Some tour and study programs include in-depth activities centered around arts and crafts, language and culture, people-to-people contact, wildlife-watching, ecology, or off-the-beaten-track adventuring. Outstanding among them are programs by University of Guadalajara, Field Guides, Oceanic Society, Elderhostel, Mar de Jade, and Rancho El Charro.
In Puerto Vallarta, the University of Guadalajara (www.cepe.udg.mx ) maintains excellent study programs for visitors, through its Centro de Estudios Para Extranjeros (CEPE) (Study Center for Foreigners). Their extensive offering ranges from beginning Spanish language to advanced History, Politics, Literature, and Art. Housing options include homestays with local families.
Mar de Jade (tel. 800/257-0532, www.mardejade.com ), a holistic-style living center at Playa Chacala, about 50 miles (80 km) north of Puerto Vallarta, offers unique people-to-people work-study opportunities. These include Spanish-language study at Mar de Jade’s rustic beach study-center and assisting at its health clinic in Las Varas town nearby. It also offers accommodations and macrobiotic meals for travelers who would want to do nothing more than stay a few days and enjoy Mar de Jade’s lovely tropical ambience.
Naturalists enjoy the excellent Field Guides (tel. 800/728-4953, fax 512/263-0117, www.fieldguides.com ) bird-watching tour, centered in wildlife-rich Jalisco and Colima backcountry. Of the 50 endemic Mexican bird species, about 35 have been seen on this tour.
The remote lagoons and islands of Baja California, about 200 miles (300 km) due west of Mazatlán, nurture a trove of marine and onshore wildlife. Such sanctuaries are ongoing destinations of winter Oceanic Society (Fort Mason Center, QRTS 35, San Francisco, CA 94123, tel. 415/441-1106 or 800/326-7491, fax 415/474-3395, www.oceanic-society.org ) expedition-tours around La Paz, Baja California. Tours customarily cost about $3,000, and cover several islands and shorelines on both the Baja California Pacific and Gulf of California coasts. Activities include about 11 days of marine mammal–watching, snorkeling, bird-watching, and ecoexploring, both on- and offshore.
The Oceanic Society trip might make an exciting overture or finale to your Puerto Vallarta adventure. You can connect with the Oceanic Society’s Baja California (La Paz–Los Cabos) jumping-off-points via airlines’ (Aeroméxico, Alaska, Frontier) mainland (Mazatlán/Guadalajara/Puerto Vallarta) destinations.
A Puerto Vallarta ranch, Rancho El Charro (Francisco Villa 895, Fracc. Las Gaviotas, tel. 322/224-0114), organizes naturalist-led horseback treks in the mountains near Puerto Vallarta. Tours run several days and include guided backcountry horseback riding, exploring antique colonial villages, camping out on the trail, swimming, hearty dinners, and cozy evenings at a rustic hacienda. Tariffs begin at about $1,000 per person.