There are two things that come to mind when I think of Yucatán now, and they’re both pink: flamingos and salt lakes. They were one of the reasons I chose Yucatán for my last trip. I travelled with a friend and we stayed in Mérida. Incredibly, after almost 24 years of living in México I still, somehow, manage to misjudge distances: when we were at the hostel planning our days out, I realized that while Celestún, the place where you can see pink flamingos, was fairly close to Mérida, but the pink lakes, Las Coloradas, were actually pretty far.
Our transportation options were very limited. A bus would take almost 5 hours, which seemed excessive for a day trip, and renting a car was too expensive for my budget —and it would take three hours. The most reasonable thing would have been to spend a night in Las Coloradas or nearby, but that was again an extra expense. As much as we wanted to see the pink lakes, we decided to set more realistic goals for our days there and leave the pink lakes as an optional adventure for our last day in Yucatán.
Pink flamingos were still on the list though, so the next morning we took a bus to Celestún, a small town in the Yucatán peninsula just one hour and a half away from Mérida. I was also queasy about this trip. Although the flamingos are not the only reason why you’d visit Celestún—they have a natural reserve called Ria Lagartos, habitat to thousands of species—, the flamingos were certainly the most compelling one for us, and we were offseason. The best time to visit Celestún is during March and April when they are mating. In June and July, they’re not that active and handed to spot, but we had to give it a chance.
Once in Celestún, a picturesque but definitely not prosper town, we went straight to the beach, where we saw a couple of boats on the shore. Most boat drivers offer a two-hour flamingo-watching ride, the problem is boats can fit up to 8 people and if you’re in a small group you’ll still have to pay full price. A boat ride is expensive, at around $1,600 MXN. Thankfully we met an awesome boat owner who arranged for us to share with two other girls, so we paid only $400 each.
These boat rides are operated by a Mayan cooperative whose members, as I gathered from our driver, are also concerned with conservation. The boats never get too close to the flamingos and the drivers make sure no one disturbs them or tries to feed them. Our driver William explained all of these as we made our way from the beach towards the Ría Lagartos reserve.
It’s a long ride in which all you can see is water, some pelicans and birds, even small alligators. And then, as if out nowhere, flamingos appear. Now, I don’t think I have ever been so fascinated by birds before. William stopped the engine when we were some 20 meters away from a group of 20 or so flamingos, and we stayed there, watching. The birds came and went, flew close to our heads, landed in the water, fought each other, played around. At some point, there must have been 50 or 60 birds around us, some of them still young and white. The flamingos, we were told, get their pink colour from the waters where they feed. Unlike most birds, flamingos feed on plankton and have no teeth but some kind of filters in their beaks, like whales.
They are a really weird species, gracious and somehow clumsy at the same time. I felt very humbled to be among them but I couldn’t help but doubt if it was okay to intrude in their habitat, even if we were assured that there was no harm being done. It was, as our guide said, not the right time to go and I wonder if many more people disturb them during the mating season.
On this trip, I learned that tourism is basically the only thing supporting people in small towns like Celestún nowadays. There are so many people that will take you on a boat to watch flamingos even though they’re not prepared or informed, only because there are no other jobs. Once again it’s clear that there is a very strong link between poverty and environmentally harmful practices.
Speaking of environmentally harmful practices, I have to say that I am very saddened about the amount of plastic lying close to the beach and on the roads of Celestún. In just a short walk I picked up a full bag of trash, mostly plastic bottles. This is extremely alarming considering how close the public beach is to the “protected” reserve of Ría Lagartos.
Speaking to our guide William on our way back to the beach he mentioned that flamingos were probably the most famous “attraction” of the area apart from the pink lakes. He mentioned most people travelled to Las Coloradas for that, which wasn’t really necessary since salt lakes could be found in many places in Yucatán. In fact, he knew a pink lake not five minutes away from where we were. After that, we spent five minutes convincing him to take us for a small extra fee ($50 each). He turned to boat around to shore just before where the river comes into the sea, we got off and walked for ten minutes among mosquitos and under a scorching sun and we finally came to it, a pink lake.
The colour pink comes from all the minerals and salts dissolved in the water, and it changes a bit depending on the light. This lake was actually very shallow, perhaps up to my waist in the middle, and the water was very hot and slimy. The sand underneath was also slimy and weirdly sticky. I had not experienced something similar before but I can tell you I didn’t want to go all the way in, not even to see if I would float like in the Dead Sea (which I have heard happens).
The area was completely empty, although you could see salt deposits in the distance and tools like shovels and buckets, there even was a truck parked not very far away. Most pink lakes like these are still worked for salt. That day, however, it was peaceful and eerie-looking.
After exploring a bit we went back to the boat and straight to the beach. It was a pretty interesting day and we crossed two things off our checklists, which gave us an extra day to stay in Mérida and chill. We had a pretty good lunch that day, too, shrimp and octopus, and hung out at the beach waiting for the last bus to Mérida. It was a pretty good day, “best day here so far”, we thought at the time, but we were quite mistaken.