We met our guide Armando at 5:30 am and in the dark of morning, stopped the car at a small house with sheets in the windows. Armando hollered in Spanish from the car to the dark house, and a man inside the house lifted the window sheet and shouted back, while dozens of dogs barked and howled at the disturbance. Then off we went for a day of birding. Armando told us he was reminding our boat driver to be at the dock at 3 this afternoon to take us birding in the mangrove swamps.
We were in the state of Nayarit Mexico on the outskirts of the town of San Blas. Our target bird to find in the mangroves was the northern potoo. They are a night bird, so it was necessary to take a boat ride late in the day, boat down the river an hour through the narrow mangrove channels where the bird would probably come out at dusk to hunt for insects.
We spent the morning and afternoon birding, and at 3:00 we pulled up to a small dock on the sandy edge of a river. The driver we woke in the morning apparently didn’t show, but after a short delay Armando found another friend to operate the boat. It was a small motor boat only big enough for four people, and we found out why very soon. This section of the San Cristobal River is a very narrow channel; big enough for one small boat and closed in on both sides by long spear-like mangrove roots. At the time it seemed charming, but the day was young.
This spot, we soon discovered, was popular among Mexican tourists as well as birders. Whereas birders poke along and admire the nesting herons and crawling crabs, the Mexicans have the exact opposite idea of a fun time. Every few minutes, as we would be stopped in the middle of the channel photographing a perched osprey or searching in the mangrove roots for the elusive tiger heron, we would hear a squeal of laughter and screaming coming toward us. In the next second around the bend would come a motorboat jam-packed with two or even three Mexican families racing along, laughing, shouting, and drinking beers. It always seemed like we were surely going to collide, but at the last minute both boaters would veer away from the center and into the roots. In a river where he had already spotted numerous crocodiles, it seemed serious and dangerous, but only us gringos failed to laugh. All the Mexicans, they just laughed and laughed.
When we got to our destination we sat in the boat and waited for dark. It was prime mosquito time, in the heart of the mangrove swamps, and it was the full moon which we were told was when the mosquitoes came out in force. The still river night sounds were exotic—hooting, high-pitched cries, and occasional splashes in the water. As dusk disappeared and the night darkened, the sounds seemed to swell even louder. We saw many night birds before it got dark, and soon the potoo flew in.
Up ahead of us in the reeds was the dark silhouette of a post. Our guide told us to look again and sit still (yes, that means don’t swat at the mosquitoes). And as we did, we saw the potoo was perched atop the post. We spent about a quarter hour admiring and photographing this strange bird, watching him fly off occasionally and snap up an insect. We thought this was the highlight, but we were wrong about that too.
Cruising back into the thicket of mangroves for the return trip, we noticed the channel had filled up with substantially more water. The tide had come in. If you reached your hand out of either side of the boat now, you could touch (ugh) the fleshy roots. The further we went into the channel, the more enclosed the mangrove jungle became, completely obscuring the light of the moon. It was pitch black and the mangrove roots were so close overhead that eventually it was just easier to stay crouched, chest to knees. Mosquitoes became so incessantly invasive that we soon stopped opening our mouths to exclaim or even talk. After that we found that squinting our eyes at half mast helped keep the bugs off the eyeballs.
So we’re in this boat, in the dark, motoring down a high water channel filled with crocodiles, keeping our eyes half shut and our mouths clamped tight. Armando held a flashlight for the boat driver, creating a small visual flash of what was directly in front of us as we sailed up the channel, curve after curve. We knew the boat ride was an hour long, so we settled into this rather creepy but completely exhilarating journey. You know how that is—it’s the thrill of an outdoor adventure. You don’t know what’s around the corner, literally, and there is more discomfort than you want. But you surrender, think about the time ahead when you’ll be safe and warm again, and enjoy the unique adventure for all the mystery and excitement that it is.
When we came to the bridge, we knew we were nearly done with our ride. But wait, this can’t be the same bridge; and yet there was only one bridge. The one-lane concrete bridge we had easily glided under before was now seriously close to our heads. The driver slowed the boat, shouted something in Spanish and under the bridge we went. There was only enough head room for the boat to go under the bridge. Only the boat. All people had to bend and squeeze and flatten their bodies completely into the bowels of the boat!
No doubt about it: this was a crazy thrill. No regulations, no signs with clearance levels, no warning…just a quick-duck-or-lose-your-head moment.
Only a boater who knew this river like the back of his hand could have traversed these waters in the pitch black of night. And only a bird guide who had been showing people this channel for most of his life could so easily laugh off the near-miss collisions, the eerie darkness of a mangrove swamp, and the bottom of the bridge that was within inches of our heads. And yet, that’s exactly what made this such a wild and special adventure.