With great weather year-round, lots of ocean access, and a bounty of beaches, the California coast has a plethora of recreational opportunities.
After Hawaiians introduced surfing to California, it became an essential part of the state’s culture. California offers up waves for every level of surfer. Iconic surf breaks like San Diego’s Black’s Beach, San Onofre State Beach’s Trestles, Santa Barbara’s Rincon, and Santa Cruz’s Steamer Lane make surfers from around the world drool with anticipation. Beginners can attempt their first waves at the gentle peeling waves of Santa Cruz’s Cowell’s Beach or Malibu’s Surfriders Beach.
Stand Up Paddleboarding
California’s many bays, inlets, and protected areas offer the perfect places to get started paddleboarding, which is the coast’s fastest growing sport. Hit the water at Orange County’s Dana Point Harbor, the Central Coast’s Cayucos Beach, Santa Cruz Harbor, and Mendocino’s Big River.
Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
The best way to see the multitude of sea life, kelp forests, and reefs off the California shoreline is to put on some snorkeling or scuba gear. The clear waters and swaying kelp forests of the Monterey Peninsula make it one of the biggest dive destinations in the state. Santa Catalina Island offers pristine underwater habitats for the adventurous, while San Diego’s La Jolla Cove provides easy access to the undersea world.
To get away from the crowds, strap on a backpack and head to the state’s more remote areas. The North Coast’s Lost Coast Trail is a three-day backpacking trip along a 24-mile stretch of rugged coastline. Big Sur’s Ventana Wilderness offers multi-day excursions to hot springs and peaks with fabulous coast views. Get away from it all at backcountry camps on Santa Cruz Island and Santa Rosa Island in Channel Islands National Park.
Although a “best” beach for some folks might be horrible for others, many people would agree that a good, all-purpose beach should have convenient bus or car access, somewhere to stay and eat, gentle surf with no more than mild undertow, and also be safe for boogie boarding and swimming.
Best All-Purpose Beaches in Puerto Vallarta
Beginning on Puerto Vallarta’s south side, Playa los Muertos is the hands-down favorite. It’s long enough that you can spread out if you don’t wish to join the throngs of beachgoers, but it also has all of the amenities you could want, including beach clubs, restaurants, and bars.
Out of town, the south-side best beaches are at Mismaloya and Boca de Tomatlán. On the north side of town, the best beach is made up of the Hotel Zone strip between the Hotel Sheraton and the Hotel Krystal, ending just before the Terminal Maritima (cruise-ship terminal). There’s plenty of public access spots, all marked with signs on the main highway. You are usually welcome to grab a chair in front of any hotel or restaurant as long as you plan on ordering from their bar or restaurant
On the bay’s northwest side, Playa Bucerías is a favorite for calm surf and family-friendly conditions. The beach gets more crowded at the southern end due to the presence of an oversized resort complex. Farther away, on the Bay of Banderas’s northwest side, are petite and very busy Playa Manzanillo (at the Hotel Piedra Blanca) and Playa Anclote at Punta Mita, with good palapa restaurants, snorkeling and surfing nearby, and excursions to offshore Islas Marietas. If you don’t mind carrying a surfboard in (nonsurfers are not allowed under current Punta Mita Development Corporation policy), La Lancha is one of the prettiest beaches in all of Banderas Bay. You can also get there by boat from Playa Anclote.
Another favorite beach, on the Nayarit Coast, is gemlike Playa Chacala, whose golden sand curves gently around its intimate, palm-tufted half-moon bay.
The first best beach south on the Jalisco Coast is at family-friendly Perula, on islet-decorated Chamela Bay. Farther south, find Playa Boca de Iguanas (trailer park). Finally, those who want it all—good hotels, restaurants, and drowsy, country-Mexico tranquility—choose Melaque.
Best Wildlife Beaches in Puerto Vallarta
On the Nayarit Coast, the beaches at San Francisco and Punta Raza both are fed by estuaries. This means superb bird-watching, and you may even get to see some of the indigenous species, like crocodiles, turtles, or coatis. The beaches are steep, often with thunderous waves and strong undertow. San Francisco has beach restaurants and amenities, but Punta Raza only has just one small hotel near the south end.
