Celestun eco-boat tour
Pink Flamingos and other rare birds in Yucatan, Mexico
Birds of a feather flock together
Celestun Wildlife Refuge is a 146,000 acre biosphere reserve spans the border between the states of Campeche and Yucatan on the west coast of the Yucatan peninsula. It is one of few places in the world where you can see thousands of pink flamingos en masse, in the wild. We started in Merida for the 60+ mile drive south to Celestun. It was Thanksgiving week 2004 and we knew there would be plenty of pink flamingos there and even more in December. The road goes through lots of small villages that never see tourism but if you follow the Celestun and Campeche signs it's easy to find.
The guided boat tour
The boats are on the west side of the bridge you have to cross to get to Celestun. This is the official entrance to the estuary section of the park which actually comprises less than 10% of the Celestun biosphere reserve. The pavilion building has information about the reserve and sells the boat tour tickets.
Getting out on the water and skimming across the flat waters of the estuary is exhilarating. You won't have to worry about sea-sickness medications because the estuary is small enough to not generate big waves. The first birds we saw were rare white pelicans (below) who migrate as far north as Canada. Unlike the more common brown pelicans who plunge from the sky to catch their fish, the white pelicans work together to round-up fish, then stick their heads underwater and scoop them up with their bills. The American white pelican has a wing span up to 9½ feet and is one of the largest birds in North America.
The American white pelican
Pink flamingos in the distance
We could see the pink flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruper) in the distance, looking like a long pink line across the water. Apparently their bright color is a result of their diet which is rich in shrimp-like crustaceans that are orange/pink in color. These are loaded with carotene, the same thing that makes carrots orange, and if flamingos did not eat carotene rich food their feathers would turn white.
About the flamingos
Flamingos are very social birds and are typically seen in groups. They have very long necks, long pink legs, big webbed pink feet and orange eyes. Full grown adult flamingoes are about four feet tall. They have a yellow/orange bill with a black tip, shaped like a short boomerang with a downward turn on the end. Flamingos actually eat with their heads upside down and filter out crustaceans, insects and nutrients from the water with a comb-like organ on their tongue. Guides are not supposed to get too close to the birds so a pair of binoculars is recommended. Most of the photos we took were with a zoom lens.
above, flamingos on the wing coming in for a landing
below, long legs for wading through the shoals
flamingos cruise the 22.5 kms of the "Ría de Celestún" looking for their next meal
Bird species to be seen
Some of the 300+ species you may see at Celestun are: cormorants, magnificent frigate birds, egrets, pelicans, and if you're lucky, ibises, ospreys, cardinals, orioles, motmots, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, flycatchers, kingfishers, herons, wood storks, hawks, vultures, sandpipers, roadrunners, owls, and more.
Entering the mangrove labyrinth
Breeding grounds for invertebrates
Narrow waterways create a labyrinth of passageways through the dense mangrove swamps that surround the estuary. The mangrove swamps are an important link in the chain of life because they convert sunlight into organic material which feeds the invertebrates. The invertebrates are food for small fish and many of the bird species in Celestun. Mangroves also provide a place for small fish to hide from predators.
Mangrove cenote surprise for a refreshing swim
below, magnificent frigate birds soar in tandem over the estuary looking for their next meal
The Gulf of Mexico beach
There is delicious seafood in Celestun town right on the beach. This is the first thing we did after our drive down from Merida, was go straight for the beach and a crab cake (difficult to get on the Riviera Maya). To get to Celestun town you drive past the estuary/bridge where the tour boats are and just continue straight.
The road ends at the beach. There are a several restaurants and a marina.
We ate at the restaurant on the right as you face the Gulf, at the end of the road you came in on; then we strolled the beach and took a few photos. The beach is wide and interesting with some sea shells, a few vendors, and on the south part a lighthouse. Fyi- Celestun means painted stone in Maya. If you find yourself near Merida and have time Celestun is an interesting full-day trip, especially during the winter months when there are more migratory birds and less rain. Celestun gets 80% of their rainfall from June to September.