Most tourists don’t head to Mexico for the wildlife— unless it’s the all-you-can-drink, upside-down-margarita, happy-hour kind.
But gliding slowly along a narrow channel through the mangroves in San Blas, it’s the Amazon jungle, not an all-night bar, that comes to mind.
“Great blue heron, common blackhawk, white ibis, green kingfisher, anhinga…” guide Don Chencho lists the species he spies around every twist of the tangled waterways that are alive with noisy birdlife.
We’re in his flat-bottomed panga on a river estuary when the first blue heron wades into view, reflected artfully in the shallows. Perched in the front of the narrow craft, I feel like Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen, though there is nothing difficult about this journey, save for trying to bird-spot in the fading evening light.
A bare-throated tiger heron makes its hoarse call as the sun begins to set. He puffs his bright yellow throat up with air and issues a loud, raspy growl, something no mate could miss.
Chencho spots a fluffy juvenile boat-billed heron hidden on an overhanging branch; a belted kingfisher flitting across the water; a scraggly tree filled with a dozen roosting snowy white egrets; and a yellow-crowned night heron dipping for fish. A small crocodile slides into the murky brown water and we float among the reeds as the setting sun turns the clouds spectacular shades of hot pink and purple.
We’ve seen more than 35 different species of birds in just three hours. But as the darkness falls, it’s the incredible sounds that have our attention: the screeching howks, peet-peets, wulla-wullas and hoots that fill the night air.
This is Mexico’s wild Pacific coast. While it seems a world away, we’re only 150 km north of Puerto Vallarta.
The coastal drive along the Sierra Madres, past the popular surfing town of Sayulita, brings us to San Blas, where the lush mangroves are alive with more than 500 species of resident and migrating birds. Our group of Canadian snowbirds arrive at this historic fishing village, just like 80 per cent of the Pacific migratory shorebirds that winter here.
In the streets around the colonial plaza in San Blas, young girls and elderly couples circle the square arm in arm, while the banda music plays. Crispy fish chicharones and a special kind of shrimp and cucumber ceviche called aguachile is on the menu at the open-air palapa restaurants along the town’s miles of wide sandy beaches.
San Blas remains close to its fishing roots. The tourist infrastructure in this quaint town of 10,000 is minimal, but it’s also known as one of the top birding destinations in Mexico and eco-tourism is growing. It’s easy to find a boatman who can take you through the mangroves of La Tovara National Park or out to see nesting sites on nearby islands.
We get up before dawn to take the 70-km ride out to Isla Isabel, a place dubbed “Little Galapágos” for its thousands of nesting blue-footed boobies and magnificent frigatebirds.
It’s a cool January morning and the fog is thick as we head out across the ocean in a small fishing boat, bumping through the swell. The three-hour trip is chilly and challenging but, as we approach the rocky volcanic island where Jacques Cousteau came to film the massive frigatebirds more than 30 years ago, the sight of them circling overhead by the thousands makes it all worthwhile.
Today, the island is a national park and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve where university students and other researchers camp while fishermen maintain makeshift shacks on the beach. But the true residents are the thousands of birds that fill the air.
The birds have no predators, and they seem unfazed as we wander close to scrubby trees where fluffy white frigate chicks preen in their nests and glossy black males inflate their bright red chests to attract new mates.
With our guide, Cayetano Robles Carrillo, director of Isabel Island National Park, we climb up a steep grassy path to the top of a windy cliff and pick our way among the boobies nesting on the ground. Both parents take turns warming their eggs under their bright blue feet, and return to the same nest each year.
“There are nine species of birds here, 23,000 in all,” says Robles Carrillo. “They’re accustomed to us, so they don’t feel fear.”
You may feel a little uncomfortable with that many big birds swooping overhead, the rough trails and lack of facilities, but Robles Carrillo says the government is working to clean up and reforest the island and protect the surrounding coral reef.
On our return trip, we see a group of four humpback whales, the other migrating species that spends the winters here. Our boatman cuts the motor so we can watch them dive deep and lift their huge white flukes skyward. It’s a wild show like no other—even a big sea turtle, sunning itself on the surface, and a three-metre whale shark, open-mouthed and swimming under the stern, seem insignificant by comparison.
Back in San Blas, we have dinner at the family-run Hotel Garza Canela, where one of the owners, Doris Vázquez, explains that locals are just starting to understand why it’s important to preserve the mangroves and other natural areas for eco-tourism.
Birds have always come here between November and April, but it’s only in recent years that birders and other wildlife-watchers have followed their migration route to this quiet corner of the Mexican West Coast.
This massive tangle of coastal mangroves is a swampy ecosystem that’s home to birds, crocodiles, jaguars and the many marine invertebrates that feed the local fishing industry. Mangroves are known as the “nurseries of the marine world” and, without them—as fishing communities have discovered in coastal Japan, Ecuador and Southeast Asia—commercial and even subsistence fisheries can disappear.
It can be a tough sell in communities where resort developments bring fast tourist dollars, but so far, thanks to its relative isolation, San Blas has been spared. Despite its miles of wide sandy beaches, the boggy mangrove coast has deterred big real estate developers, and preserved this region’s wildlife. The rare ecosystem has the largest remaining mangrove forests along the Mexican Pacific coast.
On our final night, we stop for a meal of ceviche and aguachile made with the sweet San Blas shrimp that’s so famous here, and I can’t help but make the connections. It’s delicious food for us, but it also feeds the migrating whales, gives the flocks of roseated spoonbills in the nearby lagoon their pink flamingo-like colour and creates the kind of ecosystem that makes this such a great place for shore birds—and wildlife-loving snowbirds—to spend the winter.
Did You Know?
Humpback whales reach 15 m in length, can weigh up to 36,287 kg and hold the world record for migration of mammals (excluding humans)—some travel 10,000 km every year between northern feeding and southern breeding sites. You can often see a flash of turquoise in the water before a humpback whale surfaces, a reflection off snowy-white front flippers that can be up to five metres long.
Blue-footed boobies spend most of their lives at sea, meeting their (monogamous) mates in the same breeding grounds—like those on Isla Isabel—each year where they take turns warming their eggs under their big blue feet. Their name comes from the Spanish word “bobo,” or “fool,” because they are so clumsy on land, but these white and brown birds are truly elegant in the air.
If You Go
Stay at Hotel Garza Canela in San Blas where you can sign up for boat tours through La Tovara or hire a fishing boat to visit Isla Isabel. Hire a guide through local hotels for US$75 per person for a three-hour cruise into the mangrove forests.
From Puerto Vallarta, Ecotours de Mexico offers two-day birding trips to the local forests and mangroves around San Blas, US$350 per person.
Mexico’s Magic Towns
There are 111 pueblos mágicos in Mexico, each one designated as such for its enchanting beauty, architecture and centuries-old culture. Here are five magic towns—Sayulita, Todos Santos, Tulum, Isla Mujeres and San Sebastián del Oeste—that are easily accessible from major cities and resorts.
Five Things to Do in Puerto Vallarta
Cobblestone streets, a roaring culinary scene and lush surroundings have attracted tourists to Puerto Vallarta since the 1950s. Visit the Vallarta Botanical Garden, escape to Hidden Beach on the Marieta Islands, sign up for a food tour and ride up to rivers and waterfalls on horseback.