Flamingo Watching in the Yucatan
My Mexican husband's family comes from the tiny fishing village of Chabihau on the northern coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Several times a year, we drive out from Cancun to visit tíos, tías and primos that still reside in this quiet hideaway, with their houses set by what they refer to as the salina, a beautiful and shallow lagoon. As we sit outside eating fresh ceviche, we often spot large flocks with hundreds of flamingos standing on in the middle of the salina, the occasional small group flying overhead. Experiences like this can be found in the wetlands set all along Yucatan's coastline, dotted with small towns, mangrove forests, crystal-clear cenotes and lush palm tree groves: a paradise for eco travel.
Locals living on the Yucatan Peninsula can experience these private flamingo viewings on a regular basis, but where can a traveler easily go to see these brightly-colored creatures? A few small eco travel destinations are ideal for viewing Yucatan flamingos, and they also offer an unforgettable escape from the hustle and bustle of larger beach destinations like Cancun or Playa del Carmen.
Travelers staying in Merida, Cancun and the Riviera Maya will find themselves just three or four hours from Rio Lagartos, situated on the northeastern coast of Yucatan State. Buses, taxis, tours and vans are available, although renting a car and driving is also a safe, easy and affordable option.
The Rio Lagartos Bio Reserve covers nearly 150,000 acres, boasting Mexico's largest flamingo population. Incredible Yucatan wildlife abounds throughout the reserve, with hundreds of bird species and turtles nesting along the coasts. The town of Rio Lagartos offers a few small restaurants and hotels run by locals, as well as a landmark lighthouse. Just make sure to bring lots of cash: Rio Lagartos does not have an ATM.
Three-hour boat tours will take you through a beautiful river running along the coast (known locally as a ría) lined with dense mangrove and home to hundreds of animal species. Guides take passengers out to the flamingos' feeding grounds, and you just might see crocodiles and all kinds of native birds along the way! The flamingo population in Río Lagartos swells during nesting season in spring and summer, although flamingos can be seen throughout the year. Viewing the flamingos is a truly unforgettable experience, especially if you're lucky enough to see them take flight.
Many Río Lagartos tours also include additional activities such as mud baths, kayaking, biking and swimming in freshwater pools, as well as a stop at the breathtaking Ek Balam Mayan ruins, located further inland on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Experience the Yucatan's incredible ecosystem with a visit to Celestún, another flamingo-watching destination about 50 miles west of Merida by highway. Buses are available and day trips from the city are easy to do, although the town offers several small hotels for overnight stays or a weekend getaway. This quiet fishing village features beautiful beaches, shops, a harbor and a few laid-back seafood restaurants for a casual meal.
Set on an immense 150,000 acres right on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, Celestún Biosphere Reserve is filled with mangrove and wetlands that are home to flamingos, pelicans and hundreds of other bird species, as well as endangered sea turtles.
Boats are available for hire at the entrance to Celestún, taking you on two hour tours through mangrove jungle filled with bird species. The flamingo population in Celestún rises during the fall and winter months as it's a popular area for courting before heading back to Río Lagarto for nesting in the spring and summer.
About Yucatan's Flamingos
Favoring the coastal wetlands of northern Yucatan, local flamingos have a beautiful salmon pink color that makes for unbelievable photo opportunities. They feed on shrimp, algae and minerals found in the shallow waters, giving them their unique tone. These social birds typically reside in colonies that can range from dozens to thousands of flamingos.
Because of the flamingos' natural beauty and vibrant color, it's tempting to try and get close to the animal for a better view or the perfect photo. However, flamingos can become stressed when approached by humans. It's recommended that boats maintain at least 100 yards distance when their motors are running, or 50 yards if they are "poling" through the water gondola-style. Bringing a lot a set of binoculars and preferably a camera with a zoom lens is recommended for the best possible flamingo watching experience when traveling through the Yucatan Peninsula.