Guide to Mexico Cruises

Ben Pastore
Liberty of the Sea Cruise Ship in Cozumel, Mexico
Cruise ship in Cozumel, Mexico

With expansive lengths of coastline, world-class diving and snorkeling, a rich culture and easily accessibility from both the Eastern and Western U.S., a Mexico cruise is a convenient way to visit this ancient land bordering both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Popular Mexico Cruise Itineraries

Your port of departure will have everything to do with which itinerary you choose. Naturally, to visit the Caribbean side requires leaving from ports in the southeastern U.S., from Texas on eastward. For the Pacific, figure on leaving from California. Knowing your options will allow you to best select a cruise that suits your interests and taste. A few popular options from each coast include:

Southeastern Departures

4-Night Cozumel

If your vacation time is small, but you like a ship that's big, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines regularly offers a 4-night itinerary leaving from Tampa, Florida and visiting the Caribbean island of Cozumel. You can go rock climbing or play mini-golf on your way there and back, and still have enough time and energy to see this popular cruise port that features opportunities to see the best of Mexican culture and marine beauty.

2-Night Ensenada

If four nights is too many to get away, Carnival Cruise Lines runs a 2-night itinerary out of Los Angeles, with the Baja California port of Ensenada as its only port of call. Sure, you'll only get a taste of the Mexican experience, but if all you've got is a weekend (or the time-equivalent thereof), a dash across the border makes for a pleasant diversion.

7-Night Yucatan Peninsula

For those who wish to visit the Caribbean side of Mexico, Norwegian Cruise Lines features a standard 7-night Western Caribbean Cruise, again out of Tampa, Florida. In addition to stops at Roatan, Honduras and Belize City, Belize, there are also visits to the Mexican island of Cozumel, as well as the Costa Maya - situated along the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula and a gateway to the relics of Mayan culture. This is a great option for lovers of culture and lovers of water sports. The only dilemma will be in deciding what to see first.

West Coast Departures

7-Night Mexican Riviera

Many cruise lines offer 7 night itineraries that visit the Mexican Riviera - located on the scenic Pacific Coast. Princess Cruise Lines has been running this trip for decades, featuring round trip sailings from Los Angeles that stop in Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán, and the beach town of Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Baja California. From the rock formations of Cabo to the upscale shops of Puerto Vallarta, the enduring popularity of this Pacific coast itinerary will be easy to understand.

11 or 13-Night Mexican Riviera

Zihuatanejo Bay with Cruise Ship
Cruise ship on Zihuatanejo Bay

If you'd like to see more of Mexico than the traditional itineraries already covered, several cruise lines offer select extended itineraries, such as Norwegian Cruise Lines' 11-night Mexican Riviera from San Diego, which in addition to the usual ports, also visits the cultural and natural gems of Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa and Acapulco. For even greater exploration, Carnival Cruise Lines runs a 13-night Mexican Riviera sailing that in addition to the above, also takes in the less-visited ports of Manzanillo and La Paz.

Planning a Southeastern Departure

Southeastern Ports

The lion's share of Mexico cruise itineraries depart from Florida, with Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Tampa seeing the most traffic. Leaving from Galveston (Houston) deposits you right into the Gulf just a few hours north of Mexican territorial waters and New Orleans isn't that far behind. Potential departure ports include:

  • Miami, Florida: The busiest cruise departure port in the world, Miami is the beginning of many Caribbean voyages that call on Cozumel or other Mexican ports. This is a popular base for Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and NCL ships.
  • Fort Lauderdale, Florida: Twenty-five miles north of Miami, Fort Lauderdale is the starting point for many itineraries with Mexico as a featured destination, and the port is conveniently located right near the airport, making for easy and quick transfers. Royal Caribbean, Princess and most mainstream cruise lines run sailings from here.
  • Port Canaveral, Florida: Further north along Florida's Atlantic coast than Ft. Lauderdale or Miami, this port has more limited options for passengers who wish to cruise to Mexico and other Western Caribbean ports. Carnival in particular runs a 7-night Western Caribbean cruise with two stops in Mexico out of Port Canaveral.
  • Tampa, Florida: Tucked away on Florida's western coast, Tampa is convenient for shorter itineraries that include Cozumel or other Mexican ports of call. Almost all major cruise lines have sailings out of here.
  • New Orleans, Louisiana: Situated inland from the Gulf of Mexico, many cruises departing from New Orleans call on Mexico. As an example, Norwegian (NCL) offers a 7-night itinerary that includes two stops on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
  • Galveston (Houston), Texas: A growing number of cruises depart from Galveston, many of which include Mexico on their itineraries. Both Princess and NCL have multiple sailings out of this bustling port.

