The time-zone advantage is long gone and the extended days are catching up to us. No one is up before 8am and we struggle to get on the road by 9:30. The Creekmores have never been good at early morning activity, which is one reason we don’t bird watch. But that’s exactly what we are doing today: birdwatching on the huge estuary at Celestun, on the gulf coast of the Yucatan.
Flamingos, the main attraction of Celestun trips, are up early like most wildlife. With our late start, Monday morning rush hour traffic and the drive out to the coast, we certainly will not be greeting the birds awake. Of bigger concern is beating the tour buses and the long waits in line. It’s an easy trip. We have solid directions and the GPS is nearly perfect.
Last Friday, when we discovered that our camera charger was missing, we abandoned our day in Rio Lagartos, the other Flamingo sanctuary on the north gulf coast of the Yucatan. Rio Lagartos is more of a quiet fishing village than tourist spot and it might have been more fun and mysterious. But Merida was the most likely place to replace our camera charger (which, we did.) so we headed there instead. It turns out that the Flamingos winter in Celestun anyway, so we probably made the right choice.
Quiet and mysterious, Celestun is not. It is a huge, well run, tourist operation. There are 1 hour and 2 hour rides, we opt for the latter. (You could easily skip the 2 hour one unless you want a longer boat ride.) The price appears to be per boat, and you can buy a ‘private’ one which we did. It was $200, easily the most expensive thing we’ve done in the Yucatan so far. But we immediately board a boat from the docks and depart south toward the Gulf of Mexico with an English-speaking capitan – an unusual stroke of luck say the guidebooks.
It’s beautiful out on the water, blue sky, green jungle and red water. You’d mistake it at first for silty-brown, but it is in fact the color of tea from the Mangrove roots, which seep tannin. We put on sunscreen and hop on the front of the boat.
The fiberglass, flat-bottomed boat has a steel frame that supports the nylon shade cover. The steel is broken in at least two places. At high-speed it feels like the thing will fly off the frame, but the captain presumably knows better. Right? He cranks it up to top speed. Lily and Emma love the cheek-flapping winds and the noise. The captain knows how to please the kids. He aims for the wake from other boats and jolts our craft around causing the kids to fall and laugh uncontrollably.
Oh yeah, and the birds. There are a lot: seagulls, herons, flamingos and one kingfisher! (pictured top) Watching flamingos fly is amazing, but very difficult to capture on camera. We can’t get very close to anything and there are lots of other boats, so this is hardly an intimate experience with nature. But it’s better than a zoo. And did we mention the high-speed boat ride? It was awesome.
We take a detour through the mangroves and see the amazing beauty of intertwined mangrove roots. There are human-sized termite nests that creep everyone out (left). This is where we got close to the kingfisher, which is the cutest little thing.
On our way out, we see long lines and no available boats. Despite our late start, we appear to have narrowly escaped the tour bus crowds. We head a mile toward the ocean for some lunch and find several beach-front restaurants doing brisk business with tourists – mostly Mexican. One ten-year-old girl with braces comes up to us and wants to practice English. Her family took the bus from Mexico City to Merida for a week vacation in the Yucatan. Emma and the girl struggle to understand each other, owing mostly to their shared orthodontic affliction.
We have a fantastic meal of freshly caught and cooked seafood. The conch ceviche is tender, like one can only get in the Yucatan. Grilled lobster and fried calamari still taste like the sea. Over the meal, Lily concocts a plan to bring seashells home and sell them to people for $15 apiece to supplement the allowance I always forget to give them.
The price for our banquet lunch? Fifty dollars, ha! After eating we jump in the ocean and build sand castles. We’re home by 5pm and everyone is already tired. Emma has a teary breakdown in a gift shop because she can’t decide if she wants to buy something or not. Both of them fall asleep at the dinner table and I hail a cab to go the short distance back to the hotel. It’s been a week and we are showing the usual signs of wear. But it’s fun!