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Mex Eco

A new crop of environmentally conscious locals is showing visitors a greener view of Puerto Vallarta.

Of all the reasons travellers flock to Puerto Vallarta, its swampland generally isn’t one of them. Boating down a mangrove-lined canal in El Salado estuary as spiked croc tails splash in the murky waters, I feel like I’m in an episode of The Crocodile Hunter rather than in a popular resort town.

 El Salado estuary Crocodiles at Puerto VallartaCrocodiles might not be Puerto Vallarta's main attraction, but El Salado estuary offers an opportunity to see a different side to this popular tourist destination.

Puerto Vallarta emerged as a tourist destination back in the 1960s, when Hollywood descended on the hidden paradise to film The Night of the Iguana. Stars Ava Gardner and Richard Burton, along with Burton’s then-lover Elizabeth Taylor, lounged beachside by day and attended lavish parties by night. It wasn’t long before the world followed suit.

“The tourism industry took off; restaurants, clubs and hotels sprouted up along Puerto Vallarta’s shores,” explains Isabel Cárdenas Oteisa, El Salado’s resident marine scientist. “Then, in the ’90s, we decided to take a step toward protecting our greenery. The people, authorities, scientists and government never agree on anything, but for once, they did. It was practically a miracle: We all wanted to build this estuary.”

mangrove lined canal at El SaladoA ride along the mangrove-lined canal at El Salado estuary proves to be full of exotic encounters.

Along the sides of the canal, I spot bright orange crabs clambering over the tree roots. A laughing gull, whose call sounds just like a monkey’s laugh, swoops in to perch among dewy mangrove leaves. Supported solely by events held at the International Convention Center on the park’s grounds, the estuary is like a Noah’s ark of Puerto Vallartan wildlife. Over 100 exotic species of colourful birds, crab, iguana and fish are shacked up within its 169 acres. There’s even a raccoon living on the grounds, as I discover when he scurries over and tries to pry my bag open.

Rufo the raccoon perched on a volunteers shouldersRufo the raccoon perched on a volunteer's shoulders. 

“Rufo was dropped off at the estuary’s gate after he was found in a nearby dance club,” says Oteisa, laughing at my furry pickpocket. Luckily, Rufo is especially taken with one of the estuary’s young volunteers and leaves me to climb up onto the volunteer’s shoulders.

“El Salado is a haven for our species, but it’s also a way to get our younger people involved in preserving Puerto Vallarta’s animals and vegetation,” Oteisa explains. Students from nearby universities help with everything from groundskeeping to guiding public tours, which are offered once a week.

Estuary observation towerThe view from the estuary's observation tower is simply breathtaking.

I take in a sweeping view of the estuary from its observation tower before leaving to participate in another eco-initiative. On the shores of the nearby CasaMagna Marriott, I join a group of elementary school students to release newly hatched sea turtles into the ocean. Admittedly, it’s not how I expected to spend my time at the beach.

The sanctuary’s biologist, Oscar Aranda, explains how he gathers freshly laid sea turtle eggs at night and allows them to incubate for 45 days by burying them in what he describes as a “sandbox nursery.” Without the special care, the eggs would be either collected by poachers and eaten – they’re still sold on the black market for making soup – or attacked by large birds before they’d have the chance to hatch. Turtles are released at sunset several times a week from June to September, almost always with the help of young locals.

As the kids send the last turtles off to sea, one thing is clear: If more visitors are getting acquainted with the greener side of Puerto Vallarta, it’s thanks to this new generation that’s helping to turn the tide.

Where to stay

Hilton Puerto VallartaPhoto courtsey of Hilton Hotels and Resorts

The seaside Hilton Puerto Vallarta, with prime views of Banderas Bay from most rooms, offers a handful of options for indulging in a sunny afternoon after a morning eco-trek through the estuary. Bask in the sunlight on the beach beds, order a paloma cocktail (tequila and grapefruit) by the pool or book a treatment at the resort’s full-service spa. Bonus: Before bed, take a stroll to the shores for a chance to catch mother sea turtles emerging from the ocean to lay their eggs.



Getting There

Air Canada along with Air Canada Vacations offers nonstop service to Puerto Vallarta from Calgary, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

Comments… or add another

Mary Romain

Monday, February 4th 2013 15:40
Thank you for this great piece! I lived in Vallarta for a year in 1990/91 and I am delighted to hear they are working to protect their environment. I spent 2 weeks there last May and I am only sorry I did not know about the estuary, it would have been at the top of my list of must-sees.
Thanks again, Mary

Bruce Sach

Monday, February 4th 2013 16:50
Excellent article, Renée. Are you aware of other eco-ventures at or near PV?

Renee Morrison

Tuesday, February 5th 2013 10:25
Hi Bruce,

Glad you liked it! I know that the University of Guadalajara offers free tours of their Crocodile and Reptile Research and Conservation Center. There are also rides out to the Marieta Islands, a UNESCO-protected area where wildlife thrives (perfect for birdwatching).

I would definitely try these! A few companies offer them, just ask the tourism office or do a quick online search.

Natasha M

Tuesday, February 5th 2013 12:59
The picture of the raccoon on the volunteer's shoulders is just too cute! Hope to return to PV soon.

A David

Monday, February 11th 2013 11:56
Just came back from Puerto Vallarta - you must see the "Kids Paradise" area at the Crown Paradise Club it is amazing for young families.
We also took 1 day old turtles(at the CP Club) and released them into the ocean-these little fully formed animals get to be the very big sea turtles who live 70 to 80 years and they always come back to the same beach to leave up to 200 eggs in the sand. Absolutely amazing.
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