By Scott S. Bateman
Santo Tomás de Castilla is the smallest active cruise port in the western Caribbean region.
This port village in the Izabal Department of Guatemala is much more active as a commercial port along with the nearby and much larger city of Puerto Barrios. Anyone who drives between the two may not tell where one ends and the other begins.
As few as four cruise ships visit Santo Tomás de Castilla in a single month during the cruise season. The cruise season usually lasts between October and April. Cruise lines that visit Santo Tomás de Castilla include Holland America, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Oceania, and Windstar.
Cruise visitors will see a massive shipyard for commercial shipping, a small station for the Guatemala Navy and a welcome center for cruise passengers.
On arriving, cruise visitors will see a massive shipyard for commercial shipping, a small station for the Guatemala Navy and a welcome center for cruise passengers. Excursion buses, boats and booths are less than a hundred feet from the ship plank.
For some people, such a quiet port may feel like a welcome change from the massive shopping complexes that now fill most cruise ports in the Caribbean. It’s an easy port to visit.
- Shoppers will find goods in only a single long building.
- Popular excursions include nature tours, a Spanish fort and Mayan ruins.
- The best time to go for weather is March and April.
Where is Santo Tomás de Castilla?
Santo Tomás de Castilla lies on the small stretch of Guatemala coast between Belize to the north and Honduras to the south.
The short length of Guatemala’s Caribbean coast — less than 50 miles in a straight line– is why the port is so important for commercial traffic. There are no other major ports on the Caribbean side of the country.
The port is only 142 miles west of Roatan and 125 miles south of Belize City. Western Caribbean cruises usually visit two out of these three ports because they are so close to each other.
The cruise terminal consists of a large warehouse-like structure just a few hundred feet from the docks.
At the entrance, look straight ahead to see a desk for the Guatemala Tourism Commission. Attendants have maps of the country, answer questions and help with other needs.
A row of food and beverage vendors lies along the left side of the building. A stage sits on the right side. Various bands play throughout the day for the entertainment of passengers. Some of them are quite good.
Local arts and crafts vendors fill most of the remainder of the cruise terminal. Vendors will speak to passengers but not get pushy. Their prices are both reasonable and negotiable.
There are no shops or restaurants elsewhere at the port.
Attractions and Shore Excursions
Cruise visitors have nowhere to walk beyond the cruise terminal. So active visitors who want to see more need to take a shore excursion.
Despite being a small port, cruise visitors have a variety of options including natural, historical and cultural.
Popular excursion destinations include the Rio Dulce river canyon, the two cities of Puerto Barrios and Livingston, the San Felipe Castle, and the Mayan ruins at Quirigua.
Visitors to the Rio Dulce river canyon can take a boat to the town of Livingston and from there to the canyon. Livingston also has the nearby Mayan ruins of El Nito.
Some shore excursions offer a tour of Santo Tomás de Castilla and Puerto Barrios that ends at the pretty Amatique Bay Hotel, which is more like a beach resort than a hotel.
San Felipe Fortress on Lake Izabal is a 90-minute drive from the port. The Quirigua Mayan ruins are also a 90-minute drive from the port. They are known for their carvings rather than temples.
Tourists with hefty budgets can take a small plane from the Puerto Barrios Airport to the major Mayan ruins at Tikal.
Getting Around / Transportation
Tmain options for getting around are excursion buses and boats. Otherwise, visitors should not plan on taxis, rental cars or public transportation.
Like most Caribbean ports in Central America, Santo Tomás de Castilla weather has a brief dry season and a longer rainy season.
The dry season lasts from February to early May when rainfall averages about two inches a month. The rainy season begins in June and goes until January when rainfall can reach more than 10 inches a month.
Daytime temperatures range from the low 80s Fahrenheit or high 20s Celsius in the winter to the highs 80s Fahrenheit or low 30s Celsius in the summer.
Scott S. Bateman is a professional journalist who has toured the Caribbean more than 15 times.