On the advice of Steve Howell and Sophie Webb, who told us San Blas is one of their favorite birding spots in Mexico, Dave Faike and I led a private trip there from January 3 to 13, 2001 for Adventure Travel Planners.
Located on Mexico's central Pacific coast about 120 km (70 miles) north of Puerto Vallarta, quaint San Blas is a busy little town of about 10,000 friendly people on the edge of what's sometimes called the National Swamp. This mangrove wetland provides unending supplies of mosquitoes and jejenes, tiny "no-see-um" biting gnats, but is also the home of countless birds, crocs, fish, turtles and butterflies. Depending upon which resource you consult, malaria is or is not a local problem to be considered in trip planning. (Centers for Disease Control, Traveler's Health: www.cdc.gov).
Navigating the town is quite easy and we found our way around very quickly. Everything is relative to the central zócalo, a lively spot to sit and watch San Blas happen. We enjoyed walking along the cobblestone and brick streets, shopping, and finding restaurants or necessities like foot powder at the farmacias and stamps at the post office. Native Huichol Indians are a local presence here and their beaded animals, peyote motifs and yarn craftwork are quite colorful and interesting. A good overview of the town can be seen from the Fort on Cerro de San Basilio.
Heeding warnings about robberies and assaults in Mexico, and San Blas in particular, we were cautious about staying in at night and avoiding bad areas of town like the Sewer Pond trails after dark, and were on guard there during the day. But birding is very much an accepted sport in San Blas. We never encountered any trouble, though we always ventured out together, at least in pairs, and didn't bring much of value on our treks other than our binocs.
The exchange rates during our trip ranged from 9.5 to 9.7 pesos per US$1 at the local banks and seemed to be going up slightly, but remained at 9.0 pesos at the hotel. The official exchange rates were slightly higher, so it was worth charging our hotel rooms to our credit cards.
We flew to Puerto Vallarta and our group opted to use public transportation, buses and taxis, to get around. Buses were very easy to figure out and relatively inexpensive, but having your own vehicle would definitely be much more convenient for birding where and when you want. Traffic in the areas we visited wasn't bad and no one seemed to be driving too crazily.
Buses cost US$11.50 per person from Puerto Vallarta to San Blas on a direct "1 ½ Class" bus with a/c and video (2 ½ hours), and $100 pesos apiece for the milkrun return (about US$10.50). A round trip from San Blas to Singayta to bird was $10 pesos each, and there were buses every hour. We could have paid $8 pesos one way to get up to La Bajada by bus instead of US$20 for a van (+ US$20/person) and a birding tour with a local guide, but it wouldn't have been as convenient.
Taxis were negotiable. A round trip taxi from San Blas to Cerro de San Juan returning via El Mirador del Aquila cost US$80 for the day, and was easily arranged at our hotel. However, not knowing the roads and trying to navigate for the hotspots was difficult in that we couldn't easily drive back to a place we missed and without incurring extra charges from the taxi driver. A taxi from PV to SB would run about US$200, one way.
We considered renting bikes in San Blas from one of the several vendors who rent them, but decided against it for farther places like Singayta because the roads have no shoulders for riding on and cars have the right of way. Bikes rented for $50 pesos a day for the first day and $40 pesos for each additional day.
We arrived in San Blas our first evening and walked to Hotel Garza Canela, www.garzacanela.com, where we based for the whole trip, along with several other birding groups. Prices were relatively high for what we expected for Mexico: $821 pesos/night/double, or about US$85. As a birding group, we were offered either breakfast or a 10% discount. We enjoyed what we felt was relative security, purified drinking water, air conditioning, a pleasant atmosphere, and help arranging our excursions. Most of the staff speaks English and some German. We didn't use the pool as much as we expected, as the water was rather cool, but refreshing, and sitting out in jejene and mosquito territory in the evenings wasn't pleasant.
Many other hotels and family-run guesthouses exist in San Blas. Nearby Posada del Rey cost US$45/night/double, with a swimming pool, restaurant and a/c in some rooms. The room we checked didn't have a/c or a shower stall: the entire bathroom simply became the shower! The Hotel Flamingos ($74/double) with a/c, free coffee, but no restaurant, and Hotel Bucanero ($26/double, pool, bar, no a/c), are older and quainter. The Flamingos didn't have a swimming pool, but the hostess was happy to show us where they planned to build it! These rooms all had private bath. The guesthouse Casa Morelos went for $15/night for one person with shared bathrooms.
