While checking the pulse of San Blas, two and a half hours north of Puerto Vallarta—which thrived during Spain's colonial heyday and now is a simple surreal village of about 20,000—I found lots of inspiring eco-action en route. Following the coastal plain past crops of avocado, banana, mango, papaya, peanut, pineapple, teak and tobacco, we made a pit stop in what I thought at first was a gosling graveyard - downy feathers everywhere. Advised to look up, I saw my first "feather tree", and was alerted to the wondrous flora and fauna in this land of milk and honey.
Just two hours after setting out, we were downing cervezas at the entrance to Mantanchen Bay, hallowed by surfers for the world's longest wave as registered in the Guiness Book of Records. Overlooking Plantanitos' wide sandy beach with South Seas allure, El Mirador is the best vantage for getting your bearings. We checked into Costa Custodio five minutes south, a luxurious enclave of eight oceanfront villas overlooking the 12-mile strikingly virgin Playa Custodio. During low tide the silky rock-free beach shelves gently, ideal for timid swimmers. Thrown in waist-high water, fishing nets come up brimming.
Across the mouth of the estuary lies the Turtle Beach residential development where you can rent a house, pitch a tent or park an RV. A biologist-staffed turtle camp safeguards three of the world's eight sea turtle species nesting on Playa Custodio: Hawksbill, Olive Ridley and Leatherback - which weigh up to 900 pounds. What a sight! Parallel to the beach, the Custodio mangrove estuary - an ecological reserve for resident and wintering water birds, turtles and crocodiles - can be explored with a guide or independently in the canoes available.
Wowed by the primality of being only arms' length from wild creatures, I was keen to check out La Tovara, a freshwater spring in the middle of a series of estuaries known to have been visited by half of Mexico's 1,050 recorded bird species. We chose the newer of two departure points 16 km south of San Blas at La Aguada, restaurants where the tour starts and ends serving regional specialties like fish smoked over mangrove fires and locally harvested blue shrimp.
The most frequent sightings occurring early, we set out into the musty serpentine waterway just after 7 am. Gliding through narrow channels overarched by mangroves, moss-covered banyans and tangled vines, the slow-motion world of the swamp revealed itself - turtles, crabs, crocodiles and iguanas (said to grow to six feet here) basking in threads of light among dainty pastel lilies and orchids. Excitedly scribbling birds' shapes and colors, it turns out the Wood Owl, Mangrove Cuckoo and gorgeous Garza Canela were among them, as well as several varieties of sandpiper, hawk, duck, egret, teal and heron. Families can make a day of it by visiting a crocodile farm and swimming in the spring-fed pond that is San Blas's water source.
Climate and physical features—mangroves, estuaries, lagoons and beaches—make the Mantanchen Bay area one of the Western Hemisphere's most important natural refuges. A frontier zone between land and sea, the coastal savanna harbors an unrivalled diversity of life - unfortunately including mosquitoes and fierce biting gnats that got me in places I didn't know I had. Their witching hours are dawn and dusk and I'm told they're especially bad during full moons. A concentrated repellent like Autan, widely available in Vallarta, is absolutely mandatory.
Pausing in San Blas to take a look after a three year absence, I found it more festive, with banners and posters strung across rutted streets and cement block homes jazzed with color. If you like bicycles, you'll just love this town—they're everywhere. A cultural eye opener is breakfast or lunch at Martha's, delicious inexpensive meals served family style in her tidy kitchen/living room ubiquitous with plastic flowers and doilies.
There's nothing about the area that Josefina Vazquez doesn't know. Bilingual, she's been on the front desk at the four-star Garza Canela for some 20 years. This is the best place to stay with all the amenities and the town's premiere store and restaurant.
Turn left from the airport onto the highway to Tepic. Follow it 91.1 km to the center of Las Varas. Turn left at the stoplight onto the road to San Blas. Entering Zacualpan, turn left just before the town plaza and continue through San Isidro. Passing Ixtapa, bear right at the fork in the road toward Aticama and San Blas.