In my time in Merida I’ve managed to make it out to Celestun twice which is surprising as there are probably other towns in the area with much more to offer. The second trip was with one of the other hostel residents just for a few hours to get out of the Merida heat and spend some time at the shore, but on the first trip I actually saw some stuff.
My first trip to Celestun I took with some local friends and a visitor from the US. We hopped the bus at the Noreste station pretty early in the morning so we could make it out there before the heat of the day started. One of our group had done some advance research and discovered that to see the flamingos – the main attraction in Celestun – we had two tour options. The first option is to get off at the bridge. This is the main leaving point for the boat tours to see the birds. The other option is to go all the way into Celestun and catch a boat at the beach.
From what we’d learned the boats at the beach cost about 50 MXN more but the trip was an hour longer and took you along the coastline into the Golf of Mexico for a bit so we decided to go that route. For those who want to get off at the bridge, the bus will stop for you and you just cross the street and walk down the hill a bit. You can catch a bus going back in the same spot.
The town of Celestun is pretty small and non-descript. It has a string of small hotels and restaurants along the beach but the beach itself is not that nice (lots of bits of shell in the sand making it rough) and the water is silty. As soon as we exited the bus we started being approached by people wanting to take on tours to see the birds. We made our way past them and directly to the beach were there were boats waiting.
One of the biggest disadvantage of going to the beach boats is that the boat ride is a fixed price so the fewer people you have the more expensive it is per person and since there are fewer people going to that location it can make it challenging to fill the boat. After a bit of negotiation with the driver and a bit of luck in finding an Italian couple who also wanted to go we were able to get our tour for 170 MXN for each of us (6 people).
The boat ride was uneventful if pretty. We saw a lot of wildlife, particularly birds such as pelicans, herons, gulls and others I can’t identify and it would be a great place for someone who is interested in birding to go for a visit. We also saw an alligator sleeping on one of the bridge supports which was kind of fun but made me glad I didn’t swim with the others.
When you reach the flocks of flamingos one of the first things you notice is the noise. The cries the birds make are loud and sad and at first you wonder what it is, then you notice the sea of pink spread out in front of you. There are hundreds and hundreds of flamingos just standing in the river feeding and during the high season, there can be thousands.
The boats stay a ways away from the birds (and please don’t urge them to go closer) but you can still get some great pictures and have fun watching how the birds interact. It was interesting to see them fly because their wings have white and black feathers in addition to the pink that you expect to see.
After a bit of a lesson about flamingos, most of which I didn’t understand because it was in Spanish (I think the guides at the bridge will know more languages in case that’s an issue) we continued our trip. After leaving the flamingos we headed back towards the mouth of the river. Our driver scared the hell out of us when he headed at full speed towards what we through was the shore but what turned out to be a canal through the mangroves that line the river.
Riding through the mangroves was an interesting experience. They completely surround you and it’s like you’re moving through the center of a tree. You can see flashes of light when you look up but it’s gloomy and a little haunted looking at water level. Tracing the roots of the trees was interesting though and the knots that nature can form would stump anyone.
After a trip through the mangroves our boat headed to a natural freshwater spring where we were given a chance to swim. The water was bright blue and shaded in a little cove and it was amazingly clear, particularly compared to the river that it joined with. While I didn’t swim, the others said the water was cool and refreshing so I wish I’d had my suit to take advantage of it.
From the swimming hole the tour moves on to a “petrified forest”. I wasn’t sure what to expect but what it is is an area where all of the vegetation had died out and is only now just starting to grow back. From what I understood from the guide, the area was once flooded by the sea and the salt from the water killed off all of the trees and other plants. I’m assuming this was caused by a hurricane and it must have been a long time ago because most of the trees are rotting away. It was a very stark landscape of brown mud and bleached white wood with the occasional splash of new green. It was very different from the bright blue of the Gulf of Mexico which you could see through the bushes.
We had lunch after the tour at one of several restaurants on the beach. None of us were impressed with our meals so I would not recommend the Boyo restaurant. Instead, three restaurants to the left (as you stand with your back to the sea) there is another restaurant where I ate on my 2nd visit which was much better.
We had about 45 minutes before the return bus came and we wandered a bit but there was nothing much going on in the town so we just relaxed in the park until it was time to leave.
I would probably not visit Celestun again but I do recommend that others go see the flamingos and if you like hanging out on the beach it can make for a nice afternoon, just remember that the beaches here are not as nice as those on the Caribbean side of the coast.