One of the key attractions of Puerto Vallarta is its beautiful tropical environment. The town is situated on the edge of Banderas Bay, which is the 7th largest bay in the world.
The area climate is often referred to as a rain forest and is officially a Tropical deciduous forest. The surrounding Sierra Madre mountains raise to an average elevation of 7,500 feet, offering great day trips for cooling off during the hot summer months. In the areas where the old growth trees have not been harvested for timber, the main forest canopy stands around 50-60 feet above the jungle floor with the tallest trees reaching 100 feet into the air. Here in these higher elevations the climate turns into a tropical pine-oak forest, with at least 26 species of pine, fir and juniper and over 100 species of oak. Just as back in the States these trees leaves will turn red and gold in the fall, but unlike home, some leaves drop while others bloom, keeping the surrounding mountains of Puerto Vallarta in bloom all year long.
The most common fish caught in Banderas Bay is the meal sized Red Snapper (huachinango), the next most popular is the Dorado (also called by it’s Hawaiian name Mahimahi) which is a green/gold fish that can grow to about 30lbs. There are also plenty of Yellow fin Tuna (ahi) which is fished for sport and food and grows to about 100-200lbs.
Banderas Bay also has ample lobster and octopus as well as large prawns and blue shrimp, crabs, squid, oysters, mussel and clams, all of which make their way to the restaurants in Puerto Vallarta
Big game bill-fish abound around the bay. Striped marlin are found from July through November, Black Marlin from August to November, and Blue Marlin from March to April. The Pacific sailfish stay year around.
One of the most special species in the bay are the giant manta rays, often seen by scuba divers and sometimes in the shallow surf off the beach at Bucerias. These huge, solitary, graceful creatures average 22 feet wide. Although they are related to sharks, they are harmless, eating only plankton, small fish, and crustaceans. They do not have teeth or poisonous spines like other smaller rays. Sharks are rarely encountered in Banderas Bay.
By far the biggest aquatic draw in the Bay are the Humpback Whales found during the winter. They migrate south from their feeding grounds off the coasts of Alaska, Canada and the Pacific US. The first whales arrive in mid October and the last ones leave in mid March, but the largest numbers are during the last two weeks of January and the first two weeks of February. At least 300 whales visit each winter, with some staying only for a day while others stay for as long as five weeks. In Puerto Vallarta, they breed and give birth but do not feed. They often break the water’s surface in playful behavior called breaching, fin and tail slapping. Sometimes they can be caught in dramatic courtship battles during which two to as many as 18 males will push, shove and strike each other for the right to get close to a single female. A courtship can last for many hours before the strongest wins the right to breed with the female.
The bay also plays host to full time residents of the Pacific bottlenose dolphins.
The areas north and east of Puerto Vallarta have an international reputation as a great place for bird watching. There are 173 full time species and 180 of those who migrate here during the winter. Many of them are rare such as the endangered Military Macaw (large and very colorful). It’s also the only region where you can find Black-Throated Magpie Jay. Other exotic rarities are Green Jays, Pygmy Owls, Snal Kites, Elegant Trogons, Crested Guans, Golden-cheeked Woodpeckers, Collard Forest Falcons, Tropical Kingbirds, Crested Caracaras, Russet-Crowned Motmots, Streak-Backed Orioles, Rufous-Bellied Chachalacas, Orange-Fronted Parakeets and many species of Parrots and Loros, and 15 species of hummingbirds. All can be found in the area but enthusiasts will definitely want to spend some time in San Blas for the best birdwatching.
One of the reptiles you will most encounter is the Green Iguana. A large plant eater that can grow lengths of 4’-6’ and spend most of their time in the canopy, they can dive or fall to the ground from 50’ without being hurt. At one time they were hunted for their meat, but now they are on the endangered list in Mexico. A walk along the River Caule will almost certainly give you a good chance at witnessing them first hand.
A smaller and very prevalent reptile is the Gecko, which can even be found in the most exclusive resorts climbing the walls. These cuties are believed to bring good luck and one alone can keep an entire room free of mosquitoes. They attract them with an occasional quick chirping sound that attracts the blood suckers.
The area holds 82 species of various snakes and 15 of them are venomous to humans; however most have been eradicated from populated areas. There is a very slight possibility of encountering a coral snake in a garden, and although they are shy and reclusive, their bite can be fatal. When traveling in wild forest areas you should keep in mind that poisonous snakes do not attack humans. They swallow their prey whole and know that humans are far too big to feast on, they will only strike in self defense. If you encounter a snake don’t try to scare it off with a stick or stones, just keep a safe distance and retreat calmly.
The most popular turtle in around PV is the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle (golfina) which has a heart shaped shell and reaches to about 2.5 feet in length and up to 110 lbs (small for a sea turtle). On the other end of the scale is the Laud turtle which is the largest of all turtles.
One of the oldest surviving vertebrate species on earth, crocodiles are more closely related to birds and dinosaurs than to alligators (which are not found in Western Mexico). Compared to alligators, crocodiles are larger and more gray than green in color, with narrower, more pointed heads and long sharp teeth that are visible even with their mouths shut. Their backs are covered with armor like plates. They live in freshwater and can submerge for up to an hour at a time. They can get to be 20’ in length but the largest found in the PV area is 13 feet. They eat amphibians, birds, fish and mammals. The best sure shot chance to see one is at the San Blas Cocdrilario (crocodile preserve).
Most mammals in the area can be found in the Sierra Madres mountains overlooking PV. They include raccoons, skunks, badgers, foxes, rabbits, squirrels, coyotes, javelinas and Armadillos and white tailed deer. There are also some cats, including the Jaguar and Pumas.
PV is fairly mosquito free during the dry winter months but are more common during the rainy summer season. Mosquitoes don’t like salt water, so the beach is always free of them, however mosquitoes are a problem all year long in the jungle, so if you go for a Canopy tour don’t forget some repellent. Near San Blas they have a huge biting gnat problem. Outside of the city proper tarantula and scorpions can be found. Tarantulas are not deadly and the bite is on par with a bee sting and no more toxic, and they will not bite people unless they feel extremely threatened. If you go on a road trip it’s almost guaranteed you will see them crossing the road in front of you. Scorpions can be fatal but rarely are, and are often no more deadly than a bee. However if you do get stung you’ll want to see a doctor.