A New Small-Ship Cruise from Mexico to Costa Rica Takes Passengers Far off the Beaten Cruise Path

A repositioning sailing offers improvised exploration of under-the-radar coastal towns and beaches and the chance to slow down while at sea.

Sunset over the ocean on Costa Rica's Playas del Coco

You’re not likely to see other cruise ships on Costa Rica’s relaxed Playas del Coco.

Photo by Candice Fulker/Unsplash

Imagine being the only ship anchored a mile off Playas del Coco in the Guanacaste region of northwest Costa Rica, then taking a Zodiac to shore to explore the funky beach town on foot or to catch a half-day river cruise through the nearby jungle to watch for monkeys, alligators, and other rain forest dwellers.

Or being the only noticeable tourists in La Paz on Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, biking the beachfront esplanade known as Malecon, and wandering through a street market of local, organic foods and handmade crafts and jewelry rather than block after block of souvenir and T-shirt shops that are commonplace in more heavily touristed cruise ports. All while never seeing another cruise ship—well, almost.

This past November, as my fellow passengers and I disembarked in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, from a two-week, small-ship cruise along the Pacific coast of Mexico and Costa Rica, we encountered only the second other cruise ship of the entire journey. (The first was the sole ship at dock in the normally busy port of Puerto Vallarta.) As we walked to the buses that would take us to the airport, I noticed many of the passengers getting off the Holland America Line ocean vessel, likely sailing one of the more common Costa Rica or Central America itineraries offered by larger ocean cruise lines, curiously eyeing our smaller expedition ship, Ocean Victory.

“Where did that ship come from?” one couple sidled up to ask me.

Not a surprising question. After all, this 186-passenger polar-class vessel was built to navigate rough, icy waters and is outfitted with a host of expedition extras not really needed or used in warm coastal cruising. I explained that the ship itself was making its way from summer in Alaska to the winter season in Antarctica.

With just 50 passengers and 77 crew on board, the October sailing was Ocean Victory’s inaugural repositioning cruise—a one-way, one-off sailing that ships make as they travel between two seasonal destinations. It was also a test-run of sorts by the ship’s operator, American Queen Voyages (AQV), to scout ports and activities for what will be twice-a-year, slightly off-season warm water cruises.

The lesser touristed the port calls, the better

View of hillside white homes and buildings along the water in Manzanillo, Mexico

On a repositioning cruise, finding hidden-gem coastal destinations like Manzanillo in Mexico

Photo by Sergio Ortiz/Unsplash

We started our cruise in San Diego, sailing two days to reach our first stop in Los Cabos. One of the most popular tourist destinations in Mexico, we all agreed it was not the best fit for Ocean Victory’s mission and customer base.

Instead, for future sailings, AQV executives said they hope to hit a smaller port between San Diego and Baja, then head into the Sea of Cortez, with possible stops for kayaking and other water-based activities in Loreto, on the eastern side of the Baja peninsula, or San Carlos, on the eastern coast of the Sea of Cortez.

As we sailed south from Los Cabos, the port calls became more appealing and (generally) less touristy: La Paz, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, Huatulco, and Puerto Chiapas in Mexico, followed by Playas del Coco and Puntarenas in Costa Rica. Although Puerto Vallarta is a massive cruise hub, our sailing was very early in the fall/winter season, hence the surprising lack of ships even there.

Each stop included both free and premium excursion options—premium choices (for which passengers pay extra) included swimming with sea lions in La Paz and salsa making and salsa dancing in Los Cabos. I’m not much for group tours, but there was plenty of beach and culture to explore independently as well.

In Manzanillo, while some visited a turtle sanctuary, my husband and I grabbed an authentic Mexican breakfast at a 60-year-old corner diner, bought fresh coconut water from a street vendor, and wandered the back streets to get a glimpse of local life on the central Mexican coast.

In Huatulco, we joined a mountain biking excursion that took us to an almost empty, pristine, white-sand beach before heading uphill to the area’s famed Tangolunda coastal overlook and then returning to explore the low-key resort town that attracts mostly Canadian travelers.

 The Mayan Palenque temple in Chiapas, Mexico.

Explore lesser known Mayan ruins, such as the Palenque temple in Chiapas, Mexico.

