San Blas (pop. about 15,000) is a small town slumbering beneath a big coconut grove. Life goes on in the plaza as if San Blas has always been an ordinary Mexican village, but at one time it was anything but ordinary. During its 18th-century glory days, San Blas was Mexico’s burgeoning Pacific military headquarters and port, with a population of 30,000. Ships from Spain’s Pacific Rim colonies crowded its harbor, silks and gold filled its counting houses, and noble Spanish officers and their mantilla-graced ladies strolled the plaza on Sunday afternoons.
The overlook atop the Cerro de San Basilio is the best spot to orient yourself to San BlasTimes change, however. Politics and San Blas’s pesky jejenes (hey-HEY-nays, invisible no-see-um biting gnats) have always conspired to deflate any temporary fortunes of San Blas. The breeding ground of the jejenes, a vast hinterland of mangrove marshes, may paradoxically give rise to a new, more prosperous San Blas. These thousands of acres of waterlogged mangrove jungle and savanna are a nursery home for dozens of Mexico’s endangered species. This rich trove is now protected by ecologically aware governments and communities, and admired (not unlike the game parks of Africa) by increasing numbers of ecotourists.
The overlook atop the Cerro de San Basilio is the best spot to orient yourself to San Blas ($1 entry fee). From this breezy point, the palm-shaded grid of streets stretches to the sunset side of El Pozo estuary and the lighthouse-hill beyond it. Behind you, on the east, the mangrove-lined San Cristóbal river estuary meanders south to the Bay of Matanchén. Along the south shore, the crystalline white line of San Blas’s main beach, Playa el Borrego (Sheep Beach), stretches between the two estuary mouths.
Sights in the town of San Blas
While you’re atop the hill, take a look around the old contaduria counting house and fort (built in 1770), where riches were tallied and stored en route to Mexico City or to the Philippines and China. Several of the original great cannons still stand guard at the viewpoint like aging sentinels waiting for long-dead adversaries. Inside the counting house, you’ll find a small museum and photo display, well worth seeing.
Behind and a bit downhill from the weathered stone arches of the contaduria stand the gaping portals and towering, moss-stained belfry of the old church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario, built in 1769.
Downhill, historic houses and ruins dot San Blas town. The old hotels Bucanero and Hacienda Flamingos on the main street, Juárez, leading past the central plaza, preserve much of their old-world charm. Just across the street from the Hacienda Flamingos, you can admire the restored, monumental brick colonnade of the 19th-century former Aduana, now a cultural center. Continue west along Juárez to the El Pozo estuary. This was both the jumping-off point for colonization of the Californias and the anchorage of the silk- and porcelain-laden Manila galleons and the bullion ships from the northern mines.
El Faro (lighthouse) across the estuary marks the top of Cerro Vigia, the southern hill tip of Isla del Rey (actually a peninsula). Here, the first beacon shone during the latter third of the 18th century.
Although only a few local folks ever bother to cross over to the island, it is nevertheless an important pilgrimage site for Huichol people from the remote Nayarit and Jalisco mountains. Huichol have been gathering on the Isla del Rey for centuries to make offerings to Aramara, their goddess of the sea. A not-so-coincidental shrine to a Catholic virgin-saint stands on an offshore sea rock, visible from the beach endpoint of the Huichol pilgrimage a few hundred yards beyond the lighthouse.
Two weeks before Easter, Huichol people begin arriving by the dozens, the men decked out in flamboyant feathered hats. On the ocean beach, 10 minutes’ walk straight across the island, anyone can respectfully watch them perform their rituals: elaborate marriages, feasts, and offerings of little boats laden with arrows and food, consecrated to the sea goddess to ensure good hunting and crops and many healthy children.
Isla Isabel is a two-mile-square national park/offshore wildlife study area 40 miles (65 km) and three hours north by boat. The cone of an extinct volcano, Isla Isabel is now home to a small government station of ecoscientists and a host of nesting boobies, frigate birds, and white-tailed tropic birds. Fish and sea mammals, especially dolphins and sometimes whales, abound in the surrounding clear waters.
