The word “iguana“ is the Spanish derivation of the Carib (Amerindian) word, “iwana“; a name given to a family of lizards that are found throughout the Americas.
Iguanas are one of the five generally recognized infraorders of the lacertilian suborder of reptiles which includes all lizards. The Iguanidae family is only one of about 17 families of the lacertilian suborder; it includes the subfamilies of iguana iguanas (green) and spiny-tailed (black) iguanas which are abundant in the Puerto Vallarta, Mexico area. This entire order of reptiles has been traced back to Tianyusaurus who roamed the Earth during the Late Cretaceous Period, 65-100 million years ago.
Iguanas have been used as a food source in Central and South America for the past 7,000 years and are still used as a source of meat; often referred to as gallina de palo, “bamboo chicken” or “chicken of the tree,” because they are said to taste like chicken. Leather from the iguana hide has also been a prized material for centuries.
Although green iguanas are in peril, they are not considered an endangered species; they are considered to be a threatened species and today they are used mainly as pets with 800,000 imported to the U.S. in 1995 alone. Even though hunting, trapping, or killing iguanas is illegal throughout Mexico, they are nevertheless still sought after as pets. Aside from humans, iguanas have few natural predators; however hawks and owls will attack the smaller ones. Since iguanas are preyed upon by hawks, their fear of hawks is exploited by blowing a hawk’s whistle which makes the iguana freeze and become easier to capture in the wild. Iguanas have claws and powerful tails to fight off most all other land based predators and if caught, they have the ability to shed off a portion of their tail which will later grow back.
Iguanas are commonplace around the Puerto Vallarta area living mainly in trees but also often seen bathing in the sun while on the ground or on large rocks. The tropical climate and lush foliage in PV provide the ideal environment for these ancient reptiles (as well as for us ancient retirees!); a never ending year-round supply of food with an abundance of leaves, fruit, and flowers such as hibiscus and bougainvilleas. As we have witnessed at one of the eight local golf courses, they are pretty fast runners and excellent swimmers!
In Puerto Vallarta, iguanas are often used as company logos, in names of establishments such as restaurants, nightclubs, and cantinas, house names, fiesta names, etc., even in the name of a prestigious neighborhood: Isla Iguana, located in the Marina area. They are often the subject of large sand sculptures on the beach in front of the downtown malecon, molded into pottery items, incorporated into all types of paintings, and included in various other forms of art. Of course, it’s almost impossible to lay on the beach in PV without one of the local boys coming by with his four foot long pet iguana for a photo op! In fact, it was the iguana that put Puerto Vallarta on the international map in 1963 when John Huston filmed “The Night of the Iguana”. Ever since then, the iguana (along with its relative, the gecko) has remained one Vallarta’s most recognized symbols.
Okay, you must be getting impatient wondering what the deal is regarding the three eyed iguanas of Puerto Vallarta; well, it just so happens that all iguanas have three eyes! The third eye, referred to as the parietal or pineal eye, is located on top of the iguana’s head. It is covered by a thin film of skin and therefore does not clearly see color or details but it does detect sun, shade, and movement of overhead predators.
These three eyed reptiles also have a large loose flap of skin under their chin called a dewlap. The dewlap can be moved in or out to show off during mating or warn attackers, but more importantly, it‘s used to regulate the body temperature. It has many blood vessels running through its thin skin and therefore, on a hot day, the iguana can get in the shade and stick out its dewlap to let the body heat escape; on a cold day, it can bathe in the sun and stick out its dewlap to absorb as much of the sun rays as possible. With this handy little built-in heat exchanger, the iguana can enjoy the hot Mexican sun and never sweat!
Better yet, another very interesting characteristic of the iguanas is that, for the sake of procreation, they possess a hemipenis or two penises (fortunate little critters!). However on the downside, they can only use one at a time.
In summarizing, there are so many incredible sights and novel things to photograph in PV, yet one of the favorite subjects for all tourists has to be catching a snapshot of one of those beautiful (Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!) creatures while sun bathing or snacking on a delicious bougainvillea. So, the next time you have the good fortune of seeing one of these magnificent reptiles up close, check out the third eye. Meanwhile, if you just want to have a little fun, ask your friends what has three eyes, two penises, and never sweats: the iguanas of enchanting Puerto Vallarta, Mexico!