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The Ría Celestún Biosphere Reserve
by Sonja Macys


Publication date: 1997

FLICKR ALBUM: Lessons from Mexico

The Ría Celestún Biosphere Reserve, best known for its spectacular flocks of American Flamingos, makes for an excellent escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and gives you the perfect excuse to kick back, relax, and "get back to nature". To reach the Reserve by car take Highway 281 through Uman or Hunucmá and follow signs for Celestún. Both roads are very narrow and relatively poorly marked so be prepared to ask directions. Buses leave Mérida on the hour, every hour starting at 5am with the exception of 9am, 2pm, 3pm, and 7pm. The last bus leaves at 8:10pm. All can be caught at the station on Calle 71 in between 64 and 66.

As you approach Celestún you will begin to see mangrove forests as far as 7km away from the bridge that marks your arrival. One of the most productive ecosystems in the world, mangrove forests cover 54% of the Reserve's 59,130 hectares, and provide excellent breeding grounds and protection for many riparian species. The Reserve itself is of major importance as a wintering zone for migratory birds, being the first stop on two of the four migratory flyways. Over 320 species have been identified in the Biosphere Reserve of which many are permanent residents. For the true bird watcher, the best time to visit is in the winter when migrants abound.

What To See and Do

The American Flamingo is the Reserve's main attraction and can be observed from boats rented on the left hand side of the bridge. The "Lancheros" working at the dock offer two options for guided tours of the estuary and both cost approximately $25 U.S. Boat capacity is 5 to 8 people, depending on the tide. One tour heads north and takes you to see the flamingos, "Isla de Pájaros" where cormorants, frigatebirds, and great egrets take turns nesting. You also stop at an "ojo de agua", freshwater spring, for a swim, and a possible view of the elusive Tiger Heron. Heading south you won't always see flamingos but there are other points of interest such as the Petrified Mangrove Forest and "Real de Salinas", a recently abandoned ghost town. Please remember, while on either tour, be respectful of the wildlife you observe and remain a polite distance. Boats must keep 100 meters distance from the flamingos while using their motors and 50 meters "polling". By bringing your binoculars and encouraging your guide to respect this minimum distance, you will be minimizing the stress placed on these fragile and majestic birds.

Don't be surprised if someone meets you at the dock after your trip to interview you about your experience. It is probably a representative of Pronatura Península de Yucatán, A.C. (PPY), a non-profit, non-government conservation organization that carries out sustainable development, environmental education, research and monitoring, and protected area management programs within the Reserve's boundaries. As this goes to print, PPY and the local community are beginning a project to better Ecotourism infrastructure and construct a Visitors Center.

Also offered are boat trips north to El Palmar. Boat guides on the beach offer this option. There, one can climb the state's tallest lighthouse and, on a clear day, see the Reserve in its full extension. Notice the doughnut shaped "islands of vegetation" called petenes, or hummocks. These ecosystems, endemic to the peninsula and parts of Florida, are home to many species of wildlife and precious hardwoods such as cedar, mahogany, palo mulatto, and others. For the adventuresome, excursions can be arranged. For more information, ask your guide.

Those interested in archaeology may want to explore the opposite direction to Punto San Joaquin. Thought to be a Mayan trade center, San Joaquin's beaches still host remnants of projectile points and clay objects though to be made there. Please remember not to take any of these objects with you as the site is still under exploration.

Special Events:

February 15-22 Carnival. Celestún's Carnival celebrations are far from the wild parties you might find in other parts of Mexico but do offer nightly parades and warm, fun-filled fiestas.

May 3 - Día de la Santa Cruz

June 1 - Día de la Marina. This is one of the village's most spectacular annual celebrations. Fishing boats parade from the ocean to the estuary, carrying the village's patron saint in their bow.

December 8 - Día de la Virgen de la Concepción

Where To Stay:

Casa Julio. The most rustic of Celestún's hotels, Casa Julio offers small, clean-ish rooms with private bathrooms (no hot water). Take the main road to the beach and turn right, you'll find it about a block down, oceanfront.

Hotel Gutiérrez. In the opposite direction from Casa Juilo you'll find the hulking Hotel Gutiérrez. Gutierrez has the village's only public long distance phone and usually has vacant rooms. Rooms are large with two double beds and a ceiling fan, but the level of cleanliness usually leaves a bit to be desired. Remind the desk clerk to give you towels and toilet paper. There is hot water but it doesn't always work.

Hotel María del Carmen. Next to the Gutierrez you'll find the Hotel María del Carmen. Definitely the nicest, cleanest, most comfortable of the three, Maria del Carmen has 14 rooms that tend to fill up pretty quickly, particularly on weekends. Rooms have two double beds, ceiling fan, and space for hammocks. The hot water is always on and may soon be running on solar power. Owners Doña Carmen and Don Lira are also the founders of the Grupo Ecológico Celestún, A.C.- a local group of ecology enthusiasts that meets every Saturday at the hotel. Ask how you can help them in their efforts to conserve the Reserve's biodiversity!

Where To Eat:

Restaurant Celestún. The Restaurant Celestún offers moderately priced seafood in a relaxed, oceanfront environment.

La Playita. La Playita, Celestún's oldest, and perhaps most popular seafood joint offers local specialties in a quaint environment. Prices are equivalent to the other restaurants but the quality of food is far superior. Owner Don Pedro was one of the town's first in the business and his experience is notable. Try the "jaiva frita"- sauted blue crab, for a real regional treat, or, if you are really hungry, the "fillete relleno"- stuffed fish fillet (big enough for 2).

Chivricos. Across the street from the Playita is Chiviricos, similar in quality, it is a bit more expensive. The "caracol al mojo de ajo"- conch garlic style, is the best to be found in Celestún.

La Palapa. This restaurant, new in January 1996, seems a bit out of place with its Caribbean environment, modern architecture, and impeccable service. While probably the best place to go for just a beer, the food hasn't quite reached the quality of other restaurants and is a bit more expensive.

The author was the director of environmental education for Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan


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