By Cynthia J. Drake | Published on December 18, 2021

Among the best vacation spots in the world, a coastal Mexican cruise offers an excellent way to unwind with beautiful powder beach siestas, laid-back nightlife, as well as unique cultural and historical sightseeing to fill your cruise itinerary. But which Mexico destination to choose? Mexico's geographical regions are diverse in their cuisine and cultures, and there are several differences between Yucatan and the Baja Peninsula to consider while choosing your next destination.

Let's take a look at your destination options, from West Coast Mexico (cruising the Mexican Riviera from Los Angeles to Ensenada, Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta) to East Coast Mexico (cruising from Florida or Texas to Cancun, Costa Maya and Cozumel).

Mexico's East Coast: Vacation Spots In The Yucatan Peninsula

Yucatan Peninsula is on Mexico's East Coast.
Yucatan Peninsula is on Mexico's East Coast.

Mexico's "East Coast" refers to the Yucatan Peninsula, or the Caribbean side of Mexico. Located due south of Louisiana and just west of Cuba, the Yucatan Peninsula curls around the Gulf of Mexico at the country's southernmost tip, usually accessible via cruise departures from Florida or Texas. These itineraries include the Mexican states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo and the famed cities (and popular cruise destinations) of Tulum, Playa del Carmen, Merida, and Cancun, plus the island of Cozumel.

Though all the Mexican coastal areas are rich with beautiful sun-drenched beaches where you can curl up with a freshly prepared margarita and a good beach read, you'd be remiss not to explore the cultural treasures of the Yucatan while on this side of Mexico — especially if you haven't done so before. For that reason, the vibe here feels slightly more adventurous and rugged than your typical Mexican vacation. Your curiosity will lead you to uncover some beautiful visual treasures around every corner. And there is always more to explore.

Visit the Mayan Chichen Itza Ruins in Yucatan, Mexico
Visit the Mayan Chichen Itza Ruins in Yucatan, Mexico

Explore The Ruins Of Chichén Itzá In The Yucatan

The Yucatan is where you'll find the breathtakingly preserved Mayan ruins (part of the Zona Maya, or Mayan Zone) towering high overhead — some of them emerging from thick rainforests and jungle-like terrain and others positioned near the sparkling blue Gulf of Mexico waters. You'll see temples, ball courts, and intricate stone carvings dating back to 1,000 B.C.

As on the Wonders of the World, the most famous of these Mayan ruins is Chichén Itzá, a 740-acre ancient historical site filled with awe-inspiring structures. Dozens of other Mayan ruins can be discovered in this area, including sites like Uxmal, Coba, Xel Ha, and Tulum.

Even the lesser-known ruins, such as Chacchoben located near the cruise port of Costa Maya, are well worth a day trip to explore. You'll be amazed at the level of access you have as you climb ancient steps and get up-close photographs of these beautiful structures. To make the most out of your shore excursion, be sure to book a guided tour where you can learn the history and see it come to life.

The eastern part of Mexico is also known for its cenotes (pronounced say-NO-tays), which are deep natural sinkholes that occurred millions of years ago when the earth's crust broke open to reveal groundwater. These cenotes also played an important role in Mayan civilization and religious ceremonies as a source of fresh water.

Scuba Diving the Cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico
Scuba Diving the Cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico
Cenotes are hugely Instagrammable, with their turquoise blue waters, rocky interior walls, and lush surrounding vegetation, and many offer swimming, snorkeling, and diving opportunities. As with the Mayan ruins, it's important to visit cenotes via guided tour so you can take precautions to maintain safety and ensure you are visiting these natural treasures with appropriate permission and permits.
Beach Shore Malecon, Yucatan, Mexico
Beach Shore Malecon, Yucatan, Mexico

Relax On Private Yucatan Beaches

The beaches (playas in Spanish) on the Yucatan Peninsula are bountiful. Most have private sun chairs and umbrellas (usually available for rent), as well as strategically placed bars and restaurants ideal for grabbing a midday snack or beverage while maximizing your time in the sun. Many offer additional amenities and attractions with the purchase of a day pass, which can be booked onboard as a shore excursion. Occasionally on public beaches, you might be visited by beach vendors selling tchotchkes, food, or other goods.

