Stay Cool At Celestun Sanctuary
How can you go wrong in a city full of music, hammocks and jewel-encrusted bugs?
Merida, the capital of Yucatan state, is the peninsula's center of commerce and a stopover for many travelers on their way to points such as Cancun, Chichen Itza and the Ruta Puuc. It is also a destination in its own right, packed with indigenous history and colonial architecture.
The zocalo in particular entices visitors and residents with its evening music and dance events, and the streets surrounding it are where most of the sights and shops -- containing the ubiquitous hammocks and not-uncommon live bug jewelry -- are located.
But Merida, however lovely, is hot. Very hot.
With temperatures during our stay over 40 degrees Celsius, my traveling companions and I fled the city and its sizzling streets in search of cooler sea air, which we gratefully embraced at the Celestun Bird Sanctuary, an hour-and-a-half drive from Merida on the Gulf of Mexico.
There are egrets, cormorants, anhingas, pelicans, herons and albatrosses, among the 300 known species to be spotted, but people flock to Celestun for a glimpse of thousands of Caribbean flamingos.
The most popular way to explore Celestun is by renting a boat which will take visitors to the flamingo lagoon and around various islands hosting nests of birds and pools of fish, as well as through shady tunnels formed of mangrove trees.
One boat seats from four to eight people, depending on how shallow the water is -- if there are too many on board the boat will get grounded near the many bird-filled islands.
Celestun was declared a Special Biosphere Reserve by the federal government in 1989, offering some protection for the flamingo's fragile environment. With too much disturbance, the flamingos' feeding patterns are affected and they may face death or the relocation of their colony.
Our boat driver, Jesus, kept a respectful distance from the wading birds, but photo opportunities were abundant as they waded, ran, flapped and flew at their own leisure.
One of their most impressive party tricks is flapping their wings just enough to walk on water, but with an average wingspan of 1 1/2 meters and a line of black feathers only visible in flight, it is worth waiting to see one fully take off.
Elegant, thin birds whose body mass seems to consist entirely of wings, the flamingos in air are pink arrows.
Jesus also trawled for the tiny pink worms the flamingos eat which, along with shrimp, give them their distinctive color. Until they reach maturity, however, flamingos are a grayish color, which they would revert to if their diet lacked these foods rich in carotenes.
Though catching a glimpse of them is unlikely, Celestun also provides sanctuary to endangered mammal species such as ocelots, jaguars and spider monkeys, as well as to sea turtles and crocodiles.
According to Jesus, the flamingos must sleep on the forested shore when the waters rise leaving them vulnerable to attack from the crocodiles. Otherwise, he says, they sleep on the spits of sand that rise from the lagoon.
Bird watching can be a hungry sport, but seaside restaurants selling specialties like filete mojo de ajo, ceviche, shrimp and oyster cocktails dot the shores around the town of Celestun.
Many have showers and change rooms for that obligatory post-lunch dip in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Diane Wild
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