Cruise Ships and Huatulco

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 11.27.17 AMBy Jan Chaiken and Marcia Chaiken

Most tourists who come to Huatulco arrive for a leisurely stay by air, car, or boat. But when a cruise ship docks in Santa Cruz harbor, Huatulco experiences a sudden influx of potentially thousands of tourists who may stay only a day or half a day, and all of them trying to abide by exactly the same schedule. We, and many of our friends who live here year round, had the impression that visitors who arrive on a cruise primarily were bused to the plaza in downtown Crucecita where they toured the church, saw the largest painting in Mexico of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the church ceiling, visited a store where they could taste and buy mezcal, spent an hour or so looking for bargains in the stores ringing the plaza and then returned to their cruise ship.

By interviewing tour guides, taxi cab drivers, staff in local branches of large tour agencies, and people who were returning to their ship, we learned that the city tour was just one of many activities experienced by the passengers in the few hours they are in port. Activities range from relaxing to highly energetic, from casual to tightly organized, from purely recreational to densely educational. To provide this array of activities, Huatulco professionals are involved in a fast-paced, tightly scheduled sequence of greetings, transportation, and activities. All of this requires planning months, or even years, in advance of the ship’s arrival.

When the pier in Santa Cruz harbor was built by Fonatur (the federal agency that promotes tourism in Mexico) Huatulco rapidly became a favored location for cruise ship lines that offer travel to this part of the world. Fonatur still manages the pier and the port administration in Santa Cruz and it sets the structure of the docking fees that ships pay for the privilege of disembarking passengers here. Other agencies that are involved with the arrival and departure of cruise ships are INM (the immigration agency) and the local naval base which provides security services by armed sailors in dress uniforms, mostly ceremonial but conveying a definite sense of safety.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 11.27.30 AMUp until 2011, 60 to 90 cruise ships visited the port of Santa Cruz in a year. Sometimes two cruise ships docked here on the same day, and occasionally you could witness two ships at the pier at the same time, an excellent opportunity for taking impressive photos of the harbor from one of the elevated viewing locations (miradores). This is no longer a likely experience. The influx of ships has gradually declined from year to year, to 31 in 2014 and only 25 scheduled in 2015. (The routes and schedules of cruise ships are fixed as much as two years in advance.) The cruise ship companies that we can expect to see here in 2015 are Holland America Line, Norwegian American Line, Oceania, Royal Caribbean, and Crystal. Royal Caribbean is making a return in 2015 after years of not planning stops at Huatulco.

Other cruise companies that have vanished from the Huatulco scene are Cunard, Azamara, Princess, Celebrity, and Silversea. Cruise ship operators, when deciding their ports of call, take docking fees into consideration; Huatulco has one of the highest fees in Mexico. The posted fees increase with the length of the ship, the number of passengers, the length of time docked, and the number of lines to be tied down to the pier. So it is economically understandable that many ships that used to dock early in the morning and leave at sunset now are in Huatulco port for four hours or now skip Huatulco entirely.

For the passengers, a typical itinerary begins in southern California, makes multiple stops in Mexico, and continues to Guatemala, through the Panama Canal, and on to an east coast destination (or the reverse cruise). When the pier in Santa Cruz first opened, Acapulco was a popular stopping point in Mexico, and Huatulco was a pleasant one-night cruise from there. While Huatulco is a remarkably safe location, cruise ship business here has suffered from concerns about security in Acapulco, as many companies dropped their Huatulco stop when they eliminated the Acapulco stop. Nearly every itinerary that includes Huatulco also stops at Puerto Chiapas, a one-day trip east of here, where accordingly the same drop in traffic has been experienced over the years. At almost every cruise ship company’s web site you will find prominent information on the home page discussing safety and security of their cruises, indicating the importance of this issue to potential customers.

The number of people on a cruise ship is hard to fathom. The land services for passengers must be prompt or else there will be hundreds or thousands of people milling around, not knowing what to do. The people providing services must be prompt not only to the scheduled disembarking time, but also the actual time. And at the end of their visit to Huatulco, passengers need to be back at the pier with plenty of time to spare, or some will become anxious about literally missing their boat. We spoke to Daniel Garcia Linares who handles arrangements for cruise ships at Bahias Plus, a large travel agency in Huatulco. This company’s offerings for cruise ship passengers are similar to what anyone would find on their website as available to groups of tourists, but the tours for cruise ship passengers are much briefer and more constrained in timing – no chance of them casually wandering off to a suddenly interesting sight. He said arrangements for the passengers begin a year or more in advance, with preparation of agreements or contracts with cruise line companies. About a week before arrival, passengers on board the ship will have selected the land activities they want, allowing the travel agencies to assign buses, vans, and tour guides to the passengers. Huatulco has tour guides who speak Spanish (of course), English, German, or French.