  • In Yucatan, head to Progreso Beach, located a short bus ride from the cruise port. You can also visit Sisal, a beach located near a small fishing village named for the sisal fiber that used to be a thriving industry for this part of the country, for a relaxing afternoon in the sun.

  • In Cancun, you'll have your choice of quintessential Mexican white sand beaches. Some have tourist beach clubs that offer add-on amenities like water attractions for an additional fee. Some of the top-rated Cancun beaches include: Playa Chac Mool, Playa Ballenas, Playacar Beach and Playa Delfines.

  • In Cozumel, note that the areas surrounding the beaches can be a bit rocky, and beach shoes are highly recommended. The snorkeling and diving are spectacular here for those who'd like to explore the beautiful underwater reef system. Public beaches near the port include Playa Corona, Playa Palancar, Playa Chen Rio, Playa Mia and Playa San Francisco (home of the popular Mr. Sanchos beach club).

Mayan cuisine tacos from Yucatan Mexico
Mayan cuisine tacos from Yucatan Mexico

Indulge In Iconic Mexico Dishes To The Yucatan

Though you'll find more seafood closer to the coastal areas, take a trip to some of the major Yucatan cities such as Merida to discover some iconic dishes. For example, cochinita pibil is a signature dish, made underground by slow-roasting a suckling pig wrapped in banana leaves.

To toast to your vacation, try a doble canala (michelada/bloody mary-style cocktail) in Ensenada. Elsewhere, try a paloma or — naturally — a classic margarita.

Other foods not to be missed include salbutes, which are crispy tortillas topped with meat, cheese, and veggies, sopa de lima, which is a soup made with chicken and a savory citrus stock, and sopes, which is a small, thick, fried masa base filled with beans and meat. For dessert, you can order a marquesita, a crepe-like treat filled with cheese and sweet fillings like chocolate or jam, from a vendor in Progreso or Merida.

Xtabentún (pronounced ish-ta-ben-TOON) is a locally produced, light yellow liqueur made from anise and honey produced by nectar from the local Xtabentún flower. It has a pleasant, lightly sweet licorice taste and makes for a unique gift to take home as a souvenir of your cruise.

Where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean in Baja, Mexico
Where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean in Baja, Mexico

Mexico's West Coast: Traveling To The Baja Peninsula

Among the differences between cruising around the Yucatan and the Baja Peninsula is the landscape. Known as the Mexican Riviera, there's a breezy sort of Mediterranean vibe on Mexico's West Coast, which snuggles the Gulf of California all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Cruises to this region typically leave from the Port of Long Beach in California and sail south to Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo (collectively, "Los Cabos" or "Cabo"), with varying stops along the way: Ensenada, Acapulco, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta are all typical ports of call.

These are some of the most beloved coastal Mexican destinations for cruise travelers thanks to the gorgeous, windswept ocean views, enchanting rugged coastlines, quaint cobblestone streets, fantastic dining experiences filled with fresh seafood and made-at-your-table salsas, and great shopping and cultural experiences.

Assortment of Souvenirs, Cozumel, Mexico
Assortment of Souvenirs, Cozumel, Mexico

Walk Around Local Shops Near Cabo San Lucas

Typical Mexican souvenirs are plentiful here, including tequila and Mexican vanilla. Handmade leather goods, including cowboy boots, jackets, and belts, can be purchased at great prices throughout all of these port cities.

In many places, like with the well-known vacation spot of Cabo San Lucas, you'll find open-air markets filled with artisan-made goods, including Talavera pottery and local artwork. For locals in Mexico bargaining is somewhat of an art form, take the time to brush up on your skills (and your most polite Spanish vocabulary) before you leave port.

