A Few Familiar Ports in Central America to Conclude Our Panama Canal Cruise

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The white sand beach and beautiful waters of the Costa Mayan shoreline, Mexico.

We are closing out our Panama Canal full transit cruise with several stops in Central America.  Because we have been to these ports before, we didn’t plan any excursions.  For the two days we were tendering to shore, we chose just to stay on the cruise ship. 

Photo ©Jean Janssen. One of the Azamara Onward’s tender boats.

There are a few reasons why the cruise line has to use the small tender (lifesaving) boats.  There are some destinations where they don’t have large docks constructed, other ports where it is not deep enough for a cruise ship to dock, and some harbors have coral reefs that don’t allow for the navigation of large ships.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Reloading a tender boat at the end of the tour day.

After leaving Costa Rica, our next port was Roatan, Honduras.  Our approach to this Honduran island was a little rough.  The seas have definitely been more turbulent since we reached the Atlantic side.  The wind was at 30-40 knots all day and the tender ride in was not comfortable.  Boris decided to do trivia and enjoy nap time.  I headed out to the pool.  Even though the boat itself was relatively stationary (thanks to the constant work of the crew), the wind across the deck made the time outside comfortable rather than oppressively hot.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Sometimes you have a few stowaways on board. Unfortunately, they made a mess. Fortunately, I wasn’t the one who had to clean it up.

Roatan’s economy was traditionally based on fishing.  Over time, scuba diving and tourism have taken over as primary revenue sources for the island.  The island boasts the world’s second largest barrier reef.  It is also set to explode with luxury dining and accommodations due to open this year.  /  Additionally, “About 20 miles off the coast of Roatán, the Cayos Cochinos archipelago, a marine preserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site, is also set to launch new upscale eco cabins this spring.”

Photo ©Jean Janssen. A Caribbean sunset.

Our next port was Belize.  As with Roatan, I can highly recommend Belize for scuba diving.  The country’s underwater topography is somewhat unique and it is a special Caribbean diving location.  However, the same reason that makes Belize an easy-access diving location, means it doesn’t accommodate the docking of cruise ships.  In an effort to protect the coral reefs near the harbor, our ship, and even our own tender boats, did not go in.  Rides in were on local tenders.  We also had to anchor far enough out that the rides in and out again were 20-25 minutes each way.  We opted out again and I headed back to the pool.  My tan was progressing nicely.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Our ship, the Azamara Onward, in the Caribbean Sea.

Until 1973, Belize was known as British Honduras.  It was the last British colony on the American mainland.   Since achieving independence, Belize has welcomed a large number of immigrants.  So many, that the composition of the country has changed from one of predominately people of African and British heritage to a population where half its people can trace their heritage to Mayan and Spanish roots.

The Blue Hole off the coast of Belize.

The country also considers the barrier reef its own.  Claiming the Belize Barrier Reef as the second largest in the world.  The famous Blue Hole offers and an outstanding and unique diving opportunity complete with the sharks the dive masters “recruit” with bloody chum. I had a fantastic dive there.  The region does experience a high level of violent crime (particularly around Belize City) resulting in both the United States Department of State and the Canadian government issuing travel warnings for Belize.

Boris and I had a wonderful dinner with Food & Beverage Manager Iwan Pennings from the Netherlands and Cruise Sales Manager and Loyalty Host Jennifer Vandewiele from Belgium.

Even staying on the ship, our days were not without special events.  Boris and I got invited to join two of the ship’s officers at the Captain’s table.  It was a nice opportunity to meet some fellow guests that we hadn’t come in contact with before and enjoy conversation with the head of the ship’s food and beverage department and the guest relations and future cruise manager.  I suspect the champagne we started with was chosen by our favorite sommelier who was serving the captain’s table that night because Boris and I had selected it a few times during the course of the trip.  Other nights they served a less exciting variety at that table.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. At the pier at Costa Maya, Mexico. Note the local down front who came out to greet us.

We stopped at two ports in Mexico.  The first was Costa Maya.  This is actually a “made-up” port (Boris’ term).  The area was largely undeveloped until a cruise port was built to provide access to the Mayan ruins at Chacchoben and Kohunlich which are less excavated sites than the more popular and better known ruins at Tulum and Chichen Itza.  Costa Maya is essentially a pick up point for cruise excursions with a large shopping mall.  The mall boasts pools, swim-up bars, and plenty of shopping.  If you don’t want to venture out on an excursion, we can always take a picture at the mall with one of the many Mayan pyramid facades behind you.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. If you don’t want to venture out to the actual Mayan ruins you can always grab a photo in front of several facades at the port mall at Costa Maya.

Nothing new for us here.  Living in Texas, we have easy access to Mexico and have been many times.  However in recent years, we have limited our travel to Mexico due to the high incidence of violent crime mostly related to drug cartel activity.  We did decide to get off the boat and check out the shopping center.  It was well done and some of the store owners were willing to bargain since it was a quiet day in port.  One of the shop owners told us the smaller ships tend to visit on different days than the large ships, the travelers on the smaller ships prefering to avoid crowds.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. One of the beach areas, complete with pool and swim up bar, at the port mall at Costa Maya.

