Discovering Riviera Nayarit Naturally

Click to open the image gallery. All images by Flo Nestor.

Local guide Jose Inocencio Banuelos (aka Chencho) skippered the motorized small boat (panga) into La Tovara National Park, up the Rio San Cristobal and on some of its 60-mile waterway system through mangrove swamps teeming with flora and fauna. “Riviera Nayarit is one best birding destinations in all of Central and North America.  The birding capital of the region is San Blas,” said Jame Currie, host of Nikon’s Birding Adventure TV.  Birds flock to the area, attracted by an almost perfect combination of climate and environs: swamps, estuaries and lagoons. The location along the western flyway is an ecosystem that provides a variety of habitats and abundant food sources for birds and other wildlife. The preserve at La Tovara is a wonderland of water trails traversing dense vegetation and almost impenetrable tangles of multiple mangrove species, some arching over waterways to create cavernous channels through verdant vegetation.

The exploration moved slowly amid the thick growth providing close encounters with Yellow-winged Cacique’s sock-like nests dangling from Mariposa trees, a Common Potoo perched on a low-hanging branch near enough to touch, and crocodiles sunning on logs a few feet from the boat, while the wisps of flight and splashes of water created by the wading, swimming, roosting and winging passersby combined to serve up a continuum of sensory stimulation. The visit was not during peak season, yet the five-hour float trip into La Tovara yielded observations of numerous reptiles and sixty-plus bird species: Groove-billed and Smooth-billed Ani; Tropical Kingbird; Short- tailed Hawk; Snail Kite; Great Kiskadee; Great, Green, Little Blue, Tiger, Red-beaked, Yellow-crowned, and Boat-billed Herons; Limpkin; Osprey; Rufus-necked Wood Rail; Lineated Woodpecker; Red-bellied Chachalaca and Wood Stork, to name a few. The best time for birding is October-March, peak is January when up 300 species inhabit the park.

The brilliant sunset and scintillating, surreal day to night transmogrification was stunning. A cosmic immersion into nature occurred at dusk when the vivid red/orange hues filling the sky combined with the cacophony by rousted flocks of roosting herons. After dark we navigated by spotlight an intricate and lengthy return to the dock. The luminous reflection from the ceiling of leaves that mirrored off the water below made it difficult to determine up from down, in essence creating a psychedelic effect. The adventure brimming with so many wonderful sightings and moments of nature weaving its magic left me euphoric for days.

The difference in our native languages was not a problem given that Chencho and I shared a passion, appreciation and understanding of birds and nature.  As a professor of ornithology, I have led numerous birding trips worldwide while Chencho has likely done even more in La Tovara.

The towns and villages of San Blas, Tecuitata, La Palma, Le Bajada, Paraje Del Ray, and Singayata offer land, island and water trails for observing a multitude of birds. The area is also prized for some less than common birds: Citreoline Trogon, Colima Pygmy Owl, Elegant Quail, Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, Mexican Parrotlet, Russet-crowned Motmot, San Blas Jay, and Sinaloa Wren. There are twenty beaches and also a bounty of marine life including whales and other mammals. Matanchen Bay is well known for its exceptional surf break and long, rideable waves.

The fishing village of San Blas is a destination surrounded by nature. It has maintained a population of 10,000 and changed little over time while preserving a friendly, small town feel. San Blas makes an ideal base from which to explore. The quaint and charming Garza Canela Hotel and its El Delfin Restaurant are gems. They provided a peaceful and comfortable stay, offered a tasty lineup of culinary delights, a rich resource of information, pleasant conversation and company. The Vasquez family (Sisters Betty, Doris, Diana, Josefina; brother Hector; and mother Dora) operate the property with an unmistakable love of people, family, hospitality and food. Internationally renowned Chef Betty, trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, is the food ambassador of Nayarit.

