Celestún flamingos: 5 viewing options

February 21, 2024
February 21, 2024

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Celestún is a small fishing village located on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. One of its most iconic attractions is its vibrant flamingos, which have made Celestún a pink paradise.

The state of Yucatan is home to big populations of flamingos. There are two main places to observe them: Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve on the western coast and Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve on the eastern coast.

Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve is a one hour and 20 minute drive from Mérida.
Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve is a one hour and 30 minute drive from Valladolid.

Which place you should choose to see flamingos depends on what time of the year you are visiting. The best time to observe large populations of flamingos in Celestún is during winter from December to February. The season in Lagartos runs from March through to July, when the flamingos lay eggs and take care of chicks.

Even though most people probably only go there for a day trip, we spent three weeks in the magical coastal village of Celestún. While working remotely there, we got to know the area and locals very well.

We have formed a great understating of the fauna and flora in the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve. We especially learned how important it is to protect these natural wonders.

The unique ecosystem of the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve

The Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve is recognised by UNESCO. Spanning an area of approximately 146,000 acres, it encompasses not only the stunning lagoon of Celestun but also the diverse mangrove forest that lines its shores. This unique ecosystem supports a rich variety of flora and fauna, ensuring the survival of many species, including the magnificent pink flamingos.

The mangrove forest, with its intricate network of roots and brackish water, provides the perfect habitat for a wide range of bird species. The reserve is home to over 300 species of birds, making it a birdwatcher's paradise. Bird lovers can marvel at the sight of egrets, pelicans, eagles, and many other beautiful birds that call this biosphere reserve their home.

Visitors to the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve have the opportunity to witness these birds in their natural habitat, as they freely roam, feed, and interact with each other. Exploring this unique ecosystem offers a chance to connect with nature, appreciate its beauty, and gain a deeper understanding of the importance of conserving these precious habitats.

An aerial view of Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve in Mexico.

Why Celestún is a flamingo paradise

Celestún's claim to fame lies in its flourishing population of pink flamingos. These majestic birds flock to the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve, lured by the abundance of food and the welcoming environment.

Their pink colour is a result of their rich diet of carotenoid pigments, intensifying during mating season. They use uniquely shaped bills to strain small organisms like plankton when feeding. Baby flamingos, or chicks, are born white and gradually turn pink from their diet.

Flamingos are highly social birds and can live for up to 50 years. Flocks of flamingos (or a 'flamboyance' of flamingos) ranging from a few to thousands provide a beautiful spectacle during high season.

Flamingos are not only beautiful, but also play a vital role in maintaining the balance of the ecosystem. By feeding on plankton, they help control its population, ensuring the health of the entire food chain.

Flamingos flying in the sky and sitting on the water at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve in Mexico.

The best ways to view the Celestún flamingos

You are spoilt for options to see the flamingos while in Celestún.

We break down the five ways to observe these incredible birds, with all the details of our experiences and what we recommend.

1. Go on a canoe or kayak tour

This is one of the most sustainable way to see the flamingos in Celestún. This was the very first way that we saw the flamingos and we absolutely loved it.

There are two companies that run the tours. They do exactly the same thing, so it really just depends on who appeals more to you.
We did the canoe tour with Guardianes (or call +52 999 645 4310) and the kayak tour with Manglares (or call +52 988 103 7757) and they were both phenomenal.

What to expect from a canoe tour

We were asked to get there as early as we could. They recommended 5.30 am. Since we were in Merida at the time, it was a bit too early for us and we decided to do it at 6 am. 

The reason they do it so early is because you will have a chance to see more wildlife that are not as active during the day. There is also a bigger chance to see flamingos as they change their location when the sun rises. Another reason is the heat; after 9 am the sun gets really strong and you want to avoid that.

If the day is cloudy, it’s actually good for birdwatching and going that early may not be necessary. I’ve met people that went on a very cloudy day, but saw lots of flamingos.

The tide is more important in this case. When the tide is low, it allows flamingos to hang out in this area longer to get wet. Once the water levels go higher, they start to move further up the river.

However, 6 am ended up being perfect for us. We were given a flashlight to put on our head to navigate through the darkness and spot birds and wildlife at the same time.

