It wasn't that long ago that cruises to the Mexican Riviera were fairly rare, serving as interim itineraries between the Alaska season and the Caribbean season.
But when the “homeporting” movement (positioning ships in ports throughout the United States and Canada so vacationers could drive, rather than fly, to their ships) caught on in early 2002, this balmy slice of the Pacific was a natural. With ships leaving from San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, those who lived in the west had an option for a tropical cruise that didn't require flying to Miami or going to the Caribbean.
A funny thing happened, though, between then and now: cruise travelers fell in love with the region and told their friends. Cruise lines added ships and reworked itineraries. Sleepy little Mexican ports expanded their piers and infrastructure to accommodate more visitors. There are likely to be as many people from the east on a Mexican Riviera cruise as there are from the west these days.
And, as these cruises have gained in popularity, even more changes were inevitable. The original, generic itineraries were known as “the classic seven,” week-long cruises that included the ports of Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan, all of which had ample port facilities to accommodate the older, smaller ships that were originally deployed to the region. As these ships filled, the cruise lines added newer, faster, larger vessels to satisfy the growing demand, and started adding different ports and longer itineraries.
With just one day added to the itinerary on one of the newer ships out of Los Angeles or San Diego, the “classic seven” becomes the “classic eight,” and includes the glitzy resort city of Acapulco and the sleepy fishing village of Zihuatanejo. Manzanillo has been added as an interim stop as well, and more lines are discovering the advantages of cruising into the Sea of Cortès (on the other side of the Baja California peninsula) with the port cities of Loreto and La Paz.
So what's the draw?
Perhaps the biggest reason for the region's growth spurt is that it offers a fresh, new approach to a sub-tropical climate, close to home, that isn't the Caribbean. Travellers get the opportunity to experience new and exotic destinations that -so far, at least-have managed to avoid the overcrowding and North Americanization so prevalent in the islands these days. Unlike Mayan Mexico (Cozumel, Cancun, Merida and Playa del Carmen), Pacific Mexico is more colonial, wilder, more... pure. You won't find a KFC or McDonald's in Loreto or Zihuatanejo (although there are plenty in Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta).
But consider: your kids can help save the sea turtle population from extinction, by helping to build and maintain the repositories for turtle eggs near Manzanillo.
Coming home with a photo of yourself standing next to the seven-foot marlin you caught just off the shores of Zihuatanejo means bragging rights that will last a lifetime.
From the end of November to the end of March, the entire stretch of ocean between Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta's Bay of Banderas becomes a giant whale nursery as the behemoths migrate south to give birth. There are whale-watching excursions you can take, of course, but you can also experience the cavorting, breaching and blow spouts right from the decks of your ship if you're vigilant.
The jungle behind Puerto Vallarta offers some of the most extreme rain forest canopy zip-line tours in the world, and the sea... exquisite snorkeling.
Sea kayaking, horseback riding and even golf is available in almost all destinations.
Whatever your reason for sailing the Mexican Riviera, you'll be a convert, a fan. You'll want to return, again and again.