After spending a few days in the beautiful walled city of Campeche, it was onward to the sleepy beach town of Celestún. Soon after arriving we somehow scored a nice, yet inexpensive, ocean-view room. Which was surprising because this is supposedly high season, yet this small beach town seemed rather empty. We had the beautiful beach entirely to ourselves.
Anyhow, we came to Celestún not for the beach but because it is where you’re supposed to be able to see flocks of wild flamingos. I’ve read conflicting reports on the Internet and guidebooks of what the best time of year is to be able to see the flamingos and most sources point to the summer months as the time to go. Lonely Planet cites that it’s best to view them “March or April to about September,” so we realized that our mid-January trip could turn out to be a botched excursion. Nonetheless, after a late lunch of locally caught seafood and a quick walk on the beach, we ventured out in hopes that we’d still at least see a few lingering flamingos.
After arriving to the boat docks of an inland lagoon, the guides said they would take us out for about $90 USD for a 1.5 to 2 hour tour. Not bad, but we soon discovered it would still be $90 USD total for the entire boat which fit six people. So we decided to wait around in order to share the cost. Unfortunately, no one came. The town was actually quite empty. Nearly all the restaurants were closed. The guide guaranteed us that we would see flamingos, but with a nearly vacant town, we were skeptical. As it was starting to get late, we decided to try again first thing in the morning when birds tend to be more active anyhow.
Shortly after arriving to the docks early the following morning, we quickly found a few others looking to split the cost of hiring a boat. And so we were off. After only a few minutes ride into the lagoon, blurs of pink began to come into focus. It was flocks of flamingos in the water. Hundreds of them were all feeding on the marine life in the shallow waters below, not more than a foot or two deep at most. Our guide lifted the motor and got us nice and close to the beautiful birds.
Surely you’ve seen flamingos in zoos before, but it was entirely different seeing them out here in the wild. Then out of nowhere another flock of hundreds of flamingos came soaring from the distance right over our heads. It was really a magical sight! Their black-tipped wings spread out widely, long necks stretched out front, as they all flew so uniformly together following one another, like water flowing down a stream.
That’s when it hit me what a unique sight this was. All of the flamingos we had ever seen before in zoos and captivity, all had clipped wings. Not here. We had flamingos in flight!
We proceeded deeper into the lagoon. Pretty soon the hundreds of flamingos were in the thousands, and then tens of thousands. There were flocks everywhere and more continued to fly in from the South. If January isn’t supposed to be a good time to view the flamingos in Celestún, I can’t even imagine what it looks like during a supposed prime-viewing month. Perhaps we got lucky, but our first-hand experience during January was nothing short of fantastic. The plethora of flamingos we continued seeing everywhere far surpassed any expectations we had.
Our boat continued out of the lagoon and into mangrove forest tunnel. Then we came upon a natural spring amongst the mangrove forest in which we got out of the boat for a few-minute walk on a boardwalk to view the spring and take a dip if we wanted.
Those little journeys were interesting, but it was the flamingos that really stole the show in Celestún.
If You Go to Celestun
Self-drive from Merida to Celestun: From Merida it’s about a 90-minute car ride westbound on Highway 281. The docks for the boat tour are well sign-posted about 1.5 km before you reach Celestun’s beaches.
Bus from Merida to Celestun: Celestun can be reached by public bus from the Noreste bus station on Calle 50 at 67. The bus departs hourly from 5:00 am to 8:00 pm. The cost is $47 pesos each way. If visiting only for the boat tour at the Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Celestun, ask the bus driver if he can drop you off there. Otherwise you’ll be dropped off near the beach and will need to backtrack by walking (or take a taxi) 1.5 km to the Reserve.
Celestun Day Tour from Merida: There are many tours you can book that will pick you up directly from your hotel, include an English speaking guide, take you to the beach, and of course the boat ride through the Celestun River Biosphere Reserve to see the flamingos. We have always recommended this Viator Tour to Celestun ($69 USD) given its consistent track record of great reviews. But we’d be remiss not to point out this new less expensive tour of Celestun ($52 USD) that includes all of the same things and throws in dinner too!
For more bang for your buck and a long day of sightseeing, consider taking this combo tour that includes an early morning trip to Chichen Itza and then a sunset cruise of the Celestun Reserve ($69 USD).
Where to Stay in Celestun, Mexico
If you want to stay overnight in Celestun, we recommend the beachfront Hotel San Julio. This budget-friendly motel has spacious rooms, is right on the beach near the center of town, and and has prices starting at only $30 per night – incredible value! Search Hotel San Julio for availability on your travel dates.