New cruisers might argue that the entire Western Caribbean feels exotic -- and longtime travelers might suggest that no cruise port in such a touristed area of the world could possibly be dubbed mysterious or intriguing. Regardless of where you stand on that debate, the truth is when the cruise industry talks about the exotic part of the Western Caribbean, it means the eastern coast of Central American countries Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica -- set in contrast to the standard Western Caribbean destinations of Jamaica, Grand Cayman and eastern Mexico. Though the countries of Central America share many attributes, there are differences, and those differences can be handy to know when it comes to planning your cruise. For snorkelers, Belize tops the list; divers will also want to include port calls there, but Roatan and the other Bay Islands of Honduras are world-class dive sites as well. Belize, Honduras and Guatemala are ground zero for the ruins of Classic Mayan civilization, most notably Guatemala's Tikal and Honduras's Copan, though Tikal is also offered by some ships as a shore excursion from Belize City. Farther south, Nicaragua and Costa Rica are meccas for ecotourists seeking close encounters with rainforests, volcanoes, white water rivers and wildlife (monkeys and parrots and crocodiles -- oh my!) Read on to find out when to book a cruise to the ports of the Exotic Western, which lines you can take to get there, and where to go and what to know when you dock.
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What's so nice about cruise line private islands? For many, it's the beach bumming, swimming, eating (the food is brought from the ship) and perhaps having a massage from an open-air cabana. However, cruise lines have ramped up activities ashore with a solid variety of private island shore excursions and attractions -- from simple snorkeling and guided nature tours to superlatives like speeding down the tallest water slide in North America and swinging along the longest zipline above water. Even kids will bask in their glory with small water parks, pirate playgrounds and other mini-attractions. Still not sure what makes a private island different? The concept, which basically takes the onboard experience and brings it onto a small Bahamian island (in most cases) owned by the cruise line, is like being onboard -- and onshore -- at the same time. Some of the private islands' "shore excursions" are actually just equipment rentals, such as snorkel gear and boats, eliminating the hassle of arranging a tour group and rushing to complete it in a one- to two-hour time frame. While some private island excursions do offer guided tours (like kayaking), others package for-fee experiences like kayak rentals without a guide. Read on for the top things you can do during your visit to one of these cruise line private islands. (If you have questions about the shore excursions listed -- or additional offerings -- be sure to ask away on the Cruise Critics Message Boards' Private Islands Forum.
Mr. Sancho's is a popular beach complex a few miles outside the cruise port in Cozumel. It's a fairly large site, with multiple pools, a beach area with loungers, a water playground, a dining area, a spa and shops. It sells both all-inclusive options and a la carte, though the two areas are kept separate from another. Passes sell out on days with lots of ships, so if you're interested, you should book ahead.
Shopaholics of all types can have a field day shopping at the Cozumel cruise port and nearby San Miguel. If you'd like to pick up a branded souvenir, just stick to the two open-air shopping malls adjacent to Cozumel's three ports. You'll find Senor Frog's, Margaritaville and Pirana Joe stores selling all manner of branded merchandise, a Diamonds International and Colombian Emeralds and a number of stores selling overpriced trinkets and "authentic" Mexican goods. But what if you're after something a little more local and authentic -- handmade in Mexico, rather than China, for example? We recommend heading to the Mercado Municipal (Calle Dr. Adolfo Rosado Salas), about a 10-minute walk east of downtown San Miguel, the biggest town on the island. It's the best place to pick up local goods at significantly lower prices than you'd find in the main street Quinta Avenida, just off the town square. No matter which type of shopper you are, here are nine of the most popular souvenirs and our advice on what's worth buying when you go shopping in Cozumel. Editor's note: There are a few natural items that you do not want to buy in Mexico because they will be confiscated on your return to the United States (or possibly before that, upon your return to your ship). These include coral (particularly black coral, which is endangered), turtle shells and any marine life, such as pufferfish and starfish.
Stunning sunsets, lush landscapes and welcoming locals are all well and good, but if you're like most cruisers to the Caribbean, what you find most appealing about the region is its beaches. We can relate: the sail-away party has barely heated up before we start fantasizing about winding down on
If you're cruising the Western Caribbean and you're also a snorkeler or diver, you're in luck -- the region boasts some of the most diverse underwater marine environments in the Caribbean. Ports of call like Georgetown, Grand Cayman and Cozumel are minutes from some of the best sites for everyone from the novice snorkeler to the seasoned diver who's looking to add some street cred to his logbook.