The thing to do in Celestun is definitely the boat tour of the Ria Celestun and nature reserve. We used the official Yucatan "Cultur" tour services immediately over and to the left of the bridge. It was a little pricey, although I can not recall exactly how much, but it was well worth it. Our guide was very friendly, knowledgeable, and his English was defiantly better than our Spanish! There are tons of birds to see, from the ubiquitous flamingos, to egrets, cormorants and kingfishers. Even if you are not into birds, it was a delightful ride along the river. We finished our tour in the mangroves, and yes, we swam in the cold, freshwater spring. It was incredibly refreshing... and no we did not see any crocks!
Celestun is a sanctuary for birds, of which there are plenty. But we, along with most other people that make it to Celestun, came to visit the flamingos.
The best time to visit the birds is in the morning because of the possible winds that often swirl up in the afternoons.
You can hire a lancha which will take you to the birds - about 30 minutes sail away. We were the only tourists in Celestun and we easily hired a little boat - the owner of which gabbled away continuously in Spanish. He desperately wanted to give us all of the information he had on the area and the birds, and whilst we do not speak Spanish very well, we managed to get the gist of it.
It's a lovely voyage - through a petrified forest and across the clear waters with mangroves. The trees were amass with birds and termite mounds. Unfortunately for us, there had been heavy rains in the previous days and all the adult flamingos had flown off - all that was left were two small, grey baby flamingos!
It was a really nice, calm, relaxed morning that we spent bobbing about, watching birds... and would, I am sure, have been even nicer had the flamingos actually been there!!!!
NB If you take a boat you must ensure that you do not let it approach the birds, or attempt to make them fly.
The primary reason one goes to Celestùn is to see the nature reserve (Reserva de la Biosfera Ria Celestùn). The nature reserve contains all sorts of water birds, but the star of the show is the flamingos.
Boats are available for hire at two places. The bridge over the Ria Celestùn has a place where tourists meet the boat captains, and the flamingos can be reached in an hour tour. One can also get tours from the actual town of Celestùn, but the trip is 2 1/2 hours as it is further to travel to get to the flamingos, plus more cost.
In 2005, the prices from the bridge were 400 pesos to rent the boat plus 40 pesos per passenger. We waited for another couple, and rented a boat with them, so the cost for each couple was 280 pesos (about $28US).
Rodrigo made another stop at the Petrified Forest. The trees didn't look petrified to me, just dead. He explained in Spanish that either the water table went up or it went down and the trees died. My son, who was translating, wasn't sure which.
Rodrigo did a quicksand demontration, which we found amusing, especially since he tried to coax us into the crocodile infested water and take 100,000 pesos from us. He also snapped this photo of Lovey Howell, Mary Ann, Thurston Howell and the Professor who were hoping to be rescued from the island.
The main highway into Celestun turns into Calle 11, which dead ends at the beach and the large palapa. At the dead end we were immediately greeted by a "broker" who spotted us for tourists right away. The broker told us he could fix us up with a good English speaking guide (and one who wouldn't cheat us). We could pay him what we thought he was worth but 250 pesos per person was a good amount - if we liked the guide, of course. We heard this a lot - all the other guides will cheat us, not this one, pay him according to how much we like him, but it should be [certain number of] pesos.
We were asked if we wanted an English or Spanish speaking guide. We opted for English (which of course costs more), but later learned it didn't make any difference. Then the broker and a bunch of his buddies led us through the streets to the marina on his scooter.
Our "broker" took us to the marina and introduced us to our guide and captain. His name was Rodrigo. But there was a small problem. Rodrigo didn't speak English. So much for the English option. No problemo, we said, and I told my son who studied Spanish for 5 years that he was on interpretation duty. One would think that after 5 years, he can speak the language.
Our broker mentioned the fee again - 100,000 pesos. I mentally did math calculations in my head. It's really a challenge - on the street, it's 10 pesos to a dollar. I asked my husband, "Wait a sec, do we have that many pesos?" Yeah, right. Since when are we carrying around the equivalent of $10,000 USD on us? Rodrigo and the broker thought that was a very funny joke. No, they said, it's 1,000 pesos, for the four of us, and our very own boat.
For 1,000 pesos, we decided to climb in the boat. (Note: You can probably get a better price than we did.)
We were able to get out of the boat in the mangrove forest and take a short walk on a plank. Rodrigo showed us where the swimming hole was and said we could swim if we wanted. I asked Rodrigo, "Hay los crocodiles?" Rodrigo answered, "Si, hay los crocodiles." With a smile. Maybe this was as funny as the 100,000 peso joke. We decided to pass.
After entering the Celestun Inlet, it wasn't long before the flamingos appeared. Rodrigo pointed out the dividing line between the Gulf of Mexico and the Celestun Inlet, where the water turns from a murky green to a murky red, due to the brine shrimp and algae. It is a definite line. Green, then suddenly red. Amazing. At first the flamingos were tiny pink specs and we weren't certain they were flamingos. But as we got closer we realized what they were, a huge flock of flamingos. It was really something to see such beautiful birds in the wild! As we proceeded up the inlet, we saw flock after flock of flamingos.
The same algae and brine shrimp that change the hue of the water are a large part of the flamingos diet. It is the diet, high in caretenoids, that turn their feathers from their natural white color to pink.
Egrets are beautiful birds. We see them all over Marin County at home, so they aren't quite so exotic to us. Nonetheless, their snowy white feathers and graceful flight makes them stunning birds to watch and their beauty never ceases to impress me.
Rodrigo, our guide and captain, took us through a mangrove forest. That was quite impressive. The mangroves are the wierdest looking trees. Their roots grow above water, looking like legs, so sometimes they are called "walking mangroves". The water clearly shows the blue-green algae, which makes the water look red. The algae is common around mangrove forests. I read that the parts of the Red Sea and Australia have similar ecosytems.
As soon as we left the harbor, we saw our first birds - a large flock of commmorants, pelicans and some other bird on the rocks at the mouth of the harbor. Rodrigo slowed down so we could snap a few photos. To me they kind of looked like the US Senate in session.
This is a terrible picture. The weather didn't cooperate and I don't have a high powered lens, but these are white pelicans. We have the brown ones all over the California shores, but not the white ones, so this was a real treat. Rodrigo told us the white pelicans appear in the Celestun inlet only during the winter months.
Celestùn has a nice beach. We even jumped into the water for a swim. In the picture you can see the lighthouses (new and old) and the wharf.
We felt quite comfortable there -- going for nice walks along the beach, and out to the end of the wharf to watch the sun drop into the sea.
The tour also stops at a fresh water springs that is emptying out into the estuary. A boardwalk has been built through the mangrove forest. If you hurry (we were not sure how long we had before the captain of the boat would leave without us), you can jump into the water. I was surprised how salty it tasted even though the freshwater springs were emptying right there.
On the way back from the birds, the flamingo tour goes through a mangrove forest. (Mangroves are tropical trees found in coastal and riverine intertidal habitats -- usually in salt water). These forests are part of the reason that the flamingos are here, as they are nursery for the juvenile stages of shrimp and fish that the birds eat.
As with nature/mankind conflicts everywhere, the mangrove forests are threatened by man - both by harvesting the wood and pollution. In this nature reserve hunting or cutting is not allowed (but you can always scare your wife by mentioning the crocodiles hiding in the mangroves).