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Text and Photos ©2017 by J. Pint

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Entrance to Cocodrilario La Manzanilla
Entrance to Cocodrilario La Manzanilla

Tale of the Crocodile and the Dog
How the Crocodle Lost its Tongue
(Click here to read the legend)

Boardwalk 650 meters long
A boardwalk, 650 meters long, takes you through the estuary.

Night Heron
Golden-Crowned Night Heron on railing of boardwalk...at 1:00 in the afternoon!

Happy crocs
The happiest crocs in the world. They have been fed by generations of people at La Manzanilla!

Feeding crocodiles
At this crocodle sanctuary, you can feed the crocs!

Kids caring for crocodile eggs
Children at La Manzanilla burying a crocodile egg a few minutes after it was rescued.

Anhinga at La Manzanilla Crododile Sanctuary.

Baby crocodile
Bety Ibarra with baby croc.

Croc Bench
Don't miss this great place!









El Cocodrilario is a local labor of love

By John Pint

Baby crocodiles - La Manzanilla Sanctuary“Mexico’s biggest crocodile sanctuary is only 20 minutes from here,” I told my sister-in-law while relaxing on a balcony overlooking the beautiful bay of Cuastecomates, near Barra de Navidad. She opened one eye and gave me a glance that seemed to say, “A cocodrilario? Ah, yes, toothy monsters that never move a muscle, piled topsy-turvy behind a cyclone fence: boooooring!”

Fortunately, her sister Susy came to my rescue: “Not boring at all, Bety! The local people love crocodiles and feed them like we feed squirrels. Even the little kids participate. You should see the expressions on their faces when they’re carefully carrying newly laid eggs to a place where they can safely hatch.”

Well, the human dimension of the Cocodrilario caught Bety’s attention and off we went, the three of us, to tiny La Manzanilla, located 56 kilometers northwest of the bustling port of Manzanillo, with which it should not be confused.

The crocodile sanctuary used to be rather inconspicuous, with nothing more than a little sign warning visitors not to bring their dogs any closer. Crocs, they had told us, have been feuding with dogs since time immemorial and are ever so happy to gobble one up... and there is a great legend about How the Crocodile Lost its Tongue.

Today, however, we found big signs pointing to the newly revamped entrance and informing us that the estuary of La Manzanilla was declared an official Ramsar Wetland in 2008. The local people had been fighting for years to protect their mangroves from “developers” who had been systematically converting the marshland into real estate, continually reducing the space supporting not only crocodiles, but a wide variety of birds, fish, mollusks, crustaceans and reptiles.

We paid the 25-peso entrance fee and found ourselves on a narrow boardwalk suspended above the estuary waters. “This is new,” we told Bety. “Apparently Ramsar status has resulted in funding.” The boardwalk brought us within a few meters of crocodiles of all sizes, some with names like “Pancho” who, we learned is 46 years old, weighs 380 kilos and is four meters long.
All of these creatures are Crocodylus acutus, American Crocodile in English and Cocodrilo Amarillo in Spanish. They seem to be fresh-water river crocodiles with a great tolerance for salt water and live to reach an age of 80 years, although we were told that one inhabitant of El Cocodrilario is 100 years old. They are said to be less aggressive than other kinds of crocodiles.

Hanging bridge at La Manzanilla Crocodile Sanctuary

Hanging bridge adds excitement to the 650-meter walk through the estuary.

Visitors are allowed to feed the crocs here, many of which looked quite lively as they raced to gulp down a treat with a toothy grin.

We had not taken more than twenty steps along the boardwalk when we found ourselves face to face with a yellow-crowned night heron perched on the walkway railing. We were amazed, as it was 1:00 in the afternoon, the very worst time imaginable for bird-watching.

I had supposed that the boardwalk would follow the rather short trail that had been here during my last visit. Instead, it now takes you on a 650-meter circular route through the mangroves as well as through open waters, allowing you to quietly approach the natural inhabitants of the estuary. So we got to see, up close, not only crocs and iguanas, but a wide variety of water birds, including anhingas, tropical kingbirds and a white ibis..

Halfway around the route, there’s a lookout tower offering a great view of the estuary and at the end of the loop you come to a crocodile nursery, where, of course, you can take a picture of yourself with a baby croc in your arms. Here we learned that the sanctuary, which covers some 264 hectares, has a population of 400 to 500 American Crocodiles at the moment and is continuously making improvements, like recently installed toilets. “Several biologists are now working with us,” we were told, “and very soon we will be opening our own crocodile museum.”