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico Coastline
Houses along the coastline of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Experience The Baja Peninsula Beaches And Whale Watching

Here on the west of Mexico, it features rockier beaches and bigger waves in some parts than its eastern counterparts. There are still plenty of reasons to go visit the beach for a nice sway in a beachy hammock, a scenic sunset cruise, as well as a chance for taking a whale watching tour being that the Baja Peninsula is a migratory stop for humpback and gray whales.

  • In Mazatlán, you're likely to catch some waves — or at least watch surfers enjoying them — at Playa Bruja. Other area beaches include Playa Los Gaviotas, Playa Sabalo and Playa Olas Altas.

  • When in Puerto Vallarta, enjoy the calm waters at Playa las Gemelas or Playa de los Muertos.

  • Some beaches in Cabo are not safe for swimming — look for posted signage to ensure your safety. Some of the best-loved beaches include Medano Beach, Playa de los Amantes (or Lovers Beach) and Playa Chileno.

Sightseeing Historic Buildings in the Baja Peninsula, Mexico
Sightseeing Historic Buildings in the Baja Peninsula, Mexico

See The Sights In The Mexican Riviera Of West Mexico

A favorite thing to do when visiting towns in Mexico is to find their old historic city centers and take a stroll through the streets admiring historic churches and storefronts. Find a local mercado (market) and admire the array of fresh produce, meats, cheeses, and other goods for sale to get an authentic local experience.

Though you likely won't be able to take in all of the sights on a single Mexican Riviera cruise, here are some of the biggest sightseeing highlights of this region:

  • In Ensenada, visit La Bufadora (also known as a blowhole), one of the largest water geysers on the planet, and get drenched by the strong gush of water.

  • In Cabo, the Arco de Cabo San Lucas is a must-see tour. Take a small cruise out to this iconic rock arch for beautiful photos of this region.

  • When in Puerto Vallarta, go for a stroll down the Malecón waterfront, taking in the statues and sand sculptures, while making your way to the historic city center, filled with cobblestone streets leading to quaint shops.

  • Mazatlán (known as the shrimp capital of the world) boasts a beautiful waterfront and is also home to a booming artist community. The Monument to the Continuity of Life is an iconic art installation located on the Malecón, which features a display of dolphins leaping into the air.

Mexico Costa Maya Cooking Classes Couple Making Guacamole
Mexico Costa Maya Cooking Classes Couple Making Guacamole

Discover The Signature Foods Of The Baja Peninsula

A typical Western Mexico cruise travels through several diverse Mexican states, each with its own signature cuisines and dishes. Owing to the Baja Peninsula's coastal position, you'll find a variety of fresh seafood dishes throughout all of these areas of Mexico.

A selection of dishes awaits you, from shrimp tacos to ceviche to fried mojarra fish, along with tableside preparation of salsas and guacamoles to your taste and spice preference. In Ensenada, look for chocolate clams (the "chocolate" refers to the type of clam, not actual chocolate). Puerto Vallarta's claim to fame is the Piña Loca (crazy pineapple), a hulled fruit shell filled with fresh fruit, salt, chili, or chamoy.

To toast to your adventure toward finding the best vacation spots in Mexico, while in Ensenada, try a doble canala (michelada/bloody mary-style cocktail). Elsewhere, try a paloma or — naturally — a classic margarita.

Written By
Cynthia Drake

Cynthia J. Drake is an award-winning freelance writer in Austin, Texas, whose work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Wine Enthusiast, House Beautiful, Southern Living, Cruise Critic, AAA, Texas Monthly, and others. She specializes in writing about food, cruise travel, family travel, and off-the-beaten-path destinations.

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Mexico Cozumel Woman Snorkeling and Swimming
Mexico Cozumel Woman Snorkeling and Swimming

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