For pristine isolation, wildlife-watching (egg-laying turtles in the fall), surf fishing, tent camping, and a small hotel with restaurant and clean facilities, no place could be finer than Playa Platanitos, just north of Las Varas on the way to San Blas.
Also very lovely and worthwhile is the local country beach haven of Playa El Naranjo, north of Rincón de Guayabitos-La Peñita. It offers palapa restaurants, a near-level beach with little undertow, surfing breaks, a mangrove lagoon, crocodiles, plenty of birds, and lots of palm-shaded room for RV or tent camping. This beach is not accessible during the rainy season, as the road turns into a mud wallow.
Best Hidden Beaches in Puerto Vallarta
South of Puerto Vallarta, venture off-road to Playa Mayto, accessible from Highway 200 at El Tuito. You’ll need a Jeep or a public minivan to navigate the 3 miles of paved road followed by 15 or so miles of dirt road. Playa Mayto is a three-mile-long golden-sand beach good for virtually all beach diversions and is home to a pair of comfortable, moderately priced hotels, both with restaurants and one with a pool.
Alternatively, go a mile farther south to Tehualmixtle fishing cove, with restaurants and a rustic hotel; add fishing, snorkeling, and scuba diving (with your own equipment) to the family-friendly beach activities.
Most Beautiful Beaches in Puerto Vallarta
Gem of gems, Playa Careyes sits on its own petite half-moon bay and offers palapa restaurants, turtle-watching, surf fishing, fishing trips, and more. A few miles farther, de facto wildlife refuge Playa el Tecuán offers everything: a long pristine strand perfect for beachcombing, powerful rollers for advanced surfers, great surf fishing, and even bird- and wildlife-watching in your own kayak on the Tecuán lagoon. The beach has no facilities, however, so bring everything.
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.
Times 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.
In Guatemala, not only can you take in the ancient Mayan wonders from long before the arrival of the Spanish, you can also visit the Postclassic highland ceremonial sites that greeted the conquistadors upon their arrival in 1524.
Most of the Mayan ceremonial sites that were at their cultural zenith during these time periods can be found in the country’s northern Petén region. Among the largest and most sophisticated cities from the Preclassic period is El Mirador, which flourished between 200 B.C. and A.D. 150. No self-respecting archaeology buff would come to Guatemala without visiting the ruins of Tikal at the center of a 575-square-kilometer (222-square-mile) national park protecting the historical site and surrounding rainforest ecosystem. Farther north is the interesting astronomical observatory at Uaxactún. West of Tikal are the sites of Nakum and Yaxhá, the latter of Survivor TV fame.
Real history buffs might want to check out the ceremonial sites found and subjugated by the Spanish at the time of the conquest, thus completing the picture of Guatemala’s pre-Columbian archaeological heritage. When the Spanish arrived in Guatemala, they first secured an alliance with the Kaqchikel, who had their capital in Iximché in Guatemala’s Western Highlands. The Spanish would eventually establish their first capital on the same site. You can visit the restored ruins of Iximché, very conveniently situated just a few kilometers from the Pan-American Highway about an hour from Guatemala City.
With the submission of the Kaqchikels, the Spanish were now free to turn on the K’iche’, whom they met in battle near present- day Quetzaltenango. The K’iche’ invited the Spanish to their mountain fortress at K’umarcaaj, the site of a failed ambush against the European invaders. Today, the largely unrestored ruins are still the site of Mayan rituals and feature a noteworthy underground cave tunnel.
Near the city of Huehuetenango, the inhabitants of the Mam ceremonial site of Zaculeu were done in by starvation after Pedro de Alvarado’s brother laid siege to the city for two months. Northwest of Guatemala City, the ruins of Mixco Viejo were once the Poqomam capital and ceremonial center, falling to Pedro de Alvarado in 1525 after a typically ruthless attack. In addition to temple pyramids, the site has two ball courts decorated with twin serpent sculptures harboring human skulls in their open mouths, a rather unusual embellishment among Postclassic highland sites and further evidence of the Toltec and Aztec influences of the times.