Most nights we opted to dine in our hotel's El Delfin Restaurant because of their strict adherence to hygiene: we could drink the water and trusted the food. We tried other restaurants downtown, including McDonalds, La Familia and La Isla, but were careful not to drink the water or eat the salads, and ordered hot dishes like soups, rice and tortillas. Meals averaged about US$10-12+ per sitting for two for breakfast, lunch or dinner, no matter where we ate. We avoided street grunting.
We also bought snacks, bananas, canned fruit drinks and liter beers (for $7 pesos + deposit!) in the abundant local minisupers and abarrotes (groceries). Bottled water was optional because the hotel provided a daily pitcher of drinking water in each room. We also brought Gator Ade mix in case we got sick, but electrolytes and bottled Gator Ade were readily available.
We hired local guides when appropriate, for their knowledge at local birding spots or to take us to areas we couldn't get to on our own. In general we found them somewhat disappointing as birders, but their trips were otherwise enjoyable (see Birding Areas). Depending upon your own birding style and level of expertise, you might find them more satisfactory.
EQUIPMENT:Clothes, Packs, Bug~Out Suits and Optics
We wanted to bring as few valuables as possible, and to expedite escape from the airports didn't want to check any luggage. We limited ourselves to what would fit into one carry-on daypack apiece. This meant less bulky optics or tripods and fewer clothes and other amenities, but on the trip all of us enjoyed having and doing with less.
For example, we chopped up our bird books so they'd fit in our pockets easier (see References). And we minimized clothing by bringing old "one way" clothes and high-tech nylon shirts and pants we could wash out and dry overnight, from companies like www.ExOfficio.com and www.REI.com. These became our uniforms.
My daypack is a Kelty Velocity (www.kelty.com), actually a biking pack with its own raincoat, that I can "lock" a tripod into and that's the right size for planes. Dave brought an Eagle Creek Road Warrior (www.eaglecreek.com) and the others used mesh Jansport packs (www.jansport.com). Each of us also brought fanny packs and security wallets, and some of us wore travel vests, which doubled as incognito carry-on luggage.
Biting insects were bad almost everywhere we birded, but our Bug~Out jackets and pants worked great, and allowed us to relax somewhat in bug territory. These are specially designed fine-mesh suits that keep out even tiny jejenes and make you invulnerable to them. Contrary to what might be expected, the mesh doesn't breathe very well, and the jackets, especially the hoods, can become hot. We discovered they worked well as lightweight windbreakers! But also, the mesh is quite easy to see through and poses no problemo for birding with binocs. Pants, pullover jackets with attached hoods and front pouch, and zip-up jackets with separate hoods are available. Storage bags for either set are useful, as sometimes the optional mitts would have been. www.bug-out-outdoorwear.com. In addition, we used repellent and Avon Skin-So-Soft for our hands and when not wearing the suits.
I would have felt naked without a spotting scope, so I brought my small Bausch & Lomb Elite 60mm 15-45x scope, and our partners brought an old miniature Vivitar metal tripod for the Military Macaw stakeout and waterbirds. The scope was the perfect size, fitting right into the safe in the hotel room, but it afforded us great views of all of the more distant birds we found (www.bushnell.com).
References we used for logistics and information about Mexico in general include Lonely Planet's Mexico, 7th edition, 9/00 www.lonelyplanet.com, both Moon Publications' Pacific Mexico Handbook, 4th edition, 1/00 and Puerto Vallarta Handbook, 3rd edition, 11/99, www.moon.com (similar information on San Blas), and AAA's Mexico TravelBook, 2000 Edition. The maps in the Moon books have the most user-friendly formats.
To find and identify birds we used Steve Howell's A Bird-finding Guide to Mexico (1999), Howell and Webb's A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America (1995) (H & W), Peterson and Chalif's Peterson Field Guides Mexican Birds (1973), and A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica (1989) by Stiles, Skutch and Gardner.
Except for km "mileages" for the turn to Mecatan in the Cerro de San Juan section, descriptions in the Howell birdfinding guide of where to find what around San Blas seemed fairly accurate. Like any place it's easy to miss birds on just one or two brief visits, and we noticed that, although the San Blas checklists are fairly extensive, many of the endemics were very difficult if not impossible to locate. Without extremely good luck, the only real way to see a Russet-crowned Motmot, for example, is to call one with a tape, if you can find one to bring.
In addition to the Howell birdfinding book, we perused a local birding reference we found at the hotel by Novick and Wu, Where to Find Birds in San Blas, Nayarit (1994) that mentioned a few other spots to try for various targets.
