Last updateFri, 16 Aug 2019 11am

Camping & bird counting on the Salty River ... a not-so-hot dip under a starry sky

Because it is the early bird that gets the worm, only an even earlier birdwatcher gets a photo of that bird. Bearing this in mind and recalling that this December is the coldest I have ever experienced in these parts, I asked myself how I could cover this year’s annual Bird Count without having to rise at 5 a.m., drive somewhere in the dark, arrive bleary-eyed at some plaza and stomp around shivering – still in the dark – waiting for things to get underway?

The annual Christmas Bird Count was started in 1900 by U.S. ornithologist Frank Chapman and continues to this day all across Canada, the United States and Latin America. The results go into a huge database which the public can access on the Audubon Society website, audubon.org.

pg7aGuadalajara joined the Christmas Bird Count in December 2004, the Lake Chapala area in 2006 and a separate count in the Primavera Forest first took place in 2009.

This year, I was pleased to find there were three choices for doing the Bird Count in the Primavera Forest. One of these was a route along the warm, bubbly Río Salado, the downstream extension of famed Río Caliente. Fortunately, the group was set to meet at Rancho Río Salado, a campground where I had long wanted to pitch my tent.

Ah, I thought. I can sleep until 7 a.m., roll out of my tent and join the birdwatchers half an hour later. Eureka!

Now all I had to do was talk somebody else into joining the enterprise … and I knew just what to use as a lure.

“Hello, Maruca? How would you like to camp next to the Rock-n-roll River? Imagine soaking in the delicious hot brine at midnight, while counting who knows how many of the shooting stars predicted for next Friday night?”

Yes, as I suspected, hiking and camping enthusiasts Maruca González and her friend Carmenza Suarez could not resist and late last Friday afternoon, we rolled into Rancho Río Salado, where, as I expected, we turned out to be the only clients. This balneario/campground, by the way, is easily accessed from the small village of Emiliano Zapata, located 18 kilometers west of Guadalajara on Highway 70.

pg7bWhile pitching our tents a few meters from the river, we made a sad discovery. “Hey, John,” said my friends, “what was that about a midnight dip? This water is not hot and barely deep enough to dip a toe.”

Alas, it was true. The shallowness of the water was explained by the balneario’s caretaker, who told us the unusually fierce storms of this year’s rainy season had filled all the little dams along the river with silt and sand.   He added that the river was “much warmer further upstream” and that we could drive to a good spot in “just a few minutes.”

We pitched our tents, said hello to the rancho’s mascot, Chancho the Peccary, and indeed found ourselves a spot upstream which was comfortably warm, but unfortunately also quite shallow. Through clouds of steam rising from the river, we could occasionally see the stars –including a few shooting ones. It was a surreal experience, we all agreed.

Rancho Río Salado prides itself on offering visitors a quiet night’s sleep and I was impressed when they told me about the various measures they employ to control the insatiable desire of certain types of people to play loud music in the middle of the night.

Knowing the temperature was expected to plunge to four degrees the next morning, we had brought along our warmest sleeping bags and that made all the difference. We rose at 7 a.m. as planned. With no time to make breakfast, my warmish coffee came from a plastic bottle which had spent the night with me inside my sleeping bag.

At 7:30 a.m. on the dot, birder Carlos Contreras arrived with his group of Bosque la Primavera community monitors and presented all of us with a brand new “Guide to Common Birds of the Primavera Forest.” This is plastic-coated and accordion-folded, with 14 sides showing color photos of the 77 species of birds you are most likely to find inside this forest. The guide includes great pictures taken by Julio Álvarez, a fine photographer.


This format is perfect for non-birders. If you spot a bird, you just fully unfold the guide and at a glance you can usually match up the bird you’re looking at with the right picture. Then you can see its name in Latin, Spanish and English, with symbols to tell you whether it is male or female, endemic, migratory or resident. The new guide was prepared by Monitores Comunitarios del Bosque la Primavera, which was formed in 2015 thanks to the initiative of U.S. Peace Corps volunteer Matt Blois. As far as I know, the only way to get a copy of the new guide is to sign up to assist the experts during a bird-watching event in this forest.

“How could I ever be of use?” you might ask. “I can hardly tell a cowbird from a cow pie!” Well, the truth is that those experts cannot possibly be looking in every direction at once. Therefore, extra pairs of eyes are greatly appreciated. All you have to do is point where you see anything remotely resembling a bird and almost always, they will instantly name it.

During our short walk along the beautiful Salty River, we spotted around 23 species of birds and had a great time making new friends. If you’d like to get involved, you can contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you’re near Lake Chapala, or Tortilla con Chile on Facebook if you’re in Guadalajara.

Want to camp at Río Salado? The cost is now 100 pesos for adults, cheaper if you pick a spot further upstream. To get there, ask Google Maps to take you to “Rancho Rio Salado.” Driving time is about 40 minutes from the west end of Guadalajara. Add an hour to that if you are coming from Ajijic.

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