Photo by Danny van Dijk/Unsplash

And in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas, far off the country’s well-traveled path of luxury beach resorts, we strolled through an archaeological site of the Izapa Mayan ruins, participated in a Mayan cleansing ceremony, then visited a nearby village where locals greeted us in the town square with traditional dances and a demonstration of how they turn cacao beans into their own special chocolate.

Once we got to Costa Rica, our ship had gone fully remote, stopping at Playas del Coco, and areas with no proper port of any kind, requiring us to anchor a mile out and then make our way to shore on Zodiacs—a big advantage to sailing the region on an expedition ship that is equipped for these kinds of off-the-beaten-path explorations.

What it’s like sailing on the “Ocean Victory”

The <i>Ocean Victory</i> sailing by more rugged coast

The Ocean Victory typically sails more rugged terrain such as the Misty Fjords in Alaska.

Photo by Michel Verdure/American Queen Voyages

One of a new but fast-growing breed of small ships designed to explore glacial waters, Ocean Victory is a hybrid of sorts between adventure ship and luxury yacht.

On the outside, the ship is a state-of-the art expedition vessel, with X-Bow Infinity stabilization technology for smoother rides in rough seas. On the port and starboard sides of the ships, there are retractable, over-the-water observation decks that are opened up on sea days for better wildlife viewing.

Inside is pure comfort, with the feel and amenities of a contemporary boutique hotel.

Interior of a deluxe suite on American Queen Voyages' <i>Ocean Victory</i>.

Treat yourself to a deluxe suite on board American Queen Voyages’ Ocean Victory.

Photo by Michel Verdure/American Queen Voyages

The cabins are spacious—most have balconies and seating areas with a small couch and desk. Among three categories of suites, the largest feature a balcony running the full length of the sleeping and sitting areas, a walk-in closet, mini-bar, and a full-size couch and chairs in the adjacent private living area.

The public areas include a fitness center, an outdoor infinity-edge pool, two outdoor hot tubs, two dining areas (one has indoor and outdoor seating), three bars, two large lounge areas with floor-to-ceiling windows, and a lecture hall.

What the ship doesn’t have (a plus in my opinion) is an on-board casino, fancy shows, or shopping. Instead, sailing days and evenings are filled with more intimate options for passing the time: hands-on science demonstrations and lectures hosted by expedition leaders and naturalists, guest talks from experts on local culture and history, and impromptu games (more on said games below).

The crew seals the deal

Boarding the ship in San Diego, I was immediately reminded of one of the reasons I first fell in love with Ocean Victory during its inaugural Alaska sailing in May 2022: the crew and expedition team—most of whom remembered me, and many of whom even greeted me by name.

Unlike on most ships, where it’s frowned upon for crew to mingle with passengers, on the Ocean Victory the expedition team is encouraged to hang out with guests.

And besides offering their scientific insight and expertise over drinks and meals, the staff were always up for arranging alternative sea day and evening activities, like an afternoon corn hole tournament on the sun deck and a hilarious post-dinner game of Fish Bowl, which is a cross between charades and Taboo.

There’s also music every night in the lounge, where some guests danced and sang along with the entertainer and my husband, who happily joined in on the piano.

The bottom line . . .

The simple and relaxed atmosphere (there were no formal dress codes) was one of the things I enjoyed most about Ocean Victory. But small-ship cruises—and repositioning sailings in particular—aren’t for everyone, especially those looking for meticulously planned days, multiple dining venues, and elaborate shows.

And because the ship had a hard deadline for getting from its last Alaska sailing of the season to Ushuaia, Argentina, to begin the Antarctica season with the company that operates the ship in the winter, Albatros Expeditions, there were more sea days and often shorter port stops than one would expect on a traditional coastal-hugging ocean cruise.

That can be a plus or a minus. But for flexible, even traditionally cruise-averse travelers or digital nomads looking for a close-to-home, slow adventure with good Wi-Fi and ample downtime to relax and work, I’d argue it’s one of the biggest draws.

For more information about dates and pricing for upcoming repositioning cruises, contact American Queen Voyages.

Jeri Clausing is a New Mexico–based journalist who has covered travel and the business of travel for more than 15 years.
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