One of the top questions for planning your next cruise to the Mexican Riviera is: When should I go? A quick online search will show that “during dry season from November to June” is the correct answer. BUT, is that the right answer for you? Let’s find out!
The Mexican Riviera, or the Pacific Ocean side of the country, is hundreds of miles long. Also, there are some 20 coastal cities located here – 10 of which are popular ports of call for cruise vacations.
These include (north to south): Ensenada, Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán, San Blas, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, Ixtapa, Acapulco, Puerto Escondido, Huatulco and Salina Cruz.
All of these locations, along with the larger questions of weather, culture, nature adventures and food, will determine the best time of year to take this cruise. In order to decide which of these ports and their accompanying attributes should be part of your itinerary, there are a few aspects to consider. Let’s explore!
Mexican Riviera Weather
The landscape of the Mexican Riviera varies widely from mountains, valleys and deserts to tropical ecosystems. This has an impact on the weather and could influence your decision based on what you would like to experience while in port – particularly for shore excursions and activities.
Starting in the northern part, Baja California, our first stop at Ensenada will have an average temperature of 70° during their driest months of June to September. They also have mild winters. Within the peninsula, you can even find mountains and valleys with snow and extremely arid desert areas.
Further down the Baja in Cabo San Lucas, you will find a tropical desert climate. Winds can cool the summer heat and because of its location, very little rain falls throughout the year.
Once your travel further south to the mainland, there will be a noticeable difference in weather – hot temps in summer and mild winters both have high humidity. However, there are measurable differences in the mean daily hours of sunshine depending on the port. Also, the tropical savanna climates found in this region are characterized by grasslands dotted with trees rather than lush jungles.
Depending on which main season you select for your travels – summer or winter, rainy or dry – be sure to pack accordingly. All your usual cruise attire will be perfect during summer and dry seasons.
However, you will want to have a light jacket and maybe a long sleeve shirt with some pants for the cool winter evenings. And, in the rainy season, you will be glad to have a rain jacket and/or small umbrella along for the trip.
As with the planning of any cruise, the “monster” weather consideration is hurricane season – or the annual tropical cyclone season of the Pacific Ocean. While the potential for dangerous storms exists all along the Mexican Riviera, the propensity of hurricane origins has largely happened only from Puerto Vallarta to the south in the past.
Staying up to date on weather forecasts (and taking some additional hurricane and travel insurance coverage policies) will help with planning and peace of mind.
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Festivals and Local Culture
Another reason to choose a particular time to cruise the Mexican Riviera is the culture. The port cities and the surrounding countrysides are rich with opportunities to explore what makes this area special – the people and their celebrations.
If you would like to be in the midst of the third largest extravaganza in the world, for example, plan to attend Carnival de Mazatlán during the six days prior to the religious day of Lent (March-April depending on the year).
Day and night the cities are filled with the sounds of brass bands and Tambora. Giant colorful figures lead the parade on the Malecón (waterfront esplanade); families gather to socialize in the streets; awards are given for art and literature; and, royalty is crowned.
To watch the Day of the Dead festivals, you will want to schedule a port of call at the end of October through the first couple of days in November. These elaborate events date back to some of the country’s earliest civilizations. Families plan for months to honor those who have gone before and celebrate the continuity of all lives.
Cinco de Mayo is also an important holiday filled with costumes, music, dancing, fireworks, parades and arts and crafts vendors on the streets. May 5th of each year is the date. Another day of celebration is Día De La Independencia. It happens every year on September 16th and commemorates the country’s independence from Spain. Enjoy traditional foods, watch fireworks and parades and marvel at all the green, white and red decorations.
For a more spiritual experience plan your cruise between March and April for Semana Santa – or Holy Week. Floats and reenactments along with flowers and palm crosses are everywhere during this celebration.
If Puerto Vallarta is one of the ports you would like to visit, consider the week before and leading up to December 12th for another religious celebration. The pilgrimage to the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe has deep importance and a 400-year history.
When planning your cruise dates, keep in mind that all of these festivals and celebrations are highly popular. They have important and even sacred meaning for locals while drawing large crowds of visitors at the same time. Therefore, booking early for a cruise during these times is recommended.
Time it for Wildlife
One unique opportunity that you have with a cruise vacation (rather than simply flying somewhere) is the chance to see all manner of animal species. The Mexican Riviera has an amazing array and number of options for wildlife watching. But, in order to have a terrific nature experience, you should coordinate the timing of your cruise.
For example, this area welcomes the gray whale back from its migration thousands of miles to the Arctic. To see these amazing animals, you’ll need to book an authorized tour during the peak months of January to March. There are also humpback whales and three species of dolphin in this area of the ocean. If you’d like to see (or swim with) the peaceful whale sharks, come between November and April for the largest concentrations.