Overall, prices were high.  Gone are the days of the great deals, especially in the cruise ports.  I was hoping to get a few inexpensive coverups and didn’t have much luck.  We saw the same things in all the Central American ports, often with the labels cut out.  I suspect they were removing the “Made in China” tags.  It was fun just get out and walk around in the fresh air.  The water and sand were absolutely gorgeous.  I would have loved a beach day away from the port, but Boris with his fair skin avoids the beach.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. At the port at Costa Maya. Note the carving of the pyramid in the upper right side of the rock.

Costa Maya night was our on-board White Night Party.  This Azamara staple is a deck party (levels 9 and 10) where all guests are invited to dinner and entertainment under the stars and encouraged to wear white.  I was lucky that when we were packing Boris reminded me about White Night.  There was a huge barbeque and buffet spread in The Patio area and the tables were outside on two decks.  We were fortunate; on the previous two sailings there had been rain on White Night. The staff make their appearance and parade at this event and it is the opportunity for the traditional cruise napkin waving.  I did spot our room steward Jane in the parade.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Our White Night Party onboard the Azamara Onward.

We were invited to join a family from Montana and enjoyed interesting conversation during dinner.  They had moved to Montana for a warmer climate.  Being from the southern United States, I always viewed Montana as a sparsely populated state with cattle ranches, big open spaces, clear skies, and very cold winters.  I couldn’t comprehend the concept of moving there for warmer weather until they told us that they moved to Montana from Alaska.  Ok, now I get it.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Toward the end of the White Night Party we were a little worse for the wear and some of the guests were starting to slow down, but these evenings are always fun.

After dinner, there were wonderful performances and activities hosted by the entertainment team, many of whom have fabulous voices.  There were lots of guests who enjoyed dancing on this cruise and I even got Boris to join me on the floor for a few dances at the end of the evening.  It was a gorgeous night on deck and we had a great time.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. At the Costa Mayan mall I spotted the tallest flamingos I had ever seen.

Our final port before reaching Miami was on Cozumel. Like Roatan, Cozumel is an island.  This time we are off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  I have been here countless times, mostly for scuba diving.  There is excellent drift (in current) diving and some of my favorite pass-throughs (breaks in the coral reef where you can swim through while surrounded by coral). There is nothing like the downtown plaza in San Miguel at night when the cruise ships are gone and all the locals are out.  It has a completely different flavor.  I usually dive during the day, avoiding the town center and the cruise ports, and then venture into the city in the evening. That is way I recommend visiting Cozumel.

The island of Cozumel, Mexico, a short ferry ride from Cancun on the Mexican mainland.

However, most people will visit Cozumel by cruise ship.  It is one of the most popular ports in the Caribbean.  We are at the downtown cruise port, a short hike from the center of the island’s only town, San Miguel.  The secondary terminal used by the really large ships is even farther, a good 20-30 minutes from the Plaza del Sol.  The original docks, right at the plaza, are only used by the ferries. 

The cruise ship terminals at Cozumel. In the distance (top of the photo), you see the city of San Miguel where Boris and I walked to. The smaller boat near the top of the photo is one of the ferries that dock directly across from the city’s main square, Plaza Del Sol.

It has been quite a while since I have been at this cruise terminal.  Unless you are on an excursion, you are no longer permitted to walk out at ground level, but rather you have to go up and cross the street by the sky bridge and then walk to the other end of the shopping mall across the street before you can even get to the street level.   The signage is poor and it is easy to make a wrong turn on your way out.  You won’t get lost, but it may increase your step count.

The main street in San Miguel, Cozumel is lined with shops, bar, pharmacies, and restaurants geared to the tourists. In the center of the photo is the clock tower on Plaza del Sol.

Boris and I wanted to go to the traditional market at the plaza and then have a Mexican lunch at one of two of the places I know in town.  The main street that runs along the water front is simply a series of tourist shops, pharmacies, bars, and restaurants.  When we made it to the main square, Plaza del Sol, I was sorry to see that the center bandstand/gazebo was no longer there.  I wasn’t sure if this traditional town square feature was lost in a hurricane or the desire for more open space.

The shops in the flea market/mercado just off the Plaza del Solo are now enclosed, air conditioned, and not surprisingly more expensive.

We went to the market and I was shocked to see the stalls were now enclosed and air conditioned.  Most were closed because it was Sunday morning.  The street behind the mercado, once just an afterthought for tourists and a great place to get a fabulous cheap dinner, was now more developed and had a bit more of the open-air shop feel.  I could see that my hope for some cheap souvenirs was in vain.  Neither of us bought anything.  We decided to continue our walk along the waterfront to the end of the commercial buildings toward one of my favorite shops and restaurants.  Fingers crossed they were still there post COVID.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. My favorite store for quality souvenirs in Cozumel, Los Cinco Soles (The Five Suns).

