Crocodiles are built for the kill. They slide slowly through a river on a warm day almost completely submerged, but able to see and hear because their eyes and ears sit atop their skulls. Then they quietly close in on prey, the only warning a set of glistening eyes peering over the water's surface.
I wasn't looking for those eyes; I was looking for birds when we spotted our first croc during a boat ride through mangrove swamps outside San Blas, a fishing village and birding capital about a four-hour drive north of Puerto Vallarta.
"Can we go in closer?" yelled our American guide to the boatman, pointing to a 12-footer moving through high grass several feet from the boat. "No," screamed the driver. "It might come into the boat."
"In that case, never mind," said the guide.
It was shaping up to be a fascinating trip. I'd tried to stay away from high-traffic tourist destinations on this vacation in western Mexico, venturing into some of the smaller cities in Nayarit state on the Pacific coast. I wanted to see wildlife instead of high-rise hotels.
San Blas, a onetime hippie colony and longtime surf capital, fit the bill perfectly.
I had been here once before, many years earlier. At the time, people said San Blas was destined to be the next Acapulco. It never happened; San Blas remained a sleepy little town of 10,000 people, which made me happy. There wasn't a shopping center, five-star hotel or condo complex in sight.
In the meantime, it had become a low-key, first-rate ecotourism destination, known as one of the top birding regions in the world. Its mangrove swamps, lagoons, estuaries and beaches make it an important natural shelter for 300 species of birds, according to Audubon Society studies. In the Western Hemisphere, it's said to be second only to Panama.
La Tovara National Park, where we saw several crocs, was a great place to get started. We had arranged to meet Mark Stackhouse, a longtime birder and guide (www.westwings.com), at the park, and for $8 per person we hired a motorized panga and driver to help us cut through the mangrove forests and jungle growth.
Within the first five minutes, we'd seen iguanas, turtles, ducks, a croc and nine species of birds, including a pair of tropical kingbirds perched on top of a dead tree. We also learned that La Tovara is home to 80% of the migratory shorebirds in the Pacific, a fact verified by the World Wildlife Fund.
Stackhouse, an Ohio native who teaches birding at a San Blas college, alternated between telling us about the birds and other wildlife we were seeing and the town, where he is one of a growing group of U.S. and Canadian expats.
"It's a great lifestyle," he said. "San Blas is safe and laid-back. You buy your food fresh every day, you can walk everywhere in town, and everybody knows everybody."
It sounded intriguing, especially given our primeval surroundings, with bird calls echoing through the jungle and shafts of sunlight filtering through the lush overgrowth. I was glad I was here instead of sitting on a crowded beach somewhere.
Later that day, I did visit San Blas' beaches, which have attracted hard-core surfers since the '60s, most of them hoping to score at Matanchen Bay, known as having the world's longest right-hand ride. Today, the town has several surf camps that cater to visitors.
For the most part, the nearly 200 miles of coastline in Nayarit state — also known as Riviera Nayarit — is undeveloped. Along the coast here, however, are small open-air restaurants serving the lunch of champions: fresh-from-the-ocean seafood and cold Mexican beer. I pulled up a white resin chair and joined a group of new friends at a rickety table looking out at the sea.
Among other things, I learned that San Blas wasn't always a village hoping to one day grow into a big city. During the 18th century, the population was more than double what it is today. The burgeoning city was an important port and Spanish military headquarters with ships from around the Pacific crowding its harbor. Now it's just a small town dozing below coconut groves.
Well, most of the time it's dozing. But not on Saturday nights, when the town square turns into a giant social club.
By 9 p.m., there was a group playing banda music, vendors were hawking food, textiles and CDs, and a crowd, from infants to great-grandparents, had overflowed into the streets around the square.
I saw towns folk, expats and kids I had met earlier in the day at a surf camp. No one was dancing, but everyone seemed to be tapping a foot or swinging their shoulders in time to the music.
I bought a cerveza and took a seat on a bench thinking how lucky I was to be here. And how glad I was that San Blas hadn't turned into Cancún.
Follow road less traveled to Mexico's Riviera Nayarit
For those who love the road less traveled, the small towns and fishing villages of Riviera Nayarit offer a look at authentic Mexico.
The region, north of Puerto Vallarta in Nayarit state, includes nearly 200 miles of undeveloped beaches along the Pacific coast, plus fishing villages, the historic colonial town of San Blas, and the resorts of Nuevo Vallarta and upscale Punta Mita. It also includes portions of the legendary Sierra Madre range (remember "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" with Humphrey Bogart?).
Some communities can be reached easily as day trips from Puerto Vallarta. San Blas, about a four-hour drive north of Vallarta, could also be used as a base. Here's a quick look at a few places where you can find the real Mexico:
San Francisco: Mexico's version is nothing like California's. This quiet beach town, also known as San Pancho, is about an hour's drive north of Puerto Vallarta, but is a world apart. Explore its cobblestone streets and wide, palm-fringed beach. There's a small U.S. expat community here, but the town has preserved its rural essence and authenticity.
Santa María del Oro: If you enjoy mountains (and curvy mountain driving), head into the Sierra Madre to the lake region, known as Lagunas Encantadas, in central Nayarit. It is composed of three lakes, or lagoons: Santa María del Oro, San Pedro Lagunillas and Tepetiltic. During the summer, the region offers cooler temperatures, a low-key place to relax and some of the region's best fishing. If you visit you'll probably want to spend the night because of the long, slow drive to reach the lakes.
Compostela, Nayarit: This city, part of a region called Nayarit Colonial, offers a look at monuments, architecture and archaeology influenced by the Spanish Conquest. In Compostela, Nayarit, founded in 1540, be sure to visit the cathedral, which dates to the 16th century, the wide plaza and the mercado. Remnants of the colonial era can also be seen in Tepic, Ixtlán del Río and Ahuacatlán.