If you’re looking for adventure, the Western Caribbean should be your choice. Visit ancient ruins near Cozumel and Progreso in Mexico, snorkel around the reefs in Belize or Roatan, Honduras; or simply soak up the sun in the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. Some new cruisers say a Western Caribbean feels exotic. The exotic part of the Western Caribbean includes the eastern coast of Central American countries Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Other standard Western Caribbean destinations are Jamaica, Grand Cayman and eastern Mexico.
If you love to snorkel, Belize tops the list of ports. Divers will also want to include Belize as a port of call, but Roatan and the other Bay Islands of Honduras are world-class dive sites as well. Belize, Honduras and Guatemala are the best locations for the ruins of the Classic Mayan civilization. Most notable is Guatemala’s Tikal and Honduras’s Copan. Tikal is offered by some ships as a shore excursion from Belize City. Nicaragua and Costa Rica are meccas for ecotourists who love rain forests, volcanoes, white water rivers and wildlife (monkeys and parrots and crocodiles). A Western Caribbean Cruise Itinerary offers so much diversity for the cruiser.
When is the Best Time to Take a Western Caribbean Cruise?
There are ships sailing the Western Caribbean year round, but summer is the least favorable time to sail. Summer and early fall are within hurricane season, and when hurricanes do hit the eastern edge of Central America they tend to be major storms. Summer is also the rainy season — not only in the Caribbean, but anywhere in the tropics.
And then there’s the heat. Though Panama is uniformly, brutally hot and steamy throughout the year, the farther north you go in Central America, the more seasonal differences are noticed. Since most visit Central America for ecotourism, soft adventure and exploration of Mayan architectural sites, choosing winter to travel will make your hiking, paddling or climbing more enjoyable.
Western Caribbean Cruise Itineraries
Cruise ships sailing to the western Caribbean usually embark from Florida, New Orleans or Texas. Ports of call on a Western Caribbean itinerary often include Cozumel or Playa del Carmen, Mexico; Grand Cayman; Key West; the Dominican Republic; Jamaica; Belize; Costa Rica; or Roatan. The ports of call on a Western Caribbean cruise are further apart, which means more time at sea is usually involved on a western Caribbean cruise. So, you may have more time on the cruise ship and less time in port or on the beach.
The ports of call in the western Caribbean are sometimes on Mexico, Belize, or Costa Rica; and sometimes at larger islands including Jamaica, or the Dominican Republic. The shore excursion options are more varied since the islands and mainland are more diverse. You can explore ancient Mayan ruins, hike the rain forests, or go snorkeling or scuba diving in some unforgettable locations.
Most of the Western Caribbean’s exotic ports that include the Banana Coast (Trujillo, Honduras), can be reached on cruises departing from any home port in North America. They also make up a large portion of Panama Canal itineraries. The only determining factor is the length of the cruise, which dictates the number of port calls possible, and the home port you will leave out of.
Western Caribbean Cruise Ports
Amapala is located on the volcanic island of Isla del Tigre in the Gulf of Fonseca and is a newcomer to itineraries that include Central America. A cruise facility is expected to open in Amapala in 2018, and as part of a multi-million dollar project to refurbish the area, the port’s existing dock has been upgraded, along with three local parks.
Belize City, Belize
Diving is Belize’s main claim to fame due to an almost unbroken line of reefs and cayes extending for 150 miles along its coast that make up the longest reef system in the Western Hemisphere (and the second longest in the world). While many cayes are tiny and uninhabited, some like Ambergris Caye are sufficiently large to have built resorts that attract divers from around the world.
Several important Mayan sites on the mainland, such as Altun Ha and Xunantunich, make for excellent day trips and are included on shore excursions by most cruise ships. As a matter of fact, Belize has the highest concentration of Mayan sites of all the countries in Central America.
Belize City, with its wooden and brick buildings, exudes some colonial charm but the downtown area also has many seedy neighborhoods, and tourists should beware of walking around the city after dark. For cruise passengers, Belize City is primarily a jumping-off point for tours and excursions to its many natural and historical attractions.
Costa Maya, Mexico
Costa Maya is located on a peninsula along Mexico’s Caribbean coast, about 100 miles south of Playa del Carmen. It feels like a private island created exclusively for cruisers. And that’s because it was developed solely to woo cruise lines, and everything, including the man-made malecon, a beachfront pedestrian path in nearby Mahahual, a beach club used for shore excursions, was created with passengers in mind.
Cozumel is Mexico’s largest and most populated Caribbean island. Cozumel is a major cruise port that welcomes more than one million cruise passengers each year, and as many as eight ships per day. But Cozumel has held onto its non-touristy side; with only one-third of the island that has been developed, leaving large stretches of pristine jungle and sandy beaches basically untouched.
