Discover why a Western Caribbean cruise is a perfect choice for a first-time cruiser.
I was formerly an extremely reluctant cruiser.
Exploring our world from a luxurious floating hotel felt like it would provide a selective and sanitised view of the destinations visited. Every fibre of my former backpacker being screamed out in protest.
But there’s a lot to be said for having the ability to visit multiple destinations over a short period of time minus the need for frequent packing and unpacking. Exploration by day, you can then return to the comfort of your cabin and a slap-up meal.
The turning point for me was taking my first cruise to the Western Caribbean.
The Caribbean is a deservedly popular cruise destination. Its tropical climate and geography are seductive, and cruising is an easy way to explore different Caribbean islands in a short space of time.
However, as enticing as they are, there is more to the Caribbean than its islands.
Western Caribbean cruises can include ports along the coast of Central American countries, such as Mexico, Costa Rica and Colombia, giving you the opportunity to dip your toes into the balmy waters of this region with very little effort.
Discover what to expect on a cruise of the Western Caribbean, with these highlights from a cruise that I did on Celebrity’s Equinox from Fort Lauderdale.
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Planning Your Western Caribbean Cruise
To the first-timer, the options for cruising the Caribbean can be bewildering.
What are the best Western Caribbean ports? Which is the best itinerary? And should you opt for Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, NCL or one of the many other cruise operators out there?
This Fodor’s guide to the Caribbean ports of call was a Godsend, not only in planning this cruise but also in helping me decide what to do onshore. Highly recommended.
Western Caribbean Cruise Map
This 11-night cruise was scheduled to stop in six ports: Grand Cayman, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Belize and Mexico.
However, due to stormy weather, the ship was unable to put down anchor off the shore of Belize. Consequently, Belize is not included in this feature.
This proves that it is risky to choose your cruise based on a single must-see destination.
Western Caribbean Cruise Highlights
Swimming with stingrays in Grand Cayman
Grand Cayman, the largest and most populous of the Cayman Islands, was the first stop on this Western Caribbean cruise.
George Town, where ships drop anchor, is pleasant enough. However, the real attractions are to be found in the island’s pristine waters.
Stingray City, an area of shallow sandbars about half an hour’s boat ride off Grand Cayman’s north coast, is the Caribbean’s unofficial aquatic petting zoo. It is one of the few places in the world where you can safely swim with wild stingrays.
No one can accuse these stingrays of being shy.
Accustomed to being around people, these graceful and gentle creatures will welcome you to their home and will allow you to pet them and swim with them. They will gladly float around you, rub up against you and beg you for morsels of their favourite snack, squid.
Swimming with the stingrays was an incredible experience and worth every last penny.
The other cool thing about Grand Cayman is that you literally get to go to Hell. If that isn’t a super selfie opportunity, I don’t know what is!
Exploring colonial Cartagena, Colombia
What visions are conjured up when someone mentions Colombia to you?
Crime and cocaine? Or romantic images of conquistadors, pirates and missionaries travelling to the New World in search of material or spiritual riches?
What you get in Cartagena, is a charming, compact colonial old town. And not a drug baron to be seen.
I opted for a cruise ship excursion that focused on Cartagena’s 16th and 17th Century Old Town. It also included the city’s imposing fort (the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas), the largest and strongest fortress built by the Spanish in their colonies.
Transiting the Panama Canal
The next port of call was Colón, Panama’s second-largest city.
Colón itself has little to offer; the port is run-down and the city has a high crime rate. Most guidebooks advise giving the city a wide berth with one source going as far as to describe Colón as “a giant slum.”
However, the port of Colón marks the entrance to the Atlantic entrance of the Panama Canal.
Opened in 1914, the man-made Panama Canal joins the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Acknowledged to be one of the biggest and most challenging engineering projects ever undertaken, it has had a huge impact on shipping between the two oceans, avoiding the long and hazardous route around the tip of South America.
This is a very long and tiring day trip but totally worth it.
After a short bus ride from Colón, we entered Pedro Miguel Locks, the second of the two sets of locks on the Pacific side. From there we sailed across Miraflores Lake, a small artificial freshwater lake, separating Pedro Miguel Locks from Miraflores Locks, the third and last set of locks.
Greeted by the Bridge of the Americas, we arrived in the Pacific Ocean, with sweeping views across the Bay of Panama and Panama City’s modern skyline. Then it was back on a bus for the return journey to the Equinox.
Going wild in Costa Rica
Landing on Costa Rica’s shores in the early 16th Century, Christopher Columbus was none too impressed.
Expecting to find vast mineral wealth, he found none. However, Costa Rica’s riches lie in its abundant natural beauty crammed into a small space.
Visiting the country on a day trip from a cruise of the Western Caribbean is an easy way to sample its beauty.
From a Western Caribbean cruise, the best way to spend time in Costa Rica is to take an excursion to the Veragua Rain Forest and sail along the Tortuguero Canals.
The first stop was the Veragua Rain Forest which, as a 4,000-acre nature theme park, had the potential to be really tacky but was excellent. The experience was transformed by the enthusiastic and informative staff who guide you through a dazzling array of wildlife.
We were whisked by a gondola over the forest canopy down to the river below for a lunch stop. Then it was a spot of sloth watching on a cruise along the Tortuguero Canals.
Dodging the showers in Cozumel, Mexico
With its powder-soft white sand beaches fringed with coral reefs, Cozumel ticks many of the boxes for a Caribbean island. It surpasses the bigger and brasher Cancún, having more easily accessible Mayan ruins, more authentic Mexican cuisine and better snorkelling.
From the downtown pier in the centre of San Miguel, the island’s sole city, it’s an easy walk into town. Alternatively, catch one of the passenger ferries to Playa del Carmen, a 45-minute journey.
But if your time in port is short, explore San Miguel itself. Its main attractions – mostly restaurants and shops – are clustered around its main plaza.
To get to San Gervasio, Cozumel’s largest Mayan and Toltec site, your best bet is an excursion. If you’ve never seen a Mayan pyramid before, this is your chance.
When is the Best Time to Cruise to the Western Caribbean?
However, hurricanes can pose a serious threat from June to November. The hurricane season in the Western Caribbean peaks between mid-August and early November.
What Should You Pack For A Western Caribbean Cruise?
Don’t forget to pack your swimwear, sun protection and insect repellant.
Why You Should Choose a Western Caribbean Cruise
In my view, a Western Caribbean cruise is pretty much ideal, especially for the first-time solo cruiser.
In comparison to the Eastern Caribbean, cruises are shorter and less expensive. The ports of call have more of a cultural and historical focus and concentrate less on beaches and shopping.
It is also a relatively safe and easy way to experience Central America, especially as a solo traveller. This was the first cruise I took, on the advice of a friend who is a serial cruiser. I have never looked back.
READ THIS NEXT: 10 Awesome Reasons for Cruising Alone
How I Did a Western Caribbean Cruise
- I sailed with Celebrity Cruises onboard the Equinox. Highly recommended.
- In 2021, expect to pay from £1300 for a balcony cabin for a 7-night cruise, depending on the season. Double this if you are a solo traveller.
- The ship sailed in and out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
- Although there is a small airport in Fort Lauderdale, for international flights Miami is the bigger hub with more choice. It is easy to get by bus from Miami to Fort Lauderdale.