By: Lisa Coleman
The entire state of Yucatán is magical to me. Whether it’s exploring the mystical ruins left behind by the Mayas, swimming in a cenote or strolling the streets of Mérida, there seems to be an adventure around every corner. And when it comes to an adventure in nature, there are few places in Mexico that compare to Celestún. Located 60 miles south west of Mérida, Celestún (meaning “painted stone”) is a colorful coastal town known for its sandy beaches, excellent seafood… and its famous “pink” residents.
The charming town of Celestún is surrounded by the breathtaking 147,000-acre Parque Natural del Flamenco Mexicano, better known as the Celestún Biosphere Preserve. This massive wetland reserve is an extraordinary and unique ecosystem that combines fresh water from the estuary (ría) and salt water from Gulf of Mexico. More than 300 species of birds call this region home… most notably the huge population of brilliantly pink flamingos. The Nature Conservancy has said that “nearly 90 percent of all the world’s pink flamingos migrate to two breeding and nesting grounds: Celestún and Ría Lagartos (also in the state of Yucatan).”
This is the ultimate destination not only for bird-watchers, but for anyone who wants to get up close and personal with nature. In addition to the parade of pink, you’ll also see plenty of herons, egrets, frigate birds, ospreys, hawks and countless others. (Keep an eye out for the occasional alligator, too!) Though the flamingos can be seen year round, the population swells to its largest numbers in the winter months (primarily December) with as many as 20,000 of the feathered phenomenon posing for perfect pictures. Since flamingos are social birds, you’ll being seeing them in large groups, usually dining on algae, insects and small crustaceans. All of these “flamingo favorites” contain beta-carotene, which is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange coloring. Flamingos are actually born white, and as they eat these beta-carotene rich foods, it tints their feathers pink.
The best way to see this pink spectacle is to hire a boat and travel up and down the ría, explore the mangroves, and take a dip in fresh water springs that bubble up into the estuary at Ojo de Agua. Boats can be rented at the main entrance for around $50 USD an hour, but you can negotiate a price to stay out as long as you’d like. There are 90 minute excursions as well, which gives you plenty of time really get into the feel of things. The captain will most likely speak only Spanish, so ask around if there is an English speaking guide that you can hire to go with you…It’s worth it if you need the translation. The boats are comfortable and shaded, but it won’t hurt to bring some sun screen just in case. (You may also want to put on some bug spray for when the boat slows down and takes you deep into the mangroves.) Even though you might get tempted to get really close to the birds, the boats will keep at a reasonable distance not to disturb the feeding grounds. Be sure to have your zoom lens handy and it wouldn’t hurt to bring some good binoculars.
Celestún can be done as a long day trip from Mérida, but this laid back gem of a town is worth a little exploring so you may want to spend a night or two. Long stretches of white sand beaches are lined with great restaurants offering some of the best fresh seafood you’ll ever taste. My husband and I spent an afternoon at the incredible La Palapa restaurant and had maybe the best ceviche I’ve ever tasted in Mexico… and that is a very tall order! Open air with great views of the rolling shoreline, it’s easy to pass the hours sipping cold beer and sampling everything from lobster and octopus to fish fillets and shrimp. And no matter how you like your seafood favorites prepared (breaded, in garlic, raw, etc.), it will be a memorable meal. The owner, Rodrigo Solis, is from Mérida and knows the importance of a good meal. We were told that he often travels to Europe and always returns with a new idea for the menu.
There are a few hotel options in town, but your best bet is a few miles away at the Hotel Eco Paraíso Xixim (who has recently changed their name to simply the Xixim Hotel). This eco-friendly, luxury property is for those who truly want to disconnect from civilization. With 32 bungalows designed to be a part of the landscape, Eco Paraíso is one of more unique properties I have visited in Mexico. At home on a pristine and deserted stretch of beach, Paraíso appeals to the adventure traveler who also enjoys the perks of a fine hotel. You won’t find air conditioning or television in the rooms, but you will find two beautiful pools, a wellness center, an excellent bar and restaurant (complete with vegan and vegetarian menu items), and top notch service. Don’t panic about the lack of air conditioning! The palapa-style rooms have multiple ceiling fans and screens to the patio that allow for cross ventilation and cooling. We found the days comfortable and the nights perfectly cool. (If you stay June – September, it might be a bit warmer, but comfortable nonetheless).
We visited before the hotel was busy so we had the place almost to ourselves, which was a real treat! Our morning coffee was delivered to the room and it was easy to spend the day lounging in our hammock and searching for shells on the beach as another perfect sunset gets swallowed into the horizon. We also ventured to one of the pools and enjoyed wonderful appetizers in oversized chairs in the comfort of a steady ocean breeze. A couple of notes when you visit the hotel: Because the Paraíso is built in harmony with nature, you will want to bring your bug spray. They provide bug repellent bracelets in the room, but I would recommend bringing some extra for your legs and feet. There is a good Internet connection in the lobby if you need it, and be sure to try the “Cauliflower Ceviche” on the vegetarian menu, it’s out of this world good! Check out their website for more information (www.ecoparaiso.com) but it’s certainly worth a night or two to really get away from it all.
In my opinion, no trip to Mérida or the state of Yucatán is complete without a stop in Celestún. This is nature at its finest, Mexico at its best and an experience not to be missed.