The Falmouth Cruise Port is located in Jamaica’s north coast town of Falmouth, the capital of Trelawny parish. Falmouth’s two-berth port is a triangular peninsula that can accommodate the largest cruise ships in the world with a very short walk of the city’s historic Georgian sights. Many cruisers never go beyond the gates of the port, where a crowded outpost of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville has a pool, swim-up bar, and mini version of Dunn’s River Falls, not to mention a hot tub shaped like the bowl of a margarita glass. A good number leave for the day in a bus or cab to go on one of the numerous excursions offered by cruise lines; there are also local guides and drivers that you can engage on the spot.
Lovers of local flavor will enjoy interacting with restaurant staffers and merchants, watching chattering schoolchildren in uniforms hurrying home, or sampling barbecue-like jerk chicken or a Jamaican patty — a pastry filled with meat, chicken or vegetables.
Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
Think of a stereotypical cruise port — one with white-sand beaches, duty-free shops selling jewels and liquor, and water activities like snorkeling and scuba, and Grand Cayman will likely come to mind. This might just be based on the destination, with its lovely Seven Mile Beach, George Town’s retail center and plenty of sites for diving, snorkeling and other water sports. Grand Cayman also celebrates marine life at Stingray City and the Cayman Turtle Farm.
There is a negative side to this port…..the crowds. It’s not unusual to find five mega-ships (and can be up to 9!) docked in the harbor at the same time. This makes the tendering process slower than usual and the downtown streets jam-packed. The constant influx of cruise passengers keeps the waterfront restaurants bustling, so lunch in port is never a cheap affair. A stroll along the beach quickly turns into an obstacle course of sunbathing tourists, sandy children and water sports vendors.
You have two choices: embrace the crowds and touristy places with a laid-back island mindset, or escape them. Secluded beaches, like Cayman Kai or Rum Point, are a cab ride away, and even Seven Mile Beach has its less crowded spots. The seemingly endless stretches of sea never feel too congested when you’re swimming peacefully above coral formations.
Montego Bay, Jamaica
The north coast town of Montego Bay makes for a very lively and colorful welcome to Jamaica for the many visitors who arrive here by air or sea. MoBay, as it’s called, offers a steady schedule of food and cultural festivals, and some of the Caribbean’s most entertaining beaches (offering water sports, waterfront bars and more) cover its shores. Add in golfing, duty-free shopping and easy access to the island’s active adventures, and visitors can have as lazy or as action-packed of a day as they choose.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Ocho Rios is situated on the northern coast of the island of Jamaica. Ocho Rios is best known for its abundance of waterfalls. Here you will find the Caribbean’s trademark warm sands and turquoise waters. Past the shoreline is a rain forest that covers the mountainous landscape. The lush tropical foliage makes it easy to see why Saint Anne Parish is known as the “garden parish.”
Slightly past the cruise port, the town of Ocho Rios offers plenty of craft vendors, duty-free shopping bargains, open-air eateries and happening bars on its two main drags: Main Street and DaCosta Drive. Primary points of interest and attractions are Dunn’s River Falls, Mystic Mountain and James Bond Beach and are all a short five- to 20-minute taxi ride away.
Playa del Carmen (Calica), Mexico
Calica, the newest gateway to the Yucatan Peninsula, is located just three miles south of Playa del Carmen and right next door to the incredible Xcaret nature park, one of the most popular attractions on the entire peninsula. If you’re a diver or a snorkeling enthusiast, you’ll be fascinated by the brilliant colors of Calica’s underwater world. Or you can just enjoy basking in the sun on one of the many beautiful beaches.
Progreso began its life as a port town in 1871 and has continued to grow over the decades — particularly after a 4-mile-long pier was installed in 1989 — but it’s not the bustling port that passengers will see throughout other parts of the Caribbean and Mexico. In fact, aside from the throngs of out-of-town vendors that converge when a cruise ship is in port once or twice a week, it can be pretty sleepy. The city center of Progreso is about 5 miles long by 10 blocks and encompasses the Malecon ocean promenade; a small marketplace, or mercado; and the still-active 1893 lighthouse, Faro de Puerto Progreso (the inside is not accessible). A tour of Progreso won’t take more than 45 minutes, and after that: la playa (the beach!).
Roatan is one of Honduras’ Bay Islands (Islas de la Bahia). The Bay Islands are an above-water adjunct to the barrier reef that is their key tourism draw; most people come here for the snorkeling and diving. You can also find shore excursions exploring the forest canopy (including what has become the ubiquitous zipline experience), kayaking, visiting Gumbalimba Park, or just kicking back on Tabyana Beach (bring your strongest bug repellent!).
Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala
There are three areas of interest for cruisers going ashore in Guatemala: eco/adventure tourism, ancient Mayan ruins of the Classic Era, and tropical agriculture and modern Guatemalan history. Some cruise lines offer an excursion by air to the Mayan site of Copan in Honduras, known as “the Paris of the Mayan World.” For those wishing to see ruins at a more affordable price, a shore excursion to Quirigua National Park, lasts about 4.5 hours and costs significantly less. For those looking to spot birds and exotic plants, there is kayaking or boating on various rivers, like the Rio Dulce.
Puerto Limon, Costa Rico
Costa Rica is most well known for it’s ecotourism. Cruisers can participate in self-guided kayaking tours or canoe trips through lakes and estuaries paddled by experts. Costa Rica has three ranges of volcanic mountains with several active volcanoes, and you can take a shore excursion to visit Arenal Volcano. Rain forest tours include hiking at ground level or across suspension bridges in the canopy; you can also take an aerial tram tour near the capital, San Jose.
Most Popular Shore Excursions
Belize City, Belize
Though Belize is known for its world-famous dives sites like the Blue Hole, you truly don’t need to dive to experience stunning marine life (With a mask and snorkel in shallow Belizean waters, I saw the most beautiful schools of fish I’ve ever seen.). A high-speed catamaran whisks travelers 16 miles across the turquoise waters of the barrier reef to Turneffe Atoll. Shallow reefs on the leeward side of the atoll are home to luxuriant soft and stony corals, large sponges and marine life like damsel fish, parrot fish, barracuda, angels and snapper. After snorkeling, there’s kayaking and a white sand beach to enjoy. Snorkel gear, kayaks and beach floats are included.
A drive up the Western Highway into the rain forest leads to the Cave’s Branch of the Sibun River, which is where you and your intrepid clan hike with inner tubes down a jungle trail. With a cave light strapped to your forehead, you float on inner tubes along the cool water of the Sibun River. The surrounding limestone cavern features fantastic stalactites and stalagmites. Spelunkers are rewarded with a picnic or lunch at a local restaurant. This tour has various names: Cave Tubing & Jungle Walk (Royal Caribbean) and Cave Tubing & Rain Forest Walk (Holland America).
Tulum, a walled city set dramatically atop a cliff overlooking the Caribbean, is one of the best preserved coastal Mayan sites. Founded as a commercial trading port in the 13th century and abandoned at the end of the 16th century, Tulum’s relatively small size makes it manageable for young children. Especially impressive are the pyramid-shaped Castle, a former temple and fortress perched on a promontory with an altar that is believed to have been used for sacrifices. The Temple of the Frescoes features columns and porticoes used by the Maya to measure sun and moonbeams to compute the hours of the day as well as murals portraying offerings to the gods. Nearby at Xel-Ha Park, families have free time to swim and explore the brackish caves, inlets and lagoons. Tulum is a full-day excursion involving a ferry to and from Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Yucatan coastline. This may be challenging for very young passengers.
Though Yal-Ku at northern Akumal is just 65 miles south of Cancun, the pristine turquoise and deep-blue brackish lagoon is a world away from the crowds. Turtles and sting rays feed on soft grasses that grow at the entrance to Yal-Ku, Maya for “son of the god.” The cool, refreshing lagoon is also a favorite sanctuary for parrot fish, sergeant majors, barracuda, grouper, damsel fish, hog fish and lobster. From Yal-Ku, it’s a short ride to Akumal’s white sandy beaches, where your family can swim alongside magical loggerhead sea turtles in the open ocean. For the turtles’ safety and to protect the water, swimmers are asked to avoid physical contact with the turtles and use biodegradable suntan lotion. Tropical Sands Natural SPF 30 Mineral Biodegradable Sunscreen
Costa Maya, Mexico
Chacchoben, Maya for “place of red corn” is a 10-acre forested site hidden deep in the jungle near Mexico’s border with Belize, about 110 miles south of Tulum. Settled around 200 B.C. with structures dating from 700 A.D., this city played a key role in the trade of wood, jade and exotic birds. Shaded areas do double duty — providing families refuge from the sun and helping to prevent further deterioration of traces of red pigment that are still visible on some structures. The guided tour along a circular path passes a trio of excavated and restored pyramids. At the base of the largest of these pyramids is a Stella, which is a large stone slab filled with glyphs, part of the Maya’s complex writing system. Another very cool thing about Chacchoben is that you and your family can see an excavation in progress. This excursion involves walking over uneven terrain and climbing, so wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring water and bug spray.
