Over the last five years or so I have slowly come round to cruising. Initially, I was resistant to exploring our world from a floating hotel, however luxurious. This was on the grounds that 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 done during the 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 geographical add up to an attractive proposition. Moreover, 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.
To give you an idea of what to expect on a cruise of the Western Caribbean, here are my highlights from a cruise that I did on Celebrity’s Equinox from Fort Lauderdale.
Western Caribbean cruise itinerary
This 11-night cruise was scheduled to make six stops: 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. It proves that it is risky to choose your cruise based on a single must-see destination.
As I had travelled around Mexico extensively in the past, I did not do an awful lot on that stop. Also, the weather was not very kind to us on that day. Consequently, it does not feature as one of my highlights (but Mexico is a great country to visit!).
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. Although George Town, in whose harbour ships drop anchor, is pleasant enough, 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 pet 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 in sight.
I opted for a cruise ship excursion which 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 guidebook advise giving the city a wide berth and one source describes 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 on the biggest and most challenging engineering projects ever undertaken, it has had a huge impact on shipping between the two oceans, avoiding a 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 fresh water 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 a perfect 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 4,000-acre nature theme park, had the potential to be really tacky but was actually excellent. The experience was transformed by the enthusiastic, 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 cruise along the Tortuguero Canals.
Why I think that a Western Caribbean cruise is a great choice
In my view, a Western Caribbean cruise is pretty much ideal, especially for the first-time 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.
This was the first cruise I took, on the advice of a friend who is a serial cruiser. I have never looked back. Why not try it for yourself?