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Mexican hot spot just keeps on giving

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When a whale announces its presence, it's tough to ignore. There's usually a giant splash or two, a huge exhalation through the whale's blowhole, and excited shouts from anyone lucky enough to witness such a spectacle.

This was certainly the case on our last trip to Mexico, as a perfect day of snorkelling drew to a close just off the shores of Puerto Vallarta.

The seven-hour catamaran tour we'd taken had been flawless. Our Vallarta Adventures boat went to Las Marietas, a group of uninhabited islands home to dozens of bird species and marine life.

The Mexican government once used these islands for military testing and bombing, but international protest in the late 1960s -- initiated by biologist Jacques Cousteau -- resulted in the area becoming a protected park.

UNESCO named the islands a biosphere reserve by UNESCO because of the myriad coral, fish, bird and mammal species found here.

As we took in the rocky beauty, blue-footed boobies, squawking seagulls and swift swallows filled the land and air.

The bird-watching was followed by sea kayaking and snorkelling. We jumped into the crystal clear water as colourful fish darted around us. The occasional sea turtle and giant manta ray also grace these waters.

The next stop was a secluded beach, with time for sunning, swimming and beachcombing.

The day had been ideal, we decided on the way back to the mainland, as dolphins popped up alongside the boat, much as they had throughout the day.

Our guide explained that if we were visiting a couple of weeks later, we might have spotted a humpback whale or two, as well. The humpbacks arrive in the warm waters of Banderas Bay each December and stay until the end of March, largely to reproduce and give birth.

The guide was busily pointing out different types of dolphins when his tone changed. "Do you want to go see some whales?" he shouted.

In the distance, he'd spotted six of them, each weighing about 36 tonnes. It was the first whale-sighting of the season. Our boat caught up with the whales and we saw five males showing off, trying to capture the attention of the lone female.

They jumped, breached, splashed, slapped and bumped into each other. Everyone on the boat stood mesmerized by the spectacle.

The sighting was a surprise -- something Puerto Vallarta still delivers.

For first-time and repeat visitors, the destination offers surprising delights.

I strolled through the heart of the old town on a recent visit, remembering some of my favourite things from a vacation years earlier, such as the cobblestone streets and the Catholic cathedral.

A new display, however, caught my attention. Dozens of chalk murals formed a temporary art show on the pavement, injecting a punch of colour into the classic beauty of the town.

Next up was the malecon, the well-known promenade along the beach.

 

A statue of a child on a seahorse still stands, as it has since 1976. But not far away, groupings of new statues also command attention, turning the 12-block malecon into an impressive art walk. Artists have coaxed and shaped stone, steel and bronze into an amazing array of sculpture, including high-backed chairs that morph into creatures and the double helix of DNA, intertwined with frogs, a lizard and an octopus.

Another newer delight can be found north of Puerto Vallarta. Here, the Riviera Nayarit has blossomed to become one of Mexico's hot spots, dotted with all-inclusive hotels, secluded hideaways and dozens of beaches. There's a resort for every taste, whether you're looking for activities and sports (Paradise Village) or an escape from reality (Dreams.)

As we arrived at the Riu Palace Pacifico, we discovered a white jewel of a resort sparkling on a golden beach.

The food, the decor and the pool were remarkable.

A walk down to the beach led to a discovery of sand dollars, an assortment of other marine creatures and even a couple of baby sea turtles.

Pods of dolphins also swam by each day, usually around 10 a.m., often coinciding with the morning yoga and stretch class on the beach.

The nearby golf course, Flamingos, provides 18 holes of paradise for golfers. Mangroves, lagoons, lush tropical forest and unspoiled natural areas surround the fairways.

The rates are reasonable compared with other courses in the area.

Other activities in the Riviera Nayarit include a canopy tour, a trip into the Sierra Madre mountains; local flea markets and colonial villages.

Mexico's tourism board recently used the slogan "Mexico: the place you thought you knew."

After spending a week in Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit, the phrase rings true.

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

Vacation packages are available at westjetvacations.com. Visitor information on Mexico is at visitmexico.com.

Info on Riu Hotels and Resorts can be found at riu.com, while details on golfing at Flamingos are at flamingosgolf.com.mx.

Landmarks: A historic lighthouse, a glorious malecon, art centre, theatre, cathedral and town market.

The Wonders of Mazatlan

A few years ago, a Mexican tourism organization and media outlet began a contest searching for the 13 man-made wonders of Mexico.

After 1.5 million votes were cast, Mazatlan won a coveted spot, largely for its development as a port city. After gold and silver were discovered here in the 1700s, Mazatlan developed one of the country's most important harbours to export the precious metals.

Today, the destination (on the same Pacific Ocean coast where Puerto Vallarta sits) offers treasures for visitors:

Shrimp: They're fresh, juicy and abundant, and the star of dozens of gourmet dishes.

Beaches: Mazatlan's beaches are some of the widest in the country. When surf's out, you can seemingly walk forever in gentle waves and tidal pools.

Pulmonias: These open-air golf-cart vehicles are tons more fun than the usual taxis found at most destinations.

Parasailing: This is the hot spot for the sport, which makes you think that perhaps man really can, or should, fly.

The Fountain of Eternal Youth: This historic building was once the best-stocked pharmacy of early times, with a chemist developing a potion called the "Goddess Venus." Wealthy people travelled here to buy it, since it was said to restore lost youth.

Today, people come to see the historic architecture, museum, galleries and a restaurant.

Landmarks: A historic lighthouse, a glorious malecon, art centre, theatre, cathedral and town market.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 D1

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