Most people’s ultimate destination is not Manaus itself but the Amazon rain forest. From Manaus, you can get a taste of the rain forest with day trips, but if you want to get away from civilization (and the distance it takes to “get away” is constantly increasing), experience “virgin” forest, and see some wildlife, the best way to do so is by taking a longer tour or excursion into the rain forest, with the option of sleeping on a boat or in the forest itself at a camp or jungle lodge, known as a hotel de selva. Depending on your interests as well as time and money constraints, there are several options available.
One way is to book an excursion with a specialized ecotourist agency based in Manaus. An average tour lasts 2–6 days and usually includes typical outings such as hiking in the forest and canoeing through igarapés (narrow creeks) and igapós (temporarily flooded forests) in search of wildlife. Guaranteed sightings include flocks of birds and frolicking schools of pink dolphins. Less frequent are monkeys and sloths. Almost impossible are jaguars. The famous piranha is omnipresent, and piranha fishing with a bamboo pole and a chunk of beef as bait is a classic activity few visitors can resist. The best times for viewing animals are around sunrise and sunset. However, as you can tell by the symphonic screeches, squawks, grunts, shuffles, and ribbets, nighttime is when the forest really comes to life. A popular (and somewhat spooky) nocturnal pastime is looking for caimans with a flashlight. They are quite easy to identify by their glow-in-the-dark eyes. As proof that these reptiles have a softer side, your guide will inevitably grab a baby caiman by the neck and invite you to caress its spiny carapace.
Many tours also include visits to the homes of local caboclos (mixed descendants of Indians and Portuguese) who live in stilt houses along the river. Many are quite poor and have little contact with the rest of Brazil. These visits can be interesting—watching milky latex being heated over a fire to become rubber and manioc being pounded into the farinha (flour) that is a main food staple—and sometimes a little exploitative.
Accommodations on tours may vary greatly. They can range from basic bunks on a boat, and hammocks or tents in the forest, to a night at an exclusive jungle lodge with air-conditioning and gourmet meals. Make sure you know what you’re getting for your money. Consider how much roughing it in the wilds you’re prepared for. You’ll want to make sure of your guides’ qualifications: Most guides work as freelancers, and it’s nice if they not only speak English but also know something about the Amazon’s flora and fauna instead of improvising as they go along. It’s also worth confirming the type of transportation that will be used to explore smaller waterways—noiseless motors or old-fashioned paddle canoes are better than noisy and polluting motorboats that scare off wildlife.
Another way of exploring the forest is to book yourself into one of the many jungle lodges that have increasingly sprung up along banks of the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões. Lodges sell packages (usually 2–6 days) that include rain forest and river activities along with meals and sometimes transportation from Manaus. Lodges range from basic rustic to eco-chic and are generally fairly pricy. Keep in mind that your exposure to locals will be minimal. Aside from the jungle lodges’ owners and guides, most of your companions will be other environmentally minded gringos. Finally, given that boats are the main means of transportation in the Amazon, you can very easily hop one and go wherever you want. Regardless of whether you splurge for a luxury riverboat for well-heeled ecotourists or string up your freshly purchased hammock alongside those of Amazonenses traveling downriver in the direction of Belém, adventure is guaranteed.
If you’re adventurous and like going to out-of-the-way places, but you still want to have all the comforts of home, you may enjoy driving your own car or RV to Puerto Vallarta. On the other hand, consideration of cost, risk, wear on both you and your vehicle, and the congestion hassles in towns may change your mind.
Crossing the Border: Squeezing through border bottlenecks during peak holidays and rush hours can be time-consuming. Avoid crossing 7am-9am and 4:30pm-6:30pm.
Highway Routes from the United States
If you’ve decided to drive to Puerto Vallarta, you have your choice of three general routes. At safe highway speeds, each of these routes requires a minimum of about 24 hours of driving time. Maximize comfort and safety by following the broad toll (cuota) expressways that often parallel the old, narrow nontoll (libre) routes. Despite the increased cost (about $60 for a car, more than double that for a motor home), the cuota expressways will save you at least a day’s driving time (and the extra food and hotel tariffs) and wear and tear on both your vehicle and your nerves. Most folks allow three full south-of-the-border driving days to Puerto Vallarta, but it can be done in less.
