San Blas: A Tropical Birding Adventure Away from the
World-class birding and surfing may not seem to go together, but
they coexist peacefully in the easygoing, coastal town of San Blas, Mexico.
While beach tourists funnel into the high-rise resorts of Mazatlán
and Puerto Vallarta to the north and south, adventurous birders and surfers
stay in those cities only long enough to get off a plane and into a bus
(or car) for the greater attractions of tiny San Blas. For birders, this
friendly, affordable seaport hosts an amazing feast of avian life in its
lush and accessible mangrove swamps, estuaries, lagoons, beaches, plantations-and
The best time to visit San Blas is between October and April, when
the local bird species are joined by many of "our" neotropical
migrants spending the winter. The San Blas Christmas Bird Count draws
birders from around the world and regularly lists up to 300 species. Some
of the area's "specialty" birds include Elegant Quail, Mexican
Parrotlet, Colima Pygmy-Owl, Citreoline Trogon, Russet-crowned Motmot,
Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, San Blas Jay, and Sinaloa Wren.
From the 1500s until the 1800s, San Blas operated as a thriving seaport
and major stopping-off point for oceangoing Spanish galleons. Historically,
San Blas may be best known as the starting point for the ships that explored
Alaska and evangelized California. The city's shipbuilding days are now
over. Today, its 10,000 inhabitants spend their time farming, fishing,
and providing services to tourists along about 20 miles of sandy beaches.
San Blas sits on the Pacific Coast between Mazatlán (four
hours to the north) and Puerto Vallarta (two hours to the south). Inland
are the sinuous, mangrove-fringed channels of the San Cristóbal
and El Pozo estuaries, home to a wide variety of herons, egrets, ibises,
parrots, and warblers. Smaller villages and plantations of coffee, banana,
papaya, mango, tobacco, and sugar spread out over the countryside. Overall,
greens and browns meld with the blue sky and warm sun (most of the time)
to make a natural haven for birds and birders alike. The climate is also
appealing, with average temperatures ranging from 70o to 86o F year-round.
San Blas itself is easily walkable end to end in about a half
hour. In the evening, the central zócalo comes alive with music,
people, lights, and food-and tens of thousands of Great-tailed Grackles
roosting for the night. On a hill overlooking San Blas sits a crumbling
mission church and the Fort of San Basilio, with its cannons leveled at
the horizon and flocks of wintering warblers. Just offshore lies Peso
Island, reachable by ferry (a guy and a boat), so named because traditionally
the cost was a peso. The price has gone up a bit-it's now more like a
couple of dollars (U.S.). Just offshore from Peso Island stands Virgin
Rock, topped with a statue of the Virgin and swarming with Blue-footed
Less traditional, but equally birdy, stops include the delectable sewage
ponds (a must for Northern Jacanas) and a jungly maze of streets on the
edge of town, which is loaded with tropical birds such as Streak-backed
Orioles and Mexican Parrotlets.
Whether expert or beginner, in town for a day or a week, most birders
in San Blas make sure to get on a river boat trip. Those few hours
spent gliding along the mangrove-edged waterways, in the morning mists
or the cool of the evening, are simply unforgettable (and worth every
penny). From a dock by the bridge on the northeast side of town, trips
go whenever customers show up. Tell the guides what you want (gestures
will work), negotiate the price (about $60 U.S. for up to four people),
and then get on the small launch and sit back for an adventure of a lifetime.
Even if you're an expert birder, the guides will probably see and hear
many birds before you do. The boats go as far as La Tovara, a popular
resort by a spring where crocodiles and people can swim together-on opposite
sides of a net.
From the boat, birding is spectacular. Several of the guides know the
birds well; Chencho is the recommended guide for serious birders, but
he's not always available. He knows the bird names in English: Boat-billed
Heron, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Muscovy Duck, Great Black-Hawk, Rufous-bellied
Chachalaca, Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, Mangrove Cuckoo, Green Kingfisher,
Mangrove Vireo, Mangrove Warbler, Tropical Parula, and Streak-backed Oriole.
The birds are used to boats and can be incredibly tame, allowing close
approach and good chances for observation and photography.
A special night trip for birders goes out after dark. Chencho leads this
one. As the boat winds upriver in the fading light, he can call out and
Night-Herons, Northern Potoos, Lesser
Nighthawks, Pauraques, and other night birds. When I made the trip,
he called out a Mottled Owl and got it in the flashlight-a truly awesome
Other than the guided boat trips, birders are pretty much on their
own. All you need is a pair of binoculars and a couple of field guides.
