Today was our last adventure on this trip with our trusty local cabbie, José Luis. We were headed for the Costa Esmeralda, a long narrow isthmus of land stretching some 80ks from Progreso and running west through endless condo developments and new construction sites facing the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a fine spot, you’d think, fronting these emerald waters, but of course this coastal location is extremely exposed to hurricanes that can barrel into the Gulf and Caribbean from the Atlantic, so if building here you’d want to know something about reinforcing concrete. And this year, 2022, is predicted to be one of the most active hurricane seasons in many years with well-above normal sea temperatures recorded right across the region.
Turning right at Progreso, one of the first places you encounter is the recently opened Sendero Jurásico (Jurassic Path), a new tourist ‘attraction’ that features life size fibre-glass dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures. Why here you wonder? Well, right here at Chicxulub, roughly 65 million years ago, is the very spot that the famous extinction meteor smashed into the earth, wiping out the dinosaurs and pretty much all life on the planet. José Luis was chuckling as he pointed it out, asking if we wanted to visit. Em, no – despite recently opening, it looked very ramshackle with some oddly bare palm trees and near the road a few cheesy dinosaur statues looming out of a dusty scrub landscape. Or perhaps it was meant to look like an impact crater, devoid of anything of interest. We drove on. (José Luis also chuckled when I jumped out of the car to take a photo of a croc warning at the edge of a murky lagoon, telling me suddenly to… Cuidado los Cocodrilos! Maybe you had to be there, but we laughed too).
One of the major problems facing the Yucatan this year is the amount of sargassum seaweed being swept onto the beaches – it’s a huge issue at the tourist meccas of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum and now, along the windy Costa Esmeralda. As sea temperatures rise and the seasons get warmer, millions of tons of this choking seaweed are clogging up the coast. In some places there are huge rolling banks of sargassum to overcome before you’re able to reach the water, which is also full of seaweed tendrils, clinging to game swimmers. We briefly stopped at the small port town of Telchac to walk along the blustery Malecon that shoots out into the gulf – either side of which were vast rolls of the stuff that formed a stinking barrier. It’s a huge problem and yet another sign of a rapidly changing climate.
With the glitzy ‘florida-esque’ condos, hotels and empty waterfront blocks of land to one side of the isthmus, the other side couldn’t be more different. For here are vast stretches of coastal wetland, mangroves, swamps and the pink salt flats of Las Salineras de Xtampú – The Pink Lagoons. The Maya have been harvesting the natural salt here for thousands of years, pretty much in the same way that their descendants do today. For a small fee paid to the local workers you can freely walk around the salt flats – with the ponds growing larger and larger in various shades and intensities of opaque pink, bronzy-gold and even orange, depending on the level of evaporation and crystalisation.
It’s quite other-worldly walking around these ponds by yourself – there was no one else here, other than a few workers toiling away in the fierce late morning sun (sun hats, long sleeves and trousers and, of course white rubber gloves and wellies), raking and sieving away in the shallow ponds and building shimmering mountains of salt along their edges. But it’s what exists within these ponds where the secret to their extraordinary colour is found. They’re full of tiny shrimps, the Artemia salina – the main food of flamingos and the very reason for the birds’ pink colouring. We did see the odd flamboyance of flamingos flying in the distance, but far beyond the commercial ponds – way out into the vastness of the shallow pink lagoons.