Western Caribbean: Ports of Call
This is the last entry in this series. The first two covered the highlights before and after the cruise and the cruise ship experience itself. Finally, this one covers what we did on port days at Roatan, Harvest Caye, Costa Maya, and Cozumel.
The itinerary and cost are usually the two most important factors when we select a ship to sail on, specifically the days at sea to port days ratio, and the destinations. We had originally selected a sailing that included a stop in Belize (City), but when I found out NCL’s brand new private island was opening a couple weeks’ later, it seemed worthwhile to pay a little more to check it out. In the end, we still paid less because our cruise agent checked before our final payment, and the prices had gone down so she relayed the savings to us!My mom recalls this happening before and since we were very happy with our previous cruise agent, … Continue reading. Ironically enough, after reading post after post that warned visitors about going beyond the port gates at Belize City and thinking Harvest Caye was definitely a safer and more developed alternative, we actually enjoyed Harvest Caye the least. We probably would have enjoyed the adventure in Belize City, as authenticity and culture was lacking at Harvest Caye.
This was our second-favourite stop.
In Roatan, we booked a private tour in an AC passenger van with Victor Bodden tours, as we needed the flexibility with two young children who got hungry (and ate slowly) at regular mealtimes and napped in the afternoon. But, the original plan was to meet up with the lady from Familias Saludables to drop off a box of donated goods – since we were in the area, I had wanted to do something instead of just bask in cruise luxury. So, they were the perfect home for formula samples that I had and collected from freecycle, and since we missed Operation Christmas Child this year, it was nice to be able to pack a big box!). In my mind, I had thought that their organization was close to the port, so when I didn’t see the lady outside of the port gates, and their phone number wasn’t working, I was at a loss. Random tour operators hawking outside the gate would try to be helpful by calling the number, and asking me who I was looking for. Alarm bells went off when one of them, was like, “Oh! lady Valerie? Come here, I can show you to her building”. Yes, I admit, I started to follow him and left husband and daughter to wait but then politely thanked him when he pointed me to the building and turned around – because stranger danger. During this time, I find out that a member of the polizia tried to hawk a (pirated?) movie to j.w: “want a movie for five dollars?” Eventually, we went back inside the port and found the Victor Bodden kiosk.
Thankfully, the lady knew my itinerary and called them to say that she couldn’t make it, but I think forgot to tell them where to find their building. Victor had told her that we’d find them, so after going to a few spots (one being the address listed on their website and definitely not the first building that guy pointed to), our guide and driver finally found them with success! Turns out, their contact information is wrong on the website. The assistant told me that Valerie had a patient emergency and while I wished I could have stayed to chat a bit, the kids were in the car, so off we went on our tour.
Truth be told, I didn’t expect an independent tour English-speaking guide to jump in with our driver, as she spoke Spanish only. Reviews online suggested that the driver was the guide, so I felt pressured to up our tip, since Victor had advised me to give the tip to the guide, Gina (which he relayed to the guide when she asked him), as all the day’s fees would go to the driver. It was her second tour ever, so I’m not sure if that’s why we didn’t go to as many spots that I read about. When I asked her why only some tour operators were allowed to sell inside the port vs outside the port, she explained that the ones inside have some sort of arrangement (or license?); I forget the exact reason. They took us to a overlook to see a picturesque view, but it looked like every tour was there, and so were the vendors. By then, because of our later start in the morning, it was lunch so we asked her for a local restaurant recommendation. She suggested iguana. Sadly, it wasn’t quite the local restaurant we were expecting – we ate under zip lines and by caged monkeys and birds, and all the patrons were tourists. Surprisingly, the iguana stew (stewed in what tasted like coconut oil , served with beans and rice with plantain) was one of the highlights of the trip, despite it being a stop for tourists; it tastes like a cross between chicken and fish (bones), which when I think about it makes sense – tougher than fish, but boney because it’s a reptile. Later, the guide told us that men just go into the bush to hunt for them, and sites online suggest that they’re endangered because of this. j.w’s Google timeline tells me that we were at Jungle Top Adventures Zipline for our iguana meal – it all makes sense now – that’s why I remembered her saying something about “Randy’s restaurant” because one of the owner goes by that name.