I like Howell and Webb's excellent Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern
Central America, which must be used in tandem with a guide for North American
birds, as Howell and Webb concentrate on Mexican species. Howell's Bird-Finding
Guide to Mexico also is indispensable. For on-the-spot advice, the English-speaking
proprietor of the Hotel Garza Canela (a comfortable accommodation that
caters to birders) knows the area and is familiar with competent local
bird guides for hire.
Where to Go Birding in San Blas
Although you can see birds almost anywhere, I recommend the following
areas because they are safe, accessible, and birdy.
Peso Island is easy to reach, scenic, and loaded with birds. Find a guy
with a boat along the beach of San Blas, and he'll take you over for no
more than a couple of dollars (U.S.). Once you're on the island, an obvious
trail leads across its width through scrubby trees and bushes. This is
a good place to find Ladder-backed
Woodpeckers, Stripe-headed Sparrows, and many wintering migrants,
such as Black-and-white Warblers, American Redstarts, and Yellow-breasted
Chats. After about a half mile, the trail emerges on a beach on the opposite
shore. Virgin Rock is visible out to sea and, if you scope it, might reward
you with glimpses of a Blue-footed
Oystercatchers, Willets, and Wilson's, Snowy,
Semipalmated, and Collared Plovers could be nearby on the beach. A beach
walk can turn up more shorebirds, or you can explore the trees and bushes
for Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Lincoln's Sparrows, and the occasional Grasshopper
Sparrow. The island is small enough to explore in a relatively short time.
When you want to return to the mainland, just stand on the shore in view
of town and wave. The guy with the boat will come pick you up.
The Fort of San Basilio, located on a hill at the northeast side of the
city, can make a good walk from the center of town (about a mile one way).
A cobbled road winds uphill, through a banana plantation and past a cemetery
and aging mission church, culminating at the fort, which commands a panoramic
view of San Blas and the bay. Massive black cannons and crumbling stone
walls, a monument to the colonial days, provide a historic backdrop for
birding. Numerous trees and tangles along the road are worth checking
for birds such as Orange-fronted Parakeets, Great Kiskadees, Rufous-backed
Robins, and wintering warblers. Black Vultures, Turkey
Vultures, and Common Black-Hawks circle overhead.
The Sewage Ponds
No true birder can visit San Blas without experiencing the sewage ponds
located on the southeast side of town. You'll know when you're close by
the smell. But the birds make the prospect worthwhile, as Least Grebes,
Black-necked Stilts, Northern Jacanas, and many ducks can be observed
there. Along the road to the ponds, look for Crane Hawks, White-tipped
Doves, Squirrel Cuckoos, Groove-billed Anis, Vermilion Flycatchers, Masked
Tityras, Grayish Saltators, and White-collared Seedeaters. Between the
sewage ponds and the town is an old overgrown grid of streets in all stages
of decay, zigzagging through trees and bushes. Birds abound, but stay
away from the darkest corners for safety reasons. White-winged Doves,
Orange-fronted Parakeets, Mexican Parrotlets, Gila Woodpeckers, Lineated
Woodpeckers, Purplish-backed Jays, and Orchard Orioles can be found here,
as well as a variety of biting insects (bring repellent).
The village of Singayta, located inland about five miles from San Blas,
is considered by many to be one of the best birding spots in the area.
It's not within walking distance of town, so a taxi or rented car is necessary.
Go through the village, park along the road on the far side, and walk
the dirt road into the forest. Many birds may be found along this route,
including Rufous-bellied Chachalaca, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, Ferruginous
Pygmy-Owl, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Russet-crowned Motmot, Pale-billed Woodpecker,
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Black-throated Magpie-Jay, San Blas Jay, Happy
Wren, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Scrub Euphonia, and wintering
migrants. Vagrants also are regularly sighted here. I was once surprised
by a male Hooded Warbler, which isn't normally seen in western Mexico.
