The Caribbean region is a world-renowned tropical paradise, evoking images of sandy beaches, waves lapping gently along the shore, seaside luxury resorts, and cruise ships pulling into port. Tourism has become crucial to the region’s economy, welcoming more than 25 million visitors annually. The tourism industry accounts for almost $50 billion in revenue each year and accounts for 14% of its total GDP and more than 11% of its jobs.
The vast majority of tourists pass through the islands on cruise ships; many cruise lines divide their itineraries into “Western Caribbean Cruises” and “Eastern Caribbean Cruises.” These divisions are largely informal and don’t reflect any official geopolitical or cultural distinctions between the two halves. Generally speaking, the “Western Caribbean” usually refers to islands south of Florida and west of the island of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), as well as portions of the Mexican and Central American coast (including Belize) that border the Caribbean Sea. This article will focus on the western region. For information about Eastern Caribbean travel destinations, please see Eastern Caribbean travel insurance .
The Cayman Islands lie due south of Cuba and consist of three islands: Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman. An autonomous British Overseas Territory, their total population was about 60,000 as of July 2018, and their capital city is George Town (located on Grand Cayman). The Cayman Islands have a reputation as one of the best diving spots in the world, featuring coral reefs that surround all three islands, shipwrecks, and crystal-clear water boasting a striking variety of marine life.
One of the most popular travel destinations in the Caribbean at large is Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman. The beach sprawls along the western end of the island and, though it’s home to many luxury resorts and hotels, its entire 6.3-mile stretch is open to the public. A few offshore reefs offer prime snorkeling opportunities. Another Grand Cayman favorite is Stingray City, a shallow-water snorkel and dive site allowing visitors to get up close and personal with stingrays. East End, away from the crowds of cruise-ship tourists, offers a slower, more relaxed vibe, providing snorkeling and diving sites, authentic island food, and secluded beaches.
George Town, with a population of about 30,000 as of 2010, is a popular tourist stop on many cruise itineraries. In addition to housing offices of the Caymanian government, its duty-free shops, restaurants, and cultural attractions offer the ideal tourist town experience. Be sure to stop by the sculpture gardens at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands, as well as the National Trust for the Cayman Islands Visitor Center, which displays exhibits about the island’s history.
Animal enthusiasts will love the Cayman Turtle Center, a research and breeding center housing green sea turtles and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. The Bloody Bay Marine Reserve off the coast of Little Cayman is known for its fishing and diving opportunities; the Southern Cross Club is a resort tailored to those two activities. Similarly, the Booby Pond Nature Reserve is a breeding colony for red-footed boobies and frigate birds.
If you’re visiting these destinations as part of a cruise, you should purchase Caribbean travel insurance. Cruise insurance features coverage options like emergency medical coverage, coverage of pre-existing conditions, the ability to make independent travel arrangements, and trip cancellation.
Jamaica lies southeast of the Cayman Islands. It’s a member of the Commonwealth realm, with the capital of Kingston and a population of 2.8 million as of July 2018. Known as the birthplace of reggae music, it also has a surprising ecological diversity, from beaches to mountains to coral reefs to rainforests.
The two most popular resort towns are Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. Montego Bay offers beaches (namely Doctor’s Cave Beach); historic attractions like Rose Hall, a restored plantation house; and tropical gardens. The biggest activities include diving and snorkeling, fishing, golfing, guided river tours on bamboo rafts, and ziplining. Make sure to check out Martha Brae river rafting, a relaxing 3-mile float through the scenic, almost jungle-like Jamaican countryside.
Ocho Rios, commonly called “Ochi,” is a bit calmer and more subdued than Montego. Another popular eco-tourism location, it’s one of the few destinations in the Caribbean whose claim to fame doesn’t involve beaches. Instead, its waterfalls, luxurious gardens, rainforest, caves, and winding rivers invite tourists to immerse themselves in nature. Dunn’s River Falls offer almost 600 feet of water pouring down smooth limestone into a pleasantly cool lagoon. Rainforest Adventures Mystic Mountain’s main attractions include a bobsled ride or zipline through a tropical rainforest. Dolphin Cove, as the name suggests, allows visitors to pet, hold, and feed dolphins, as well as snorkel with stingrays or explore in a glass-bottomed kayak. And the small village of Nine Mile, the birthplace and burial site of music legend Bob Marley, is a must-see for reggae fans.
Finally, Negril Beach is another contender for best beach in the Caribbean, dotted with luxury resorts, smaller boutique resorts, and groves of coconut trees. It stretches from Bloody Bay to Long Bay and is bordered by the Negril Cliffs to the south. The cliffs are another popular destination for scenic ocean views and activities like cliff jumping.
