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Whales, Beach Fun & Zip Lining
As a nice balance to our other experiences in Puerto Vallarta, we went zip-lining in a nearby canopy forest, searched for whales on the bay with an oceanographer, snorkeled in the Marietas Islands, and engaged in some fun beach activities.
From mid-December through March, the bay is full of humpback whales who have migrated here to breed. We wanted to experience these giants up close with an expert, so we signed up with oceanographer Oscar Frey for an unforgettable boat excursion.
Oscar is originally from Mexico City, but he has lived in Puerto Vallarta for almost 20 years. He has done extensive work through his humpback whale research program, monitoring the behavior of whales and other animals in the bay.
The boat captain was Lucio, who is from this area and has worked with Oscar for 8 years:
Whales spend 90% of their time under water, but we saw a lot of whales swimming on the surface today.
When you see the tail, the whale is diving and won’t surface again for a while.
We learned that each whale has a unique pattern of white and black on his or her tail. Oscar has photographed whale tails over the years and has created a catalog of hundreds of whales that could be identified and tracked by their tail markings.
Here is one whale who was not in the catalog:
Oscar named him “The King” because today was All King’s Day in which the three wise men supposedly presented gifts of gold (for prosperity), frankincense (for wisdom), and myrrh (for emotional strength).
Many whales were swimming in groups or pairs, often a mother and child combination:
I had hoped to see a whale breeching today, leaping high into the air with a magnificent thrust. That was not to be. However, I experienced something even better--an extended song from a whale that swam under our boat during lunch, singing for almost an hour. Feeling the vibration of sound, listening to the repeated melody, and sensing the connection that the whale was creating between us with his song—this was all magical.
Oscar said that only the males sing, and he was so familiar with the whale songs that he could describe in advance exactly what sounds we would hear next.
Basking in the glory:
The Marietas Islands
Our whale tour also took us out to the Marietas Islands, where we had gone snorkeling a few days before from Yelapa. The islands are a protected sanctuary, uninhabited by people, but a nesting home to about 90 species of birds.
Approaching the islands:
The white coating on the rocks was guano, or bird droppings:
The guano was harvested commercially for use as fertilizer before 2005, when the islands were finally designated a national park.
The rocks were covered by thousands of birds that were camouflaged against the brown and white background. Here is a group of pelicans:
One of the wonderful surprises of the islands was spotting blue-footed boobies:
It turns out that the Marietas Islands is one of their favorite nesting grounds, along with the more famous Galapagos Islands in Ecuador: I was thrilled to find them here!
More photos of the islands:
On our snorkeling tour, we had the opportunity to explore the islands off the boat. The islands are known for their array of plentiful sea life, and there is apparently one “best spot,” where we joined the boatloads of other snorkelers and kayakers.
A large boat arriving:
We swam into a small sheltered area that had a tunnel leading to an interior open-air cave and small sandy beach to rest. I didn’t take a camera off the boat, so I don’t have photos of that area. However, the photo below shows the initial sheltered area, with a kayaker heading into the tunnel that led to the open-air cave:
The water had good visibility for snorkeling:
The water was deep, and there weren’t places to rest. Our “guide” unfortunately did not explain much about this area and what we could or couldn’t touch, or later where we could and could not hike. So when Sebastian grabbed ahold of a rock so that he could take a much-needed rest from swimming, a guide from another tour immediately yelled at him to let go. Oops!
After snorkeling, we were dropped off to rest on another island with a small stretch of sand:
An arching tunnel led to another section of beach that was longer and had lots of sea caves for the kids to explore:
And of course we were surrounded by hundreds of birds all around us, including these nesting blue-footed boobies:
There was a stark contrast between the snorkeling trip (with an indifferent guide, very few explanations about what we were seeing or what we were supposed to do, and an apparent disregard for the protection of the environment) and our whale excursion (with an experienced oceanographer, an emphasis on educating guests about what they were seeing and experiencing, and a great respect for the wildlife and the environment). The difference between responsible and irresponsible tourism could not have been clearer.
In any event, we got to experience the beauty of the Marietas Islands and to see our first—and hopefully not last—group of blue-footed boobies.
