Are Western Mexico's Cruise Ports as Bad as They Say? Not Really

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Fran Golden

Sailing out of California to Western Mexico -- on what is known in cruise line lingo as a "Mexican Riviera" itinerary -- is about fun-in-the-sun and beautiful natural scenery. It can also be about playing Tarzan.



I learned this on a shore excursion while attached to a harness on a zip line high above a subtropical rain forest in Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains, with not a care in the world except maybe when I looked down. The excursion from Puerto Vallarta also involved riding a mule and rappelling into a waterfall – think "Survivor" meets Mexico cruising.

Yes, there's more to Mexican Riviera cruises than pushy souvenir vendors and passengers drunk on tequila. These cruises afford a chance for a true escape.

Week-long Mexican Riviera cruises head into the Pacific from Los Angeles (San Pedro), Long Beach and San Diego and typically spend a day in three ports in Mexico: Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas. The rest of the cruise is spent luxuriating at sea, sometimes with views of the coastline as you pass by.

Puerto Vallarta

There's plenty in Puerto Vallarta for those seeking cheap thrills and otherwise. It's a major resort city with 25 miles of beaches, nearby mountains, street markets with haggling vendors and a fancy shopping mall (Prada anyone?) conveniently located right near the cruise ship pier.

Having already done the Tarzan thing, on another visit late last year I took off on my own and walked some of the main drag along the ocean, enjoying views of the sea and soaking in the sunshine. Okay, I stopped at the mall too.

Despite the near-daily reports of drug-related violence in Mexico, the only time I felt unsafe was crossing the street – the drivers here are insane.

My companion on the cruise came back a little tipsy from an excursion that combined history in Puerto Vallarta's Old Town, watching the area's "famous" cliff divers and a tequila tasting (she raved about the vanilla-flavored variety).

Mazatlan

In the port of Mazatlan, you can choose to go to the beach, but then you'd be missing a chance to get a glimpse at real Mexican culture.

Yes, Mazatlan has gotten some hits of late. In fact last month several cruise lines canceled port calls over fears of violence – after some robberies involving passengers and crew. Then all the lines, with the exception of Disney Cruise Line, decided to go back when local authorities promised beefed up security at the pier.

What I like best about Mazatlan is it feels like a city rather than another tourist Mecca. People really do their shopping at the large indoor market –where tourists can also snag bargains on sombreros. Outside the city's gold-colored cathedral, locals sit on benches and chat and have their shoes shined.

In the colorful Old Town are nice shops and galleries and a beautiful 1800s opera house. The Golden Zone is Mazatlan's beach strip, home to tourist-oriented shops like Diamonds International and chain restaurants.

Cabo San Lucas

Cabo, on the tip of Mexico's Baja Peninsula, recently turned into a place where celebrities like to be photographed. It's also famous for El Arco, a dramatic arched rock formation -- which you can view from your ship. If you're lucky you also might see the humpback whales that hang out in the Sea of Cortez in winter.

The other claim to fame is former Van Halen front-man Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo bar, where they start serving shots in the early a.m. -- or whenever the first cruise ship arrives. There's also a quaint Old Town area, but many people never see it.

When you leave the pier in Cabo, you are met by an onslaught of hawkers trying to sell tours – including sport-fishing and party cruises -- and pushy souvenir vendors. Remember the word "no" is the same in Spanish and English.

Cabo is a good place to sit on the beach – though not necessarily to swim, due to frequent rough tides.

My favorite beachfront hangout on the main Playa El Medano is called "The Office." I like it not only because you can enjoy a cold beer while watching people try parasailing and the like, but because you can ping the folks back home to let them know you're at "the office."

Mexico Riviera Travel Tips

The U.S. State Department warns due to incidents of drug-related violence across Mexico, it's not advisable to wander too far off the tourist path. On most cruises, you don't have much time to wander anyway, but common sense is advised.

Pick up souvenirs cheap, but if you buy silver make sure it has an official government mark, or it's probably not real silver.

If you want to do an excursion, you're better off booking through the cruise line. Yes, it's more expensive, but you get a vetted operator and a guarantee you'll get back to your ship before it sails.

Don't drink the water. Seriously, not everyone gets an upset stomach but unless you're in a fine restaurant with a filtered water system you're better off going with bottle water – and yes, ice cubes count as water.



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