Where Flamingoes Go To Heaven: Celestún’s Eager Estuary
Most travelers visit the tiny, windy beach town of Celestún, Mexico because of the birds. During the right season, Celestún is home to more than 18,000 flamingoes, representing North America’s only mainland flamingo population. Located on the western edge of the Yucatan peninsula, the Celestún Estuary serves as the main feeding area for the pink American flamingo, and many more graceful bird species like Osprey, Cormorant, and Frigates. In addition to the tourism generated by the bird sanctuary, Celestún relies heavily on fishing. When you arrive, you’ll see many boats on the beach, armed with fishing nets, baskets for clams and crabs, and bamboo poles for catching octopus.
Where to Eat
Your eating choices are limited but luckily very good. If you want cheap, go to the main plaza and eat at the cocina economicas, where they serve carnitas, fish, tacos and tortas. Directly on the beach there are five seafood restaurants, most of which have freshwater showers to let you rinse off the ocean salt before eating. The seafood here couldn’t be any fresher, so check the menus for daily specials and eat well. La Playita, Chemas, Avila, Celestún, and Boya are all good, complete with sea view and quick access to the beach. Try a cocktail mixto of all the delicious seafood there is on offer. Clams, crabs, lobster, conch, octopus, fish and shrimp. It’s all good.
Where to Stay
There are only three or four very basic hotels in Celestún (depending on the season). Try to plan your stay around Friday and Saturday nights, when you might find that all the rooms are taken by Merida’s weekenders. Three hotels directly on the beach are all good, cheap and clean, with fan, large bed, sea breeze and sea view: Hotel Guitierrez, Maria del Carmen, Hotel San Julio, and Celestún. The rooms here range from $9-$20 per night double.
Sometimes the locals offer cheaper rooms for rent (ask around). You can also hang hammocks for a small fee at some of the beach restaurants, and camping is also an option (small bribe), but can be very windy in the afternoons and evenings.
If you’ve got a lot of money to burn, you can arrange a stay at the nearby Eco Paraiso, 5 miles north of town (from $75 each night). They have a private pool, eco-reserve trips, and probably very excellent food. firstname.lastname@example.org
Where to Go
The beach is directly in front of the main hotels and restaurants, and also serves as the principle Calle 12. It even has street lights planted in a row in the sand. The best time to go swimming is in the morning, when the wind has died down and the water is clear and calm. Later in the afternoon, the wind comes and churns up the sand, turning the sea a chalky green color (remember that this is the Gulf of Mexico, so don’t expect the blue waters of the Caribbean). Stay away from the main dock, as this is where the fresh fish are cleaned and disposed of. Sometimes you can find nice shells too.
Probably the most worthwhile activity to do while you’re in Celestún is to take a boat tour of the lagoon to see the flamingo colonies. The best time of the year to see these birds is January through March, when they are migrating, but there will almost always be a few who stayed behind year round, but just a few.
You may hire a boat from $20-$30 per tour divided by the number of people on board (usually 6-10). For this fee the boatman will take you into the mangrove forests and hypersaline lagoons to observe the flora and fauna. There are short and long tours available, the only difference being in where you start the boat ride. If you start the trip from the bridge over the lagoon on the way into town, the tour is usually about one hour. If you take a boat from the Gulf of Mexico side where the hotels are, it will take you twice as long, depending on the weather and seas, as you have to go around the peninsula to enter the lagoon. I would recommend taking the longer route if it’s a nice calm day on the ocean, as you’ll see a lot more of the outlying area and more wildlife too. If it’s not such a nice day however, go for the short trip and avoid the open ocean. The important thing is to see the flamingoes in the lagoon, not to shipwreck yourself on the outer banks. The earlier in the day you depart, the more wildlife you’ll see. Go early!
While your boatman maneuvers you closer to the flamingoes, remember not to frighten these animals, as every time they take off to fly they are losing energy. If the birds are forced to fly too often, they won’t be able to feed enough and may weaken and die. Your boatman should remind you of this before entering the sanctuary.
In addition to the tour of the flamingo colonies, you’ll also get a chance to swim in a freshwater spring (called a cenote), ride through a mangrove tunnel or two, and see a petrified forest. All in all, it’s a lovely excursion with lots to see. Bring film!
How to Get There
The closest big city to Celestún is Merida, the Yucatán’s capitol. There are buses 10-12 times daily from the Union de Camioneros de Yucatán terminal in downtown Merida on Calle 71 between Calles 62 and 64. It is important to remember this, as there are many different bus terminals in Merida, making it confusing. Since it takes under two hours to get there, and it costs $2 each way, it is feasible that you could do a day trip to Celestún from Merida. Do this only if you are short on time, or if you can’t find accommodation in Celestún. Staying the night in such a tranquil laid back village is much nicer than the noise and pollution of Merida.