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As our naturalist guide rowed us in a colorfully painted boat through the lagoon, hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks flew up from the reeds. Backlit by the rising dawn sun, their hanging red legs and webbed feet looked almost translucent, and the flutter of their wings was deafeningly loud. Around the next bend, we saw curved-beak ibises, frigate birds, pelicans and, later, even a rare green kingfisher.
A morning bird-watching tour by rowboat is only one of the highlights at Hotelito Desconocido (which translates to “little unknown hotel”). A leader among eco-chic boutique resorts when it opened to rave reviews over a decade ago, it was bought by new owners in late 2007, who closed it in 2008. After a complete top-to-bottom, $10 million rebuild, it reopened in late 2011.
Hotelito is readily accessible from the Puerto Vallarta airport, less than a two-hour drive away (complimentary van transfer is provided). Spread out on the banks of a protected lagoon sanctuary that is listed by UNESCO as a bird paradise aquifer and home to 150 types of birds, it feels totally secluded.
Guests are accommodated in 26 individual bungalows or palifitos. Perched on solid stilts, each one is constructed from wood and painted mud (to withstand the elements), with vaulted thatched roofs that allow breezes to flow through. Each bungalow is named after an animal or bird from a popular Mexican lottery card game.
Ours was called El Garza (meaning “heron”), one of a string of lagoon and oceanview palifitos, which we found to be the nicest. Jutting out over the bird lagoon, the palifitos face the fiery sunsets and provide glimpses of the ocean beyond a sandbar. We fell asleep listening to the crashing surf and awoke to the sound of birdsong.
The pricier oceanfront palifitos on the resort’s white-sand beach are exposed to the wind, which often picks up at night and can be surprisingly chilly in the wee hours, at least in the winter months. Lagoon-view palifitos ($100 less than oceanfront), on the sunrise-facing side of the lagoon, are a great deal for cost-conscious clients.
All the bungalows are simply though charmingly decorated, with smooth natural wood floors, enormous slatted wood sliding doors and outdoor bamboo showers (with no less than five rainshower heads). We would lather up with organic bodywash while peering over a potted plant — our privacy screen — at snowy egrets cruising low over the lagoon. A round, custom-crafted king-size bed, draped with mosquito netting, dominated the center of our room.
As part of Hotelito’s strong commitment to the environment, there’s no electricity. At night, the sand pathways (raked daily) are illuminated by tiki torches, and the resort is lit inside by hundreds of flickering candles. It’s incredibly romantic, but forget trying to put on make-up for dinner. However, solar panels and a generator provide power so clients can recharge electronic gizmos in their palifito. And the open-air reception pavilion has free Wi-Fi.
During the day, activities in addition to bird-watching include cooking classes, free kayaking through the lagoon, relaxing by the infinity-edge saltwater pool with submerged hammocks, strolling the long empty beach, horseback riding and playing tennis.
Clients can also enjoy massages and a thalasso-therapy circuit in outdoor pools at the lagoon-side spa.
The beachfront lunch restaurant — accessed by a rowboat, which a staff member drives across the lagoon — and dinner restaurant serve Mexican-inspired meals such as roasted pepper stuffed with lobster and freshly grilled fish. Clients can expect a new organic garden and farm at the edge of the property to soon yield organic eggs, chicken and lamb.
Most of the friendly staff live in the nearby local village and seem to be happy to be working at Hotelito. Their affection for the place made our stay, special as it was, even more memorable.