It didn’t take long before we saw our first birds. Our guide Adrian was very knowledgable and pointed out every bird we saw on our way.

A composite image showing the front of the canoe and one of the birds we saw at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

He also explained the importance of the mangroves to the ecosystem of the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve. He showed us the different areas of the mangroves and taught us about the circular life of its ecosystem. He could answer all of our questions!

After just 10 minutes, we arrived to a beautiful open lagoon called The Corazon. It takes its name from the heart shape it forms when you look at it from above.

A composite image showing the canoe and Janna sitting in the canoe as we approach The Corazon at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.
An aerial view of The Corazon at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

Considering this is a reserve, you are usually not allowed to fly your drone here. However, you can ask you guide for permission and if the area is considered safe and free of birds, you may be able to fly it. We were lucky enough to capture some amazing footage with our drone.

For more rules on flying your drone in Mexico, please do your own research and always be mindful and respectful of local customs and laws.

A composite image showing aerial views of part of The Corazon and the wider area around the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

Adrian told us that we have to hurry up for the sunrise as that’s when the flamingos tend to fly over the lagoon. But first we had to tour an 800-metre long mangrove tunnel. It was an absolute surreal experience navigating through the gigantic roots of these trees.

The river and surrounding mangroves of the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

We saw many other birds on our way like kingfishers, an owl, and even a snake. There are a lot of mosquitos and sand bugs at that time of the day, so this is something to be mindful off. Bring your repellent, and wear light-coloured clothes with long sleeves and pant legs.

A composite image showing our canoe guide Adrian and a snake on a tree branch at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

The guide may also offer you a net to cover your upper body and face. We would definitely consider it.
After 40 minutes gliding through the tunnel, we could see light. The sun was already up, but the light was still soft and everything was pure magic.

We started to see the first batches of flamingos flying over our heads. Our guide paddled closer to the other side of the river closer to the bridge and we started to see the appearance of a pink line in front of us.

A composite image showing some of the mangroves and coming out to see flamingos flying above us at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

There they were! Because the canoe didn’t have a motor, we could seamlessly come pretty close to the flamingos without scaring them. There were about a couple hundred flamingos when we first arrived.

Four flamingos standing in a row in the water at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

After giving us enough time to observe the flamingos and Adrian telling us everything about them, we started our return journey. We saw some small manta rays, pelicans, and other birds along the way.

We didn’t go back the same way and disembarked at a small jetty on the edge of the lagoon instead. Then we walked on a long wooden path for about 200 metres until we reached another viewpoint with more birds. The path was missing some wood, so please be careful!

A composite image showing Janna in the canoe and Jon walking down one of the small jetties at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

At the exit, Adrian showed us how the restoration process began and what was done to restore the mangroves. There are photos of before and after the work had been done.

It was really impressive to see how much damage humans can make in such a short time and also how much work has to be done to restore and preserve mangroves. This is why we recommend you to do this tour in particular above any others because your money goes to a local community and people that care.

The staff members of both Guardians and Manglares are big participants of cleaning, protecting, and preserving the mangroves. We also loved that Guardianes have taken initiatives to support women and bring women into this male dominated industry. Half of their staff members including the guides are female.

We encourage you to leave some tips or donations to these organisations so they stay funded and keep up their amazing work with that they are doing!

Janna standing next to the leader of Guardianes and our guide Adrian at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

We also want you to be aware that this tour is focused on birdwatching in general and exploring the mangroves, not just to see the flamingos.  So you are not normally guaranteed to see them.

However, if that’s your main goal, just let the guide know in advance and they will accomodate you with the best time and location to see them.

What it's like taking a kayak tour

We really wanted to get back to the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve and try a kayak tour this time, so we went with Manglares. Both Guardianes and Manglares offer both canoe and kayak tours.

This time we decided to go even earlier to make sure we could see the sunrise when we exited the mangrove tunnel. You can choose to go in the same kayak with a guide, or have your own. But you will be guided either way for your own safety.

As soon as we reached the end of the mangrove tunnel, the sun was rising. It was quite a windy day and the water was higher than usual, which meant that there weren’t as many birds around.