There is something exhilarating about a beach, just by itself. Perhaps it is the soothing energy from the never-ending play of waves, or the visual beauty of sea and sky at the horizon, or the sense of freedom and unknown when looking at a vast expanse of water that stretches as far as the eye can see.
We spent a lot of time on the beach in front of our apartment.
Ben and Sebastian in the water:
The waves often had a ferocious power and strong undertow:
Even with the patrolling life guards, I always kept the children in sight, ready to spring up like a crazed jack-in-the-box at the least sign of trouble.
Genevieve and Sebastian liked to feel their feet get sucked into the sand as the water retreated:
The pull of the waves was stronger just a little bit to our right. Here is a life guard making two people move over to the left where Genevieve and Sebastian were playing:
Sebastian met a boy who showed him how to dive into the wave to avoid getting knocked over:
Of course, I had my eyes glued on them, anxiously waiting for two dark heads to pop up on the other side of the wave:
Being on the beach is not all about frolicking in the water. Sebastian and Ben built some awesome sand castles. Here they have another one mapped out and started:
While they were busy constructing, Genevieve and I walked the length of Playa de los Muertos beach, to the southern end, about ¾ of a mile each way. No one was in the water along the southern end, and there were signs warning that the water was too dangerous for swimming.
We passed quite a few lifeguards with their rescue boards:
Near the end of the beach, we came upon a twin of the famous seahorse sculpture by Rafael Zamarripa, “Caballero del Mar” (Horseman of the Sea):
The original sculpture was installed on Playa de los Muertos in 1966, but it was subsequently lost in a storm. The artist was then commissioned to create another, which was installed on the Malecón in 1976. The first sculpture then miraculously appeared (some accounts say it was discovered in the basement of a prominent politician). In any event, it was re-installed on the beach, only to be swept out to sea again during Hurricane Kenna in 2002. Found once again, it now rests in its initial location on the beach.
Genevieve and I continued past the sculpture to the rocky point that marked the end of the sand:
We started climbing over the rocks, but it was slow going and we eventually turned back. We didn’t have shoes, and the rocks were rough with small black crabs crawling all over them.
We never lacked for food on the beach, as there was a steady flow of vendors who offered treats, such as this woman with her custard cups:
Genevieve, enjoying some fresh watermelon slices:
Many other sellers glided by with their offerings. One man carried a board of electronics while balancing his baby up high in a bucket:
In addition to just enjoying the natural wonders of the beach, we did 2 high-adrenaline activities.
The first was riding a “banana” boat—an air-filled tube (ours was red) that was pulled behind a speedboat.
We had been eyeing the banana boat for several days from our apartment balcony:
On the beach, Genevieve and Sebastian had watched people hop on the tube and zoom behind the motorboat, whose driver sometimes whipped the boat around to fling the riders off at the end.
The kids with the banana boat in the background:
After Ben bargained a good price for us, we donned some life jackets and climbed aboard:
At the last minute, 2 other riders joined us, and we were off!
Sebastian and Genevieve were adamant that we were going to lean the right way and not fall off at the end. Here is Sebastian preparing to lean through an upcoming turn:
And we didn’t fall off! (But the man at the back of our tube did.)
We ended the ride with smiles:
Family portrait (with our boat driver):
We were a bit more challenged by the second activity we did—parasailing.
Our apartment was directly above the spot where Claudio’s Paragliding laid out its rainbow-colored parachute each morning.
Over and over, we watched the parachute carry riders upwards, out over the ocean, often accompanied by loud squeals.
Genevieve lobbied us hard for a parasail ride. She remained optimistic even after she discovered the price, which just didn’t fit into our travel budget. One day, Ben noticed that business was very slow for Claudio’s, so he strolled over and bargained a fabulous price that would allow Sebastian to soar in the air too. Genevieve went first. Here she is getting buckled into her harness (can you feel her joy?):
Perhaps a wee bit of apprehension crept in:
When the boat started moving forward, it was time for Genevieve to run:
And then she pulled her legs into a sitting position, and off she went . . .
. . . into the air!
