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-- NAYARIT & SINALOA
San Blas (Nayarit), Durango Road (Sinaloa)
by Martin Reid
Sheridan Coffey and I recently returned from a trip to San Blas and the
Durango Highway. I did not acquire data in sufficient detail to
prepare a traditional Trip Report, so here is my alternative!
We flew to Puerto Vallarta, rented a car, and drove to San Blas for six
nights, then on to the Durango Highway for four nights, before breaking
our return journey to Vallarta at La Noria Ranch on Cerro San Juan (NE
of San Blas) for one night, plus a final night at Bucerias, just north
Unless you are staying at an up-market hotel, NO-ONE will
take credit cards and all want pesos, not dollars. Most
medium/large towns have a bank with a separate door/booth (normally
24/7) housing an ATM where you can take pesos straight from your bank
account - with a 5 - 7 dollar fee.
The daily rates look good, but the insurance is a killer
($19 per day in addition to the rental) - so check into this and be
sure to get a written confirmation of the insurance rate when you
book. We got a Nissan Tsuru (small 4-door sedan) from Advantage
that was fine for all the rough tracks we went on!
Don't go to San Blas in September! The weather is really
tough, as it is very hot (we are used to that here in San Antonio where
it's been 105 for the last three days) but also massively humid - this
is the bit that really nailed us, energy-wise. We stayed at
the Posada Del Ray in San Blas, which was fine given that we had to
have a/c. It cost 350 pesos/night, and while the rooms were a bit
funky, the location is in a quiet part of town plus the sound of the
a/c covers any noises of fellow guests - thus early nights were
On the Durango Highway we stayed at the town of Copala,
which is at Km 250 on H40. There are two hotels in the town
(which was founded in 1565); the old Butter Factory on the main square,
and Daniel's on the way into town. We stayed at the latter and
REALLY liked it. A bungalow room costs 300 pesos; no a/c but a large
stand fan aimed at the bed was sufficient even in September (note that
the elevation here is only about 1800 feet). You get a large,
kitchen with fridge, microwave, gas stove and utensils, a large bedroom
(with TV and remote!), bathroom, and verandah. The hotel is
located at the back of the parking lot for Daniel's Restaurant - a
large circular building overlooking some nice thorn forest, located
about a mile from the highway, on a left corner - you can't miss
it. Note that after exiting the highway at the Copala sign, stay
on the cobbled surface to get to town. The Restaurant serves nice
grub and has fabulous coconut banana pie.... At the hotel, Lupita
will take great care of you; she speaks reasonable English and Daniel
is still living there - a Californian, thus speaking English (after a
fashion...) Call them on 044-669-928-1932 to make a reservation
(probably not necessary during the week, but it's a popular spot with
Mazatlanians at the weekend).
Note that the start of the Panuco
Road (see Howell's MX guide) is just a kilometer above the Copala
turn. It takes just over an hour to drive to Barranca del Libre
from Copala. NOTE: light sleepers beware:- all the places to stay on
the highway will bless you with various night sounds; at Daniels it
will be the occasional cow, donkey and dog - but at least it is located
well away from the highway, where the nights are punctuated with the
raucous sound of trucks braking their engines. For those staying
in the San Blas area we really recommend at least one night at Rancho
La Noria on Cerro San Juan; this can be arranged at the desk of the
Hotel Garza Canela in San Blas - or by just turning up and honking the
horn. it cost us 480 pesos for one night; the room was fine, in a
lovely location, but the facilities were a bit dodgy (no power for a
while, then no hot water...) However it is a GREAT place to wake
up, in the heart of the Pine/oak forest at c.5,000 feet. We had
five species of nightbird within 25 yards of our cabin. Down near
P. Vallarta there's lots of choice , but the Hotel Marlyn in Bucerias
is a reasonable choice for a room with a/c at 200 pesos. For
aficionados of Tacky, the room decor is a Must-Have! It is
located on Fresno street just 70 yards from the ocean (where Brown and
Blue-footed Boobies can be seen).
1) At the Barranca del Libre pull-off
on the Durango Highway:
no restaurant - just one small home on the bend, right next to the
stony track going uphill to the Barranca; this pullout is located
between Km 201 and 202, NOT as stated in Howell's book (as between Kms
200 and 201). There is NO PEMEX in Las Palmitas - just a house on the
left after the large restaurant, that sometimes sells gas - I advise
you get gas at the PEMEX in La Concordia (c. km 274), where there is
also an ATM on the main square (no ATMs in Copala or Las Palmitas).