A composite image showing our guide in his kayak as the sun is rising behind him and the front of one of our kayaks looking forward at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

However, we enjoyed being in a kayak by ourselves as we felt more connected to the environment. You don’t have the same interaction with your guide though, as he is always in front of or behind you due to the narrow tunnel.

We spotted some other wild birds this time. There were no flamingos on this side, but there were lots of them flying around. To us, being in the water during sunrise felt magical and watching flamingos flying over our heads just added to the experience.

Our guide in his kayak as some flamingos fly in the sky behind him at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

We were happy that on the way back, we went thought the same tunnel again as we hadn’t seen it in more light yet. It was really fascinating to watch the colours of the river change. It looked like a different place once again.

Both tours are amazing, but if you just want to float and learn about the mangroves and reserve, the canoe tour would be best for you. If you like to be active and want to have more freedom of where to stop and enjoy the environment in more intimate settings, the kayak tour would be a great choice.

Regardless which transportation you choose, you will have a great time!

2. See flamingos from viewpoints

While I highly recommend taking a tour to observe these beautiful birds, you can also try your luck and head to three different viewpoints around Celestún.

The first one is called Flamingo View Point and is completely free. I’ve seen flamingos there both in the morning and in the afternoon.

The second one is called Secret Flamingo Spot. Taking video there costs 20 pesos (2 AUD). You are most likely to see them in the morning. While the flamingos don’t hang out there every day, there is a big chance to see them super close.

The third spot is right at the bridge next to Parador Turístico Celestún. There is only one in town, so you can’t miss it! You can watch them fly over every morning.

A group of flamingos flying overhead as seen from the bridge next to Parador Turistico Celestún.

3. Ride a bicycle

Riding a bicycle is another great sustainable way to explore the area at your own pace. You even have the option to take a tour or rent your own.

Take a bicycle tour

You can take a bicycle tour from Casa Bacab, an art gallery, cafe, and centre for eco-tourism all in the one place. David is the owner (call him on +52 999 154 5155), and happens to be a professional guide and bird expert too. We were lucky and had him as our guide for the day, but they have other excellent guides as well.

The tour’s primary goal is to see as many different birds as possible, so it’s better if you arrive at 6 am. The guide will take you from Casa Bacab to the west side of Celestún along the beach.

There are many birds on your way. Our guide was extremely knowledgable and provided a lot of information about the birds, plants and trees.

Our guide and friend bird watching at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.
A group of flamingos standing in the water we spotted while riding our bicycles around the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

We caught some rain on our way, but we were lucky that it was followed by a beautiful rainbow.

A composite image showing our guide and friend cycling on the dirt road and Janna catching a rainbow in her hand after some rain at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

After one hour, we arrived at some salt lakes. These lakes are part of the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve. Motor taxis are not allowed to bring any tourists there, so unless you have your own transportation, you can’t get there.

This place is very much off the beaten track. The colours of the lakes weren’t the pinkest when we arrived due to the time of the day, but also the time of the year. They get pinker during the drier season starting from April.

A composite image showing aerial views of the salt lakes at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

We’ve also heard that because of a hurricane just a few years ago, the colour of the salt lakes in the area haven’t been the same since. The hurricane apparently caused a misbalance in the bacteria that makes the salt lakes pink. But they are slowly recovering!

Rent your own bicycle

You can also rent your own bike to explore the area without a tour. This is the exact location we visited, but you can cycle around in your own free time as the area is quite big.

We went back there one more time during the day for photography and spotted some flamingos. If you hear a loud giggling sound, that means they are somewhere around. Just follow the sound, and you may be lucky to find them! 

If you stay at Casa Tia Jacqui or Hotel Maria del Carmen, you can have access to a free bicycle which is a nice bonus. Riding a bike is always a more sustainable option and honestly it's a great way to immerse yourself in nature and have that freedom of exploring on your own.

The other option is to head to the wildlife sanctuary of Punta Lastre. You will pass by many salt lakes on this road. Some are bigger than others.

An aerial view of the many salt lakes on the way to the wildlife sanctuary of Punta Lastre wildlife sanctuary in Celestun.

Keep your eyes open and listen for the quirky sounds of the flamingos. We managed to spot a couple while there.

Two flamingos in the water we spotted while riding our bicycles around the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

You can also cycle to the other side of the salt lakes to access a virgin beach. Head towards the historical landmark of San Joaquin Camp to get there.

