Crocs by the flocks in Mexico
We wonder what everyone is pausing to gawp at as they wander along a boardwalk in Celestun Biosphere Reserve, a vast lagoon and ghostly swath of salt-choked mangrove located on the northwest coast of Yucatan state in Mexico.
“Maybe it’s a crocodile waiting for his lunch,” I joke to my sons (Josh, 14, Ben, 13, and Freddie, 9) as we glance back to the people merrily jumping in and out of the nearby freshwater swimming hole.
“Oh, my God, it actually is,” shouts Josh, as we reach the point where we are able to gaze into the yellow eyes of a 1.8m-long Moreleti crocodile, languishing on the bank. “I don’t think I’ll go for a swim after all,” says Freddie.
Visitors can explore this 60,000ha, UNESCOprotected reserve by motorboat or canoe. We start by hiring the former and a skipper at the official parador turistico, past the bridge on the main road into the town of Celestun.
These shallow-keel boats are the best way to navigate the low muddy waters of the lagoon where fresh water from an estuary mixes with salt water from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the perfect habitat for birds such as ibises, egrets, blue herons and a vast American flamingo colony, which peaks at 30,000 during the winter season from November to May.
From a distance, a flock of flamingos is a dazzling sight, like one huge crimson undulating beast as the birds shimmer on the horizon. We watch them flying in, their necks and legs equal distance from their wings so at times they appear to be going backwards. They’re such whimsical creatures that they don’t seem real. No wonder Alice used one as croquet stick in Wonderland.
Our skipper’s 10-year old son, Daniel, is keen to show off to my sons. He leans precariously over the side of the boat to fish out the tiny red brine shrimp the flamingos feast on to give them their pink plumage. He flicks them playfully at Freddie, who obligingly shrieks.
More than 300 species of bird have been recorded here and we reach for our binoculars to watch the cormorants that stand on branches hanging their wings out to dry in the sun, and the blue-winged teal, oyster catchers and shovellers wading on the shallow banks in keen search of crustaceans.
Our canoe trip, with ecotour group Manglares de Dzinitun, is a vastly different experience. You don’t cover much distance by canoe, but the lack of engine noise makes it easier to spot birds. We paddle through filtered sunlight and a tunnel of mangroves, past huge termite mounds teetering on branches.
A peregrine falcon is keeping an eye on our voyage. We’ve had the “crocodile conversation” and hope not to see those steely eyes pop up from the murky water, but it’s not long before we have other things to worry about when Carlos, our guide, points out an enormous, curled boa constrictor sleeping in a tree.
“Don’t worry, he’s just fed,” he says, pointing to a bulge in the snake’s stomach. But we do worry for the safety of the nearby nesting yellow-crowned night heron and the handsome pygmy kingfisher that flits by — a flash of brilliant green and orange in a world of ashen shade.
The town of Celestun is a drowsy place with brightly painted casas and a soft powder beach, the perfect spot for lunch and to watch the white and grey pelicans traverse the coastline. Local children fly homemade kites and families gather for barbecues, their buckets of iced Sol beer buried in the sand. Palapas (thatched restaurants) serve delicious blue crab with tortillas and rice.
Stalls sell starfish, conch shells, shark jaws and other curiosities that would send a marine conservationist reeling. A small crocodile, fallen prey to a taxidermist, catches Ben’s eye. Reading his mind I tell him firmly, “Forget it! There’s no way we’d get that through customs.” • ecoyuc.com.mx • visitmexico.com.en
A colony of pretty-in-pink flamingos, top; a Moreleti crocodile, above; tourists explore the mangrove forest, below