From the U.S. Pacific Coast and west, follow National Highway 15 (called 15D as the toll expressway) from the border at Nogales, Sonora, an hour’s drive south of Tucson, Arizona. Highway 15D continues southward smoothly, leading you through cactus-studded mountains and valleys, which turn into green lush farmland and tropical coastal plain and forest by the time you arrive in Mazatlán. Watch for the periféricos and truck routes that guide you past the congested downtowns of Hermosillo, Guaymas, Ciudad Obregón, Los Mochis, and Culiacán. The cuota, for the most part, now bypasses the cities, so you don’t need to work very hard at avoiding them. Between these centers, you speed along via cuota expressway all the way to Mazatlán. If you prefer not to pay the high tolls, stick to the old libre highway. Hazards, bumps, and slow going might force you to reconsider, however.
From Mazatlán, continue along the new multilane cuota to Tepic, where Highways 15 and 15D fork left (east) to Guadalajara and Highway 200 heads south to Puerto Vallarta and beyond.
If, however, you’re driving to Puerto Vallarta from the central United States , cross the border at El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. There, National Highway 45D, the new cuota multilane expressway, leads you southward through high, dry plains past the cities of Chihuahua and Jiménez, where you continue by expressway Highway 49 to Gómez Palacio-Torreón. There, proceed southwest toward Durango, via expressway Highway 40D. At Durango, head west along the winding but spectacular two-lane trans-Sierra National Highway 40, which intersects National Highway 15 just south of Mazatlán. From there, continue south as already described. This road from Durango to Mazatlán should not under any circumstances be driven at night or in bad weather conditions. There are literally hundreds of switchbacks, and way too many large trucks with aggressive, impatient drivers. This is a spectacular drive better taken under optimum conditions. After driving it once, I was told by several people that it has been ranked among the top 10 most dangerous stretches of road in the world—hence the nickname the Devil’s Backbone. As an alternative, consider continuing south from Torreón to Zacatecas, and then southwest to Guadalajara. From Guadalara it’s an easy spin on the cuota to Compostela and then down Highway 200 to Puerto Vallarta.
Folks heading to western Pacific Mexico from the eastern and southeastern United States should cross the border from Laredo, Texas, to Nuevo Laredo. From there, you can follow either the National Highway 85 (libre) route or the new Highway 85D cuota road, which continues, bypassing Monterrey, where you proceed via expressway Highway 40D all the way to Saltillo. At Saltillo, keep going westward on Highway 40 or expressway 40D, through Torreón to Durango. Continue via the two-lane Highway 40 over the Pacific crest all the way to National Highway 15, just south of Mazatlán. Continue southward as described earlier (or choose the alternative described earlier).
A Note of Caution
Although bandidos no longer menace Mexican roads (but loose burros, horses, and cattle still do), be cautious in the infamous marijuana-and opium-growing region of Sinaloa state north of Mazatlán. It’s best not to stray from Highway 15 between Culiacán and Mazatlán or from Highway 40 between Mazatlán and Durango. Curious tourists have been assaulted in the hinterlands adjacent to these roads. In general, norteamericanos on the road are advised to more or less hurry through northern Baja and northern Mexico in general. The occasional kidnapping and/or random, “collateral damage” type incident does occur—let’s not kid ourselves—but these incidents are few and far between. Perhaps tourists cannot go off the beaten track in northern Mexico like they could in safer times, but there are literally thousands of Americans who drive through Mexico every year without incident.
Mexican Car Insurance
Mexico does not recognize foreign insurance. When you drive into Mexico, Mexican auto insurance is at least as important as your passport. At the busier crossings, you can get it at insurance “drive-ins” just north of the border. The many Mexican auto insurance companies are government regulated; their numbers keep prices and services competitive.
Sanborn’s Mexico Insurance (2009 S. 10th Street, McAllen, TX 78503, tel. 956/686-3601, toll-free U.S. tel. 800/222-0158), one of the best-known agencies, certainly seems to be trying hardest. It offers a number of books and services, including the Recreational Guide to Mexico, a good road map, “smile-by-mile” Travelog guide to “every highway in Mexico,” hotel discounts, and more. Much of this is available to members of Sanborn’s Sombrero Club.
