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Manzanillo may be short on style, but it's long on substance. While it doesn't have the glitz of other ports of call on the Mexican Riviera, it offers a straightforward, what-you-see-is-what-you-get look at a community that hasn't yet been transformed by a touristy do-over.
With a population of 140,000, Manzanillo -- located between Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta -- is the country's largest commercial port, handling 1.5 million cargo containers a year, bound for spots around the globe. The port and nearby tuna canneries and seed and grain silos, give Manzanillo an industrial, gritty feel. It also employs one-third of the people who live there.
But, thanks to world-class deep sea fishing, pleasant beaches, an almost pueblo-style town center and -- of all things -- the Bo Derek movie "10," the relatively undiscovered Manzanillo is gaining new cachet as a tourist destination. It will be interesting to watch what the next decade brings. For now, it's refreshing not to see Hooters or Senor Frogs dominating the landscape as you pull into port. Manzanillo -- it's the real deal.
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Other Mexican Riviera Cruise Ports:
Acapulco • Cabo San Lucas • Catalina Island • Ensenada • Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo • La Paz • Manzanillo • Mazatlan • Monterey • Puerto Vallarta
Manzanillo is not a shopper's paradise -- best to look for the lovelier Mexican handicrafts in other ports. However, you'll find beachwear, pottery, T-shirts, baskets and the like in souvenir shops adjoining the waterfront town plaza. The Miramar Flea Market at Miramar Beach have a lot of souvenir stands. Meanwhile, there are two shopping centers -- Plaza Manzanillo and the newer Salagua, with a Soriana department store -- on Boulevard Miguel de la Madrid.
Spanish. Very little English is spoken -- even in restaurants and shops. Those eateries that do cater to tourists often have English translations on the menu.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Mexico's currency is the peso. Visit www.oanda.com for current rates and a handy conversion chart that fits neatly into a wallet. ATM's tend to be the least expensive way to acquire pesos, and there are several in the town center. However, there's no need to bulk up on local currency. Most sidewalk vendors, taxis, restaurants and shops accept U.S. dollars; some even take euros. Credit cards are widely accepted, as well. (Note: On our 10-night cruise along Mexico's Pacific coast, we used dollars and a credit card exclusively -- no pesos.)
Where You're Docked
Ships, during the October through May cruising season, dock at the commercial port.
There are no services where ships are berthed.
An independent tour company runs shuttles directly from the pier into town for $2 and to Miramar Beach for $10. The local guides on-site can also make arrangements for deep-sea fishing, snorkeling and kayaking expeditions. A queue of blue taxis is located just inside the marine terminal's security gate. Prices aren't set, so negotiate the fare first. The fare to the shopping centers and resort zone on Manzanillo's outskirts should not cost more than about $15 each way. There is a waterfront sidewalk -- it would be a bit of an overstatement to call it a promenade -- that connects the port to the town plaza. The walk takes about 30 minutes and passes by a beach that's popular with locals. The town center is imminently walkable, with pretty much all services and sights within a few blocks of one another.
Watch Out For
Manzanillo is located in Colima, said to be the safest (and most highly educated) state in all of Mexico. Here, as in other tourist destinations throughout the coast, there's an obvious police presence. Tourism is the area's third-largest economic contributor, after the commercial port and iron ore production, and officials want to keep it that way by making sure the port is safe. That said, it's always good practice to avoid wearing flashy jewelry or watches or carrying excessive amounts of cash. Also, when you are on shore, it's best to steer clear of tap water or ice and to observe the cardinal rule when it comes to street food: boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it.
Look at the town center from the waterfront zocalo -- or plaza -- with open eyes, and it's easy to see its classic lines. Two-story stucco buildings with covered passageways frame the upper reaches of the zocalo, known for its giant blue sailfish statue by the Mexican sculptor Sebastian. (He's so famous he just has one name.) The town mascot pays homage to Manzanillo's international reputation as a sailfish capital. The claim to fame is that more sailfish have been caught in local waters than anywhere else in the world. Avenida Mexico, the main drag, is perpendicular to the waterfront malecon, or walkway. Within walking distance is the city market, a church and lots of little restaurants and shops. The town isn't going to win any beauty contests; its appeal lies more in its remarkable hospitality quotient, evidenced by welcoming smiles and friendly faces. As cruise destination consultant John Tabbutt-McCarthy aptly puts it: "This is a town with a past, with a soul. It's not yet another purpose-driven resort."