Roatan, Honduras, is the largest of the Bay Islands north of Honduras. It’s another well-known cruise ship port that, given the coral reefs surrounding its shores, appeals especially to divers and snorkelers. The beach to see is West Bay Beach, featuring clear water, palm trees, and a nearby collection of shops and restaurants. The cultural center of the island, Sandy Bay, offers attractions like the Roatan Institute of Marine Sciences, Roatan Museum, Carambola Gardens, the Blue Harbor Tropical Arboretum, and the Roatan Butterfly Garden.
No Western Caribbean cruise is complete without a stop or two in Mexico. Several popular destinations that lie along (or off) the Mexican coast of the Caribbean Sea are well worth the visit. These destinations include Cozumel, Costa Maya, and Progreso.
Cozumel is an island off the northeast coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. It’s one of the best-known vacation destinations in the country, famous for its snorkeling and diving opportunities, scenic beaches, and ancient Mayan heritage sites. One major dive site is Palancar Reef, located on the southwest side of the island and offering stunning views of marine life like angelfish, sharks, sunfish, and sea turtles, as well as a bronze statue of Christ about 50 feet under the surface. Other dive spots include the San Francisco, Paraiso, Columbia, and Maracaibo reefs. As far as beaches, most vacationers find they have their pick of the litter—from Playa San Juan and Playa Santa Pilar to Playa San Francisco and Playa Santa Rosa, there’s no shortage of sand and sun. San Gervasio, a Mayan temple built in 800 A.D., was once one of the most important religious destinations in the Mayan empire. Other Mayan ruins to explore include Santa Rita, Santa Pilar, and Castillo Real.
If diving or any other adventurous sports are on your travel itinerary, we’d recommend purchasing hazardous sports travel insurance. Most base insurance plans aren’t able to cover higher-risk activities like ziplining, cliff jumping, and scuba diving, but by purchasing this add-on plan, you’ll be able to protect yourself against any unexpected events, illnesses, or injuries.
Costa Maya, located on the Yucatan Peninsula about 130 miles south of Cozumel, is a cruise port that has gained popularity in recent years. Its most popular draws, again, are beaches and a collection of impressive Mayan ruins. Designed to resemble a tropical village, the port offers resorts, three saltwater pools, restaurants, bars, and shopping opportunities. The nearby fishing village of Mahahual offers white-sand beaches and shallow, warm, calm water thanks to a reef system about 100 yards offshore. Nearby Mayan ruins include Chacchoben, which houses pyramid structures for climbing and exploration, as well as Kohunlich and Dzibanche. The most famous beaches in Costa Maya include Los 40 Canons, Nohoch Kay, and Maya Chan, the last of which organizes child-friendly activities.
When you get to the port city of Progreso, on the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, you’ll disembark on the longest pier in the world, more than 4 miles long. Progreso is a newer cruise port destination but offers an authentic small-town Mexican experience unlike any other. From a milelong beachfront called the Malecon to a scenic lighthouse to a marketplace specializing in local crafts and Mayan artifacts, you’ll find plenty to keep you entertained but not too busy. Beyond Progreso lies the town of Merida, a bit bigger and bustling with colonial architecture, museums, zoos, and Yucatan’s government offices. The Mayan archaeological site of Dzibilchaltun is also well worth visiting, featuring more than 8,000 ancient structures including the Temple of the Seven Dolls. When you’re done exploring, feel free to cool off in the Xlacah cenote, a freshwater pool formed from an underground river.
Caribbean Hurricane Season
Be careful to plan your vacation around hurricane season, if at all possible. Hurricane season officially runs from June 1 to Nov. 30 of each year, although peak season for the Western Caribbean in particular lasts from mid-August to early November. We also recommend that you research your travel insurance policy’s coverage for hurricanes to stay informed about what scenarios are (and aren’t) covered, as well as which plan best fits your needs.
Western Caribbean Cuisine
Caribbean cuisine’s influence comes from a wide variety of cultures. Cayman Island cuisine includes Afro-Caribbean flavors like cassava, johnny cakes, plantains, meat pies, and curry. Jamaican cuisine fuses the tastes of Spain, Ireland, Great Britain, Africa, India, and China with that of the indigenous inhabitants co create dishes like curry goat, fried dumplings, and ackee and saltfish, the country’s national dish. Other popular options include jerk chicken, corned beef, curry chicken, and sides like cabbage, callaloo, rice and peas, and plantains.
Western Caribbean Travel Insurance
We highly suggest that part of your travel preparation include purchasing travel health insurance and travel insurance. Travel health insurance provides medical coverage while you’re abroad. Standard benefits include coverage of trip interruption, emergency medical evacuation / repatriation, return of mortal remains, and accidental death & dismemberment (AD&D). Travel insurance primarily provides coverage for prepaid, non-refundable expenses like emergency medical care, trip interruption, lost luggage, emergency cash transfers, rental car coverage, and flight accidents. Our licensed, experienced representatives will be happy to help you select the plan that best fits your needs.