Celestun is a fishing village 96 km southwest of Merida on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. It’s known for its seafood restaurants and for the flamingos that go there during the fall and winter to reproduce.
The flamingos are in the Celestun Biosphere Reserve and you need to take a boat to see them. You can hire one at the entrance to Celestun or on the beach near either the La Palapa or La Sirena restaurants.
There are about 26,000 flamingos in the Yucatan and the biggest colony is here. Flamingos are very tall birds. Males can grow to be 1.5 m tall and weigh almost 4 kg. They eat by filtering organic particles from the water through their bill. These particles are rich in carotene, which gives them their pink colour.
Flamingos stay together as a big group, which is one reason why seeing them is so impressive. You’re riding along in this boat that’s going at a crazy fast speed and suddenly you see this orangey-pink ribbon up ahead and realize it must be them. It was the end of the season when I was there but the colony was still very impressive.
Flamingos like it here because it’s a coastal lagoon and the water is shallow and saline, which can be hard to find today. They need to spend 12 hours a day eating to get all the food they need so you’re not allowed to get too close or else they will all fly off together. (Oops!)
There are about 90 species of aquatic bird in the reserve. Migrating birds rest and feed here. Pelicans are particularly impressive and there are as many as 4,000 of them here in the winter months. They were perched on the fishing huts and flying above us but the boat was going too fast for me to get a photo. There are lots of herons, woodpeckers and kingfishers too.
The reserve as a whole is fascinating and well worth exploring. Inland is the petan, which is low-flooding jungle. Its ecosystem is very fragile for it depends on a balance between freshwater and saltwater. The saltwater, of course, comes from the Gulf. The freshwater is from springs or small underground lakes known as cenotes.
The trees of the petan, such as Gum and Mahogany, grow to 15m – 18m high. Before the area was protected, many of the trees were cut down for fuel. Termite nests are everywhere–some are absolutely enormous.
The peten is not only a food source for birds but also for the jaguar, ocelot, white-tailed deer, spider money, and crocodile. Out guide showed us footprints that he said belong to a jaguar. I’ll tell you about the crocodile in a minute.
Four of the seven existing species of turtle are found here. The females lay their eggs (between 90 and 220 eggs each) in the sand on the reserve’s beaches in the summer and 50 to 70 days later the baby turtles hatch and make their way to the sea. I saw this happen in Costa Rica and it is truly fascinating. The sand along the coast can be one or more meters deep. There are lots of fish here too.
The boat made a swift, sharp turn (I think the driver was a bit of a show-off) into a mangrove, which is an enchanting place to be.
The salt and fresh waters meet here and the different levels of saltiness create the ecosystem for the most unusual vegetation to grow.
We followed a wooden path through the mangrove to visit a fresh water spring. I have never seen water like this. It shimmers.
There are no rivers in the Yucatan because the limestone is so porous that all the rainwater goes underground. The water that gathers underground is a crystal clear turquoise colour.
The spring water is perfect for swimming. No one in my boat wanted to swim but some in the boat behind us jumped in and guess what? A crocodile appeared on the edge of the pond and just stared at them! It didn’t go in the water though. Maybe it wasn’t hungry. I just wish I had a photo to show you.
Some people call this a petrified forest, I guess because the trees all have their roots in the water. It certainly is an interesting habitat to explore.
I took a bus tour to the Celestun Reserve because I was told it was too difficult to go there on my own. I later read in the Yucatan Today newsletter that a local bus leaves Merida’s terminal Noreste (Calle 50 at 67) starting at 5:15 am, 6 am, 8 am, then every hour. The last return trip is at 8 pm. The trip takes 2 ½ hours and costs 47 pesos (US$3.79). The drive itself is very interesting for you pass traditional Mayan villages.
If you go on your own you can arrange a two-hour boat tour instead of a one-hour one. That’s the only thing I didn’t like about my visit to the reserve: It was too rushed.
Source: Signs posted at the reserve
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photos credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013