The entire western coast of Mexico, from the southern tip of California all the way down to the northern edge of Guatemala, is known as the Mexican Riviera. It's been a popular cruise-ship destination for decades, at least since the 1970s, when Captain Steubing, Isaac the bartender, and the rest of the Love Boat crew brought Pacific ports such as Puerto Vallarta into the homes of television viewers across the United States. Other popular western Mexico destinations whose names you might recognize in your cruise-ship brochure include Acapulco, Baja, and Cabo San Lucas—the last of the three having been immortalized in the Van Halen rock song Cabo Wabo. Whereas in some exotic destinations you have to worry about the condition of the available ships, you need not fret here on the Pacific side of Mexico. The market is well developed, if less crowded than the one on the country's eastern coast.
While most cruise ships focus on September through May as the best season to visit the Mexican Riviera, you're likely to experience good weather and temperatures around the 80-degree mark all year round. If you don't mind a little extra heat and humidity in the middle of the summer—say, with the thermometer up in the 90s—you might even be able to find a good off-season bargain on a few of the half-dozen cruise lines that have operations here. For a family bargain during the off season, this is as good a choice as any.
Your cruise to the Mexican Riviera is likely to start in California, and you can book everything from three-day trips to itineraries that are two weeks long. The length of your trip will, of course, determine how much of the coastline you get to experience, but possible ports of call in addition to those already mentioned include Mazatlan, Manzanillo, and Ixtapa.
JUST FOR PARENTS
If you're a fan of the rock band Van Halen and have an itinerary stop in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, be sure to visit lead singer Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo Cantina in the heart of the city's downtown. The “Red Rocker” plays a fair amount of shows there each year with his backup band, the Waboritas, and you can sing along while sipping his personal brand, Cabo Wabo Tequila.
Mazatlan is the largest port on the Mexican Riviera, and it offers everything you would expect to find by way of excursions in a warm, sunny, waterfront location—fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving, sunbathing, sailing, and even just wandering around the beach collecting shells, if that suits your fancy. If you want to get out of the sun during the hottest part of the day, Mazatlan also has a section dubbed “The Golden Zone” where you can shop for silver jewelry, belts, and other local crafts to take home as souvenirs. The shops won't all be air-conditioned, but they will offer a shaded respite from the heat.
If you have time to hop into an open-air taxicab, you can take a ride up the mountainsides and enjoy a broader view of the area from up on high—a jaunt that is especially worthwhile if photography is one of your hobbies. Other excursions in Mazatlan can include a round of golf at a championship course designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., or a visit to small villages where you might encounter a local baker and fresh bread from a brick oven.
The town of Manzanillo gets its name from trees of the same name that were a popular choice for shipbuilding many years ago. Today it is the busiest commercial port in the entire country, and it's a hot spot for fishermen who like to troll for wahoo, sailfish, sword-fish, marlin, mahi, and giant tuna. Most cruise ships offer excursions aboard fishing boats here, and you'll rarely find more catch during a day on the water in any other part of Mexico.
Some cruise ships offer an excursion for a round of golf at La Mantarraya Golf Course in Manzanillo. Don't be surprised if you hear about fungus overtaking many of the greens there. It happened in the mid-1990s, and by all reports the grounds crew has things well back in order—especially on the stunning island green at the eighteenth hole.
If you'd rather keep your feet on shore, Manzanillo has open-air markets called tianguis where you can often bargain for better prices on souvenirs than you'll find in the shops at other ports of call. Just remember that when you see dollar signs on items in these markets, they refer to pesos, not the U.S. dollar, which historically is worth far more than a single peso.
Ixtapa is just four miles north of Zihuatanejo on the Mexican Riviera. You may see the port of call listed as either name on your itinerary, but for the most part, you can enjoy similar excursions no matter which local dock your ship chooses as its port of call.
Ixtapa is much more commercialized than Zihuatanejo, with luxury resorts and gourmet restaurants that were built up as part of a successful government plan to lure tourists. The resorts themselves are so nice that you can actually tour them as an excursion with some cruise lines.
The beaches are beautiful in both places, but they are arguably a bit less crowded and hectic in Zihuatanejo, a traditional fishing village that offers an almost identical view of the sunset. If you want to see and be seen, Ixtapa is the place; if you're hoping for a little solitude, head to Zihuatanejo. The split is actually somewhat ideal for parents who want a quiet day at the beach while their teenagers want to strut around in the surf.
In Mexico, it is considered rude for a waiter to bring you a restaurant check before you've requested it. Unless you want to sit at your table until dawn, be sure to ask for your bill well before you need to get back to your ship for departure.
Plenty of restaurants and small eateries line the beach areas in both towns, so you need not worry about getting back to your ship for meals. As a precaution against Montezuma's revenge, stick to bottled water with whatever you order (not forgetting that ice is made with local water), and skip the homemade soups.