Although it’s not a recreational area, local authorities allow serious visitors, accompanied by authorized guides, for a few days of camping, snorkeling, scuba diving, and wildlife-watching. A primitive dormitory can accommodate several people. Bring everything, including food and bedding. Contact experienced and licensed boat captain Ricardo (Pato) Murillo (tel. 323/285-1281) or equally well-qualified captain Santos Villafuente (at the Hotel Brisas del Mar, tel. 323/285-0870, cell tel. 044-311/109-1993) for arrangements and prices. Tariffs typically run $250 per day for parties of up to four people. Stormy summer and fall weather limits most Isla Isabel trips to the sunnier, calmer winter-spring season. For additional information and advice, check with manager Josefina Vasquéz at the Hotel Garza Canela front desk (Paredes 106 Sur, tel. 323/285-0112, 323/285-0307, or 323/285-0480, toll-free Mex. tel. 01-800/713-2313, fax 323/285-0308).
Beaches in San Blas
San Blas’s most convenient beach is Playa el Borrego, at the south end of Calle Cuauhtémoc about a mile south of town. With a lineup of palapas for food and drinks, the mile-long broad, fine-sand beach is ripe for all beach activities except snorkeling (because of the murky water). The mild offshore currents and gentle, undertow-free slope are nearly always safe for good swimming, bodysurfing, and boogie boarding. Surfing is okay here.
Shoals of shells—clams, cockles, mother-of-pearl—wash up on Borrego Beach during storms. Fishing is often good, especially when casting from the jetty and rocks at the north and south ends.
La Tovara Jungle River Trip
On the downstream side of the bridge over Estero San Cristóbal, launches-for-hire will take you up the Río Tovara, a side channel that winds about a mile downstream into the jungle.
The channel quickly narrows into a dark tree-tunnel, edged by great curtainlike swaths of mangrove roots. Big snowy garza (egrets) peer out from leafy branches; startled turtles slip off their soggy perches into the river, while big submerged roots, like gigantic pythons, bulge out of the inky water. Riots of luxuriant plants—white lilies, green ferns, red romelia orchids—hang from the trees and line the banks.
Finally you reach Tovara Springs, which well from the base of a verdant cliff. On one side, a bamboo-sheltered palapa restaurant serves refreshments, while on the other families picnic in a hillside pavilion. In the middle, everyone jumps in and paddles in the clear, cool water.
You can enjoy this trip either of two ways: the longer, three-hour excursion as described ($60 per boatload of 6-8) from El Conchal landing on the estuary, or the shorter version (two hours, $30 per boatload) beginning upriver at road-accessible Las Aguadas near Matanchén village. Either drive, taxi, or ride the blanco (white) bus or the navy blue Transportes Noreste bus.
The more leisurely three-hour trip allows more chances (especially in the early morning) to spot an ocelot, or a giant boa constrictor hanging from a limb (no kidding). Many of the boatmen are very professional; if you want to view wildlife, tell them, and they’ll go more slowly and keep a sharp lookout. The crocs, however, like to appear when the sun comes out, so they are more likely to be viewed in the late morning or afternoon.
Some boatmen offer more extensive trips to less-disturbed sites deeper in the jungle. These include the Camalota spring, a branch of the Río Tovara (where a local ejido maintains a crocodile breeding station), and the even more remote and pristine Tepiqueñas, Los Negros, and Zoquipan lagoons in the San Cristóbal Estero’s upper reaches.
In light of the possible wildlife-watching rewards, trip prices are very reasonable. For example, the very knowledgeable bird specialist Oscar Partida Hernández (Comonfort 134 Pte., tel. 323/285-0324) will guide a four-person boatload to La Tovara for about $60. If Oscar is busy, call “Chencho” Banuelos (tel. 323/285-0716) for a comparably excellent trip. More extensive options include a combined Camalota-La Tovara trip (allow 4-5 hours) for about $45 for four, or Tepiqueñas and Los Negros (6 hours, 7am departure) for about $60.
Ecotours in San Blas
For ecologically oriented tours, you might look into the services of Canadian photographer-guide John Stewart, founder of Seven Sunset Tours, who with partner Ryan Graham works out of Casa Mañana at Playa los Cocos, several miles south of San Blas. John, Ryan, and staff like to lead their clients on ecofriendly tours to local villages, hidden beaches, waterfalls, places to bird-watch, and much more.
Ecotouring in Singayta
The latter-day local growth of shrimp-pond aquaculture and the associated wildlife habitat destruction has prompted action by ecoactivists in San Blas and neighboring communities, such as Singayta, five miles (eight km) east of San Blas.
