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Western Caribbean Cruise Tips: Ports, Attractions, Weather

Cruise ship
© Scott S. Bateman

A western Caribbean cruise is one of the simplest Caribbean cruises to plan and take.

It is simple because there are fewer major ports of call than eastern Caribbean cruises. Cruise planners don’t have to worry as much about which ports are the best ones to visit.

For some people, it also is less expensive if they are able to start their cruise from one of the convenient Gulf Coast ports of the United States.

Even better, the weather makes it easier for cruisers to decide when to go. The region has distinct dry and rainy seasons. Visits leap during the dry season and plunge in the rainy season.

5 Top Western Caribbean Cruise Tips

  1. Ports of call fall into three groups.
  2. Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Jamaica are the most popular islands.
  3. Stingray City and Dunn’s River Falls are among the most famous shore excursions.
  4. Seven Mile Beach at Grand Cayman is one of the most popular beaches.
  5. Cruise weather is best during the dry season from January through April.

Ports of Call

Anyone who is going on a western Caribbean cruise for the first time may find it helpful to divide the ports of call into three groups.

The first group consists of four islands that cruise ships visit often: Grand Cayman, Jamaica, Cozumel and Roatan.

Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Jamaica are among the most popular islands in the Caribbean, in part because of their size, location and unique attractions. Roatan off the coast of Honduras is smaller and offers fewer reasons to visit. But like the others, it has good beaches and other water activities. The snorkeling is especially good.

The second group of destinations is made up of ports on large Central America land masses rather than islands. They are Belize, Costa Rica and Panama. Unlike the islands, they are known for interior land activities and not for their beaches—if they have any beaches at all near their cruise ports.

The third group consists of two smaller ports that don’t fit easily into either of the above two groups. One is Mexico’s Costa Maya, a privately owned village that is designed for cruise visitors. The other is Santo Tomás de Castilla, which is mostly a commercial port on the coast of Guatemala. It receives only a handful of cruise ships each month.

Many western Caribbean cruises include destinations from both of the first two groups. Seven-day cruises mostly visit the first group and occasionally one or two destinations in the second group.

Attractions and Shore Excursions

Stingray City
Tip: Stingray City at Grand Cayman is one of the best western Caribbean shore excursions. Credit: Wikimedia public domain

The western Caribbean has several famous attractions that cost money to visit. In my opinion, they are memorable cruise excursions that are worth the cost, especially for families. They are:

  • Stingray City on Grand Cayman
  • Dunn’s River Falls in Jamaica
  • The Panama Canal in Panama
  • River tubing in Belize
  • Zip lining in Costa Rica rain forests

But of course the Caribbean also is famous for its white sand beaches. The islands in the western Caribbean are no exception.

Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman is one of the best-known beaches in the Caribbean.

Cozumel has many beaches that also have the benefit of good snorkeling because of the surrounding coral reefs.

Jamaica also is famous for its beaches, but Montego Bay is a better choice than Falmouth.

Roatan has a small but nice beach at the private Mahogany Bay cruise port, owned by Carnival Cruise Lines. Cruisers who visit the Coxen Hole cruise port usually have to take an excursion bus to the West End and other beach locations.

The Mexico and Central America ports usually offer excursions to major Mayan ruins.

Otherwise, all of the destinations except for Santo Tomás de Castilla cater heavily to tourists with plenty of shopping, restaurants and standard recreational activities.

Western Caribbean Cruise Weather

The western Caribbean has a dry season that begins in January and goes through April. March is espcially popular because of warmer weather and spring break from schools.

The rainy season begins in a small way in June, gets steadily worse with rain and goes until November. September and October are the worst times to take a western Caribbean cruise.

Some destinations such as Cozumel on average get as much as 10 inches of rain during those months. They get only one to two inches a month during the dry season.

The rainy season is part of the Caribbean hurricane season, which officially begins June 1 and ends Nov. 30. A tropical storm or hurricane rarely hits a western Caribbean port directly, but they do bring plenty of rain to the entire region.

For these reasons, cruise and resort visits skyrocket during the dry season of January through April. It’s also a popular time because northern visitors are escaping from cold winters.

May and December are transition months with modest amounts of rain.

Still, the higher risk of rain doesn’t stop cruise ships from visiting the western Caribbean during the rainy season. Families will visit the region during summer breaks from school. Budget-conscious cruisers will take advantage of discounts during the season if demand drops off.

Scott S. Bateman is a professional journalist who has traveled widely throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. He is the author of four books about cruising in the Caribbean, Alaska and Mexican Riviera.
December 27, 2023

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