Alternatively, look into Vagabundos del Mar (toll-free U.S. tel. 800/474-2252), an RV-oriented Mexico travel club offering memberships that include a newsletter, caravanning opportunities, discounts, insurance, and much more.
Mexican car insurance runs from a barebones rate of about $8 a day for minimal $10,000/$50,000 (property damage/medical payments) coverage to a more typical $15 a day for more complete $20,000/$100,000 coverage. On the same scale, insurance for a $50,000 RV and equipment runs about $35 a day. These daily rates decrease sharply for six-month or one-year policies, which run from about $200 for the minimum to $400-1,600 for complete, high-end coverage.
If you get broken glass, personal effects, and legal expenses coverage with these rates, you’re lucky. Mexican policies don’t usually cover them.
You should get something for your money, however. The deductibles should be no more than $300-500, the public liability/medical payments should be about double the legal minimum ($25,000 maximum payment for property damage, $25,000 maximum medical payments per person, and $50,000 maximum total medical payments per accident), and you should be able to get your car fixed in the United States and receive payment in U.S. dollars for losses. If not, shop around.
The Green Angels
The Green Angels have answered many motoring tourists’ prayers in Mexico. Bilingual teams of two, trained in auto repair and first aid, help distressed tourists along main highways. They patrol fixed stretches of road twice daily by truck. To make sure they stop to help, pull completely off the highway and raise your hood. You may want to hail a passing trucker to call them for you (Mexico emergency number 078 for the tourism hotline, or 01-800/903-9200).
If for some reason you have to leave your vehicle on the roadside, don’t leave it unattended. Hire a local teenager or adult to watch it for you. Unattended vehicles on Mexican highways are quickly stricken by a mysterious disease, the symptom of which is rapid loss of vital parts.
A Healthy Car
Preventive measures spell good health for both you and your car. Get that tune-up (or that long-delayed overhaul) before, rather than after, you leave. Also, carry a stock of spare parts, which will be more difficult to get and more expensive in Mexico than at home. Carry an extra tire or two, a few cans of motor oil and octane enhancer, oil and gas filters, fan belts, spark plugs, tune-up kit, points, and fuses. Be prepared with basic tools and supplies, such as screwdrivers; pliers, including vise grip; lug wrench; jack; adjustable wrenches; tire pump and patches; tire pressure gauge; steel wire; and electrical tape. For breakdowns and emergencies, carry a folding shovel, a Husky rope or chain, a gasoline can, and flares.
Pemex, short for Petróleos Mexicanos, the government oil monopoly, markets diesel fuel and two grades of gasoline, both unleaded: 92-octane premium and 89-octane Magna. Magna (MAHG-nah) is good gas, yielding performance similar to that of U.S.-style “regular” or “super-unleaded” gasoline. It runs about $0.75 per liter (about $2.85 per gallon).
On main highways, Pemex makes sure that major stations (spaced typically about 20 mi/32 km apart) stock Magna. There has been a huge upsurge in the number of Pemex stations in recent years, so the fear of running out of gas is much diminished. However, when traveling long distances in Mexico, it’s a good rule of thumb to fill up whenever you get under half full.
Gas Station Thievery
When stopping at the gasolinera, make sure that your cameras, purses, and other movable items are out of reach. Also, make sure that your car has a lockable gas cap. If not, insist on pumping the gas yourself, or be superwatchful as you pull up to the gas pump. Make certain that the pump reads zero before the attendant pumps the gas.
The usual meeting ground of the visitor and Mexican police is in the visitor’s car on a highway or downtown street. To the tourist, such an encounter may seem to be mild harassment by the police, accompanied by vague threats of going to the police station or impounding the car for such-and-such a violation. The tourist often goes on to say, “It was all right, though…We paid him $20, and he went away…. Mexican cops sure are crooked, aren’t they?”
And, I suppose, if people want to go bribing their way through Mexico, that’s their business. But calling Mexican cops crooked isn’t exactly fair. Police, like most everyone else in Mexico, have to scratch for a living, and they have found that many tourists are willing to slip them a $20 bill for nothing. Rather than crooked, I would call them hungry and opportunistic.
