Even if your childhood didn't involve episodes of "Love Boat," the Mexican Riviera connotes a certain old-school glamor. Think Elizabeth Taylor in her prime, one of the first celebrities to discover the beauty of Mexico's west coast and ports such as Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, Cabo San Lucas and Acapulco.
Today, La Liz would hardly recognize her haunts. Sleepy seasides have become booming beachside cities, attracting tourists from around the world who come to shop, sightsee and -- particularly in the case of Cabo -- party.
But never fear. If consecutive tequila shots aren't your thing, the Mexican Riviera still has plenty to do. Lovers of the outdoors will relish the chance to swim, snorkel, kayak, paddleboard, fish and horseback ride. Thrill-seekers will find zip lines, parasailing and flyboarding. And if you'd rather spend your time in a lounge chair soaking up the sun, there's plenty of white sand beaches to while away a week -- or two.
Click through our slideshow following a typical Mexican Riviera itinerary to read more about the country's Pacific coast.
Your first stop outside the California embarkation ports of Los Angeles or San Diego, this port doesn't have the cachet the rest of the itinerary does. But that doesn';t mean you can't find reasons to leave the ship. If you’re feeling active, this is the place to give surfing a try. Ensenada is known as "the birthplace of Mexican surfing." Surf Ensenada has beginner lessons, for individuals and groups.
Tip: Mexico is primarily known for spirits and beer. But the hot, dry climate of Baja's Valle de Guadelupe is attracting winemakers, who are producing better and better bottles, primarily red varietals. Keep in mind that both your ship and California have regulations about how much wine you can bring in, so buy accordingly.
The playground of Southern California, Cabo has a well-earned reputation for partying; if that's not your thing, avoid Medano Beach during Spring Break. Our recommendation here is anything out on the water; luckily, there are plenty of ways to explore the famous Arch, either by water taxi or tour. We particularly liked Baja Expedition's kayak/snorkel combo.
Tip: Sure, you can find parasailing in ports across the Caribbean and Pacific, but only in Cabo can you get a birds-eye view of the Arch. Of the numerous trips skyward that I've done, this was the most scenic. Bring a GoPro for optimal shots and footage.
Cruise ships often stop for two days in Cabo, which means you can spend day two exploring the outlying desert of Baja Sur. ATV tours are popular, as are dune buggies. The most popular land excursion in Cabo is no longer the traditional "swim with the dolphins" experience. Camels have usurped the sea mammals as the animal du jour, with multiple outfitters offering treks on the beach with the humped critters, allegedly descendants of the U.S. Camel Corps.
Tip: A second day means you have time to visit nearby San Juan de Cabo, a decidedly more laidback and upscale sister city to Cabo San Lucas. There's a historic charm here that Cabo lacks, as well as numerous art galleries and restaurants. Just make sure you leave enough time to get back for the tender.
After being absent from cruise ship itineraries for several years, Mazatlan has returned as a major Mexican Riviera port. That's great news for cruisers, as the city has a historic colonial center unlike other stops on this itinerary. Artists have discovered Mazatlan in recent years, leading to a rebirth in the "Old City," which is far more pleasant than the touristy "Golden Zone" in Mazatlan's north end.
Tip: One of the best ways to see everything is to take a guided tour in a "Rhino," off-road vehicles that have been outfitted for city driving. The open top allows you to feel the sea breeze and interact with locals, as the tour operators direct traffic around you to make sure that your ride among Mazatlan's steep hills is safe.
Mazatlan has one of Latin America's longest beachside promenades, with a Melecon stretching nearly 14 kilometers. With statues and seafood shacks scattered throughout, it makes a scenic walk, although some of its beaches are quite rough. For quieter waters, head over to Stone Island (actually a peninsula). The beach here is calm enough for kids and long enough that it won't feel crowded, even on the weekends.
Tip: You don't need to be on an official shore excursion to take advantage of Stone Island. Water taxis to the peninsula are cheap and convenient to the cruise port. Once you're there, vendors outside the beach bars will rent ATVs, kayaks, gear for snorkeling and other water activities.
Is it the cobblestoned streets? The Sierra Madres rising in the distance? The bougainvillea blooming everywhere? The crown topping Our Lady of Guadalupe cathedral? Whatever the reason, there’s something about Puerto Vallarta that keeps people coming back, often for good; the city has a large expat population of North Americans.
Tip: With a sophisticated international population that is gay-friendly, Puerto Vallarta is one of the best people-watching cities in Mexico. While outdoor activities abound, we're fond of staying in town in this port, strolling through boutiques and settling into a beach chair in a prime viewing spot. Try Lido Club de Playa or Sea Monkey.
Because it draws so many expats, Puerto Vallarta has one of Mexico's best food scenes. Whether you're looking for a romantic restaurant by the ocean, a seafood shack on the beach or an awesome taco stand, Puerto Vallarta has you covered. One way to see it all is to skip an official meal and nosh your way around the city with Vallarta Food Tours. With as many as nine stops, you'll be stuffed by the end -- and more knowledgeable about Jalisco cuisine.
Tip: The best way to ensure you won't get sick when you're eating street food is to follow the crowds. If there's a line, that's a good thing. Another precaution: Watch them make it fresh. If that means avoiding the shrimp on a stick proffered to you in your beach lounge, so be it.
About 273 kilometers south of Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo draws only a handful of cruise ships per year. Because of this, the city has remained less touristy than other Mexican Riviera cities; you won't hear as much English, for example. Fishing is king here, especially for sailfish, so if there's an angler in your group, your time is best spent on the water.
Tip: The Mexican Riviera doesn't have the Mayan history that you find on the country's Yucatan Peninsula -- which is why a day spent exploring pre-Hispanic ruins such as El Chanel and La Campana outside Colima (about 90 minutes from Manzanillo) could provide a nice contrast to the rest of your cruise.
A stop for smaller luxury ships or vessels traversing the Panama Canal, Zihuatanejo -- known as Zihua (tsee-WAH) -- also encompasses Ixtapa, a planned resort community that contains high-rises, water sports and restaurants such as Senor Frogs. If you’re looking for action, head that way; otherwise, strolling the markets and shops of Zihua makes for a laid-back afternoon.
Tip: Take some Mexican culinary techniques home with you and sign up for a class at one of Zihua's well-regarded cooking schools. Classes at Patio Mexica start with a visit to the local market before creating chile rellenos, moles or tortilla soup.
Once a staple of all Mexican Riviera itineraries, few cruise ships visit Acapulco as of this writing because of safety concerns. The city still has all the facilities you'd expect in a famed resort town, and cruise passengers who do stop here will be spoiled for choice. Checking out the cliff divers of La Quebrada is a no-brainer; there's a restaurant you can watch them from if the heat gets too much.
Tip: It's a long drive, but jewelry-lovers will have to make a pilgrimage to Taxco, the colonial city that's known as the center of silver mining in Mexico. Adorably preserved, the entire town is a national monument.
Updated November 21, 2019