Meandering in the Mangroves

La Tovara National Park is home to crocodiles, birds and fish

By: Irene Middleman Thomas

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Heermann’s Gull bird, La Tovara National Park
On countless trips to Florida, even in the Everglades, I’d never seen the multitudes of alligators I was told I’d see. In fact, I’d never even seen one outside of the zoo. I wasn’t, therefore, expecting much when I visited La Tovara National Park, two hours (95 miles) north of Puerto Vallarta in the newly developing, but still pristine, Riviera Nayarit.

Here, in the lush mangroves of the estuary of the Camalota Lagoon, I didn’t see one, I saw dozens of crocodiles and probably glanced at many more than I realized, thanks to their effective camouflage.

La Tovara is located within the municipality of San Blas, a small fishing village of about 10,000 inhabitants and home to two four-star hotels, a well-preserved colonial fort and outstanding bird watching, which draws almost as many thousands of observers as migratory birds each winter. San Blas has more than 20 miles of virgin beaches, some with excellent surfing and huge lowland palm forests along with extraordinarily lush rainforest areas. The mangrove zone surrounding San Blas, which encompasses La Tovara, is the most important ecosystem in Mexico and a sanctuary to 300 species of birds.

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Crocodiles are a common sight in the park.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, the federally protected La Tovara National Park and mangrove ecoregion in San Blas is one of the most important winter habitats for birds in the Pacific, home to 80 percent of the Pacific migratory shore-bird populations. A paradise for bird enthusiasts, this region has the highest concentration of migratory birds in this part of the world and features over 250 species, including the black-bellied tree duck, great blue heron, roseate spoonbill and endemic birds, including the bumblebee hummingbird and the Mexican wood nymph.

The only way to see the park is by panga, small boats operated by local guides who take about 6-10 people through the dense mangroves of the estuary. The panga rental charges depend on the ride’s length and typically run between $8-$10 per person. If you want the panga to yourself, you need to pay for four people. Sights from the panga include many different types of birds (we saw egrets, owls, herons, etc.) as well as the aforementioned crocs, tortoises, iguanas and wild orchids and bromeliads. La Tovara’s natural spring sends fresh water toward the ocean, mixing with saltwater and forming the river and lagoon.

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Guestrooms La Tovara is home to 80 percent
of the Pacific migratory shore-bird populations.
The tour takes visitors under overhanging mangrove branches in which wildlife takes refuge. La Tovara is an indigenous word for sweet water, and at the end of the tour, the guides show off the clear spring pool that is the source of the water system. Here you can snorkel with freshwater fish. The complete tour also visits the wildlife refuge and crocodile breeding center of La Camelota, where you’ll view baby and full-grown crocodiles.

The residents of San Blas are united in their efforts to maintain and further develop sustainable ecotourism. Ecotours available in San Blas include bird watching, whale watching, jungle tours, kayaking, hiking, camping and scuba diving (for certified divers). Each January, the annual Festival of Migratory Birds for nature and adventure lovers occurs. During the festival, many activities take place, including conferences and seminars by wildlife experts and ornithologists to help create awareness on the importance of preserving and conserving the natural reserves in Riviera Nayarit.

Besides seminars, bird-watching tours are offered during the festival, including special tours of La Tovara.



A delightful, truly unique accommodation in nearby San Blas is the Hotel Garza Canela , a family-operated property featuring exceptional Mexican decor and gardens along with elegantly appointed rooms. The hotel, run by the now retired Vazquez couple and their four adult daughters, has repeat guests from all over the world. What really makes this hotel worth the trip, however, is the cuisine.

El Delfin Restaurant is headed by one of the daughters, celebrated chef Betty Vazquez, who is renowned for preparing the exquisite Mexican dishes native to Riviera Nayarit. Betty studied at the Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts in Paris and has worked under Fernand Adria at El Bulli. She uses Mexican ingredients fused with classic cooking techniques.

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