Flamingos have always been a fascination with their long, backward bending legs, graceful curvy necks, and a beautiful pink color that results from the crustaceans and plankton they consume. Like many, I had only seen pink flamingos in captivity. But what if I told you there is a place in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula where you can see thousands of flamingos? In the wild!
Celestun, Mexico is a small fishing village on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, 60 miles southwest of Merida. While the beaches are beautiful and secluded, most people visit to go on a Celestun flamingo tour. Surrounding the town is the Celestun Biosphere Reserve, unique for the flocks of flamingos that migrate to the mangroves in the winter before moving to nearby Rio Lagartos to nest in the spring.
How to Get to Celestun
Visiting Celestun is a fun and easy day trip from Merida. We rented a car from our Airbnb host to give us the flexibility of sightseeing on our way back from seeing the flamingos of Celestun. The drive from Merida is about an hour and a half, making it an easy excursion or tour outside the city. Alternatively, you could take public transportation or hire a Celestun flamingo tour from Merida, but what’s the fun in that? Plus, driving in Mexico is so much fun!
Drive to Celestun from Merida
Renting a car is our preferred way to travel in the Yucatan. To get to Celestun from Merida, travel west on Highway 281. The road narrows as you get closer to Celestun. Once you cross the bridge, look for a hand-painted sign that reads “Manglares de Dzinitun” and indicates a left turn. Follow the residential dirt road until the road curves to the right and you see the second sign for the flamingo tour. Click here for the exact location on Google Maps.
Take a bus from Merida to Celestun
A bus from Merida to Celestun costs 56 pesos each way, making it a great option for budget travel to Celestun. The bus leaves on the hour from 5:00 am to 8:00 pm from the Noreste Bus Station at the corner of Calle 50 and 67. The bus will drop you off in town, close to the beach and you’ll need to take a taxi to the Mangralares de Dzinitun or you can ask the bus driver to drop you off there or at the Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Celestun where you can hire a different tour.
Take a Celestun Day Tour From Merida
There are several Celestun tours from Merida that will pick you up at your hotel, provide an English speaking guide, and drive the 60 miles to Celestun. There you will board a boat that takes you through the mangrove forests to see the flamingos and other wildlife. This Celestun tour from Viator is one of the best values we have found.
Traveling from Merida to Celestun?
Celestun Flamingos Season
Celestun flamingo season is November to April and the best time to see flamingos in Celestun is December-February. We visited Celestun in late October, knowing it was just before flamingo season, but there were still a few hundred flamingos in the area. And since we’d never seen them in the wild, off we went.
Be sure to arrive early. 9:00 is the best time to start the flamingo tour. That’s the hour most tour guides start their day, the flamingos will be eating, and you’ll be off the water before the mid-day sun.
Julien found Mangroves of Dzinitun on TripAdvisor, with a rating of 4.5 stars. We were drawn to this Celestun flamingo tour because of the work they are doing to restore the mangroves as well as the more local feel it provided.
As you drive into Celestun, the sign for this tour is easy to find, but as I said, October is not peak flamingo season in Celestun, and we should have known to book ahead. When we arrived there was no one to be found, but luckily the large sign at the boat launch included a phone number. We called and were able to manage a conversation in a mix of Spanish and English. Our tour guide, José arrived about 10 minutes later and was ready to go.
How much does a Celestun Flamingo Tour cost?
José quoted 800 pesos for the three of us to take a private tour. It was a little more dinero than we saw on TripAdvisor, but we factored in inflation, the fact that we’re terrible at negotiating, and knowing it supports a great organization that is restoring the mangroves.
We agreed to the price and we were promptly on our way down a small trail to the canoes. Once in the canoe, we launch down a small stream that quickly opened up into a large lagoon where we spot several flamingos.
5 Fun Flamingo Facts
- Baby flamingos are white at birth, not pink. The pink color of the flamingos develops over the first year or two as a result of the beta-carotene in their diet.
- Both the male and female flamingos build the nest and take turns sitting on the egg to protect it. They also take turns feeding the flamingo chick.
- Flamingos stir up the mud with their feet to feed. While their heads are upside down they are able to filter the food and expel the muddy water.
- The feathers under their wings are black, which is noticeable when the flamingos are in flight.
- Plastic lawn flamingos were created by artist Don Featherstone in the 1950’s and became an American cultural icon. In 2009 Madison, Wisconsin designated the plastic lawn flamingo as its city bird!
Through the Mangroves
José slowly paddles us through the lagoon, allowing us to admire the surroundings and take photographs of the flamingos. Then he guides us into a narrow waterway into the mangrove swamp. Inside the mangroves, a whole new world emerges.
The beauty immediately surrounds us with the sun trickling through the canopy of branches in the thickly forested swamp. The wildlife makes itself immediately present, and we can’t help but keep silent and take in the sounds of the paddle gently hitting the water and the numerous calls of the birds that inhabit this mangrove.
After about fifteen minutes of stunning views and silence, we arrive at a fork in the water where hundreds of snowy egrets are rooting in the shallows for food. Though we’re moving slowly and not talking, the egrets take flight ahead of our boat.
For the next half mile, the egrets fly under the limbs of the forest only 10-20 feet off the water and always staying 50-100 yards in front of our canoe. Seeing their graceful bodies move in complete unison was magical. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
On this tour, we saw flamingos, Yucatan Jays, woodpeckers, boat-billed herons, tiger herons, hummingbirds, orioles, hawks, eagles, and cranes. This is only a handful of the beautiful birds we saw during our tour of Celestun. There are over 300 species of birds that call this Yucatan mangrove home.
I have a desire to become an amateur birder, but I am still too young for most of those circles (jaja). The tiger herons, snowy egrets, and black hawks were my favorite, other than the pink flamingos of course.
Restoration of the Celestun Biosphere Reserve
José speaks a little English, and we’re still learning Spanish, so it was sometimes difficult, but we were able to understand him, and he was able to answer all of our questions. During the last 30 minutes of the 2-hour flamingo tour, José explained the importance of the mangrove ecosystem and the amazing effort that these guys have put in to rehabilitate it over the past 15 years.
The amount of work this organization has done to restore the mangrove is impressive. In 2004 a hurricane leveled the already depleting mangrove forest. The flamingos went away, and so did the revenue of the tourism.
The community knew they had to come together and make changes to rebuild and protect their mangroves. Today you can see new areas of growth and they are expanding further on those efforts to make sure the next storm won’t level the precious mangroves again.
Seeing pink flamingos in the wild can now be checked off one of my bucket lists from childhood. And I cannot stress it enough I’m so happy that I saw them in Mexico, and not Florida.
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