2) Durango Highway:
One tenth of a kilomoeter west of the KM212
post (which is only on the eastbound side of the road - thus this
location is just before this post, going eastwards, or uphill) there is
a pull-off on the south side on a slight left bend. This drivable
track enters a small level clearing, then drops down to the left where,
in 50 yards, it splits into two drivable (but rough) stone
tracks. We only got to explore the first kilometer of the right
track from the split, but i got the impression that both tracks cut
down the slope for a good distance. This area should hold all the
expected Barranca del Libre birds, and we saw a few large mixed flocks
plus our only Elegant Euphonias of the trip. Another good spot to
check ( on weekdays - it gets popular with the locals on weekends) is
between Kms 209 and 208 - there is a pull-off on the south side into a
gently rolling clearing that is used as a picnic site. (there is a sign
on the turn-off warning about fires); we called-in the Tufted Jays here
and because the trees are more-open than on the Barranca Del Libre
trail, we got much better looks and photos.
3) Petaca Road (Durango Highway):
This is now paved all the way to the
village; some of the roadside vegetation has been cleared for this new
surface, so it may affect the density of hummers there (little was
flowering much on our visit.) It seems that this road is a
reliable spot for Military Macaw; we saw them on each of our four
4) Below Copala (Durango Highway):
At KM 258.5 there is a turning
(paved but a bit beaten-up) on the south side that drops down, turning
sharply right, then enters a large paved area (no buildings) surrounded
by scrub. you can park here then follow the track that exits on
the right side and leads down to the river. Lots of good thorn
forest scrub here - may be good for the RB chat. We had Elegant
Quail on the track here. NOTE: the track to the river by Cerro
Elephante mentioned in Howell seems to be private, with a gate across
5) La Bajada, near San Blas:
The directions are easier now: in La Palma
just stay on the paved road to get to La Bajada. this involves a couple
of right and left turns, and once you start up the longish straight,
there is a store next to the speed bump that sells water and ice - and
is open early (a rarity in these parts). At La Bajada we saw no
sign of the circular wall that Howell refers to; we just kept driving
up into the lower plantations and parked in one of the small
clear-spots. This was the only place we found San Blas Jays.
6) Finding Chencho (San Blas mangrove
There is a large
bridge over a broad river on the eastern side of the town; just west of
this bridge is a crossroads (north is the Shrimp ponds road); turn
south and then left to drive back towards the river. After about
200 yards you'll get to the small dock on the right with all the tour
boats. This is where the river/mangrove boat trips depart
from. About 40 yards before this dock there is turning on the
right that goes up a steep hill - Chencho's house is the third or
fourth house on the left up this hill - just ask someone. The
current rate for the 5+ hour afternoon/evening trip to Tovares was 600
pesos - and still well worth it. Chenco has a huge Owling light
and a small tape player, with some of the target birds on it -
including Rufous-necked Wood-Rail (we did not see it.)
Tours: We took only one tour, the night river/mangrove ride. We sought
out Chencho (ask at the boat dock in Matanchen, or go to his house:
lime-green on the left heading up the steep road to the fort), and were
very pleased with his efforts. The tour costs 500 pesos for the boat,
about four hours. The boatmen are regulated by what appears to be a
cooperative, so the price is set and paid to the co-op rather than to
the boatman. We tipped Chencho some 20%+. He knows his birds and what
birders are looking for, knows the English names, and was very
considerate. The ride back after dark can be chilly, so take a jacket
7) Mirador del Aguila (near San
This is located on the
libre/free H15, some 7.7 kms from the western end of this c. 27km
section. Coming from the west you get onto a wide divided highway
that eventually becomes the cuota/toll road. There is a
well-marked left exit to the libre/free H15, and the Mirador is c. 7.7
kms from this exit. We found a great spot that is just 0.6kms on
the libre road from this junction, on the right. There is a
trash-covered paved exit in the trees, that goes downhill at an angle
(the trash is only near the entrance - you can drive through it.)
This road drops down through some lovely forest, and goes for kms;
after about a km the paving ends and soon the road almost touches the
cuota road - you can slip onto the cuota road here, and thus non-one
from the village(s) further down the road ever seems to drive the paved
section up to the libre road. This paved section reminded me of
the road down to the stream at Virgen Del Socorro in Costa Rica, in
that you can see stuff in the canopy at eye-level, to the left.
8) Puerto Vallarta:
We could not find the road that goes to Laguna de
Quelele mentioned in Howell's guide, and others have recently failed to
find it (?) There is a large river bridge north of P.
Vallarta (the border between Nayarit and Sinaloa); go south over this
bridge, and take the first exit on the right (west) - it's about 1 km
from the bridge, and signed to a small hotel (forget the name.)
this is wide-ish dusty road that goes 4.2 kms to the beach at the mouth
of the river. Tthe first part runs next to a series of wet weedy
fields on the left that may be good for Ruddy-breasted Seedeater.
In the last km it turns right/left, and runs next to mangroves.
There are a handful of small bars (the booze kind) at the end of the
road at the beach. You can walk out along the beach to the river
mouth and look upstream to some small islands that birds seem to like
to loaf on (saw our only Black Skimmer there.)