To make life easier in the field, we chopped the plates out of our H & W Mexico bird guide and refastened them together into a smaller booklet. We did the same to the Costa Rica bird book, and we brought it along too because it contains plates with many of the sea, water and other birds not illustrated in H & W or Peterson. After using the latter two books in the field, we found it kind of annoying not to have pictures of everything possible to see in Mexico. Not being able to compare confusion birds in a plate is a drawback of those books.
Birding areas we visited included the hotel grounds, the town of San Blas itself and its infamous Sewer Pond area, the Fort, La Bajada, Lower Singayta, Peso Island, La Tovara and the San Cristobal River via boat, Cerro de San Juan (La Noria) and El Mirador del Aquila. We saw about 200 bird species. The Shrimp Ponds were dry so we skipped them, and also didn't go to Matachen Bay or take boat trips to Elephant Rock or up Estero el Pozo from the Peso Island dock. We birded 5 full days and 3 half days, returning to closer places we liked and could easily get to. All of the main areas could be birded more quickly, in about 5 days.
Many of the Mexican endemics we found were fairly widespread, including Citreoline Trogon, Rufous-bellied Chachalaca, Happy Wren, Sinaloa Crow, Yellow-winged Cacique, and Golden-cheeked Woodpecker. Other coveted regional birds fairly easy to spot in the right habitats were Boat-billed Heron, the Black-Hawks, Collared Forest-Falcon (heard), Red-billed Pigeon, Orange-fronted Parakeet, White-fronted Parrot, Groove-billed Ani, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Northern Potoo, White-eared and Berylline Hummers, Rufous-backed Robin, and Yellow-green Vireo. Mixed flocks of Neotropical migrant warblers and waterbirds familiar from home were also commonly encountered. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and various flycatchers (kingbirds, empids, etc.) were ubiquitous, but there was a surprising lack of very many sparrows, seedeaters or endemic buntings.
San Blas Town:
This includes the manicured hotel grounds, local streets and the Sewer Pond trails on the east side of town. These "trails" consist of various sand streets to the east of the San Blas Motel Suites among coconut palms and scrub trees.
One of our biggest delights was turning the corner from our hotel one morning and finding a pair of Black-throated Magpie-Jays on utility wires. We later learned they apparently hang out across the field in front of the hotel and can be found there punctually at 7:00am each morning, although we didn't verify this. Other birds we easily saw nearby included Sinaloa Crows, Yellow-winged Caciques, Golden-cheeked Woodpeckers, Cinnamon Hummers, Ruddy-breasted and Cinnamon-rumped Seedeaters, Groove-billed Anis, doves, orioles, cowbirds, Rufous-backed Robins, various kingbirds and flycatchers. Another particular favorite was a juvenile Crane Hawk on a palm tree among the Sewer Pond trails, where we also found Orange-fronted Parrots, Grayish Saltators, and woodpeckers.
San Blas Fort:
This is a good place to go for Mexican Parrotlets, raptor, frigate and wood stork watching, and more mosquitoes. We also found a Yellow-green Vireo and our first Citreoline Trogon here while enjoying the overview of the town. Entrance fees are $5 pesos apiece and there is a baño at the gate. No one seemed to be finding Buff-collared Nightjars, owls or any swifts here.
One local guide, whose card read "best ornithologist in all of Mexico", ambushed us at the hotel to hire him for a half day trip to La Bajada (US$20/person + $20 transportation).
A visit to Paraiso Miramar, an RV motel park further south down the road from the turn-off to La Palma and La Bajada, failed to produce any jays, but we had nice views of many of the more common resident and migrant birds, like Green Kingfisher, Vermilion Flycatcher and Painted Buntings.
Apparently we hit one of the dreaded lulls mentioned in the book for La Bajada, too, as we didn't find nearly as many birds as we expected in the coffee plantations, even with the guide's help. Some of our better birds seemed to be ones we could only hear: Happy Wren, Brown-backed Solitaire and Collared Forest-Falcon. But we had a good second look at a Citreoline Trogon, a female Pale-billed Woodpecker, and a Tufted Flycatcher. On the bill for La Bajada were also more chances for jays, wrens, Grey-crowned Woodpeckers, woodcreepers, motmots, Lilac-crowned Parrots, Colima Pygmy-Owls, Blue Mockers, Golden Vireos, Black-vented Orioles, and Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrows, the latter of which no one seemed to be finding anywhere. We'd have liked to return to La Bajada to see if our luck would improve.