The activities available to passengers vary greatly from port to port, but even just in Huatulco a great variety is available. Some passengers choose to stay on board and enjoy our local weather and scenery. This is especially true for passengers with disabilities, who have all the accommodations and facilities they need on board. Others – especially those who visited Huatulco on previous cruises– just get off the ship and camp out at a nearby cafe that provides faster and less expensive WiFi or cell phone service than on board the ship. Others wander through the shops, restaurants and sights that are immediately next to the pier in Santa Cruz or sit under a palapa on Santa Cruz beach.   Since they have been warned by the cruise staff not to drink or eat anything in port, they are not likely to sample our delicious fresh fish, seafood or Oaxacan delicacies.

The more adventurous visitors immediately board full size buses or smaller vans as soon as they disembark and are taken on snorkeling tours, boat tours of the bays, land tours of beaches, or of the town (already mentioned), or of the miradores where they can take photos of their cruise ship. Several of the tours include information about the area, its history, customs, economy, agricultural products.   We heard a very favorable report from passengers about the tour to the eco-archeological park. They enjoyed learning about local flora and fauna as well as pre-Columbian life. Their only complaint was that the air conditioner in the museum was so noisy that they couldn’t hear the guide, while most of the signs were in Spanish so they couldn’t follow along by reading. But they raved about the view from the mirador in the park – who wouldn’t?

Aside from the travel agencies that offer cruise ship passengers essentially the same services that they provide the year round, some smaller agencies offer tours that are only available to cruise ship passengers. One is Turismo Náutico. We spoke to one of their guides, Lupe Becerra, who runs a fascinating tour for customers to learn about the local communities. Normally about 10 or 20 passengers will select an educational opportunity like this, which will require one or two vans and provides employment for the drivers, the tour guides, and the families that show and explain their daily life to the visitors. Her tour starts with the visitors being driven north of the city, to highway 200 in the direction of the airport, and turning into the hills at the road to Piedra de Moros.

Normally the first stop is at an iguanario, but the sequence of stops can vary. The family that owns the iguanas volunteers to welcome the tourists, but they do make money from tips. They speak English and explain the operations as well as answer questions. The wife makes limeade from the limes on a tree that grows right there on the property. At most stops, the tourists are offered something bottled to drink. At all stops there are good-quality restrooms built specifically for and reserved exclusively for use of the tourists, as well as a palapa to keep the visitors out of the sun.

The next stop is a traditional kitchen, where the tourists see corn tortillas being made and are offered tamales made with black beans and avocado leaves. The tour guides explain the process, and also the accompanying sauce (which is made milder for the tourists than for local residents).

At the next stop, the visitors experience the ornamental art of the Mixteca – making objects from the same kind of palm fronds as are seen everywhere on Palm Sunday. Visitors can observe the making of hats, placemats, baskets and ornaments. The intricate process of drying and dyeing the palms is explained, including sucking one special dye out of snails while leaving the snails alive to make more dye. One of the tour guides, usually looking somewhat uncomfortable, is gradually dressed by the family in traditional Mixteca garb. This is a good stop for buying local handiwork of artisans and for taking photos.

Finally, the tour stops at a cactus plantation, where the owner (with translation by the guide) explains the differences between wild cactus and those raised for consumption, the many different kinds of edible cactus, and the many health benefits of eating cactus. Of course, the tourists are offered samples to eat – a small taste of raw cactus, cactus that has been made into a salad, and scrambled eggs and cactus. Fortunately, after explaining the procedures taken to keep the food clean and sanitary, many of the people on tour ignore the misinformation about the danger of eating anything on land and enjoy the experience.

At all the stops, the visitors are encouraged to ask questions about the families and their customs, to wander about the house and to take photos. They are also encouraged to generously tip their host families.

Some of the top priorities of the Huatulco professional tourism staff are cruise ship passengers’ safety and peace of mind. They go out of their way to make each visitor feel welcome and pampered. And according to the passengers with whom we talked, they are accomplishing this mission. Even those who have not taken an organized tour comment on the peacefulness and cleanliness of our bahias and asked how they could return on their own. When told that there was a direct flight to Huatulco from Houston, some commented that they would definitely be back. Bienvenidos y buen viaje!