Sunset in San Blas

Sunset in San Blas

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Got the binoculars?

Make it a contest to see how many different species of birds the kids can count. On a good day, you might see 120, says our naturalist guide Francisco Nombre, who just happens to hold Mexico’s 2015 title for “The Big Day,” seeing the most different species in a 24-hour period.

People come to San Blas in the Riviera Nayarit region of Mexico from all over the world to see birds, as well as to surf the famous breaks just off the beautiful white sand beaches along the Pacific Coast.

We drink coconut water served up in the coconuts just picked from the nearby trees while Mexican kids play in the sand and water while their parents and grandparents sit under the shade of thatched palapas along the beachfront. We use local hot sauce and drink local beer served up in a bucket filled with ice.

It’s about as memorable and as authentic a vacation experience as you can get, but one not too many American families enjoy. We see Huichol Indian families in colorful costume.

Yes, there has been a recent State Department warning about travel to Mexico. But here in what is a tourist destination — albeit one less busy than Cancun or Puerto Vallarta, we certainly feel safe amid vacationing Mexican families.

When you are in a town like San Blas, or other smaller towns in this region like Sayulita or San Francisco (nicknamed “San Pancho”), which are closer to Puerto Vallarta, you realize how much you are missing if you never leave your all-inclusive resort. Your kids could be building sand castles with local kids: You could be sampling a local dish like Aqua Chile — fish and shrimp with lime and different kinds of chilies. You and the kids could explore an old ruin or historic fort.

The key to a more adventurous trip in Mexico, or elsewhere, is to research in advance and get the help you need on the ground. Visitors can count on that at the 45-room family owned hotel Garza Canela where we stayed. The hotel is run now by a brother and four sisters, one of whom, Betty Vazquez Gonzalez, is one of the best known chefs in Mexico — a reason their Restaurant El Delfin is so well known and respected. For breakfast, we eat mangos just picked from the trees outside; at dinner, the fish is seasoned with the herbs grown in the garden.

Giovanni Arredondo with two freshly caught snappers

Giovanni Arredondo with two freshly caught snappers

I love that the hotel has a playground so the kids can go outside while you linger at dinner.

Doris Vazquez Gonzalez explains that they help tourists figure out which beachfront restaurant to try, which naturalist speaks good English and which surf school to use. The hotel was originally an eight-room inn run by an uncle, she explained. When he wanted to sell, her father, a bookstore owner, bought it “because San Blas was always our place … where we came to the beach,” she explained. Now they aim to help visitors enjoy the area as much as they do.

I guess it can be a leap of faith to leave your vacation in the hands of strangers. But after 10 minutes, you feel like family — maybe that’s why so many people return here year after year, including “many, many families,” Vazquez Gonzalez said. “San Blas is a very friendly town used to tourists,” she says. Birders, after all, have been coming here since the 1950s.

A few minutes’ drive from town, we are in a boat, mangroves on either side in La Tovara National Park where we see Tropical Kingbird, magnificent Frigate Birds, White Ibis, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, the Rufous-bellied Chachalaca, hummingbirds, the Great Kiskadee … the list goes on and on.

But how do you keep kids interested? The crocs popping up in the water certainly will help, so will the giant termite nest. Francisco Nombre, the father of two young kids himself, says it always helps if you have some fun facts about the birds. Did you know the white-tipped dove care for the baby birds together as a community? Did you know the Boat Billed Heron is so named because his beak looks like an upside down boat?

And then there are spur-of-the-moment contests. Who sees the croc first? How many colors do you see? How many birds with red beaks do you see?

“Kids use technology so much,” says Nombre. “Activities here — at the beach, birding, it gets them away from the screens.”

That’s not difficult here where everything is different and new. There is an old fort to explore (San Blas was founded in the 17th century and was the most important shipyard on the Pacific Coast). There is a crumbling church and ruins of an old custom house. Read Henry Longfellow’s poem “The Bells of St. Blas” to the kids — it talked about the famous bronze bells here.

Go fishing. Locals say there is terrific deep-sea fishing here. Cariluz Aguilera and her husband, Giovanni Arredondo, have been running Garza Bianca for the past 17 years on Las Islitas. He holds up two huge Pargos — a kind of snapper — and we watch as he cleans the fish, seasons it and sets it over a hot mangrove wood fire.

Thatches talapas on the beach on Islas Islitas

Thatches talapas on the beach on Islas Islitas

We adjourn to a table in the shade watching the beach scene. There’s the “mango man” sculpting mangos into fruit flowers and serving them up on a stick. Another man is selling all kinds of beach toys, another sells candy. A trio comes and sings local tunes, accompanied by their instruments.

Our feast is one for the memory books — the fish served up on a huge pan with shrimp and mango to be scooped up and eaten on fresh corn tortillas. The cost is roughly $10 a person.

We seem to be the only Americans here. I know getting off the tourist track can be a risk, especially with kids, but, boy, can it be worth it.

I’ll have some more fish!

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