Wildlife-Watching in Puerto Vallarta

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Wildlife-Watching

Banderas Bay and the contiguous coast and inland areas are blessed with abundant species of birds and beasties. Diverse habitats from riparian forests to nearby islands are home to a wide range of native and migratory birds, including about two dozen endemic species. Beyond birds, most of the wildlife spotting is marine: whales (December through end of March), dolphins, marine turtles, and giant manta rays, among many other species.

Bird-Watching

Although there aren't many dedicated birding operators here, this region is perfect for the pastime. Vallarta has more than 350 species in a wide variety of habitats, including shoreline, rivers, marshes, lagoons, mangroves, and tropical and evergreen forests. In the mangroves, standouts are the great blue heron, mangrove cuckoo, and vireo. Ocean and shorebirds include brown and blue-footed boobies and red-billed tropic birds. Military macaws patrol the thorn forests, and songbirds of all stripes serenade the pine-oak forests at higher elevations.

Logistics

Most people come on trips through birding clubs or organizations or hire a private birding guide. Outfitters charge $50-$60 for half-day tours and $100-$125 for full-day tours.

Outfitters

Wings. It's a Tucson, Arizona–based operator that leads at least one weeklong tour each year to the mangroves and tropical forest around San Blas, Jalisco, and Colima. Puerto Vallarta. 520/320–9868; 888/293–6443 in U.S. and Canada. www.wingsbirds.com..

Dolphin Encounters

Many folks find the idea of captive dolphins disturbing; others cherish the opportunity to interact with these intelligent creatures that communicate through body language as well as an audible code we humans have yet to decipher. Decide whether you support the idea of captive-dolphin encounters, and act accordingly. As these gregarious mammals are fond of bow-surfing, most bay-tripping boats will encounter dolphins as they motor along, providing more opportunities to see dolphins as well as leaping manta rays and other sea life.

Logistics

Dolphins are abundant in the bay year-round, though not 24/7. Dolphin encounters limit the number of humans per encounter and usually allow just two visits a day. Call before you arrive or early in your stay to book.

Outfitters

Dolphin and Sea Lion Discovery. For both the Dolphin Encounter ($79) and the Dolphin Swim ($99) at Dolphin Discovery in the Sea Life Park you spend about 30 of the 45-minute experience in the water interacting with dolphins. In the Royal Dolphin Swim ($149), you still get only 30 minutes in the pool, but, with a higher ratio of cetaceans to humans, you get more face time. It's an expensive outing, and the memento photos really jack up the price (you're not allowed to take your own snaps, and they photograph each family member individually). To get the most bang for your buck, plan to spend the day at the water park. The entrance fee of $18/$14 for adults/kids to Aquaventures Park is included with dolphin program. Aquaventures Park, Carretera a Tepic, Km 155, Nuevo Vallarta, 63732. 322/297–0724; 866/393–5158 in U.S.; 866/793–1905 in Canada. www.aquaventuras.com..

Aquaventures Park. Kids can plummet down one of 10 enormous waterslides, play on playground equipment, and indulge in junk food at the obligatory snack shops while their parents swim or relax around the pool. On the property are the dolphin and sea-lion discovery adventures. Carretera a Tepic, Km 155, Nuevo Vallarta, 63732. 322/297–0724. $18. Tues.–Sun. 10–5.

Wildlife Connection. This Mexican-owned company uses two-motor skiffs equipped with listening equipment to find pods of dolphins in the wild blue sea. You can then jump in the water to swim with these beautiful creatures in their own environment. The most common destination is around the Marietas Islands. The cost is $76 per person for a three- to four-hour tour, including travel time; tours are conducted April through December only. There's no guarantee, however, that the dolphins will stick around for the fun. There's also a combined tour searching for whales and dolphins, $80 a pop, December through March only. Calle Francia 140, Dpto. 7, Col. Versalles, Puerto Vallarta, 48310. 322/225–3621.

Caution

Several organizations, including Greenpeace, the Humane Society (U.S.), and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, have spoken out against captive dolphin encounters, asserting that some water parks get dolphins from restricted areas and that the confined conditions at some parks put the dolphins' health at risk. Consider putting the $100-plus fee toward a snorkeling, whale-watching, or noncaptive dolphin encounter, where you can see marine life in its natural environment.

Hiking

The coastal fringe and the hills behind Vallarta—with streams and rivers heading down from the mountains—are beautiful areas for exploring, but few tour operators have hiking and walking trips. If you plan an impromptu exploration, it's best to take along a local familiar with the area.

Logistics

Some of the biking tour operators will lead hiking outings as well, if you ask.

Outfitters

Ecotours. Its three-hour hike around El Nogalito River ($60) includes a pit stop at a rocky, waterfall-fed pool for a dip. En route to either you'll see a small number of birds, butterflies, and tropical plants. Ignacio L. Vallarta 243, Col. E. Zapata, Puerto Vallarta, 48380. 322/223–3130 or 322/222–6606. www.ecotoursvallarta.com..