The coastal village of Mahahual is the gateway to the largest coral reef in the Northern Hemisphere, Chinchorro. It’s a real treat for first time and non-certified divers to experience scuba diving in this pristine reef system that supports a fantastic array of marine life. After an introductory lesson and practice in shallow water, passengers take a short boat ride to a dive site where it’s common to see turtles, barracudas, nurse sharks, eels and stingrays. After the dive, check out this small fishing village, which offers a number of family friendly restaurants like Pez Quadro (just south of town center on the beach, Italian and Mexican food) and Oxtankha (center of town, Mexican food). Warning: your kids are likely to become scuba diving fanatics. Minimum age is 10 years.
George Town, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
This excursion is located in one of our planet’s more unforgettable marine areas, a warm sandbar in North Sound just two miles east of Grand Cayman’s northwestern tip, that attracts dozens of stingrays. The primordial creatures circle around you looking for a squid or fish snack. The tour also includes a visit to Boatswain’s Bay Turtle Farm, a commercial breeding facility for endangered Green and Hawksbill turtles, and a chance to mail a postcard from “Hell” — a town named for its sinister-looking jagged black rock formations. The ever popular Stingray City is always crowded. Still, one touch of the velvety rays makes it worthwhile. Despite Steve Irwin’s recent tragic death, stingrays are still believed to use their barbs only in self-defense.
Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach is our Caribbean beach fantasy come true — soft white sand fringed with pines and palms. Also known as West Bay Beach, the 5.5-mile beach is considered one of the Caribbean’s finest with clear calm water, ideal for families with small children and avid snorkelers. Wind surfing, parasailing and water skiing are available, as is snorkel gear. You can wing it at the Butterfly Farm, where 46 colorful species from around the world flit around a tropical garden. On a guided tour, families will learn about the four stages of the creature’s life cycle. Amazingly, the average life of a butterfly is two weeks, though some species live just a day or two and others can live for nine months. There are restaurants and supermarkets along Seven Mile Beach, plus an outdoor cafe at the Butterfly Farm.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
he Spanish christened this area Las Chorreras, referring to the gushing water of the falls. The British subsequently mistook the name for Ocho Rios — or eight rivers. Dunn’s River Falls, known as the Niagara of Jamaica, is a must-see landmark. Families link hands for the ascent up the majestic waterfall, which plunges some 600 feet over natural limestone terraces into the Caribbean Sea. Water shoes are highly recommended for better traction on the slippery rocks (you can rent them on site). If you want to experience the falls without braving the climb, you can walk along an adjoining path and enter the cool plunge pools at various points. It’s a good idea to sandwich young children between two adults. In case they do lose their footing, you’ll be there to catch them. Some young children may simply find the climb too steep and slippery.
A scenic bus ride takes families along the coast where you saddle up for a horseback ride to the beach. That’s where the real fun starts. Your guides unsaddle the horses and you get to ride your loyal steed bareback through the warm Caribbean Sea. Suitable for all levels, from beginners to advanced riders. Wear your swimsuit under your clothes. Maximum weight ranges between 220 to 240 pounds. Some lines have a minimum age requirement of 6 years.
Montego Bay, Jamaica
You and your family will feel like Tarzan or Jane (albeit with helmets and harnesses) as you soar and glide though a dense tropical rain forest at speeds up to 35 miles per hour. If you dare to look down, the exhilarating views will include rain forest, lagoons, Great River springs and a 150-year-old dam. Minimum age is 10; weight limit is 260 pounds. Not suitable for women who are pregnant. Participants need to be able to climb a 20-foot ladder. Wear closed-toe shoes.
The fun starts with an open air jeep ride up a narrow mountain road with plenty of hairpin turns. Once you arrive at Whiter River, you will be assigned a tube. This is mainly a leisurely float down a scenic river in large inner tubes interrupted by brief sections of rapids that kids will absolutely love. Local guides are there to see that no one gets into trouble and to sing reggae tunes really loud. We sang along, laughing all the way. Bring along a change of clothes and a towel.
Roatan, largest of the Bay Islands about 30 miles north of Honduras, is part of the world’s second largest barrier reef system. Many of its bays and beaches remain unspoiled and pristine. For families, West Bay Beach near the island’s northern tip is an especially good spot with water that’s clear, warm (80 to 84 degrees) and shallow (about five feet deep) just teeming with coral and colorful fish. Snorkeling gear is available through tour operators. Stay clear of catamaran snorkeling trips that serve alcohol. Unfortunately, some participants overindulge and can spoil your family’s fun experience.
Roatan is a melting pot that includes Spanish, British, Paya Indian and African residents — descendants of Black Caribs who were stranded on the island by the British in the late 18th century after they sided with the French over St. Vincent. Punta Gorda is a Garifuna community at the east end of Roatan. There, visitors will experience the rhythmic music of the Garifuna, which is centered on hardwood drums as well as traditional dances and colorful costumes. Locals use a mud stove to make cassava bread and demonstrate basket weaving and wood carving. A motorized dory ferries you through a canal covered by a canopy of red mangroves.