Published On: Thu, Feb 9th, 2017

Celestún Biosphere Reserve, a Yucatecan treasure

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Writer Ron Mader posted this informative article on Celestún on

Decreed a wildlife refuge in 1979 and a biosphere reserve in the 1980s, the Celestún Biosphere Reserve is the cradle of ecotourism (cuna del ecoturismo). A bit of tourism history – in 1983 this place inspired Hector Ceballos-Lascurain to coin the e-word.

The economy thrives on the fishing and tourism, particularly those interested in birding. Located on the Gulf of Mexico, the estuary (ria) is bordered by a mangrove forest, which provides food and shelter for shrimp and blue crab larvae, which in turn support the complex ecosystem.

The reserve is a wintering zone for migratory birds and is the first stop on two of the four migratory flyways. For example, warblers and sandpipers who spend time on Dauphin Island off the coast of Alabama in the United States visit this area.

More than 400 species have been identified in the biosphere reserve, of which many are permanent residents. For the true bird-watcher, the best time to visit is in the winter when migrants abound and the number of flamingos is at its peak. Think pink!


The American Flamingo is Celestún’s signature bird and feathered attraction. This flamingo is the largest and most brilliantly colored of the six species that exist in the world.

RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL – Boats should keep 60-80 meters (328 feet) distance from the flamingos while using their motors and 50 meters while poling. Why no closer? Flamingos spend half their time eating and if boats disrupt this process, they will go elsewhere. In a typical day a flamingo filters nearly 2,000 liters of water as it feeds.

One tour heads north from the bridge into the estuary taking visitors to see the flamingos on Bird Island (Isla de Pajaros), where cormorants, frigate birds, and great egrets take turns nesting. Roseate Spoonbills can be found several months of the year, mostly from September-April.

Tours generally stop at a freshwater spring (ojo de agua) for a swim. Fresh water enters the estuary from below ground (note: all of the rivers in the Yucatán Peninsula are subterranean). Please note that putting on suntan lotion and then swimming is discouraged as the sunblock contains chemicals that contaminate the water.


The town of Celestún is fairly quiet. There are a few places that rent bicycles.


The town of Celestún was founded in 1718.


Heading south, there are other points of interest such as the Petrified Mangrove Forest and Real de Salinas, an abandoned ghost town.


LOCATION — Celestún is located 92 kilometers west of Merida

TRANSPORTATION — Celestún is easily reached from Merida via Highway 281. Buses leave Merida almost every hour on the hour, starting at 5 a.m. You can catch the bus in Merida at the station on Calle 50 (between 65 and 67). The ride takes a bit longer than two hours.

TOURISM SERVICES — At the entrance of the town you’ll see signs for the dock where boatmen (lancheros) take groups of tourists through the mangroves. If you need a trained English-language guide, ask for a member of the Peregrinos, an association of young guides. A second option is hiring a boat directly from the beach, but that trip is longer. If you arrive at the town plaza and need a convenient ride back to the dock, bicycle taxis make the trip.

WORLD TRAVEL DIRECTORYHotel Xixim, is located 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of town on the road leading toward Sisal. The hotel is located within an extensive private reserve.


May 3: Día de la Santa Cruz
June 1: Día de la Marina
December 8: Día de la Virgen de la Concepción

Día de la Marina is a spectacular celebration of the town’s fishing tradition. Boats parade from the Gulf to the estuary, each carrying the village’s patron saint in their bow. And the week before December 8th is prime fiesta time.


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