Vallarta Adventures is one of PV's most respected tour operators and offers sea and land adventures; a particularly wonderful tour combines round-trip air transportation to the highlands with a visit to the former mining town of San Sebastián. Paseo de las Palmas 39–A, Nuevo Vallarta, Puerto Vallarta, 63735. 322/297–1212; 888/303–2653 in U.S. and Canada. www.vallarta-adventures.com. Edifício Marina Golf, Local 13–C, Calle Mástil, Marina Vallarta, 48354. 322/221–0657.

Turtle-Watching and Repatriation

Mexico has seven of the world's eight sea turtle species. Three of those species live in and around Banderas Bay. The fastest growing and earliest to mature of the Pacific Coast turtles is the olive ridley, or golfina, which are more numerous than the Careyes and the even less frequently sighted leatherback. Researchers estimate there are 1 to 10 leatherbacks for every 1,000 olive ridleys in the Puerto Vallarta area.

After the female turtle creates a nest in the sand, the eggs incubate for approximately 60 days. The babies must bust out of eggs and earth on their own, and with luck they will head for the ocean under cover of night. Birds, crabs, and other wild animals are relentless predators. For every 1,000 baby turtles born, only 1 survives to adulthood. Fortunately the average nest holds several hundred eggs.

Logistics

Tours run from summer through late fall. Wear shoes or sandals that are comfortable for walking in the sand. Bring a sweatshirt or light jacket, and plan to stay out late in the evening for most turtle repatriation programs, as that's when predators are less active. Most tours cost $46-$50 per person, last three to four hours, and combine educational programs with hands-on activities.

Outfitters

Ecotours. Three-hour turtle tours August through mid-December cost $48. Depending on the time of year, you may walk the beach searching for females depositing their eggs in the sand and help remove these eggs for safekeeping. Whether or not you find egg-laying females, there are always little turtles for releasing to the wild at the end of the evening. Tours are Monday through Saturday. Ignacio L. Vallarta 243, Col. E. Zapata, Puerto Vallarta, 48350. 322/223–3130 or 322/222–6606. www.ecotoursvallarta.com..

Wildlife Connection. This Mexican-owned company uses two-motor skiffs equipped with listening equipment to find pods of dolphins in the wild blue sea. You can then jump in the water to swim with these beautiful creatures in their own environment. The most common destination is around the Marietas Islands. The cost is $76 per person for a three- to four-hour tour, including travel time; tours are conducted April through December only. There's no guarantee, however, that the dolphins will stick around for the fun. There's also a combined tour searching for whales and dolphins, $80 a pop, December through March only. Calle Francia 140, Dpto. 7, Col. Versalles, Puerto Vallarta, 48310. 322/225–3621.

Whale-Watching

Most of the boats on the bay, whether fishing boats or tour boats, also run whale-watching tours (December-mid-March). Some boats are equipped with hydrophones for listening to the whales' songs and carry trained marine biologists; others use the usual crew and simply look for signs of cetaceans. The species you're most likely to see are humpback and killer whales (a gray whale occasionally); false killer whales; and bottlenose, spinner, and pantropic spotted dolphins (yup, dolphins are whales, too!).

Logistics

Whale-watching is only available December through March. Prime breeding grounds are around the Marietas Islands. The larger boats leave from Marina Vallarta, but you can hire fishermen in villages like Corral del Risco, Mismaloya, Boca de Tomatlán, Yelapa, Las Animas, Barra de Navidad, and Tenacatita for less formal, more intimate trips. The larger boats are more likely to have radio equipment useful for communicating with others about the location of whale pods. Some outfitters offer a discount if you sign up online.

Outfitters

Ecotours. After a brief lecture about cetacean ecosystems, you'll board a boat equipped with hydrophones at Punta Mita for a three-hour tour. Tours are daily in season (mid-December to mid-March) and cost $75. Ignacio L. Vallarta 243, Col. E. Zapata, Puerto Vallarta, 48350. 322/223–3130 or 322/222–6606. www.ecotoursvallarta.com..

Sociedad Cooperativa Corral del Risco. Two hours of whale-watching or snorkeling around the Marietas Islands, for up to 10 people, costs $114. Anyone older than 6 but younger than 60 also pays $2 for a wristband allowing entrance to the Marietas, a national aquatic park. You search until whales are spotted, and then have a half-hour of viewing time before returning to dry land. Av. El Anclote 1, Manz. 17, Corral del Risco, 63734. 329/291–6298. www.puntamitacharters.com..

Vallarta Adventures is one of PV's most respected tour operators and offers sea and land adventures; a particularly wonderful tour combines round-trip air transportation to the highlands with a visit to the former mining town of San Sebastián. Paseo de las Palmas 39–A, Nuevo Vallarta, Puerto Vallarta, 63735. 322/297–1212; 888/303–2653 in U.S. and Canada. www.vallarta-adventures.com. Edifício Marina Golf, Local 13–C, Calle Mástil, Marina Vallarta, 48354. 322/221–0657.

Wildlife Connection. The company gives whale-watching tours in season for $76. Its professional biologists are dedicated to educating the public about area wildlife. Calle Francia 140, Col. Versalles, Puerto Vallarta, 48310. 322/225–3621. www.wildlifeconnection.com..

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