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San Blas (Nayarit), Durango Road (Sinaloa)

September 2005

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 of Vallarta.

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.

Car Rental

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 viable. 

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, equipped 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).

Site updates

1) At the Barranca del Libre pull-off on the Durango Highway:

There is 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 visits there.

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 it.

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 boat trip):

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 Blas): 

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 area.

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 like Geronimos.....?

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 Buff-breasted.

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 privately.

Martin Reid
San Antonio, Texas