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Celestun Yucatan

Celestún, Yucatán

Hugging the west coast of the Yucatan Peninsula is Celestún, a quiet seaside community. When we visited on a Sunday in February, its streets were torn up and the visitors that we saw could be counted on the fingers of two hands. Very simple restaurants and hotels line the ocean-facing main street. Aside from people from Mérida escaping the heat, most visitors come to visit 60,000-hectare (147,500-acre) Parque Natural del Flamenco Mexicano. Also called the Celestún Biosphere Reserve, this important wetland sanctuary is the wintering ground of huge flocks of flamingos as well as other birds.

Tours can be arranged from Merida; otherwise day trippers simply head for the community wharf, where a fleet of fiberglass vessels with sunshades take visitors on one- and two-hour tours. We waited a short time for another family to arrive, and then split the cost among the adults, which came to less than 200 pesos per person. Our boat captain and “first mate” gave no running commentary but were happy to answer our questions about the famous flamingos, which were happily wading around the estuary in the hundreds, if not thousands of individuals. Be sure to bring binoculars and cameras with telephoto lens, as boats cannot get so close to the flocks as to disturb their feeding on the tiny pink crustaceans that nourish their colorful plumage. Along the mangrove-lined banks of the broad estuary we also spied pelicans, herons, egrets, and a few other birds we didn’t recognize.

Most visitors end up at one of the seaside restaurants facing Celestún’s long, wide, beige-sand beach. The most popular with tour groups is La Palapa; locals favor the fish filets and shrimp ceviches at somewhat cheaper Los Pampanos, a stone’s throw away. This is a fishing village, and catch-of-the-day on restaurant menus includes crab, sea bass, and tilapia. In season you’ll find octopus and cazón (a small shark). In addition to tourism and fishing, Celestún has several salt processing operations. Salt has been collected here for more than a thousand years; it was a valuable commodity for Maya traders.

Most of the year, Celestún’s modest hotels and second homes are occupied mainly on weekends, especially during the hottest months: April through June. Families come for a day or a week during summer vacations, July and August. The big surge is during Easter week, semana santa, when villagers from around the region visit along with city dwellers from Merida. The town's patron saint is floated out to sea surrounded by candles, and there are other religious festivities.

The largest number of both flamingos and tourists coincides in December, when families arrive during the Christmas holidays and masses of the bright pink-orange birds fill the estuary during the winter migration. If December through March are the best months for birding, then the autumn hurricane season is definitely the worst. The coolest months to visit this part of Mexico are October through December.

Almost directly west of Merida, Celestún can be reached by one of two roads. The newer road takes only about an hour. If you’re not in a hurry, you might as well take the older road, which passes through several small towns with pretty little churches. Lining the entrance road to Celestún, old women in straw hats sell pyramids of peeled oranges, flower-carved mangos, nuts, and snacks.

This is a minor destination within the Yucatan, but worthwhile for bird-lovers or those looking to spend a day, or longer, in small-town Mexico.

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