After that, we made a quick stop at the cameo factory, because I was curious to see what it was about as it’s a cruise ship excursion stop and on the tour’s recommended list. One guy was in his shop etching designs onto a shell; the rest of it was just a retail shop. And there was no active tour, but as we were leaving, a bus pulled in and I overheard them say, “sit down and the presentation will start shortly”. Seemed like a typical Turkish rug+coffee, Chinese tea or jade, or Korean ginseng excursion stop.
We were then headed to a beach, but the kiddies fell asleep, so we opted to stop at the chocolate+coffee factory (Roatan Chocolate Factory) instead. Turns out, Roatan doesn’t have the best climate to grow coffee beans, so Honduras coffee is grown and roasted on the mainland. Again, there was no active tour or demonstrations, but I ended up buying a bag of coffee ($2 cheaper than at the port – we checked beforehand) and 5 bars of chocolate.
For whatever reason, the driver and guide wanted us to stop at West Bay beach where it’s $10 per adult which includes a beach chair, wi-fi and use of restrooms. We much preferred a local (free) beach, but after some prompting we were going to head that way. Thankfully, there was some shade at the side of the road right across the street from the chocolate shop at the West End, and j.w asked, “what about here? is it okay to pull over and park here?” So, we set up our beach tent under some palm trees (note: it gets quite warm because of the greenhouse effect) and Bean and j.w spent some time playing in the very calm water with maybe one or two others around and no solicitors; it was lovely.
We ended up back at the port an hour early, so we walked around and I took a chance and had a scoop of passion fruit gelato from a cart for $2US; it was refreshing. I’m kicking myself for not doing more research (I figured that’s what the guide is for) and asking for more photo stops, e.g. shipwreck or touch-and-go tour of the popular areas such as Sandy Bay, West Beach, Half Moon Bay, or at least tell me that’s where these are when we pass by them.
Harvest Caye, Belize
This was our least favourite stop.
I spent some time talking about Harvest Caye in my previous post, and all we did was spend some time at the kids’ splash pad area (despite knowing about recycled water) and used our $25 of our $50 free onboard credit to rent an open kayak to paddle around the lagoon. It was sunny and hot, and we actually managed to go around the lagoon in about 1/2 hour, with only j.w paddling (Bean sat in the middle, and I held the baby). Good thing we didn’t rent a $45 electric boat; although it had a canopy cover, we probably would’ve gone around in 10 minutes. Bean and j.w also went to play in the water on the beach, and I tried to take a seat on a beach chair, but I wasn’t thrilled with the number of wasp-bees around! No other place had that. We ended up going back on board to eat lunch as the restaurants there were not free.
Costa Maya, Mexico
Our favourite stop, which is telling because we got back on the ship with about 15 minutes to spare. Most of the day was spent relaxing under palm trees or in the water at beach in front of Tropicante at the Malecon in Mahahual – debated between this one or Blue Kay from reviews online. Anyway, Tropicante had the most excellent instructions on how to get there without falling into the trap of getting on a shuttle bus ($3 vs yellow cabs past the port gate for $2 per person). After stepping outside the port gates, it was very quiet in contrast, so you sort of wonder if you’re going to the right place. Thankfully, the yellow cabs were within a short walk, and they got you right to Tropicante. I was a bit hesitant about booking this place because of the taxi ride over and about not bringing the car seats, but even with one car seat, we didn’t belt our child in (gasp, I know!) and ended up holding them in our car ride over in a 16-passenger van (taller seat backs so I felt a little(?) bit better) but on our way back, it was just a Matrix. Steve, the owner, was right though – it’s slow, one-lane, short drive to and from the port. While not a good enough excuse, I’m thankful nothing devastating happened; thank God for his grace and protection!