The insects can be annoying, but ordinary repellent will generally keep
The Shrimp Ponds
A short drive from the edge of town will take you to the shrimp ponds,
another good spot with views of a variety of waterbirds. I recommend driving
along the road and stopping frequently. The shrimp ponds may contain Roseate
Spoonbill, Collared Plover, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, and a variety of
herons and egrets. After a few miles, a dirt road to the right leads to
the delightful village of Chacalilla. Walking this road on a sultry afternoon,
I watched a lot of birds (Green Kingfisher, Loggerhead Shrike, Ruddy-breasted
Seedeater, Lark Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark)-and was watched in turn by
the local farmers, who were obviously amused by my pishing tactics and
dangling camera gear.
A person could easily spend a week just birding the sites close to San
Blas. Plenty of other good spots for birding lie within driving range,
though. La Bajada, a village about 40 minutes away, provides some good
birding in and among coffee plantations. The El Mirador del Aguila overlook,
a 45-minute drive, is the most reliable place to see highly sought-after
Military Macaws. Cerro de San Juan is another good spot about an hour's
drive away, where birders may see a variety of avifauna not found in the
San Blas not only holds birds, but it also holds people (a good thing
to remember). On the whole, the Mexicans that I've encountered have gone
out of their way to be friendly and accommodating. On a birding trip to
Puerto Vallarta, I made friends with the first taxi driver I flagged down
(José) and was delighted when he agreed to take me birding around
the area for a full day for about 600 pesos ($70 U.S.). Although not an
experienced bird guide, José knew the area well and often saw the
birds before I did (and enthusiastically shouted their names in Spanish).
A perfect day of birding ended at José's house, where we had a
delicious meal of beans, rice, and radishes.
If you're looking for life birds, or just a Mexican experience punctuated
by birds, San Blas offers plenty of both. This unspoiled Mexican pueblo
has a charm that goes beyond its history and inhabitants. I know people
who have returned many times, captivated by the blue sky, yellow sand,
lush jungle, friendly people, and amazing birds.
San Blas: Information For Travelers
San Blas, Mexico, can be reached from North America by land, sea, or air.
Although it is possible to drive your own car, it can be expensive because
of the toll roads and complicated if you don't speak Spanish. I recommend
flying to Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, or Mazatlán, and taking
a bus or taxi from there to San Blas. You could also rent a car. I prefer
the Puerto Vallarta route because the airport is small and convenient,
the nearby bus terminal is also efficient, and buses run regularly and
reliably (twice-daily directly to San Blas and more often through Tepic).
The area around Puerto Vallarta offers some good birding spots, with a
few species that are hard to find in San Blas.
In addition to your passport, pack plenty of long-sleeved shirts and pants-even
though the weather is likely to be warm-to protect against thorns, stinging
insects, and the sun. It's also a good idea to bring bug repellent, sunscreen,
and a wide-brimmed hat.
Although the language of Mexico is Spanish, you can get around with English,
polite gestures, and a friendly attitude. It helps to speak a little Spanish,
at the very least gracias (thank you), por favor (please), and pájaros
Food and Lodging
Just a few blocks from the center of San Blas, the Hotel Garza Canela
is a comfortable lodging that caters to birders. The proprietor, Josefina
Vazquez, speaks English, knows the area well, and can help visitors with
just about anything. The hotel's restaurant is also excellent. You can
learn more at the hotel website: www.garzacanela.com.
The San Blas area boasts many delightful restaurants, including small
palapas on the beach where regional food is prepared by hand with fresh
Climate and Health
San Blas enjoys a tropical climate that draws birds year-round, but the
best time for humans to visit is October to April. The rainy season, July
and August, is especially challenging because of the swarms of stinging
insects. If you have a sensitive stomach, you may want to take extra precautions
with the food, drinking only bottled water, eating only cooked foods,
and avoiding unpeeled fruits and vegetables. Take along some antacid just
Several guides can help ensure an organized and productive trip. At a
minimum, take two field guides: Steve Howell and Sophie Webb's excellent
Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, plus
a reliable guide to North American birds (such as David Sibley's Sibley
Guide to Birds) or the National Geographic Society Birds of North
America). I also find A Bird-Finding Guide to Mexico by Steve
Howell to be indispensable. The 19-page section on San Blas is finely
detailed with maps, bird lists, and directions to the best sites.
Professional bird guides are few (Chencho is the best), but the locals
tend to know the land and the birds quite well, and are good-natured about
The following companies lead excellent guided bird tours to San Blas:
Field Guides http://www.fieldguides.com
High Lonesome http://www.hilonesome.com
Bird Ventures http://www.birdventures.com
Bird Treks http://www.birdtreks.com