To learn and volunteer with sea turtle conservation efforts (and watch the cute little hatchlings go out to sea), August to November is the time. Six of the seven species in the world call this area home. Near Puerto Vallarta, witness over 300 species of birds, including rare migrants in the spring and fall. You might even see some of the last Green Macaws on the planet. Specifically, a trip to the largest wetland waterway in the country, Teacapan Estuary awaits.
All of these experiences can be scheduled with local ecotour companies who offer authentic and environmentally responsible trips into nature.
The great news about trying to decide when to go on a Mexican Riviera cruise is that any and all activities you enjoy in the summer will still be available in the winter. The beaches are warm; the stores are open; the tours are going; and, you can even ride a camel on the beach in Cabo!
The Season Impacts Local Food
Restaurants and meals on your cruise will be exceptional. There are often multiple cuisine choices representing foods from around the world. Also, today’s cruise lines have chef-inspired as well as chef-executed gourmet quality creations on their vessels. For all my fellow foodies, however, eating onshore is one of the best perks of travel.
Timing is important in this aspect of planning the best cruise vacation. Why? Because arriving during certain seasons opens a whole world of culinary experiences!
Let’s begin with the best season to find the freshest farm-to-table dishes. This concept means that locally grown produce and livestock is brought fresh to the restaurants, prepared and brought to your table. The taste and nutritional value of these foods well exceeds anything that has been processed or frozen.
Let’s eat! Our first stop, “the Napa Valley of Mexico” – Ensenada. While you can take tours of this region year-round, plan a summer stop here to get up-close-and-personal with the vineyards. It is a heady experience to walk amongst the vines, heavy with fruit. The region produces 90% of the country’s wine, and vintner history dates back to the 16th Century.
Worth Reading: Highly-Rated Things to Do in Mazatlan, Mexico
During the summer months, local fare will be created with the familiar vegetables and fruits like corn, squash, potatoes, mango, papaya and, of course, peppers. While in a port of call, however, you might just find some amazing meals that include fresh nopal and prickly pear cacti, black sapote (sweet and creamy similar to pudding), jicama (apple-like, served with chili, salt, lime), pitaya (dragon fruit), tomatillo, passionfruit and more.
While in port, look for local vendors serving refreshing (and fresh) fruit drinks. And, be on the lookout for a special beverage called Jamaica. This is made from boiling hibiscus flowers (while producing from spring to late fall, the blooms are short-lived).
And, while on the Mexican Riviera, you can also enjoy sea-to-table foods. Every one of your ports of call have fleets of fishing vessels (largely individually owned by folks whose families have harvested seafood from these waters for millennia). Watching them come and go, bringing their fresh catches to market and to the local restaurants, is fascinating.
Just as there are seasons to harvest fresh food on the land, there are seasons for fishing the oceans. Some species can be caught year-round, and others are available only during a particular window of time. With that said, the year-round species have seasons considered high or ideal for fishing. For seafood lovers, this could affect menu choices and prices at restaurants.
For example, one of the dishes you must try is marlin ahumado (smoked) tacos – particularly in Cabo San Lucas. May to October are the best months for catching this fish.
A favorite shellfish are the almejas chocolates (clams). They are said to be more flavorful from September to April. And, when in the shrimp capital of Mazatlán, order aguachiles. They are raw, marinated in green chiles and lime and served with cucumber and onions – all the definitions of fresh! The month of May to the end of the year is said to be the best shrimping time.
In Porto Vallarta, find a local eatery tossing coals and grilling huachinango zarandeado. This is red snapper marinated in a paste of ginger, oregano, cumin and chiles. This particular fish species may have a regulated season of June to September.
Then, go in search of the local sandwich shop for the tortas ahogadas – or drowned sandwiches. These can be made with any number of ingredients. So, create your own flavors and smother it in tomato and pepper sauce – but, be sure to check the heat index of those chiles!
Finally, take this opportunity to see what an actual tamale, tostada, enchilada (and other dishes that come with a familiar name) taste like while you are in the Mexican Riviera.
The best tip that all foodies use to discover actual cuisine at any location is to ask a local where they like to eat. This will not necessarily be one of your tour guides or your ship’s personnel – although they may know excellent restaurants. The ideal person to ask would more likely be a shop owner, local guide or the nice person sitting near you in the park.
Which Cruise Lines Sail the Mexican Riviera?
One final note about the best time to plan your cruise to the Mexican Riviera.
All the major cruise lines have either multiple ships and or itineraries to choose from throughout the year. These include Carnival Cruise Lines, Celebrity Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean.
Also Read: Everything to Know About Cabo San Lucas Cruise Port
However, other lines have either a limited number of ships or only sail here during specific times of the year. These include Cunard, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, MSC Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Phoenix Reisen, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn Cruise Line, Silversea and Viking Ocean.