I was happy to find Los Cinco Soles (The Five Suns) still thriving.  They also had an airport location, although I am not sure if it is still there.  They have wonderful handicrafts, Mexican vanilla, silver jewelry, and cool comfortable clothing.  I have gotten some wonderful and very colorful paper mache fruits and vegetables there that still decorate my kitchen.  Today I purchased some jewelry pieces and some beautiful tops (and scored a “free” bottle of vanilla).  Their prices are higher than most of the tourist stalls, but the offerings are authentic and of higher quality.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Pancho’s Backyard, San Miguel, Cozumel, Mexico

After our shopping it was time for Sunday brunch at Pancho’s Backyard, just behind the store.  Pancho’s has a lovely covered porch setting.  Winter meant it wasn’t too hot to eat at this entirely outdoor restaurant.  There were not many tourists here.  The restaurant was mostly full of Mexican families enjoying a fabulous meal and the live xylophone music (compliments of what appeared to be a father/son duo).  I can highly recommend their guacamole, maybe the best I have ever eaten.  I enjoyed my fresh strawberry margarita served in a fishbowl glass while Boris had a Mexican beer.  After our guacamole appetizer, we both had wonderful entrees.  The beef steak was fabulous.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. We enjoyed the live xylophone music at Pancho’s Backyard during our Sunday brunch.

Another nice place to eat, although off the main road, is Casa Mission Restaurant.  This was originally a colonial Spanish home with lovely gardens.  You eat on the covered patios among the foliage and parrots.  I haven’t been in several years, but it looks like the restaurant is still open based on my website research.  I have always had a wonderful meal there and love the setting.  There are multiple restaurants with the word mission in their name in Cozumel, so be selective.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Yum at Pancho’s Backyard.

After our fortifying lunch, we walked back to the ship noting that the walk seemed a lot shorter headed this direction.  I think we had just gotten a better perspective on the distance (or I was relaxed due to the tequila).  There was a lot more activity now that it was Sunday afternoon.  The bars were certainly more populated.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Get your photo with an actor in Mayan costume at the Costa Maya cruise port.

All of our Central American ports offered excursions to Mayan ruins.  Some we had seen and several were of of smaller significance.  At its height the Maya empire stretched from what is now southern Mexico through Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.  I really like Tulum, an easy trip from Cancun, but to see the very best, Boris and I recommend Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula.  Most visitors travel to and from Cancun to visit this archeological site deemed one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

El Castillo, Chichen Itza, Mexico

“One of the highlights of Chichen Itza is El Castillo, a mathematically and scientifically designed step pyramid that is the best manifestation of the Mayan’s understanding of astronomy. There are 365 steps (one for each day of the year), and twice a year on the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow appears on the pyramid that takes the shape of a serpent – a tribute to the most important Mayan god, Kukulcan, a feathered serpent.” https://www.planetware.com/mexico/best-mayan-ruins-in-mexico-mex-1-39.h

Aerial view of the Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza, Mexico

On this cruise, the excursion to Chichen Itza was offered from Cozumel which added 1.5-2 hours to the trip to the accommodate the ferry to and from the mainland from the island of Cozumel and the transfer to and from the buses.  The full excursion lasted 12 hours, most of that spent in travel.  Our neighbors, Diane and the Professor, went and loved it.  We saw them in the dining room that night and in spite of the long day, they wouldn’t have missed it.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. I got to the lounge early before the lecture and practiced taking a panoramic photographic with my IPhone.

Our last day, we packed early so we could enjoy the rest of the day. There was another brunch on board in the dining room. Our special interest lecturer did a presentation on the use of DNA recovered from genealogy web sites and how it is being used to solve old crimes. It was the first time he had done the presentation and I found it very interesting. I also got in some pool time. After dinner and the last production show, we put the last few things in the suitcases before they had to be out in the hallway by 11 pm.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. We were gone almost three weeks, so yes there is lots of luggage. Somehow I had to get all but the small olive green one home with me from the airport in Houston as Boris is headed straight to another flight when we land in Texas. I do like the AWAY bags. The handles all line up so I can transport two in each hand at the same time. I used to travel with a large rolling duffle, but they tended to roll over while I pulled them through the airport so these lightweight “hard-sided” suitcases on four wheels that can be rolled while standing up are now my bags of choice.

We docked in Miami and took a direct flight back to Houston. Boris had to go on to West Texas for a hearing so I am navigating getting home with most of the suitcases. It was a fabulous trip., perhaps our longest. It was certainly our longest cruise. I highly recommend travel on Azamara Cruises and full transit through the Panama Canal.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ending a trip is always hard, but I at least had this special guy to come home to. I had to take this picture of Peabody for Boris since he didn’t get to come straight home with me.

Looking forward to the next adventure–Natasha

About travelbynatasha

I am a retired attorney who loves to travel. Several years ago I began working on a Century Club membership achieved by traveling to 100 "foreign" countries. Today, at 49 years of age the count is at 82. Many were visited on land based trips. Some were cruise ports. Some were dive sites. Most have been fascinating.
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