We had reserved a few loungers under the shade, and while it was relatively quiet in the morning, more people came in the afternoon but not to the point where it felt crowded. The $6 guacamole was delicious without onions, and each $2 coconut was worth it (and cheapest around if you don’t count tip); for every order of coconut, they actually took a ladder to a tree and climbed it to chop down a coconut. Eventually, we discovered we could eat the flesh inside the coconut as well! mmmm. I think we ordered 3 or 4 coconuts, especially after Bean almost drank an entire one to herself. Service was excellent, although we seemed to have missed the owner; he introduced himself to those at tables, who also happened to be older (and caucasian). The ladies restroom was also very clean; I felt bad tracking sand and dirt on the floor! j.w and Bean spent time in the water; little guy and I spent some time there, but stuck around the loungers more. j.w ventured past the boundary to look for fish while snorkeling, on the advice of the staff – no wonder he mentioned something about hope he doesn’t die out there.
We both tried a massage – j.w got a lady from the restaurant next door (didn’t realize they’re affiliated with restaurants until afterwards), and she told us it was $15 for half hour, and $25 for an hour. j.w didn’t tip figuring it all goes to her pocket, but when I went with Tropicante’s massage service, it was $20 for half an hour and $30 for an hour, plus an additional tip. It was nice to feel the open-air warm breeze, with sounds of the beach but the massage was a relaxation one, that was nothing in comparison to a RMT, plus it was a bit awkward to be face down with your top off.
The shops along the Malecon (strip between the shops and the beach) all seem the same after a while: restaurants and souvenir shops. And, it got really hot under the sun when we weren’t next to the ocean or under shade, so we only walked a little bit after our time at Tropicante. On the way back, in the port village, we stopped to watch a demonstration where 4 men climbed a tall pole and spun to come down. j.w climbed a fake Myan ruin tower and ended up getting a great view around him.
Although we could’ve seen a Mayan ruin, I decided to use it as a walking around day, as the better ruins required you to take a ferry across and I didn’t know how the kids would be – flexibility was the key.
We walked a long way to the local farmer’s market, but was disappointed to find that the restaurants in there only accepted pesos and there wasn’t much in terms of shopping other than produce and raw fish and meat. Eventually, we just found a random Mexican place to eat lunch, but it was close to $30 US for a platter (and mosquito bites) that we shared and a glass of horchada ($8?); at least it tasted homemade. Cozumel was also where we were told that rebozos were sold in Mexico city and Yucatán, and not in these parts of Mexico. The best and most surprising find was the drinks at the Starbucks. WHO KNEW. I had avoided visits to chain restaurants, but we had gone in to look at the menu, and I had come across a Chocolate Mexicano. After conversion of 19 pesos to 1 American dollar, I ordered a tall, iced version; it was a delicious $3 spiced (but not spicy) chocolate drink that wasn’t too sweet even though I didn’t order it half sweet like most Starbucks drinks. So much so, that I came back for another cup – this time, I inquired about the price of a grande and venti, and after conversion, they came to the same price of $4! Yes, I got myself a venti. I debated between this and a mango passionfruit frappucino, but like the barista said, the frap is a sweet blended drink (ie. smoothie), so I don’t regret it, especially knowing that they didn’t sell the mix in a powder form (my mom inquired on my behalf when they went on the same cruise 2 weeks later). Actually, even the espresso based drinks come out to be cheaper than Canadian prices after conversion!
We originally had planned to stop at MEGA, the supermarket that you could see from the ship because we often find unique food items at local grocery stores. But after encountering the places that only took pesos, j.w decided he didn’t want to walk there only to find out they didn’t take US or credit card. Turns out, this port and supermarket is the crew’s choice to get off the ship for snacks and chocolate and yes, they do take American dollars! Too bad.
And this brings us to the end of another family trip, and first cruise and birthday for the little guy, and the end of three months of having j.w off on parental leave with us. Already looking forward to the vacation days he has to take before the end of next month. :)