Instead of paying a bribe, do what I’ve done a dozen times: Remain cool, and if you’re really guilty of an infraction, calmly say, “Ticket, please.” (“Boleto, por favor.”) After a minute or two of stalling, and no cash appearing, the officer most likely will not bother with a ticket but will wave you on with only a warning. If, on the other hand, the officer does write you a ticket, he will probably keep your driver’s license, which you will be able to retrieve at the presidencia municipal (city hall) the next day in exchange for paying your fine.
If you rent a car at the airport in Puerto Vallarta and head north, do not start out by rushing up the stretch of highway just outside the airport—this is a notorious speed trap, with transitos (local traffic cops) just waiting for excited, newly arrived vacationing gringos to speed past.
For the most intimate view of Puerto Vallarta, stay in a comfortable hotel within close walking distance of the colorful Old Town sights, cafés, restaurants, and shops. If you opt to stay in the north-end Hotel Zone or the Marina, you can easily hail a taxi ($5-8) or hop a local bus to go where the action is. If it’s your thing, be sure to reserve seats ahead for a Fiesta Mexicana show.
Those who want a full dose of urbanity with their beach time should stick to Puerto Vallarta, either downtown or Old Town, since this puts you within easy reach of the city’s best restaurants and nightlife while also keeping you close to the beach and bay. If you’re looking to really chill out, however, you might consider staying up at the north end of the Hotel Zone, or even in Nuevo Vallarta, and cabbing or busing in to “the big city” for day trips or nights on the town. And if a beachfront city isn’t on your agenda except as a pass-through, why not spend a night or two in Vallarta at the beginning or end of your travels and head north to Sayulita or south to Cabo Corrientes for the rest of your trip?
Wherever you stay, be sure and take at least one leisurely promenade down the Puerto Vallarta Malecón at sunset or in the early evening. This is simply a great urban beachfront experience.
The majority of flights arrive at the Puerto Vallarta airport in the late afternoon. After customs and transportation to your hotel, that doesn’t leave much time for sightseeing, and who wants to rush out after a long day of travel anyway?
Change out of your travel clothes and into some casual beach attire; grab your camera, your travel companions, and maybe a book; and head down to a beach restaurant and dig your toes into the sand. Order a tropical drink and some fresh guacamole, then people-watch and decompress until you catch your first brilliant Vallarta sunset. Take a dozen pictures to impress your friends. Ahhhh, isn’t that better?
After drinks and chips, you probably won’t be very hungry, so stroll along the Malecón and nibble on crepes, tacos, and fresh fruit from the food stands as the mood strikes. Check out the central Plaza de Armas and watch the concert (or the clowns) at the adjacent shoreline Los Arcos amphitheater.
Things start picking up at the dance clubs around midnight, so head over to Mandala or the Zoo to get your groove on and work off those margaritas.
Who can resist the beach on your first full day? Head out and start beach exploring. Start at the seafront park just north of the Río Cuale and stroll south over the river bridge and continue along the seashore andador (walkway) along Playa los Muertos. Walk out on the new pier to see what’s biting, or grab a lounge chair at any of the restaurants and beach clubs. There’s plenty of people to watch, friends to make, and margaritas to drink!
Still have the urge to explore? Head south by local Mismaloya or Boca bus (from the corner of Constitución and Basilio Badillo). Visit Mismaloya, and then head back into town to watch the sunset at one of many establishments along the famous Malecón. Or, if you prefer, continue south a few miles past Mismaloya to the unmissable Le Kliff Restaurant, overlooking the ocean, on the right.
Later, hit one or more of the nightclubs on the Malecón. Now closed to auto traffic, the Malecón is party central, especially during spring break but pretty much year-round. The old standards—Hilo, the Zoo—still rock, and now a couple of relative newcomers—Mandala, La Vaquita—have totally amped up the Malecón party options.
You’ve done the beaches, and now it’s time to hit the water. Take a relaxing day cruise for snorkeling at Los Arcos and a waterfall swim at either Quimixto or idyllic Yelapa on the Bay of Banderas’s jungly southern shore. Don’t miss the pie ladies of Yelapa.