Singayta villagers began taking positive action around 2000. Since then, they have established a nursery for reintroduction of threatened native plants, a crocodile breeding farm, and an environmental awareness center to educate visitors and residents about the destructive reality of shrimp-pond aquaculture. To back all this up, Singayta offers a menu of guided ecotours and services (www.singayta.com and www.elmanglar.com) for visitors. These include canoe trips into the mangrove wetland, walking tours, mountain bike rentals, donkey cart and horseback tours, and more. A restaurant also offers meals and refreshments. To find out more about Singayta, contact knowledgeable ecoleader and guide Juan “Bananas” Garcia (tel. 323/285-0462), founder of Grupo Ecológico in San Blas.
Get to Singayta by car along Tepic Highway 74, about five miles (eight km) straight east of the San Blas plaza; or, by bus, from the San Blas plaza-front bus station, by one of the hourly Tepic-bound buses.
Whale-Watching in San Blas
A number of San Blas captains take visitors on less extensive, but nevertheless potentially rewarding, wildlife-viewing excursions November-April. Sightings might include humpback, gray, and sperm whales; dolphins; seals; sea lions; turtles; manta rays; and flocks of birds, including gulls, frigate birds, cormorants, boobies, terns, and much more. Guides include Pato Murillo (tel. 323/729-7944), who has an office in front of Casa Cocadas near the marina; Santos Villafuente (at the Hotel Brisas del Mar, tel. 323/285-0870, cell tel. 044- 311/109-1993); and super-experienced English-speaking Tony Aguayo, who can be reached at home (tel. 323/285-0364) or at his “office,” the little palapa to the left of the small floating boat dock at the El Pozo estuary end of Juárez. A typical five-hour excursion runs about $200 for up to six passengers.
Bird-Watching in San Blas
Although San Blas’s extensive mangrove and mountain jungle hinterlands are renowned for their birds and wildlife, rewarding birdwatching can start in the early morning right at the edge of town. Follow Calle Conchal right (southeast) one block from Suites San Blas, then left (northeast) to a small pond. With binoculars, you might get some good views of local species of cormorants, flycatchers, grebes, herons, jacanas, and motmots. A copy of Peterson and Chalif’s Field Guide to Mexican Birds or Steve Howell’s Bird-Finding Guide to Mexico will assist in further identification.
Rewarding bird-watching is also possible on Isla del Rey. Bargain for a launch (from the foot of Juárez, about $4 round-trip) across to the opposite shore. Watch for wood, clapper, and Virginia rails, and boat-billed herons near the estuary shore. Then follow the track across the island (looking for warblers and a number of species of sparrows) to the beach, where you might enjoy good views of plovers, terns, Heermann’s gulls, and rafts of pelicans. Bird-watching guides in the area include Mark Stackhouse (tel. 323/285-1243), who speaks English, and Francisco Garcia (tel. 323/282-8835), who does waterfall hikes as well.
Alternatively, look around the hillside cemetery and the ruins atop Cerro de San Basilio for good early-morning views of hummingbirds, falcons, owls, and American redstarts.
You can include serious bird-watching with your boat trip through the mangrove channels branching from the Estero San Cristóbal and the Río Tovara. This is especially true if you obtain the services of a wildlife-sensitive guide, such as Oscar Partida (tel. 323/285-0324), “Chencho” Banuelos (tel. 323/285-0716), or Armando Santiago (tel. 323/285-0859, dolpacarm@ yahoo.com). Expect to pay about $60 for a half-day trip for four people.
In addition to the aforementioned guides, Armando Navarette (Sonora 179, no phone) offers bird-watching hikes, especially around Singayta in the foothills, where birders routinely identify 30-40 species in a two-hour adventure. Such an excursion might also include a coffee plantation visit, hiking along the old royal road to Tepic, and plenty of tropical fauna and flora, including butterflies, wildflowers, and giant vines and trees, such as ceiba, arbolde, and the peeling, red papillo tree. Armando’s fee for such a trip, lasting around five hours, runs about $20 per person, plus your own or rented transportation.
Bird-watching tours and packages are another option. One of the best organized, known simply as San Blas Birds, lists a variety of one- to seven-day tours. The longer tours include lodging. For example, three days including lodging at Hotel Posada del Rey runs around $450 per person; the same out of Hotel Garza Canela is about $650 per person.
