More than 250 species of birds stop in Mexico’s La Tovara National Park, which rests along the Pacific Flyway migration route. // © 2015 Chelsee Lowe
Feature image (above): Great egrets are among the bird species visitors might spot during a boat ride. // © 2015 Riviera Nayarit Convention and Tourism Bureau
Riviera Nayarit’s La Tovara National Park might not look like much to a first-timer. The entry sign is a little worse for wear, and the parking lot is perfunctory and mostly empty. But this is probably how the birders prefer it.
Set some 100 miles north of Puerto Vallarta near the colonial town of San Blas, La Tovara is a premiere destination for bird-watching. The day I visited, I hopped out of a minivan with a gaggle of other journalists and made my way to the nearby thatch-roofed pier, where a handful of blue and white motorboats knocked gently against their docks, and a few guides mingled above them.
The average park guest pays around $8 for an hour-long boat tour, but it’s unlikely the gentleman at the helm will slow the boat to explain the cobweb-like moss growing on trees or to point out a well-hidden boat-billed heron warming its chick. For that kind of service, you need an expert bird-watcher such as Francisco Garcia of Safaris San Blas in your boat.
And boat-billed heron are only the beginning. Despite its understated entry point, La Tovara is a natural gem — a complex ecosystem in which multiple species of mangroves tangle together in still, swampy waters, and crocodiles swim stealthily. But it’s the birds that make La Tovara especially fascinating. The park is set on the Pacific Flyway, a major migration route for North American birds; as such, more than 250 species rest their wings here as they fly south and back again, avoiding the north's chilly winter months.
Once onboard our own vessel, we cruised along a dark and narrow waterway lined by dense foliage. I wasn’t thinking about birds just yet — the thought of crocodiles was rather consuming in our low-slung, weighed-down boat. But after a few minutes, our vessel rounded a bend, and the water and sky widened. We watched as multiple types of birds skittishly winged from one side of the waterway to the other — likely grabbing mosquitos and other insects as they came out in the twilight.
Most of us had little clue of what we were seeing, but identifying the birds was child’s play for Garcia. Within minutes, he’d pointed out myriad species I’d never heard of — purple gallinules, American coots, anhingas, snail kites, chachalacas and crested caracaras, among many others.
It was the boat-billed heron that captured me most. The odd man out of the heron family, boat-billed heron are charmingly awkward, with huge eyes, squat bodies and keel-shaped bills that look difficult to lug around. At one point, Garcia told the driver to cut the motor, and we drifted toward a batch of mangroves. As we neared, tiny movements revealed four boat-bills. They didn’t seem frightened. Like the caterpillar in “Alice in Wonderland,” they turned their heads languidly and looked right at us, silently asking, “Who are you?”
We were guests with a new-found love of bird-watching, that’s who. We could see the herons rather well with our naked eyes, but we still passed the binoculars furiously in order to see them in more detail. Garcia even got them talking by mimicking their high-pitched call.
As we cruised away some 10 minutes later, I commented on the bounty of birds we had seen in such a short amount of time. Garcia chuckled. It was the end of April and no longer high season for birding, he explained. Die-hard birders venture here between October and early April, during which they would be privy to almost quadruple the species.
After a ride like this, I understood the thrill of birding, and I had a newfound respect for those who do it regularly, including Garcia. The San Blas-native was drawn to birding after years of surfing.
"I didn't know I was a birder until I got a pair of binoculars," Garcia said. "I like nature, and being a birder gives you reason to get into the fields. And the conditions in La Tovara make it a special place. It is the perfect place for someone who wants to be introduced to birding."
Garcia has been leading tours in San Blas and beyond for six years, and he charges a mere $3 per person for short jaunts like the one we took, with a minimum of four people required. For a full day of birding adventures, clients should expect to pay around $50 per person. And though he's as humble as they come, Garcia's expertise is renowned. He's even participated in "The Big Day," a 24-hour birding competition, during which he spotted a jaw-dropping 274 species.
In between excursions, there’s no better place for birders to stay than Hotel Garza Canela, which caters to this particular kind of traveler by offering breakfast in the wee hours of morning, should guests want to head out extremely early.
The family-owned hotel is operated by the four Vasquez sisters, their mother and additional relatives. Rooms are quaint and cozy, though the occasional lizard will shack up with you, or at least greet you in the breezeway where you enter. Other on-site amenities include a pool, a small play structure and a beautiful, tiny chapel, where I met the Vasquez’s yippy Dachshund one morning while exploring.
Trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, chef Betty Vasquez is well-regarded internationally and helms the hotel restaurant El Delfin. The menu relies heavily on produce grown in her mother’s garden.
At breakfast, straight-from-the-oven breads and homemade jams are staples. Other great options are “molletes” — a typical Mexican snack of bread topped with cheese and beans — and chilaquiles. For dinner, expect creative seafood plates, light pasta dishes and homemade soups. Whatever you do, eat anything and everything that’s created from Vasquez’s homegrown mangos. If the birds of La Tovara don’t lure you back to San Blas, El Delfin’s thick and sweet mango juice certainly will.