. Average price (adult and child): $58.
Who Should Go: This trip is suitable for everyone from 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 here are perfect for a first-ever foray into sea kayaking, and the peace, beach break and natural scenery are soul-soothing.
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 70 feet above the ground. This is one of the most elaborate and adventurous of all canopy experiences offered anywhere. Average cost: $88.
Who Should Go: Adventure- and thrill-seekers in good health only! The minimum age for this tour is 18; 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 have three to five.) There's risk involved, but thrills beyond compare, too.
Yelapa Beach Snorkeling and Sailing
This is a much more placid tour for those unable or unwilling to do the rain forest canopy adventure. Yelapa Beach can only be reached by boat; the trip takes guests to the Los Arcos snorkeling site, where you use the boat as a platform. Then you spend the day at Yelapa Beach, with lunch and beach relaxation. The trip back is party time, which includes margaritas on board (soft drinks for kids). Average cost: $94 adult, $74 child.
Who Should Go: This trip is suitable for everyone, from young kids to seniors, and is a terrific multi-generational family outing. Wheelchair access at the beach stop is limited though.
Why It's Extraordinary: Los Arcos is known for its abundance of colorful fish, and the beach break is a nice change of pace and a chance to enjoy the Pacific Ocean. 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.
Copper Canyon Tour
This town with the funny name (get your kids to say it, they love doing that!) is the gateway to one of North America's most breathtaking geographical wonders. Copper Canyon is four times the size of the Grand Canyon, and this tour offers stunning vistas from the privately commissioned train and from the viewing platform of the hotel you'll visit either before or after lunch. It's a full-day tour and actually starts at 4:00 a.m. Don't worry -- a boxed breakfast is included on the train, and lunch is served at one of the stops in the canyon; the return trip features music and snacks. Average cost: $379 adult, $195 child.
Who Should Go: The train is not wheelchair-accessible, so the trip is not available for completely mobility-impaired guests. Otherwise, it's a spectacular trip for almost everyone else. Seniors, families, photographers, nature lovers, first-timers and romantics will all enjoy this tour.
Why It's Extraordinary: The train goes from sea level to over 7,000 feet and in fact passes through several climate zones (coats, hats and gloves are recommended in winter since it might well be snowing). The "canyon" is actually a maze of over 200 gorges which combine to form a series of six massive canyons. And despite the name, copper was never mined here; it's the color of the lichen that clings to the mountains. The canyon is home to over 290 species of migratory birds and 87 species of reptiles. Add that to the engineering feat of the train tracks hugging the canyon walls and the unique culture of the Tarahumara peoples, one of the few aboriginal cultures left in North America, and you have one extraordinary excursion!
Deep Sea Fishing
Imagine catching a six- to 10-ft. 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 some shopping on your return. Drinks (beer, water and soft drinks) are included, as are boxed lunches. Average cost (child and adult): $110.
Who Should Go: Avid fishermen (and fisherwomen) 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 very 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.
--By San Diego-based Jana Jones, who is the creator and editor of lodging Web site Sleeping-Around.com, as well as one of Cruise Critic's stalwart ship reviewers.