On a blistering hot day of 38 degrees in Mérida, we made for the coastal village of Celestún, its clean beaches and vast wetland lagoon, known as the Ría Celestún Biosphere Reserve, at 146,000 acres, the largest estuary in the Yucatan.
Our trusty driver José Luis drove us the hour and a half out of town and across dead-flat jungle scrub that really has no discernible features or landmarks other than a huge Corona beer plant and the expectant entrance gates of industrial parks waiting to be colonised. We also passed some very strange looking pockets of urbanisation – pod-like white washed homes each with the same roof top water tank perched prominently at the same corner – definitely a case of function over design. There were hundreds of them, all identical in shape and size, row after row, each cluster contained within neat bordered walls. It’s how I imagine a Martian colony to look like.
Once these developments abruptly end, the scrub opens up onto a dead-straight road to the coast where the vegetation becomes dense, lush and more jungle-like, made even more real with sudden unexpected road signs warning of Jaguars crossing…
There are boats you can hire from two places in Celustún. On the lagoon itself or, for a longer journey, from the beach. We opted for the lagoon, though having read up on this in various guidebooks, we imagined a tourist bun-fight of negotiations with boatmen looking to fill their boats to the maximum. But as we were prepared to take a boat just for the two of us, José Luis walked us via the ticket office, down the jetty and straight on board, no negotiation. It costs MX$1800 (A$120) for an hour and half boat trip into the lagoon – expensive I hear you say (as we did too) – but it was fully worth it.
The Ría (estuary) is a vast shallow expanse of salt water from the Gulf of Mexico mixed with fresh water from the estuary, fringed with dense green mangroves and the most incredible luminous sky playing on the water and turning its far edges hazy. We’re here of course to see the Caribbean Pink Flamingos – one of only two places in Mexico you can. They congregate here in Celestún from around November till April, with morning the best time to see them. We weren’t sure what to expect to be honest and when you first spot them, they’re a fair way off, either feeding in the shallows or barely visible flying in low formation over the lagoon.
I guess we were super lucky then to have a large flock fly right over our heads, low and close enough to hear them honking, admire their vivid salmon-pink plumage and wonder at their distinctive banana-shaped black-tipped bills, long narrow wings, strange elongated bodies, and their spindly legs en pointe, stretching out behind.
The boatman slowed, but we were still a moving boat with a flying flock of flamingos heading in the opposite direction, passing close-by, dipping and arcing in a balletic ribbon formation – the darker pink males leading the way with the females and juveniles at the back. We couldn’t get too close up so I’m afraid my photos aren’t the best, but hopefully it gives a sense of this magical encounter.
I just learnt that the collective noun for a flock of Flamingos is of course a ‘flamboyance’ – so after seeing a large flock in flight, that make a whole load of sense!
You spend a fair amount of time on this boat trip bobbing in the lagoon looking out for Flamingos, our boatman ever vigilant, and not being able to get too close to them meant some pretty distant views, but sitting there silently out in the blazing sun (thankfully with sunshade roof) was quite surreal. There are other birds here of course, Pelicans, Herons, Egrets and some Spoonbills (which we saw gathering in mangroves and are quaintly known here as Spatulas), so the whole place is a twitcher’s paradise.
After an hour or so you motor further around the lagoon and suddenly take a sharp turn into the dense mangrove and into a darkly shaded jungle wetland. The shallow brackish yellow water is teeming with fish and, I would imagine, crocodiles as they’re endemic here, though super shy and largely nocturnal. It’s quite serene floating through this silent wetland, a rare glimpse into a hidden world. Coming out again into the bright hot sunshine, the boat then made its way to a small wooden jetty, where we hopped off onto a boardwalk, only to find ourselves beside a crystal-clear aquamarine Cenote, fed by another wonder of these wetlands, a freshwater aquifer that bubbles eternally away. We didn’t swim here (could have but were looking forward to the beach by now) and marvelled at the clarity of the water, as we do with all of these incredible Cenotes in the Yucatan.