Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Our Dream Honeymoon Cruise, Part 2

Well, I've reviewed the cruise aspect of our trip, so now it's time to delve into the ports and excursions that we experienced! I've visited many different islands in the Caribbean and I still think that the Western Caribbean is my favorite general area, but every port has its problems (or at least, most of them do) and this is my unbiased opinion of the four ports we visited (Cozumel, Belize City, Roatan and Costa Maya) and the excursions we took (which were all through Carnival Cruise Line...spare me the eye rolls, please).

Cozumel

As a port, I rate Cozumel 3/5. This may be partly because I've never had an absolutely amazing shore excursion here. Sure, Fat Tuesday's is quite the party, but other than that my time here has been average at best.
Xcaret--the beach/lagoon/swimming area
We did the Xcaret excursion through Carnival, which I also rate a 3/5. Xcaret is beautiful. It's clean. And I was really excited to experience the cenotes. But I was just a bit disappointed at how man-made everything was--they had some natural cenotes, but they had taken away from those by combining them with a man-made underground river...so you never knew what was real and what was fake. That's just...not really our thing.

After the cenote swim, we did find a lovely sandy area with a lot of hammocks strung between palm trees, where we dried off. After relaxing for a while, we were starving and decided to get some lunch. And here is my other "issue" with Xcaret--unless you want a $30-ish per person buffet (and buffets also aren't our thing) or a burger, there really aren't that many food options there! We finally found a restaurant that offered some fajitas and a few other things, and prices were average (for an appetizer, a fajita meal, a burger and fries, two bottled waters and a big fun pineapple drink with rum plus tip it was maybe $45?), but the food was just okay. I've had better fajitas at local Mexican places here at home. Sad.

Once we were finished with lunch, we spent the rest of our afternoon wandering around the park, mostly to see the animals. It's not really a "zoo" per se, but it was neat to get VERY close to both wildlife (tons of lizards especially) and some of the friendlier animals (we were literally a foot or less away from tapirs, baby deer, and parrots). Also really neat was that in the gift shop they had incubators hatching quail eggs...although to be completely honest I'm not sure how humane this was!

Lastly, our Xcaret excursion was that it was just a bit too long. The cenotes took an hour at most and we had over four hours in the park. Even with laying in the hammocks for a while, eating a sit down lunch and wandering around the park, we ended up with a good 45 minutes to kill and not much to do other than wander around the gift shop or go back out into the park to see things we'd, well, already seen. Personally I think this excursion could have been an hour shorter, which would have gotten us back to the Cozumel port in time for a bit of shopping rather than getting off the ferry and rushing right back onto the ship as the whistle was blowing.

Belize City

Belize as a whole rates a 4/5 on my scale! Again, a lot of this probably has to do with the tours I've taken, but it's been pretty rare that I've heard complaints about Belize from other travelers, period. What's not to love? The jungles are beautiful, the snorkeling and scuba diving are great, the people are friendly :o) I only wish that there was a little more to the port or to Belize City itself...I know that the tourism industry there really didn't get a kick in the butt until the last decade or so, but I feel as if there should be more than just a couple restaurants and those awful Diamonds International and other tourist trap stores at the port by now :-/

This time in Belize, I finally got to go cave tubing! We did the Carnival cave tubing excursion and give it a 5/5! I know that the Carnival excursion is more expensive than the do-it-yourself ones, and I've heard that those are "better", but our tour as a whole was great. Our guide, Saul, was extremely knowledgeable, pretty well-spoken, and a great guide on the river itself. And floating through those amazing caves was an experience I'm happy to have had!

