Celestun is on the list of many travellers and locals who visit the Yucatan as it is one of the best spots to see the flamingos. We had already been lucky to spot a few of these gracious birds on our trip to Rio Lagartos during our stay in Valladolid. There literally were only a few and Jerome was desperate to see more of the pink birds and other wild life. Celestun is a sleepy fishing village to the west of Merida. The drive there took just under two hours, leading us through many villages with the last stretch through low jungle and Mangrove swamps. Before we reached the outskirts of Celestun town we crossed the bridge over the Ria (river) Celestun, in the heart of the Reserva de la Biosfera. The main tourist centre and guided boat tours leave just after the bridge on the left hand side.
We had left Merida late morning and arrived just in time to go to the beach and have lunch in one of the many restaurants that line the beachfront there. We saw a few people on the beach and in the water, the sea quite calm and with the sun shining through a thin layer of clouds. We could have changed into our swimming costumes, but we were not here to laze on the beach.
Food came first, so we chose a table in the sand under at restaurant La Playita for lunch. Jerome had fried fish with chips, Chris had calamari and I ate a delicious shrimp ceviche with avocado and tomatoes. There were locals walking around and trying to sell hammocks and pastries while we ate, which we found rather odd. Apart from the hawkers we really enjoyed our lunch, with a view of the sea and a slight breeze on our skin.
We could have taken a guided boat tour right here from the beach, but that would have added another half an hour to the trip as they have to drive south before being able to enter the Ria Celestun and the Reserva de la Biosfera. The boat tours from here are also more expensive due to the longer tour times. Unless you want to see the coast and the beaches from the boat, I would advise you to take a guided tour from the Parador Touristico at the bridge that crosses the river Celestun. Which is where we were headed after eating. We left our car parked at the tour centre and walked along the jetty between the boats and soon enough were approached by one of the guides. He asked us if we wanted to join another group, but we told him that we would rather have a boat to ourselves instead. This is slightly more expensive, on average one person would pay around 200 pesos for the tour, we paid 1000 pesos to have the boat just for us. When Angel asked us what we would like to see, we told him, that of course we came for the flamingos, but were happy to see other birds and animals too.
We sped down-river in our boat, passing others on the way. We spotted comorants and pelicans, but there were no flamingos to be seen. Our guide then steered the boat towards the edge of the river and into the underbrush of the mangroves. He said he had a surprise for us. When he tied our boat to one of the trees, we could see another, smaller boat through the trees. He went to get it and asked us to get in. This boat was just a small one and had no motor. Instead he used a long stick to punt us through the Mangroves. For a few minutes, we gently glided through the calm brownish water until we turned a corner and looked out over a vast lake.
Here they were, at the far end we could see hundreds of flamingos slowly moving through the shallow water. We were really excited to see so many of them and felt special that the guide had taken the time and effort to show us. The guide told us that they came here to feed, as the water was calmer and there was no danger of crocodiles. He was very careful to not scare them and did not get too close. He also told us that if they get scared and flew off, they use up a lot of energy, which they would then need to make up by eating even more. Our guide in Rio Lagartos had deliberately scared them off, probably to make the tour more exciting for us. We regretted not having known before and that we should have avoided doing so. We told Angel about our boat tour in Rio Lagartos and he said that the flamingos migrate to Rio Lagartos in February for mating season. The rest of the time they mainly spend here in the lagoons, hidden away.
Angel rowed us back to the speedboat and we transferred back into the bigger boat, we then turned around, up the river and under the road bridge near the parking. The water was quiet high against the bridge, as the tide was coming in and therefore we had to slow down to get underneath.
Once through we sped up again and ended up in the famous mangrove tunnel, part of every tour. The mangroves here have left a tunnel just high enough for the boats to glide through. Quite eerie, as it was a lot darker in the tunnel, due to the thick growth of the trees and the leaves. The guide showed us huge termite nests up in the branches of the trees, there were a lot of them. We also spotted a kingfisher ahead, one of Jerome’s favourite birds. These tiny birds are quite hard to see and whenever the boat got too close it flew away. Other small birds were in the trees and if you looked carefully you could see some small frogs.
We moved on to see one of the freshwater springs, called ojos de agua that rise under the swamp. The boat stopped at a jetty, where a wooden walkway led us into the trees, about a meter above the water line. At the end we found what looked like a pond, where we could see water pushing up and breaking through the still water’s surface. There is no surface water on the Yucatan peninsular due to the calcareous nature of the rocks, the natural incline of the strata pushes the water towards the coast in form of underground lakes. Here at Ria Celestun and Rio Lagartos the water rises in what is known as ojos de agua and form fresh water sources for the lagoons. It was certainly something we had never seen before. Normally tour guests are allowed to swim in the freshwater lake but the fast high tide coming in merged the murky brown water with the freshwater and the guide did not recommend going in. On the short walk back to our boat we spotted another kingfisher between one of the mangrove roots, this time I got lucky and actually got a useable photo of it.
Just after we got back in the boat our guide suddenly slowed and steered the boat close to the trees and he pointed out a boa constrictor to us, lying in the tree branches, completely unfazed by us looking at him. It could have been quite scary to be so close to a snake, but Jerome thought it was cool.
All in all, we were very glad to have taken this extra tour in addition to the one we had already completed in Rio Lagartos. It was well worth the additional money and the guide Angel had given us a brilliant insight into the biosphere of the lagoon. We also saw many different animals and birds compared to our visit in Rio Lagartos, not only the snake and kingfishers but also birds such as spoonbills that we had not seen in the wild before. We were very pleased and happy to have come, especially Jerome.
On our drive back to Merida, we stopped in one of the villages along the road. Chris bought some oranges from a stall and I bought a traditionally embroidered top from a lovely old lady who sold her items in her front yard. The day was an excellent end to our visit to the Merida area of the Yucatan.