Pink Flamingos: Discovering Celestún

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.

Celestún

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.

Chunk of pink salt

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.

Also, made a friend at the beach.

Cenote Dos Ojos

Apart from its beautiful beaches, pink lakes and mouthwatering food, the Mayan Riviera is also known for its many cenotes. A cenote is basically a hole that exposes an underground body of water. There are more than 6,000 cenotes in the southern peninsula of Mexico, and while the biggest ones are taken care of and charge you for entering, there are many small ones where you can just jump in (at your own risk). Cenotes in both Yucatán and Quitana Roo are part of an underground river that still flows, so the water is crystal clear, cool, and clean.

One of the cenotes we visited is only 20 minutes away from the archeological site of Tulum, in Quintana Roo, and it is called Dos Ojos (“two eyes”), because there are two main bodies of water in the area, connected by tunnels. Altogether, there are five cenotes there and the entrance fee depends on how many you want to visit and wether you want to hire equipment. We hired a somewhat basic tour of the main cenotes and an area called the “bat cave” because, well, it is basically a cave with a lot of bats. So, for 300 mexican pesos we got some snorkeling equipment and diving suits (yes, it was like 35ºC outside but the cenotes were cool and the water was COLD, so get the funny suit). The tour took around 45 and there were only like 8 or 10 people including us. Afterwards we could stay there for as long as we wanted. Best spent money of the trip, let me tell you.

The tour is really okay. It was not, thank God, one of those wannabefunny tours, but an informative account of how cenotes came to be, which animal species live there and other interesting facts. But the real reason the tour is worth it was the bat cave. Without a tour guide there is no access to this area, because it is quite difficult to get there: there are narrow passages, very shallow and very deep areas, and it is in complete darkness (they give you flashlights but still, it’s important to be with someone who knows the way).

The cave is small and its roof is comepletely SWARMED with bats. It is really a surreal experience to hear them chirping and feel them flying around you. Also, the cenotes in Dos Ojos are not really “open”— there’s an opening on the side from where you get it and where the light comes in, but they’re not open from above like other cenotes. This means you can’t really see the sky from the water. Instead, the roof is covered in stalagtites (and stalagmites will most definitely mess up with you) and the light that manages to come in has a blueish colour, which I think is way cooler.

Once the tour is over you can swim around, dive, snorkel or just sit somewhere. There are areas for scuba divers too, but you have to present your certification and bring your equipment. The park itself is really big and so are the main cenotes; however, it was surprisingly not crowded when we were there, which was weird after going to Tulum, which was really full. I understand that the park only allows a certain number of people every day because of safety and ecological reasons.

There was an area with lockers and changing rooms where we left our things (and our cameras). I did manage to take some underwater pictures, but I they all look like these:

 

 

 

Anyway, here’s a video that hopefully conveys the experience. Of all the cool things we got to do in Quintana Roo, this cenote was really one of the best. It is really one of those places that make you realise how strange and beautiful nature can be, and how there can be a balance between tourism and environmental care. So if you’re traveling to the south of Mexico, cenotes are really a must visit. There are many options, the most famous being Ik Kil in Yucatán, or a very similar but smaller option called Yokdzonot. There are also the ones in Xcaret, in Quintana Roo (this park offers some activities in underground rivers and caves), but Dos Ojos was really an amazing experience.

Have you visited any cenoted? Which ones do you love?