Itinerary Options

Once you select your departure port, you'll have to choose your itinerary. Almost all departures from the southeast will include a stop in Cozumel - Mexico's cruise ship Mecca. Other options vary by itinerary and the time you have available at your disposal. An important note for those handling their own planning, cruises that include stops on Mexico's Caribbean coast will be labeled under the heading of 'Western Caribbean' cruises.

Carnival Conquest and Triumph cruise ships docked in Cozumel, Mexico.
Ships docked in Cozumel, Mexico
  • Cozumel: The most popular Mexican port of call in the Caribbean, this tiny island offers a wide range of shore excursions, including trips to the mainland, but has little in the way of native culture beyond the downtown shopping and dining district. For divers and snorkelers, the easily-accessible reefs and prolific marine life make this an underwater wonderland.
  • Costa Maya: Close to the Belize border on the Mexican mainland, highlights of Costa Maya include several stunning Mayan ruins, eco-tours, and cultural shows.
  • Playa del Carmen: Close to Cozumel, Playa del Carmen is more convenient to spectacular ruins than ships that dock at the island. Because of the proximity of the two ports, the shore excursions are similar, often identical.

Planning a West Coast Departure

West Coast Ports

California is the place to be - especially if you're looking for a cruise along Mexico's Pacific Coast. A Southern California port is better for shorter getaways while San Francisco is usually the starting point for itineraries lasting ten days or more.

  • San Diego, CA: This southern California departure port offers a wide range of Mexico cruise options, including popular Baja ports. NCL runs itineraries out of this strategic location.
  • Los Angeles, CA: The largest cruise port in California, many Mexican ports of call can be accessed from Los Angeles through a wide variety of cruise lengths. Princess and Carnival Cruise Lines are the dominant carriers.
  • San Francisco, CA: More convenient for northern California departures, many Mexico cruises begin in San Francisco, usually longer ones. As an example, Princess offers 10+ day itineraries to Mexico from here.

Itinerary Options

Once you've selected a California departure point, you'll need to select your itinerary. There are a number of options, though some places are only possible to visit on longer itineraries.

Cruise Ship Carnival Splendor Leaving Cabo San Lucas
Carnival Splendor in Cabo San Lucas
  • Acapulco: One of the most popular ports of call along the Mexican Riviera, Acapulco is home to several beautiful ruins as well as superb beaches, shopping, and other cultural attractions -- even cliff divers. If you're leaving from California, you'll likely need to search for itineraries of more than seven days.
  • Cabo San Lucas: At the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, Cabo San Lucas is a rowdy town known for plentiful bars and adventurous excursions, including fishing, whale watching, golfing, and more.
  • Mazatlán: Across the Sea of Cortez from Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán is less frenetic and offers more historical and cultural tours, along with golf excursions and exquisite beaches.
  • Puerto Vallarta: This high-profile destination was once the exclusive retreat of celebrities, but today offers golf, beaches, shopping, museums, and other attractions for cruise passengers.
  • Ensenada: The closest of all Mexican ports to the U.S., Ensenada is a popular getaway on short cruises out of Southern California with a wide array of activities for the visitor.

When to Travel

Cruises to Mexico operate year-round because of the country's exceptional climate and convenient location. Mexican ports of call along the Caribbean coast may be affected during hurricane season (June through November) though the majority of sailings go off without a hitch. Shorter cruises with stops in Mexico are becoming sought-after spring break getaways, making March or April voyages more boisterous and therefore less appealing to passengers who aren't there to party.

Making Your Decision

So which will it be - east, west or both? Cruising to Mexico is convenient, budget-friendly, and both naturally and culturally rewarding. Whether scuba diving off Cozumel's reefs, shopping in Puerto Vallarta, or exploring the ruins of the Mayans or Aztecs, finding a ship to take you there is not only easy, but a great way to visit the world-class destination that is Mexico.

Guide to Mexico Cruises