"Awesome!" a woman exclaimed as Jose, our zodiac driver/guide, shouted that there was a whale straight ahead.We were on a 15-passenger inflatable raft, zipping through the waters off Cabo San Lucas, one of the shore excursions we booked during our seven-day Mexican Riviera voyage aboard Princess Cruises' new 116,000-ton, 2,670-passenger Diamond Princess.
All 15 of us hung on tight as our driver zoomed toward the spouting whale. It had finished its dive when we arrived at the spot, but Jose pointed to the enormous "footprint" it left on the surface of the water. "It's a blue whale!" he said excitedly.
After we waited patiently for about 15 minutes, the whale surfaced again. Jose took us to a spot about 10 feet from the mottled, grayish-blue whale -– so close we could see clearly its huge, U-shaped mouth, the enormous length of its back and tiny dorsal fin. Jose estimated the magnificent creature, the largest animal on the planet, was a male, about 110 feet long and weighing about 190 tons.
As we waited for the whale to surface again, Jose told us blue whales can dive up to 490 feet, and that the dives usually last five to 20 minutes. He compared its length to that of a 737 jet. As it resurfaced, to our cries of "wow!" and screams of delight, it was easy to understand why legends of sea monsters arose in antiquity – its size was mind-boggling. We kept watching it for more than an hour, sometimes getting so close it sprayed our faces lightly as it dove. Then Jose spotted two more whales in the distance and zoomed over.
These were two humpback whales and as we approached, one of them -- which Jose estimated at 30 tons -- dived, showing us first its hump and small dorsal fin, then its magnificent fluke. As it finished its dive the whale flicked its great tail with the grace of a senorita flicking her fan --to a chorus of "oohs" and "aahs" from all onboard the zodiac.
Every year, from January to March, humpback, gray and blue whales frequent the waters around Cabo San Lucas. Not only were we there in March, but our Princess cruise ship offered this opportunity to see them up close and personal. In addition to the two humpbacks and the blue whale, we were joined by a trio of frolicking dolphins playing in our wake – it looked like they'd mistaken our zodiac for a sombrero and were getting ready to do a Mexican hat dance around it.
Other highlights of this two-and-a-half hour optional shore excursion ($64 for adults, $38 for children) included a close-up view of Los Arcos, the famous rock formations in Cabo San Lucas, where a sea lion colony was sunning itself; and gorgeous Lovers' Beach, accessible only by boat and so named because here the waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez join.
Other shore excursion options at Cabo San Lucas included a Baja ATV Adventure ($112), a Sea of Cortez Eco-Snorkel Excursion ($59 adults, $39 children) and a Mountain Bike Eco-Ride ($99).
On a previous cruise to the Mexican Riviera about 10 years ago this type of tour – active, intimate and exciting — was not available for purchase onboard ship. In fact, we had just about a dozen tours to pick from at our three ports, and they were mainly passive: city tours by bus, beach visits and folkloric shows.
We were thus very pleasantly surprised that the Mexican Riviera these days is much more than mariachis.
"They're not sleepy little villages any more," said Billy Hygate, cruise director aboard the Diamond Princess. "The Mexican Riviera is a world-class resort."
On board the Diamond Princess, we had a whopping 53 shore excursions to choose from in our three ports: Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas. In addition to city tours and folkloric shows, they included was everything under the sun: from snorkeling, scuba and kayaking tours to hiking, bird-watching, horseback-riding, ATV expeditions and mountain biking excursions. And to give us more of the flavor of the place, there were tours to visit huarache (sandals) and saddle factories, breweries and tequila factories.
"We like to give our guests options," said Chantelle Foran, Diamond Princess' shore excursions manager. "We have a wide variety – from tours for persons who have limited mobility all the way up to programs for the most active people."
Since there is such variety, Foran recommends that guests try different things - like snorkeling at one port, whale watching via zodiac at another, and biking or a jungle canopy tour at yet another — even if they have never tried those activities before.
"Sometimes people are timid and they think they cannot handle a program, but we know they can, as all our tours are soft adventure and our operators are professionals who are there to help any guest who is struggling," Foran said.
What's more, many of the programs are the stuff you actually want to write home about. In Puerto Vallarta, options include a Tropical Jungle Paradise tour ($49 adults, $39 children), exploring the same lush rainforest where the movie Predator with Arnold Schwarzenegger was filmed. A stop at a volcanic hot springs, where participants luxuriate in the warm waters after their hike, makes this tour even more exotic.
Those who want an even greater thrill can opt for the Jungle Canopy Adventure ($89 adults, $55 children), one of five new excursions Princess introduced this season; it takes participants to a private reserve in the Sierra Madre where guides teach them to use horizontal traverse cables to travel over the trees through jungle canyons. Romantics can opt for Puerto Vallarta Off The Beaten Track ($48) to visit Casa Kimberley, Richard Burton's and Elizabeth Taylor's love nest in Gringo Gulch. The house, where the couple lived while Burton filmed Night of the Iguana, has its original furniture, a bar that Burton irreverently fashioned out of an old church altar, movie posters, photographs and other memorabilia.
In Mazatlan, choices include Horseback-riding at Hacienda Las Moras, one of Mexico's premier haciendas ($79 adults, $51 children), an Estuaries & Bird-Watching Expedition to Stone Island ($79 adults, $59 children) to see such birds as blue herons, ospreys and pelicans; and a sport-fishing tournament to try your luck at angling for such trophy fish as marlin and sailfish ($139).
To make things easy, there are tour descriptions at the line's Web site, www.princess.com. Shore excursions could be pre-reserved right there, and the tour tickets were in our cabin when we checked in. With no excursion paperwork to fill out onboard, you have more time to sip a margarita and drink in the scenery of sapphire waters and quaint ports in big gulps!
Independents had it easy as well. The line furnishes port guides with information on the local transportation and other practical matters for each stop, and shore excursions office personnel answer questions and recommend beaches and shops. By going to www.PuertoVallarta.net, independent passengers can reserve tours and activities including ATV motorcycles for two people to explore the rain forest along the Sierra Madre ($84.50) plus hiking, horseback-riding, kayaking, snorkeling and other programs. For information on Mazatlan excursions, go to www.mazatlan.com and click on Coming-on-a-Cruise Tours for sport-fishing opportunities, a city tour, and a hiking and boat ride tour recommended for bird-watchers ($45 with lunch), among other programs.
Cabo San Lucas independents may check out www.visitcabo.com, the Cabo San Lucas Tourist Board's Web site, for information on the area. Another great site is www.loscabosguide.com, with information on sport-fishing and golf and links to Cabo San Lucas' golf courses for tee-time reservations, as well as links to tour services.
If you venture off independently, determine the cost of the tour or transportation before setting off and make sure the driver knows what time you need to be back on the ship. Advantages to taking ship's tours are that shore excursion staffers count returning buses, that the guides are English-speaking, and that the cruise line makes sure operators have proper insurance, Foran said.
Tips Foran offers to both ship's tour participants and independents include:
- Take a bottle of water from the ship (sold at the gangway). If you buy water ashore, make sure the bottle is sealed.
- Wear a hat, loose clothing, comfortable shoes and sunscreen, even if it is overcast, as the sun's rays are still strong.
- Take small bills for tips and purchases. Most stores in the Mexican Riviera accept U.S. dollars, but often the highest denomination they will accept is $20.
Whether you opt for the tours sold on board or venturing off independently, one thing is certain: You will find mucho to do, and mucho to remember, from a voyage in the Mexican Riviera.