Back in the 1970's, Bo Derek memorably strutted her stuff on the beaches of the Las Hadas resort in the movie "10," showering Manzanillo with attention publicists can only dream about. After the movie, celebrities like Omar Sharif, Charles Bronson, Lynda Carter and Charlton Heston began spending time in what is now the resort district, a 20-minute drive from the town center. Not surprisingly, development followed, but somehow, it didn't have the staying power tourism officials had hoped for. Still, no visit to Manzanillo would be complete without a close-up of the area known as La Audiencia. The stylish enclave of million-dollar real estate has hillside villas, hotels, condos and time-shares located on a narrow peninsula that separates the Bay of Santiago from the Bay of Manzanillo. Las Hadas, built by a Bolivian tin king and now owned by the Las Brisas chain, has an allure that continues to enchant. How could it not with its Moorish-style, white-washed villas, perfectly manicured lawns and to-die-for views? No wonder Las Hadas means "The Fairyland." (Note: Nonguests can use the beach and pool for a fee.)
One of Manzanillo's chief draws is deep-sea fishing -- and not just for sailfish, but for other big catches like dorado and black, striped and blue marlin. Unlike other places, where you have to motor out to sea for two to three hours to find the creatures, there's an abundance of fish just minutes away from shore. As well, the cost is much less in Manzanillo, when compared to the more high-profile ports. A five-hour charter for as many as 10 people costs $200. Check with the shuttle operator at the pier or the tourism office in town at Avenida Juarez 100 for details.
Manzanillo's beaches, known for their black, white and gold volcanic sand, are nice for a quiet respite. You can rent shade umbrellas and lounge chairs at most of the beaches. There are also concessionaires, offering boogie boards, kayaks, snorkeling equipment and the like. Playa Las Brisas, Playa La Audiencia and Playa Miramar are all favorites.
Been There, Done That
It's always happy hour at Bar Social. Just steps from the plaza at Avenida Juarez 101, the local institution is popular for its cheap beer and free tortilla chips. A huge, round bar dominates the space, which is plastered with old photographs of Manzanillo in earlier times.
A Walmart supercenter, or "the American embassy" as it's been called, opened recently on Boulevard Miguel de la Madrid, the unattractive thoroughfare that links the town center to the ritzy resort zone. Starbucks, Burger King and KFC have all staked a claim in this strange little area. Walmart is not only popular with locals, but also with U.S. and Canadian ex-pats and snowbirds who call this region home.
Hotel Colonial, the grand dame of the town center, has been the place to see and be seen since it was built in the early 1940's. It's got some great architectural details: yellow and blue tile wainscoting, decorative wooden latticework and ornate wrought iron chandeliers. It also serves a decent lunch. Diners, seated at tables with festive yellow and blue tablecloths, can sit indoors or in an open courtyard. (The choice of the green, Astroturf-like carpet in the otherwise lovely courtyard is regrettable.) Lunch entrees include fresh dorado, fajitas, octopus Gallega-style, paella, sandwiches and salads. Tortilla chips -- served hot, right out of the oven, with guacamole and salsa -- are a meal in themselves. The hotel is located near the intersection of Bocanegro and Mexico. The restaurant accepts dollars and euros, Visa and Mastercard.
El Fagon, on Boulevard Miguel de la Madrid near the Soriana department store, is the hands-down favorite of locals and ex-pats alike. It's inexpensive and delivers the goods when it comes to authentic Mexican fare. It's known for its handmade tortillas, fine-cut roast beef and shrimp. Unlike just about everything around it, the red-tiled-roof restaurant is hugely traditional -- built around a fagon, or open-air oven, where much of the food is cooked. El Fagon, a 15-minute cab ride from the town center, opens at noon.
Staying in Touch
There are several Internet outlets near the town plaza. Ciber@Conexion, across the street from Hotel Colonial's reception desk, is open daily and charges $1 for 1 hour. Internet D, across from Bar Social, is also open every day and charges $1.50 for 1 hour.
Best Overall Introduction: Due to its scale, the best way to fully appreciate Manzanillo is to experience it in a motorcoach on a half-day sightseeing tour. The guided excursions typically include a ride out to the Peninsula de Santiago and its high-end hotel zone; a quick stop at Miramar Beach and the souvenir stalls there; and a walking tour of Old Town. One bonus: The tour often veers a bit into the interior, so visitors are able to take in the hilly countryside, the modest stucco homes with rooftop cisterns that are characteristic of the area, and banana plantations that are increasingly giving way to development.
Best for Adventure Travelers: Visitors who want to embrace their sense of adventure and (literally) get a taste of the local landscape will enjoy the ATV beach and jungle excursion, a staple of the cruise lines that call on Manzanillo. Open-air safari trucks transfer passengers to Rancho Pena Blanca, where they are outfitted with helmets, goggles and four-wheel-drive all-terrain vehicles, available with standard or semi-automatic transmissions. During the tour, you'll drive your ATV along winding country roads and briefly into the jungle before continuing onto the white sand dunes at Pena Blanca. (Expect to taste some of that sand.) The tour concludes with a stop at a working ranch, where you can sample fresh coconuts and enjoy a complimentary drink.
For More Information
On the Web: www.visitmexico.com and www.gomanzanillo.com.
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--by Ellen Uzelac, a travel and finance writer on Maryland's Eastern Shore.