When a whale announces its presence, it's a hard thing 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 types of marine life.
The Mexican government once used these islands for military testing and bombing, but international protest in the late 1960s -- initiated by noted biologist Jacques Cousteau -- eventually resulted in the area becoming a protected park.
The islands have also now been named a biosphere reserve by UNESCO, due to the myriad of coral, fish, bird and mammal species found here.
As we took in the islands' rocky beauty, thousands of birds could be seen. 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 occasionally grace these waters.
The next stop came at a secluded little 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, seemingly as surprised as we were.
In the distance, he'd spotted six of the behemoth mammals, each weighing about 36 tonnes. It was the first whale sighting of the season.
Our boat caught up with the whales (with the captain steering the boat a respectable distance away), and we saw five males showing off, trying to capture the attention of the lone female in the area.
They jumped, breached, splashed, slapped and bumped into each other. Everyone on the boat stood mesmerized by the spectacle.
Best of all, the whale sighting was a complete surprise -- something that Puerto Vallarta still delivers.
For first-time and repeat visitors, the destination continues to serve up 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 often-photographed cathedral.
A new display, however, quickly 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, 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 emerging 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 the ultimate offerings in activities and sports (check out Paradise Village) or complete escape from reality (try 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 décor and the pool were remarkable. But even more delightful was the friendly service, with more than a dozen waiters learning our names while we were there.
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, making the course both beautiful and challenging.
Course staff are professional and helpful, while the rates are reasonable, too, compared to other courses in the area.
Other activities in the Riviera Nayarit also provide welcome and surprising diversions. You can glide from tree to tree during a canopy tour; escape into the mountains with a Sierra Madre adventure; discover local flea markets; or, explore colonial villages.
The country's tourism board was recently using the marketing slogan of "Mexico: The Place You Thought You Knew." After spending a week in Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit, it's easy to see why the phrase rings true.
The Wonders of Mazatlan
A few years ago, a Mexican tourism organization and media outlet began a contest.
They were searching for the 13 man-made wonders of Mexico and 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 a wealth of other treasures for visitors to discover:
* Shrimp: They're fresh, juicy and abundant, and the star of dozens of gourmet dishes across the city.
* 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: Translated to pneumonia, these open-air golf-cart vehicles are tons more fun than the usual taxis found at most destinations.
* Parasailing: This is the hotspot for the sport, which makes you think that perhaps man really can, or should, fly -- at least for a few minutes.
* 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 purchase it, since it was said to restore lost youth. Today, people come to see the historic architecture, museum, galleries and a restaurant.
* Landmarks: Other "don't miss" landmarks include a historic lighthouse, a glorious malecon, art centre, theatre, cathedral and town market.
IF YOU GO
-- Vacation packages to the area 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.
ENTER TO WIN
This fall, you can win travel prizes from WestJet and WestJet vacations. To win, find the Fly Free game board in the newspaper each week from now until Oct. 28, and then collect daily game pieces from the paper. More information is at winnipegfreepress.com/flyfree.
Week one: Hawaii
Week two: Jamaica
Week three: Caribbean
Week four: Cancun & Cozumel
Week five: Puerto Vallarta & Mazatlan
Week six: Florida