Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mexican playground a (snow) birders' paradise

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SAN BLAS, Mexico -- Riviera Nayarit (it rhymes with sweet) is for the birds, literally.

This 160-kilometre playa-lined playground on Mexico's north-central coast stretching from Nuevo Vallarta in the south to San Blas in the north draws snowbirds from across Canada.

The newly branded and promoted Nayarit region also lures birders. Along on our trip, sponsored by the Mexican Tourist Board, was Laura Tangley of National Wildlife magazine in Washington, D.C., who thought she had died and gone to an avian heaven.

Tangley counted 33 different species of birds during our two-hour boat safari through the mangrove estuary in La Tovara National Park. The record is 280 species spotted during an eight-hour period during the annual birdwatching festival. The next festival will be held Jan. 19-26. So, birders, mark your calendars.

The park is one of the top birdwatching habitats in North America and we could see why. Around every bend there was a new species to fill the viewfinders of our cameras: snowy egrets, kingfishers, black hawks, tiger herons, storks, white ibis and vermilion flycatchers just to whet a birder's appetite.

The estuary covers some 200,000 hectares and has as its headwaters the Sea of Cortes, which Jacques Cousteau called "the world's aquarium."

On the other side of the boating spectrum was our exhilarating catamaran excursion to Las Marietas Island in Banderas Bay, famous for its sightings of humpback whales from December to mid-April.

The party boat from Vallarta Adventures took us to a prime snorkelling and scuba-diving site where we could have our own Captain Nemo experience, surrounded by tropical fish such as the colourful king angels that love to be hand-fed from the boat.

Like San Blas, Marietas also is for the birds -- big-time.

Bird life abounds on and around this rocky outcrop in the bay. The sky is filled with soaring frigate birds, brown pelicans and cormorants. But what intrigued me the most was the sighting of the blue-footed boobies.

Weren't they supposed to be found only in the far-off Galapagos?

Not so, said our guide. Marietas Island is near the northern extent of the migratory range of the boobies, whose feet are as bright blue as robins' eggs.

One of the first little towns we visited along the golden coast is Bucerias, a fishing village that boasts cobblestone streets, shops, seafood restaurants and beach clubs.

Another town that retains its authentic Mexican charm is the other San Francisco, or San Pancho, as it's affectionately known. This colourful seaside town is popular with expats, as well as the bronzed, bikinied surfer crowd.

If it's action you're looking for, check out Rincon de Guayabitos. High above the town from our vantage point at a hilltop restaurant called the Vista Guayabitos, we could clearly see and hear revellers splashing in the secluded bay, some being pulled in bright, yellow banana boats, others making waves on their personal watercraft, while kids boogie-boarded closer to shore.

A bit farther south, Sayulita would make the Beach Boys proud. The seaside town is internationally recognized for its surfing and boasts a thriving art colony and quaint shops selling everything from clothing and handicrafts to handmade cosmetics and jewelry, some of it made by the native Huichol band.

San Blas itself boasts a reconstructed Spanish colonial fort with a commanding view of the town, as well as remnants of an old church, commissioned by Charles I, king of Spain in 1781. It was from San Blas that the Franciscan friars embarked on their mission of conversion in the Californias.

-- Canwest News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 2, 2010 E4

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