In the Western Caribbean, you’ll find plenty of what the Caribbean is famous for — Fabulous beaches, sunshine, and palm trees! — plus some special additions that the other two regions (the Eastern and Southern Caribbean routes) can’t claim: ancient history in the form of Mexico’s Mayan ruins, as well as the rich culture of Jamaica, where you’ll be seduced by the reggae beat, the local cuisine, and the distinctive patois.
Just five or six of the Caribbean’s thousands of islands are included on weeklong Western Caribbean itineraries: Jamaica and Mexico, plus Grand Cayman and, for a few cruise lines, private beach areas in Haiti (Royal Caribbean’s Labadee) and the Dominican Republic (namely the Casa de Campo resort in the La Romana province). Occasionally, Bohemian Key West is part of the itinerary as well.
Of the ports on this itinerary, Jamaica and Mexico tend to make the biggest impressions on visitors to the Western Caribbean. From the still- thriving cultural legacy of singer Bob Marley to the rugged natural beauty of its waterfalls, jungle rivers, and idyllic beaches, Jamaica has a personality that’s hard to forget. The island’s four cruise ports (Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, Falmouth, and the less-used Port Antonio) help keep crowding at bay and offer a great variety of things to do, from bobsledding and ziplining to river tubing, horseback riding, and rum tasting. A climb up and a slide down Dunn’s River Falls? It could qualify as a rite of passage.
Besides the spectacular Mayan ruins, the colors in Mexico are brighter, the people more passionate, and the food full of the flavors of chilies, cilantro, and lime. Outdoor markets are piled high with giant sombreros and blankets in bright hues, and festive bars blasting dance music dispense pitchers of margaritas and ice-cold beers.
What Grand Cayman lacks in culture and vitality, it makes up for with its world-famous diving and legendary Stingray City, where tour boats congregate and visitors snorkel among the tame, well-fed creatures.
When To Go
With temperatures consistently hovering in the balmy 80s Fahrenheit, you can cruise year-round in the Western Caribbean. The high season is January through April, as well as the holiday weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, and Easter, when folks up north want to flee the cold weather.
June 1 through November 30 is hurricane season in the Western and Eastern Caribbean, with September and October seeing the most storm activity. Don’t be too concerned: There’s a very good chance you won’t encounter any bad weather during these months as ships can change course to avoid storms.
The upside of cruising during hurricane season is price: Cruise in September, October, November, or early December, and you can count on paying less. On fall cruises, you’ll also run into fewer crowds and kids.
Mostly departing from the Florida ports of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, and Cape Canaveral, plus Galveston and Houston, Texas, and New Orleans, the average Western Caribbean cruise is seven nights long and sails round trip.
How To Get There
Here are the two most common itineraries:
Classic Western Caribbean: This seven-night route visits three or four ports: Jamaica (Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, or Falmouth); Grand Cayman; and Cozumel and Costa Maya in Mexico. Besides great beaches — and diving in Grand Cayman — the big draw is Mexico’s Mayan ruins and Jamaica’s natural bounty and sporty activities.
Good For: Foodies won’t want to miss sampling authentic Mexican tacos and burritos, and some of the country’s famous tequila. In Jamaica, definitely try the local rum (Appleton and Myers are good bets) and the spiced jerk chicken that seems to be grilling on every street corner. Beach lovers are in luck at all of these ports, and history buffs can travel from Cozumel to the ancient Mayan cites of Tulum and Chichen Itza on the mainland.
Downside: Ships anchor offshore Grand Cayman and shuttle passengers ashore in tender boats; if winds are strong and seas are choppy — which they often are — it’s not uncommon for the port of call to be canceled. If skies are clear, there can be more than 10,000 cruise passengers in port in Grand Cayman and Cozumel, making shops, streets, and bars jam-packed.
It’s also important to expect that vendors selling souvenirs and hawking hair-braiding services in Jamaica will be relentless; a firm “no thanks” usually does the trick.
Western Caribbean and Central America: This seven-night route begins and ends in Florida or Texas and visits three or four ports: Cozumel and Costa Maya (Mexico), Belize, and Honduras.
Good For: If you like Mayan ruins — you’ll find accessible historic spots in Belize as well as Mexico — and wildlife, then this itinerary works. Snorkel and dive off the coast of Belize, along a stunning coral reef that runs the entire length of the country. And in Honduras, you can also don a mask and fins, or visit farms and parks to see iguanas, monkeys, and parrots.
Like the cruise lines’ private islands, the port of Costa Maya was built for cruise passengers; what it lacks in authentic history or culture, it makes up for with a fun, resort-style village that features pools, water sports, shops, restaurants, and bars — including a Carlos’ n Charlie’s (naturally). Down the road, about a 30-minute walk, is the real town of Mahahual, home to beautiful white sand beaches. Excursions include tours of Mayan ruins in the area, though they’re not as impressive as what you can see from Cozumel.
Downside: There have been several incidents of cruise passengers being robbed at gunpoint in Honduras, and some lines have stopped visiting there. The U.S. State Department has issued a warning to U.S. visitors advising them to “exercise a high degree of caution.”