The month-long Riviera Nayarit coastal trip from Punta Mita to San Blas was off the beaten path. It became a meandering, loosely plotted journey along Route 200, onto secondary paved roads and over many dirt byways. There were days that called for finding alternative, circuitous routes on jungle pathways or by water to reach intended isolated destinations. The heavy-duty, 4WD Jeep, on board beach chairs, umbrella, boogie boards, soft cooler filled with provisions, and machete repeatedly proved to be essential assets. The search for habitats rich in wildlife, secluded beaches, out-of-the-way villages, boutique hotels, street markets, and waterfront settlements was a cathartic, peaceful and joyous time of discovery.

Some of the nature hot spots along the route were out of the way, but well worth the time and effort it took to get there. Approaching the fishing village of Chacala songbirds perching on wires, vultures and hawks soaring above, and four Coatimundi crossing the rural country road were promising signs.  The small marina in Chacala is home to a flotilla of canopied pangas where resident local captains offer coastal explorations, as well as fishing and surfing trips.  Motoring south led to a picturesque cove with underwater volcanic caves at Las Cuevas Beach and a lovely seven-mile stretch of isolated beaches at Playa Boca de Naranjo in Lima de Abajo and El Capomo. The beaches were closed to auto traffic but accessible by boat. Cruising just offshore in this captivating uninhabited slice of paradise offered entertaining Brown Pelicans, Common and Royal Terns plunge diving for fish, and Neotropic Cormorants sitting atop rock outcroppings.

The rambling route from Rincon de Guayabitos to Playas Las Tortugas (Turtle Beach) on a secondary paved roadway passes through Las Varas, Zacualpan, San Isidro and Ixtapa.  Traditional lifestyles are showcased in these towns and villages amid agriculture fields of tobacco, papaya, mango, pineapple and other native crops; and at roadside stands where fresh fruits, vegetables, drinks, cooked and baked goods are sold. The five-mile dirt access road to Turtle Beach is a scenic ride surrounded by neatly cultivated fields where a variety of birds flitted among vegetation.

Playas Las Tortugas is an alluring, secluded ten-mile expanse of sandy shore adjacent to a former coconut plantation. The northern end fronts a gated community of sixteen spacious, traditionally Mexican and Mediterranean styled, architecturally designed homes. Many are available for rent, offering resort style amenities and services. The development is shared by a biologist staffed endangered sea turtle conservation center. Guests can participate in the preservation program and explore the protected mangrove estuary where turtles, crocodiles, birds and unspoiled nature thrive.

The scenic beach cove at Platanitos offers gently rolling waves, a calm swimming area and a lineup of thatched-roof (palapa) restaurants. Vista Encantada Restaurant sits on a hill, just off the paved road overlooking the beach and village. The Robalo prepared zarendeado style and cooked over a mesquite open-fired grill by Chef Chona there was flat out mouthwatering, melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Repeat visits delivered consistently enjoyable setting, service, food and margaritas. Just past the palapa beach restaurants is an uphill dirt road leading to Punta El Custodio, a private colony of sixteen charming, custom-designed homes. The lush natural and planted vegetation creates privacy and a seductive tropical ambiance. Some are available for rent with meals and house keeping. Punta El Custodio occupies the opposite shore of the estuary adjacent to Playas Las Tortugas. Walking, swimming or paddling the estuary takes 20 minutes from one side to the other. It is 35 minutes by car.

Riviera Nayarit is changing. Fonatur, Mexico’s national trust for the promotion of tourism, has been developing coastal property since 2000. The government-led initiative to create new towns, beach resorts, boutique hotels and golf courses along the coastline continues and was obvious at El Monteon, Los Ayala, Punta Raza, Boca de Naranjo, Lima de Abajo, El Divisadero, and El Capomo. Nevertheless, preservation and accessibility to prime habitats for birds, wildlife and pure nature is still available with comfortable lodging and delicious cuisine nearby.

Although Punta Mita to San Blas is 100 miles and can be driven in three plus hours, this peregrination took three plus weeks. Travel throughout Nayarit over the years has always been pleasant, but none has been a richer, more in-depth immersion into nature than this trip. Despite the changes, the region still abounds in authentic culture, brilliant sunsets, beautiful beaches, plentiful wildlife, and unspoiled communities under a backdrop of the Sierra Madres with a history dating back to the Aztecs.

Bill Nestor explores the world to write about Travel, Food, Nature, Golf, Lifestyles