Head back into town for dinner, and then do a little nightclub hopping along the Malecón (or seek out more conversation-friendly entertainment at either Ándale pub or Garbo in the Olas Altas district). Tired of techno and dance music? Hit Club Roxy for some raucous rock and roll.
After all of the previous activity, it may be best simply to rest for a day. Or if you prefer, head for an out-of-town adventure at Punta Mita or Sayulita village (an hour by bus north of town). There you can stroll, boogie board, and maybe try your hand at surfing.
If you are taking a break from the sun and surf today, head south and make a stop at the Puerto Vallarta Zoo to cuddle a lion cub and/or the Vallarta Botanical Gardens to view their amazing collection of orchids and the picturesque grounds. Both are excellent for nature photography and bird-watching. Tonight, head north for some killer salsa dancing at J&B.
Part of your last day will be spent picking up mementos of your trip and handicrafts for the folks back home. Head down to the Isla Cuale and check out the wares for sale in the many shops and stalls. If you can handle the heat, head into the Mercado Municipal just downhill from the bridge. Grab some Mexican vanilla, organic coffee, or colored glassware for affordable and useful gifts.
For the rest of your day, schedule a special tour such as horseback riding or a whale-, dolphin-, or bird-watching excursion to the Islas Marietas. Don’t miss your last Puerto Vallarta sunset!
If you’ve still got one more night of partying left, spend it like a local at the dive bar La Cantina. Just mind your manners, because things can get pretty rowdy.
If you have to pick just one beach in the country, it’s hard to argue with West Bay, Roatán. A couple of kilometers of powdery sand fronted by turquoise waters, with a coral reef just a few meters offshore, West Bay is a tropical daydream. Also beautiful, and certainly less crowded, are other beaches and hidden coves in places like Sandy Bay, Milton Bight, and Paya Bay. Divers may be most drawn to the equally stunning reef and quirky scuba culture of Utila.
Farther afield, the smallest Bay Island, Guanaja, continues to be the least-visited but offers equally extraordinary (or perhaps even better) sea life for divers and snorkelers. Those who prefer to really get away from it all can choose from a stay in Cayos Cochinos’ single resort, camping on Water Cay for a nominal fee and having a fish cookout, or actually renting their very own island, Sandy Cay or Little Cay near Utila.
North Coast Beaches
Probably the nicest beaches on Honduras’s north coast are around the bay of Tela, lapped by the warm waters of the Caribbean. A short boat ride takes visitors to the unspoiled beaches of the national park at Punta Sal, where a powdery beach with turquoise waters is backed with tropical jungle and mangrove wetlands.
Right in the town of Tela, in front of the Telamar resort, is a clean and safe beach open to the public. A few kilometers east of La Ceiba, near Sambo Creek, are a few modest hotels along a breezy stretch of sand, a good spot to spend a day or three.
A couple of hours’ drive east along the coast takes you to the sleepy town of Trujillo, on a broad bay near the edge of the Mosquitia jungle. The cabins at Tranquility Bay or Casa Kiwi (which also has backpacker dorms) are ideal for soaking up the glorious natural setting and mellow vibe.
Garífuna Beach Towns
This unique group of people, of both African and American indigenous origin, populate numerous towns and villages along the north coast of Honduras. The smaller villages in particular can be magically remote spots, seemingly disconnected from anything but the easy rhythms of the Caribbean. Tornabé, just west of Tela, makes a great place to stay for a couple of days, or you can head out to the more isolated Miami, a village entirely of thatched huts, at the edge of Punta Sal.
Near Trujillo are Santa Fe and, farther along, San Antonio, both quiet little spots with good seafood and plenty of beach.
To really get out there, take a day trip with a tour or an expensive charter boat from La Ceiba, or a less expensive slow boat from Nuevo Armenia to Chachahuate, a Garífuna settlement on a tiny island in the Cayos Cochinos, off the north coast. If you come by slow boat, plan on spending a couple of days at least, camping out.
Off the Beaten Path
The beach west of port town Puerto Cortés is surprisingly nice and has a reasonable variety of seaside accommodations, well-located for a visit to the massive Spanish-era fortress in nearby Omoa. The Cayos Zapotillos, reachable by charter boat from Omoa, are half a dozen blissfully unspoiled islets where it’s possible to camp out.