The boat then turned north and tracked along the coastline, with Genevieve floating behind:
Far, far away:
As she neared the starting point, Genevieve watched for a signal from the helpers, indicating that she was supposed to pull as hard as she could on her left parachute handle, which would turn her onto the beach as she descended. It was a perfect landing:
Then it was Sebastian’s turn to get suited up:
Ready, set . . .
And off into the air he went:
After Sebastian was safely back down, Ben sauntered over to me and casually remarked, “I bargained a really good rate so that you could take a ride too.” Me? I had gone parasailing long ago (yes, on that “girls gone wild” cruise experience), but I’ve discovered a fear of heights as I’ve gotten older. My mind went back and forth—should I go or pass, go or pass, go or . . . . In the end, I decided to seize the moment and go with it!
Genevieve and Sebastian eagerly watched as I got suited up:
The take-off was thrilling, and I felt a surge of joy as I soared upwards. But then, my fear of heights swept in and gripped my brain. I started thinking about how high up I was, and whether my harness was secure, and what would happen if my straps came undone. I was in a dark place, frozen in fear. Eventually I pried my mind free and tried to focus on the unfolding moment—the sunlight dancing on the ocean ripples, the beauty of the city from this perspective, the tiny people on rooftop gardens--anything but the possibility of plummeting to my death.
Let’s just say that I was ecstatic when it was time to pull hard on the left handle and once again feel the sand under my feet:
On our last day in Puerto Vallarta, we did another exciting activity—an adventure canopy tour in the Sierra Madre Mountains about an hour north of the city.
Although there are several zip line companies in the area, we chose Vallarta Adventures because of their focus on safety as well as fun.
We hadn’t expected the canopy tour to be one of the highlights. But it was. The course was great, but it was the people who made the experience so memorable, especially our caring and exuberant guides: Daniel, Luis, Mariam, Andrea, Checo, Luigi and Hugo. Here we are at the beginning of the tour with our fabulous guides, along with another family of 5 who would be our tour companions—Rick, Laurie, Drew, Toni and Hannah.
Genevieve listened carefully to the instructions:
The guides were always there, making sure our two safety lines were properly clipped, but they were also funny and kept us laughing.
We zipped down a number of high-speed lines:
We also got to experience rappelling down from two high tree platforms. The rappelling offered a hurdle for me, as it required me to step off into space and dangle in the air a brief moment before the rappelling began. Just as I’m looking over the edge and asking timidly, “Who’s going first?”, I feel a gentle push, which knocked me off the platform, and one of the guides responds, “You are!” And so I was!
Once off the platform, there was only one way to go—down. And after a few seconds, I settled into the groove and ended the rappel with a big smile on my face. Woo hoo!
Genevieve was next:
Then came the 50-foot high wobbly ladder, aptly named “Crazy Ladder.” Genevieve thought it was “freaky” and focused on one rung at a time, looking straight ahead at the tree. Smiling at the camera:
Ben followed behind her:
Sebastian had some hesitation, but he persevered, one step at a time:
I climbed after Sebastian, keeping a close eye on him. The ladder was indeed tall. And shaky. I was so happy when I finally reached the top.
After a round of high-five’s and “Can you believe we did that”s, we continued with a hanging bridge.
Then came the Tarzan Swing, where we got to whoop loudly and act like wild people:
One last rappel from a tall tree, and our hearts could settle back to their normal rhythms.
Sporting our cool bandanas:
We had taken a comfortable van here, but we returned in the back of this covered truck:
The rural landscape we passed through seemed far removed from the hotels and red-tile roofs of the city.
Cattle by the roadside:
There were many trucks filled with watermelons for sale:
A roadside restaurant (our favorite kind):
And so our adventure in Puerto Vallarta came to an end. This trip had been full of surprises, turning our expectations around and keeping us on our toes. Perhaps that, in and of itself, is enough of a reason to travel. But the Puerto Vallarta area offered so much more: wonderful people, perfect waves, fun activities, fabulous art, cultural richness, great food, opportunities to see whales and blue-footed boobies, and the beauty of the city. We’ll be back.
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