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Cruising the Western Caribbean Aboard Holland America

Costa Maya is full of beachfront beauty and Mayan history. – Photo by Greg Aragon / Beacon Media News

By Greg Aragon

The Mayans lived in the area of Costa Maya between 200 B.C. and 900 A.D. During this period they traded goods, such as fabrics and jade, and built historic cities along the Mexican coast. Today the ruins of this fascinating ancient civilization remain scattered about the beautiful, ocean-front town.

Earlier this year, while cruising through the Western Caribbean, I got a chance to experience Costa Maya and see some of the ancient remains. The visit was the last port-of-call on a seven-day Holland America Cruise aboard the majestic Rotterdam ship.

Before getting to Costa Maya, the cruise stopped in Mahogany Bay, Roatan, Honduras. Roatan, about 40 miles off the coast of Honduras, is situated atop an ancient, exposed coral reef. As the Central American country’s largest island, it is also located near the second-largest barrier reef in the world, the Mesoamerican Reef.

Roatan’s unique and fragile ecosystem is a must see for nature-lovers who want to see amazing Honduran flora and fauna, as well as butterflies, hummingbirds and monkeys. And for beach aficionados, there is beautiful Mahogany Bay, which boasts 900 feet of white sand beach accessible via chairlift.

While in Roatan, I took a semi-submersible boat ride and explored West End Village. To get to the boat we drove about 30 minutes to a beautiful bay where we climbed aboard and grabbed a seat in an underwater observatory that showcased gorgeous coral formations, living reef, and colorful tropical fish. At West End village, we watched Garifuna Dancers perform their culturally important dance called the Punta. The Garifuna culture dates back to the early 1600s. We also shopped and had an authentic cup of Honduran coffee.

Before dropping anchor in Honduras we visited Santo Tomas De Castilla, Guatemala, a forgotten and authentic slice of Central America. A former Belgian colony (Belgium occupied Guatemala from the 1840s to 1854), the port now welcomes visitors seeking soft adventure. Activities include hikes to waterfalls, explorations of the surrounding rain forest, tropical bird–watching and treks around ancient Maya cities, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Santo Tomas De Castilla also features colonial buildings including a 16th-century Spanish fort, Castillo de San Felipe, as well as plenty of great handicrafts made by locals.

The first stop on the cruise was Key West, Fla. Here it is said the sun is brightest just before it sets into the Caribbean Sea. So each afternoon, impromptu gatherings form at various hot spots around the island to witness the phenomenon. One of the best places for the rituals is Mallory Square, where our ship anchored.

While in Key West, I shopped, swam on the beach and explored in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway on the southernmost island in the Florida Keys and the continental United States. I began on Duval Street, the island’s main drag. I soon found Hemingway’s old home which is now a museum. The 1851 residence still contains the writer’s original furniture and the numerous six-toed cats that roam the grounds are descendants of his original felines. A few blocks from here I found a giant, red, concrete buoy at the end of town that marks the Southernmost Point in the continental U.S. It is only 90 miles from Cuba.

The last port on the cruise was Costa Maya, where the Rotterdam cruised into the turquoise waters of the ancient Mexican village port at 8 a.m. I then went ashore beneath a line of swaying palms and found a modern tropical village with numerous shops, restaurants, bars and pools.

The welcome village was nice, but the real intrigue was to be found in the jungles inland where the Mayans left clues to their mysterious civilization. To find these clues I embarked on a guide-led excursion to the Chacchoben Mayan Ruins. Chacchoben, also known as “The Place of Red Corn,” is highlighted by ancient ruins and lost temples and other structures only recently partially uncovered in the rain forest.

During the adventure I climbed the Gran Basamento, where archaeologists found ceremonial offerings dating to around 1,000 B.C. Our guide explained about the wildlife and medicinal plants that are used by the modern-day descendants of the ancient Mayan people.

Holland America is currently sailing throughout the Caribbean and taking reservations. For more information on the Caribbean or other destinations, visit: or call (877) 932-4259.

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