Our bus ride was not quite an hour and a half. Once we arrived we were given time to rent lockers ($5) and change before being outfitted with the usual cave tubing gear--life vest (pfft), helmet with light, and tube. After this we hiked through the woods for about 30 minutes. I think they told us it would take longer, and we weren't wearing watches but it didn't even feel like a full 30 minutes, let alone 35-45 or whatever they told us. And other than having to wade across the river and walk up a flight of steps at the beginning, it was an easy hike. Of course...I'm 27 and very fit, so I may not be the best judge. Still, the path was pretty flat, worn, and clear...I wasn't uncomfortable, even with just wearing water shoes, a bikini with a tank top over it, and of course the life vest and helmet. Yes, carrying the tube got annoying...but never extremely uncomfortable. Our group of 8 consisted of mostly people 20+ years our seniors and none of them seemed bothered by the hike, either.


And in the end...it was so very worth it. This excursion was topped only by the one we did in Roatan, IMO. Saul continued to regale us with stories of Mayan culture, the area, the river, the caves themselves. The float was pretty tame...but the couple of times we hit little patches of "rapids" were definitely fun :o) And the caves and scenery were all beautiful.

It was a five minute walk back up to the locker/bathroom area. We dropped off our gear, got free samples of cashew, pineapple, and blush wine, and then purchased some yummy local taco-type things for a few bucks each to stave off hunger. As we were boarding the bus, they also gave us granola bars to munch on.

Roatan

I think this cruise cemented Roatan as my favorite Caribbean port so far. 5/5! Seriously though, the beaches, snorkeling, the island itself...they're just unmatchable in my opinion.

Our excursion today was "Clear Kayak, Snorkeling & Gumbalimba Park", again through Carnival, and I guess I'll rate this excursion a "mere" 4/5. My reasoning for this (because we really did love the excursion and the park) is as follows:

We met for this excursion in the Mahogany Bay shopping area just before 10 AM, and here comes the one complaint of the day--we must have sat there for 20 minutes or more before we were led to a bus. There was no communication as to what was going on or why we were waiting, and yes, I was impatient to get the day started!

After a 20-25 minute ride, we arrived at Gumbalimba. The park was spotlessly clean, but admittedly the beach/sunning area was small. (Not that it ever even got crowded while we were there) They had lockers available for free, but you had to pay $3 for the lock and key (man, they know how to get you!) After about 10-15 minutes of "free time" to use the restroom, change, get your locker situated, etc. we went kayaking. We did this (with guides) for about 30-45 minutes. The clear kayaks were actually a bit wider than regular kayaks, and to be honest I'm not sure if it was the fact that it was cloudy when we arrived or if the kayaks were scratched or if it was the material they were made out of, but there was really no seeing through the bottoms of them...which to me was the point of "clear kayaking", so I'm not sure if I would do this portion of the activities again. 

When kayaking was over, we returned our paddles, gathered up snorkel gear and were assigned to a guide. I was a bit surprised at this portion of the operation--(a) because they insisted we wear life vest and (b) because I've never had a completely guided snorkel "tour" before. To be completely honest, the life vest was an annoyance and burden and I think they should give you the choice of not wearing it and maybe just make you sign a waiver if you choose not to do so.

Having a guide had pros and cons to it. Pros: He pointed out fish to us and gave us their names; he kept us on track so that there was no looking up from the water and having a mini panic attack at the realization that you were half a mile or more from the beach and didn't know the best way to get back over the reef (which happened to me at Tabayana in 2005). Cons: The snorkeling portion of the day was very much timed and not long enough! And if you enjoy kind of "wandering" while snorkeling (as we do), obviously a guide does more harm than good.

The snorkeling was still some of the best I've experienced, but it also wasn't as great as that off Tabayana Beach in Roatan. There weren't the 50 (or more) foot cliffs of coral dropping into crystal clear waters with dozens of huge, colorful parrot fish swimming around.

The walk through Gumbalimba park passed a hummingbird area (they were buzzing *so* close to us--within inches of our heads!) and included a silly little touristy cave and a rope-type bridge that I seriously wish they'd warned me about (I'm not one for heights, especially ones with water underneath them i.e. any sort of bridge). We saw an area where there are usually plenty of lizards hanging around, but it was still cloudy and therefore most of the lizards were hiding. (We'd seen plenty of those at Xcaret, anyway) From there we visited some birds...lots of parrots and a couple other types of colorful local birds. They let us take pictures with the parrots with our own cameras...no forcing you to buy a $13 8x10 here!