Seabirds: the bay at P. Vallarta is very deep, and boobies fish fairly
close to the shore. from the beach at Bucerias we saw hundreds of
Blue-footed Boobies and a couple of Brown Boobies, plus I saw two
distant Storm-Petrels that were probably Blacks.
COLLARED FOREST-FALCON: heard many times, but typically hard to
see. We did the Sewage Pond road in San Blas early one morning,
and found a calling juv. sat in good view on a large isolated tree.
This may be your best strategy for seeing one, as the scattered nature
of the habitat on this road means that if you hear a calling bird, you
have a good chance of finding it in one of the few large trees there.
GOLDEN EAGLE: on the Durango Highway at KM 207.5 there is a pull-out
with a 100m trail into the forest; while standing there one afternoon
an adult Golden Eagle swooped down and landed in a pine quite
close by (photos) This species is not on Howell lists for this
BAT FALCON: one seen on a bare snag close to H200 just north of the
Mita Peniinsula, north of Puerto Vallarta.
SHORT-TAILED HAWK: Found a nesting pair of dark-morphs about 2kms along
the Panuco Road, off the Durango Highway. The nest site was
almost at the top of a large leafy tree on the ridge line above us.
SOLITARY SANDPIPER: one along the Shrimp Ponds road in San Blas
MILITARY MACAW: We tried three times at the Mirador del Aguila site
north of San Blas, with no luck. See notes on Petaca Road above
for what seems a reliable site on the Durango Highway.
PARROTS: We saw/heard no Amazona parrots on the entire trip - do they
relocate at this season, or have the numbers dropped?
possible THICK-BILLED PARROT: at Barranca del Libre we heard
birds flying nearby and calling that sounded like muted macaws.
They were not Amazona calls, and did not sound quite right for Military
Macaw (which we head every day up there at Petaca road)
FLAMMULATED OWL: at Cerro San Juan east of San Blas in the
evening we played a Whiskered Screech Owl tape and had two respond from
the north. I saw a movement in the tree above the entrance road
light and was able to spotlight a very small owl. I got it in my
telescope at an angle where there was no eye-shine, and was surprised
to see dark brown eyes and a blackish bill, with very small tufts and a
more mottled than streaked upper breast - it was a Flammie. The
caretaker told me that there was a small owl that hunted moths at the
entrance gate light most nights.
EARED POORWILL: before dawn at the same spot as the Flammie above
(Cerro San Juan), we had a pair of Eared Poorwills calling (a sharp
"waik!" or "wick!") We had good looks in the spotlight. A
number of Mexican Whip-poor-wills called briefly at dusk and dawn.
CHESTNUT-COLLARED SWIFT: a large flock over the river at San Blas just
after a downpour.
WHITE-NAPED SWIFT: in the late afternoon on the Panuco Road ( Durango
Highway) we saw a number of swifts high-up that were hard to ID - I
presumed them to be White-throated Swifts on shape/size. soon
after, a huge lone White-naped swift glided around fairly low for about
a minute - what a corker!
SWIFT SP: At the clearing near km 212 on the Durango Highway we saw a
large group of swifts fairly high: the higher birds looked like
chaeturas, but the ones below them were much larger, with long thin
wings and long pointed tails, and on each of the five birds I was able
to track, I could see small white flank patches and a clean white
throat sharply cut-off against a solid blackish
chest/underparts.... There were at least 30 such birds..... I
know that they ought to have been White-throateds, but they sure looked
HUMMERS: we struggled a bit as there were no concentration
points. At Rancho La Noria on Cerro San Juan there were a couple
of large oaks with massive outbreaks of flowering honeysuckle, and
among a few Beryllines, Violet-crowns and Broad-bills I saw one female
Selasphorus-type that might have been a Bumblebee - but at the distance
I could not rule out some other Selasphorus or a calliope... :-(
EARED QUETZAL: About half-way up the Barranca del Libre trail - between
the two spots on the trail where water bubbles up - at 10.30 one
morning a bird swooped down from high in the uphill pines, nearly
taking my head off, and glided into the deciduous trees over the stream
- it was an Eared Quetzal. We got crappy looks as the bird saw us
immediately and started to retreat up the stream into thicker
cover. I think this bird was coming down to drink, and maybe this
is a good place to find them?
EMPIDS: the lowlands/foothills were stuffed with calling
Pac-slopes. A couple of Least and Hammonds were seen at mid
elevations (along with fewer Pac-slopes). Up in the Barranca del
Libre area we did not hear any Pac-slopes, and had two Pines and one
GREENISH ELAENIA: the only one of the trip was on the Petaca Road
on the Durango Highway - out of range (I have pics, showing the yellow
in the crown) - we saw it in the same spot three days running.