“People here in La Manzanilla are used to living with crocodiles,” explained Gabriela Martínez, a volunteer at the Cocodrilario. “Over the years, we got used to feeding the crocs just like Norteamericanos might feed pigeons,” she said, and eventually just about every crocodile in the area ended up leading the good life in the little estuary or lagoon that has now become El Cocodrilario. “Many years ago (at least 20) we formed an organization called Cipactli, which means crocodile in Nahuatl and after a number of years we were declared an Unidad de Manejo Ambiental  or UMA (Environmental Management Unit) by the government. While this designation denotes official approval of an animal-related project, it does not necessarily imply any financial assistance."

Estuary seen from tower

View of estuary from watchtower.

At this moment, we were distracted by loud shouting coming from one of several fenced-in enclosures. While the great majority of the crocs at the Cocodrilario are completely free to come or go, a few “trouble-makers” have been brought in from other areas and are kept locked up. We went to check out the commotion and found out an Egg Rescue was in operation. “A female has just laid several eggs and the others are trying to eat them,” we were told.

The rescue required two people to “distract” the cannibalistic crocs while another fished out the eggs with a net at the end of very long pole. A group of wide-eyed children then carefully carried the eggs to a protected, sandy area where they were buried by other volunteers. “These eggs will hatch in about 90 days,” we were told by Francisco Perez Mendoza, one of the original founders of Cipactli.

Curious as to why the local people had gone to so much trouble to protect and feed crocodiles, we approached an old-timer minding a table covered with knickknacks.

“It’s not just the crocodiles we’re trying to protect,” commented Don José Garcia. “You see, some years ago we noticed a dramatic increase in wild birds and animals like possums, pumas, raccoons and badgers in this lagoon and we wondered why this was happening, why so many usually reclusive animals were now coming here.”

This was how Garcia and others discovered that land development projects were uprooting the local mangroves and reclaiming the swamp land. “Millionaires were buying up the land and destroying the natural habitats of these birds and animals and the more we looked, the more construction projects of this sort we discovered. We came to the conclusion that this estuary of ours may end up being the last refuge for all kinds of creatures that no longer have any place to go. So we are determined that our Cocodrilario must remain one place that will never be ‘developed.’ That’s why the only form of tourism we allow here is boat rides up the estuary.”

Activist and eco-preneur Davison Collins, who worked on the first crocodile inventories and studies in the estuary, says the cocodrilario, the pending "Crocodile Museum" and the interpretive mangrove birding tours in La Manzanilla are “prime examples of well-integrated community based eco-tourism and conservation initiative which help insure that the community of La Manzanilla will continue to control and cherish its most valuable jewel—its mega-diverse mangrove—and not fall prey to yet another tragedy of the commons scenario. Such a scenario occurred in Barra de Navidad, for example, where their mangrove was significantly compromised to the point that the once-thriving shell fish population plummeted and now they´re having major erosion problems with their beach, among other environmental problems directly related to the destruction of their mangrove."

Costalegre Eco-Adventure (Tel 315 351-5305) offers a dusk boat ride (1.5 hours) through the estuary and has a beautifully illustrated guide to 63 resident species of birds and 16 migratory. The guide lists all these birds in English, Spanish and Latin and you can get an electronic version of it from costalegreecoadventure  @  gmail.com (remove the spaces). Visitors who want to do the evening boat ride could stay at one of the local hotels, several of which have five-star ratings on Tripadvisor. In addition, there are some nice campsites on the beach just north of town.

The sanctuary is open daily from 9 AM to 6:30 PM and is on Facebook as “Cocodrilario Ejido La Manzanilla.” Should you visit it? Take Bety Ibarra’s final word on the place: “The Crocodile Sanctuary turned out to be the best part of my entire trip to the beach.”

How to get there
The fastest and most convenient route from Guadalajara is by toll road, via Colima and Manzanillo. La Manzanilla is just a half-hour’s drive northwest of Barra de Navidad/Melaque and is sign-posted. Drive into the pueblito on Avenida Lázaro Cárdenas and, just before the road ends at the beach, you´ll see the Cocodrilario on your right. Google Maps lists it as Cocodrilario La Manzanilla, Jalisco. Driving time from Guadalajara is about four and a half hours.

Crocodiles at El Cocodrilario de la Manzanilla

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