For a $10 peso bus trip, Lower Singayta is easily reached and birded. Mosquitoes and jejenes abound, and we gave the bug suits a good workout. Birds here included Inca Doves, Ruddy Ground-Doves, Streak-backed Orioles, Happy Wren, Rufous-bellied Chachalacas, five or more Citreoline Trogons foraging, Laughing Falcon, both Black-Hawks, Grey and Short-tailed Hawks, Collared Forest-Falcon, Masked Tityra, Squirrel Cuckoo, Grayish Saltator, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Grey-collared Becard, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Mexican Parrotlet, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, warblers and vireos. We were also on the lookout for Blue Mockers, motmots and Lilac-crowned Parrots here.
A $5 peso round trip boat ride from the dock in town takes you to Peso "Island", actually a peninsula. From El Faro, the red-and-white striped lighthouse atop its hill, there is another nice overview of San Blas. A trail from the landing place leads through scrub trees past a Huichol ceremonial ground to an ocean beach. From the rock jetty you can scope Virgen Island, a large rock offshore, for Blue-footed and Brown Boobies. Shorebirds along the beach include Sanderlings, Black-bellied and Snowy Plovers, Whimbrel, Willet, Stilt Sandpiper, Dunlin, Black and Royal Terns, and Black Skimmers.
The scrub trees have their own set of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls that call to each other and call in other birds for you, including various flycatchers, warblers, wrens and Rose-throated Becards. We also found Groove-billed Anis, Streak-backed Orioles, Rufous-bellied Chachalacas, Lineated Woodpecker, Red-billed Pigeon, Northern Mocker, Blue Bunting, Blue-black Grassquit and Stripe-headed Sparrows along the trail. An Audubon group reported a small fleeting flock of San Blas Jays here during our stay. To return to the "mainland" you wave or whistle for the boatman to come and get you.
Boat Trips: La Tovara, San Cristobal River:
Chencho, the famous river guide, offers an evening boat trip to the springs at La Tovara that takes about 4 hours, costs $400 pesos for 4 people, and is a mandatory San Blas excursion easily arranged at either the hotel or dock. We saw many heron and migrant warbler species, including a Boat-billed (Garza Canela) Heron and a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Mangrove Yellow Warbler, Mangrove Cuckoo, Mangrove Swallows, White-fronted Parrots, and a large croc, but no owls. The yellow-marble-eyed Northern Potoos perching like branches on limbs were the birds of the evening. The tide came up during our venture and the return by spotlight through what then looked like huge gaping mangrove throats reminded us of a Piratas del Pacifico Disney jungle tour.
Chencho's morning San Cristobal River trip cost $500 pesos for 4 or 5 people, also takes about 4 hours, and goes upriver to a large lagoon full of hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and other waterfowl. Mangrove Vireo and Rufous-necked Wood-Rail were unexplainable misses, but this trip was good for another Mangrove Cuckoo, laughing Boat-billed Herons, Limpkins, Northern Jacana, Happy Wren, migrant warblers, and a White-throated Flycatcher.
Cerro de San Juan (La Noria) and El Mirador del Aquila:
A day trip into the mountains southeast of San Blas to Cerro de San Juan and La Noria ranch near Tepic took us into pine-oak forests and pastures with different birds than in lowland San Blas. We went round trip to highway 28 at the junction to Santa Cruz, up to La Noria, via Highway 15 and El Mirador del Aquila, and took highway 11 back to San Blas.
We walked and birded various areas along the road to the ranch by stopping and having our taxi catch up with us an hour or so later. There was a lot of action along the first part of the road in the morning, but not nearly as much further up later. Birds encountered along the way up included a singing Brown-backed Solitaire, Blue Mockingbirds, mixed warbler flocks, a raucous flock of Green Jays, squawking Rufous-bellied Chachalacas, and a Short-tailed Hawk flyover.
Along the canefields we found several hummer species: Mexican Woodnymph, Broad-billed, Rufous, White-eared and Berylline Hummers, and a Bumblebee Hummer confusion bird, the Calliope Hummer. In the same area were Varied Bunting, Greater Pewee, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Grayish Saltator, and Rufous-capped Warbler.
Near the ranch fields were Acorn Woodpeckers, Greenish Elaenia, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, and Chipping Sparrows. Checking the canyons farther up the road failed to produce any definite Bumblebee Hummers or very much else.
The stop at El Mirador del Aquila, a very noisy "industrial birding" pullout, was much better. Within about 15 minutes of our arrival (at 3:45pm) we heard and saw ten Military Macaws fly in to roost in a tree in one of the side canyons, easily scoped. While savoring the moment, more Macaws kept coming in on their green and iridescent blue wings. If that weren't enough, five undulating Black-throated Magpie-Jays flew over the road from El Mirador, with their long tails waving behind them as we started back towards San Blas.