And then, FINALLY, we headed to the monkey area, and the monkeys here were GREAT! They had one on a leash that they put in your arms...and man, they are not kidding about these little guys liking shiny things. I had a dull, light brownish bobby pin in my hair and it ended up in [I think his name was} Sopa's mouth! Even better was when we were standing off to the side, and lo and behold two more monkeys jumped down onto our heads/shoulders (and crawled all over us for quite some time) :o)

Once our allotted monkey time was up, we went back down toward the beach and meandered around the tables of wares for sale before grabbing a bus back to Mahogany Bay (which we had to wait about 10 minutes for). Once we arrived back at the port, we did some more shopping, but nothing available there was as nice or as well-priced as what the people at Gumbalimba had out.

Costa Maya

This was the only port I'd never been to for this cruise, but I think I'd rate Costa Maya a 4/5 and not mind a second trip there someday :o) The port area was beautiful. (a) we could dock, not tender (b) it was clean and obviously pretty new (c) there seemed to be some great shopping available (d) there was even a pool and beaches right nearby if you wanted to just relax right there!
On the steps of one of the three temples (or were there more?) at Chacchoben
However, we chose to do a Mayan Ruins excursion--Chacchoben to be exact--which I'll give a 3.5/5 or so.

Basically, Costa Maya day wasn't too early for us, but in hindsight we should have made it so. Basically, our tour (Chacchoben Mayan ruins) met at 9:30 AM and was supposed to be...I think four or four and a half hours long? We boarded the bus and it was a ride of about an hour and twenty minutes or so to the ruins, which by the way were great. These ruins were discovered more "recently" (in the 1970s to be exact) and haven't been re-built as much as some other ruins in Mexico. Our guide (I think his name was Venizio? I could be seriously wrong there, though) was very knowledgeable, though his accent was very heavy and you had to pay a lot of attention in order to understand him. He also kept us at the ruins a lot longer than I think we should have been there...a lot of standing in one spot and listening to him talk, so much so that we pretty much missed two of the three main/major pyramids at the site.

And of course, silly me had put off shopping for anyone until our last day. I figured, hey, we have a short day in Costa Maya, but our tour is only a few hours long. We'll have plenty of time!

That would be a resounding NO.

We overstayed our time at the ruins by close to an hour. When we arrived back at port it was 2:25 and we were technically supposed to be back on board by 2:30 (for I think a 3 PM departure). And darnit, we wanted tequila! We literally ran into the first Tequileria (sp?) we saw, grabbed two bottles that were quickly suggested to us by one of the employees, and hightailed it back to the ship. We boarded at about 2:45...oops.

I suppose other than hoping that someday Cozumel won't be one of those places that every.single.Western.Caribbean.cruise. stops at, the Western Caribbean was and is extremely pleasing and at the very least, I hope to return to Roatan again some day...maybe just to go there, rather than on a cruise ;o)

2 comments:

  1. My parents recently went on a carnival cruise in february, which took them through Belize. They said they were pretty much taken through a poverty stricken area & they didn't have much time to explore. Overall they said it was the least exciting port, & they were pretty shock at the area they went through. I wonder if their opinion would change if they would have had the chanced to do the cave thing you guys did.

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  2. Yeah, I can imagine people not caring for Belize if they didn't see much other than Belize City. The area is definitely very poverty stricken...but having seen similar or worse areas in most other cruise ports (Jamaica, St. Maarten, St. Lucia in the eastern/southern Caribbean and Roatan in the western Caribbean come to mind)...it's really something you have to take in stride. I don't find that Belize was any worse than the aforementioned places...

    That and it definitely depends on what you do for the day! I went to Belize on a cruise in 2005 and we just went snorkeling off a little caye--didn't go to the mainland at all--and it was beautiful and fun then as well :o)

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