MIGRANT VIREOS: we had four Black-caps, three Bell's, 6+
Warblings, one Hutton's, and numerous Plumbeous and Cassin's. Also a
few Goldens at higher elevations. Two of the Warblings on the
Durango Highway had obviously dark (almost smoky) crowns - ?
JAYS: Black-throated were fairly easy to see (at a distance - they were
quite shy) in many spots in the lowlands/foothills; San Blas were tough
and only seen at La Bajada; Purplish-backed were only seen at the new
spot we found near the Mirador del Aguila (see 7) above); Tufted
were easy between Km 208 and 201 on the Durango Highway, plus the
Barranca trail - we saw then five times in four days. Also saw
Green at Cerro San Juan and a few Steller's with the Tufteds.
NOTE: without using tapes we would not have seen San Blas or
Purplish-backed, and Tufted would not have been seen so well.
SPOTTED WREN: they nest in a short palm next to entrance cabin at
Rancho La Noria, Cerro San Juan.
MANGROVE SWALLOW: a few at various shrimps ponds near San Blas.
CATHARUS SP: one bird seen fairly well at La Bajada looked awfully like
Grey-cheeked...? saw a couple of Swainson's, plus one
Orange-billed at Cerro San Juan and a few Russets on Durango Highway.
WARBLERS: Surprised by the numbers and diversity for
September:- loads of BTGrays, Townsends, Wilsons, Yellows,
B&Ws, MacGils; a few Red-faceds, Hermits, Graces,
Nashvilles, Lucy's, N. Waterthrushes; one or two Louisanas,
Orange-crowns, Audubons, Am Redstarts, BT Greens. Lots of both
kinds of Whitestarts, and a surprising number of Crescent-chesteds (12
in one flock) and a few gorgeous Reds. Golden-browed were common
in the low thickets along the stream at the Barranca del Libre trail.
Quite a few Rufous-caps but only one pair of Golden-crowns - on the
lower part of Cerro San Juan,
PROTHONOTARY WARBLER: one found by Sheridan in the mangroves near the
river mouth north of Puerto Vallarta but south of the river (thus
Jalisco State) on September 22 2005 - I have three photos of it .
A vagrant this far west, with the four previous records listed in
Howell and Webb being Spring birds.
EUPHONIAS: we found them hard to come by, with one sighting of
Godman's/Scrub at La Bajada, and one family group of Elegants feeding
on mistletoe at the KM 212 clearing on the Durango Highway.
RUSTY-CROWNED GROUND-SPARROW: this is fairly easy at La Bajada and
especially at Cerro San Juan - listen for their high-pitched
squeaking. Very responsive to pishing.
BRUSH-FINCHES: tough to find in the upper parts of the Durango
Highway: we found Green-striped above Las Palmitas, a bit after
entering Durango state, at a right pull-out with a sign showing a map
of the state. Rufous-capped is in the dense brush by the stream
on the opposite side of the road from where you park at the entrance to
the Barranca Del Libre trail.
HOODED GROSBEAK: only found one, in a mixed flock near the top of the
Barrance del Libre trail.
BLACK-HEADED SISKIN: we struggled for them: one male at Rancho La
Noria, Cerro San Juan, and one male down low with a feeding flock at
the far end of the Barranca del Libre trail.
We felt we had a very successful trip, despite being
debilitated by the humidity at lower elevations. The jejenes at
San Blas were bad at this time of year, but we rubbed down with a
repellant cream laced with Penny Oil each morning, and this seemed to
keep them at bay. A combination of pishing and imitating
Ferruginous (low) or Mountain (high) Pygmy Owl worked very well for
drawing in birds. in the lowlands Ferrugs and Colimas would often
answer back (and Ferrugs would come in to be seen) but we heard no
response from Mountain Pygmy on the Durango Highway. The locals
were wonderful, and responded with a smile and a wave to an offered
greeting in Spanish.
For those new to Mexico, they have an unusual
requirement for turning left at traffic lights when you are on a
divided highway: they do not have left-turn lanes on the left
side of your lanes - instead you are supposed to exit to the RIGHT into
a special lane well before the lights, then you will get a turn at the
lights where you turn left across the main lanes you were previously
on, and then on across the opposing traffic....:-) Also note that
if you are stuck behind a slower vehicle, the driver will indicate that
it is safe for you to pass him/her by signalling LEFT - Of course they
(occasionally) signal left when they really mean to turn left - so be
careful! I shot past a couple of hunting Highway Patrol cars
while doing a little more than the limit, and each time they turned and
followed me from a distance for a while, then left me alone - but I
would not push the envelope too far.
We felt very safe everywhere, and had no trouble with theft (not that
we did any...) We always hid everything in the trunk if we left
the vehicle unattended. Be sure to get a car that does NOT have a
remote trunk release in the driver area!
If anyone has specific questions, I'll be happy to address them
San Antonio, Texas