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I'll be taking a Panama Canal cruise with family with stops at:

  • Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
  • Huatulco, Mexico
  • Puerto Chiapas, Mexico
  • Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala
  • Fuerte Amador, Panama
  • Cartagena, Colombia

The cruise line has shore excursions available at each stop, but they seem ridiculously expensive for what they are offering. I'd assume you can take a few steps away from the ship and find similar trips offered by others that are much cheaper. I speak Spanish, have spent quite a bit of time in Nicaragua, and am comfortable traveling in new places. But I'm not familiar with any of these places specifically and don't know how safe or practical it would be to find third-party "excursions".

Which of these ports would be safe places to explore on your own or go on a trip with a non-official tour operator? And where would it be better to stick with the official tour groups and guides?

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Huatulco should be safe but as with any tourist trap in a developing country keep an eye out for pickpockets and scam artists. Vallarta is really popular with North American expats and tourists so should also be safe. I don't know any of the others by experience or reputation but Mexico in general is less sketchy than Central America. –  hippietrail Nov 6 '12 at 3:28
    
I've been told that sometimes, taxi drivers wait for "independent excusionists" with fares so expensive that the cruise offer looks cheap. This has been true at least some years ago at Taormina in Sicily. –  mouviciel Nov 12 '12 at 19:16
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1 Answer

up vote 6 down vote accepted
+100

First, in general, if you take a shore excursion from the ship then you are protected against getting back late. The ship will wait for you. If you take an independent excursion, the ship will leave without you, you are subject to fines, and it is your problem as to how to get to the next port to rejoin the ship. I have experienced first hand an excursion in which we got back late, due to bus problems, and the ship waited for us (they weren't happy about it but had no choice). That being said, independent excursions are usually less expensive than those offered by the cruise line. As to your particular ports of call, I am only familiar with Cartegena. We took a cruise excursion and were escorted by two tourist police with guns. I recommend being very careful in Columbia.

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