You are always better off to see flamingos early in the morning. You will pass a local fishing port and see how locals truly live in Celestún.

There is a lot of garbage in this town, and it's something that can’t be unseen. The best way to minimise that waste is to avoid any single-use plastic and the consumption of fish.

A lot of the waste is coming directly from the local fishing industry. Like in many other parts of the world, it's not properly regulated and causes a lot of pollution in the ocean and in the reserve. So please be responsible and leave no trace.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, there is a clean up event run by a group of locals who volunteer and clean up different areas of the reserve. Please feel free to contact them on Facebook to find out the exact time and location.

4. Take a motor boat tour

There are two starting points for this tour. One is government run at Parador Turístico Celestún. The second one is at the beach Playa Norte Celestún.

The Parador is at the bridge located just before entering the town. It’s hard to miss this place. When you drive over the bridge coming towards Celestún, turn left. You will see a big car park area there.

A boat tour costs a minimum of 3,000 pesos per boat. You can always wait for other people and share the boat ride. We had six people in our boat, and therefore paid 500 pesos per person.

However, the boat takes up to eight people depending on the water and weather conditions. If there are seven or eight people in the boat, you will still have to pay 500 pesos per person.

Seeing the flamingos this way is way less sustainable than the other options we've already covered. However, if you have arrived here after 9 am and only have one day to spend in Celestún, this tour is the only option that guarantees you will see the flamingos.

A motor boat idling up to a group of flamingos in the water at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

Our guide was pretty good. He explained and answered all our questions about the flamingos and their habitats. The tour takes just over an hour and its main focus is to find as many flamingos as possible. 

A guide controlling the motor of the boat at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

As long as you go before lunch time, you should be fine to see flamingos. But it will depend a lot on the weather and water levels. A cloudy day is actually a good day to see lots of flamingos, especially if the tide is low.

We took this tour at 10 am and it didn’t take long before we saw a whole bunch of flamingos (otherwise known as a flamboyance!). The boat switched off the motor and we could just float around them for a while.

The real show began when they started to take off all at the same time. That was just breathtaking!

A composite image showing people in the motor boat looking out at a group of flamingos in the water and as they start to fly off at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.
A group of flamingos flying in the sky as another group sit in the water behind them at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

After we saw the flamingos, the boat took us to a natural spring called Ojo de Agua Baldiosera. Apparently the water colour changes depending on the season. When we visited, it was a green colour but the guide told us that in dry season the water becomes emerald blue.

You can go for a swim at the spring. However, we also heard that there have been attacks from crocodiles! So please be careful, and always ask your guide whether or not it's safe to swim when you're there.

A natural spring called Ojo de Agua Baldiosera at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

We also passed through a mangrove tunnel. This was a short version of the one we saw previously on our canoe tour.

A composite image showing a pair of flamingos in the water with other water birds behind them and the motor boat going through a small mangrove tunnel at at the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

If you want to take a motor boat from the beach, you have to head to the main beach beach of Celestún. This tour is run by local fishermen, so they are not qualified guides.

The tour at the beach is priced similar to the one at the Parador. You may pay only 400 pesos, depending on how many people join you. This tour takes you to a virgin beach, a mangrove tunnel, and to a place to see flamingos.

This tour is also longer since the boat has to take a bigger circle to get to the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve. This is the only tour we didn't take, since we could see a beautiful beach on our own and you usually don’t see as many flamingos on this tour.

So if your main focus is to see flamingos, definitely consider taking the boat tour from Parador Turístico. If you want to see more of the coast, a boat tour from the beach may be a better option for you.

An aerial view of Playa Norte Celestún with many blue boats moored to the white sand and floating on the green water of the ocean.

5. Rent a motor taxi

A motor taxi can bring you to the salt lakes that are also part of the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve. Unless the flamingos are hanging out next to the shore, you would be unable to get super close to them.

The cost will depend on the amount of people. For a single person, I was offered 400 pesos. But if you are travelling with more people, it's most likely to be cheaper per person. This option may be good if you have a tight budget and can’t go on a bike.

Personally this would be our least favourite alternative to see the beautiful birds. We encourage you to take a bicycle there instead as a more sustainable alternative!

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