For more details on bird-watching and hiking around San Blas, you can purchase a number of guides at the shop at Hotel Garza Canela. It also usually carries the Checklist of Birds Found in San Blas, Nayarit or the Birder’s Guide to San Blas, published by San Blas Birds.
Walking and Jogging in San Blas
The cooling late-afternoon sea breeze and the soft but firm sand of Playa el Borrego (south end of H. Batallón) make it the best place around town for a walk or jog. Arm yourself against jejenes with repellent and long pants, especially around sunset.
Waterfall Hikes in San Blas
A number of waterfalls decorate the lush jungle foothills above the Bay of Matanchén. Two of these, near Tecuitata and El Cora villages, are accessible from the Santa Cruz-Tepic Highway 76 about 10 miles (16 km) south of San Blas. The local autobús blanco will take you most of the way. It runs south to Santa Cruz every two hours 8:30am-4:30pm from the downtown corner of Juárez and Paredes.
While rugged adventurers may guide themselves to the waterfalls, others rely upon guides Armando Navarette or local ecoleader Juan “Bananas” Garcia (inquire at Tourist Information by the Pemex station at the entrance to town, tel. 323/285-0271, or with Josefina Vasquéz at the Hotel Garza Canela, tel. 323/285-0112, 323/285-0307, or 323/285-0480).
Surfing in San Blas
Playa el Borrego has a good beach break when the swell and sand bar are right, but nearly all of San Blas’s serious wave-riding action goes on at world-class surfing mecca Stoner’s Point, just past Matanchén Beach. Matanchén Bay itself is a big, fun, entertaining right point break that goes on forever. Around the point of Las Islitas lies another cove, and beyond it, Stoner’s Point. This is the real deal; though it is a notoriously fickle wave, on the right swell, tide, and wind, this is a world-class right point break. South swells are best for Matanchén and Stoner’s; think April-November, and if you show up, pray for the right swell from the right direction. The sea gods here are unpredictable.
To find out more, be sure to visit Stoner’s Surf Camp on Playa el Borrego, beach side of the entrance parking lot. Here, welcoming owner-operator Nikki Kath, besides renting boogie boards ($2/hr) and surfboards ($3/hr), offers surf lessons ($12/hr) and runs a restaurant, a hotel, and a small campground on the premises. Juan “Bananas” Garcia (tel. 323/285-0462), at his café at H. Battallón 219, also rents surfboards and boogie boards.
If you want to learn to surf, or are already a surfer and want to improve your skills, Stoner’s is ready for you, with their champion instructor Jose “Pompi” Manuel Cano, who boasts a long list of awards that he began winning in 1980, at the age of eight. For much more surfing information, visit the Stoner’s Surf Camp website.
Sportfishing in San Blas
Tony Aguayo (tel. 323/285-0364), Ricardo “Pato” Murillo (tel. 323/285-1281), and Edgar Regalado (tel. 323/285-1023) are all highly recommended to lead big-game deep-sea fishing excursions. Tony’s “office” is the palapa shelter to the left of the little dock at the foot of Calle Juárez near the El Pozo estuary. Tony, Pato, and Edgar all regularly captain big-boat excursions for tough-fighting marlin, dorado, and sailfish. Their fee will run about $400 for a seven-hour expedition for up to three people, including big boat, tackle, and bait.
On the other hand, a number of other good-eating fish are not so difficult to catch. Check with Tony or other captains, such as Antonio Palmas at the Hotel Garza Canela or one of the owners of the many craft docked by the estuary shoreline at the foot of Juárez. For perhaps $150, they’ll take three or four of you for a lancha outing, which most likely will result in four or five hefty 10-pound snapper, mackerel, tuna, or yellowtail; afterward you can ask your favorite restaurant to cook them for a feast.
During the last few days in May, San Blas hosts its long-running (30-plus years) International Fishing Tournament. The entrance fee runs around $600; prizes vary from automobiles to Mercury outboards and Penn International fishing rods. For more information, contact Tony Aguayo or Pato Murillo, or ask at the local tourist information office, downtown at the Presidencia Municipal.
Excerpted from the Ninth Edition of Moon Puerto Vallarta.