The other day, Bill, Susan, Jessie and I drove to Rio Lagartos, at the northern peak of the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Rio Lagartos is in a biosphere, a protected area, with hundreds of bird species and other wildlife. The place is known for its excellent boat trips into the estuaries to see flamingos and other birds. The guide services also take out fishing parties and night-time crocodile observation trips.
We had already arranged to stay at the Hotel San Felipe, in the immaculately neat and very pleasant town of San Felipe, a few minutes away. We did this because the last time either Bill or I had been to Rio Lagartos, it had been a pit – dirty and worn looking. The only place to stay for many years was the abominably bad but fascinating Hotel Nefertiti, which is now closed and padlocked. The ghost of the eery Nefertiti looms above the other buidings of the charming village, its bare grey cement walls eerily framed among the colorful, happy houses.
Rio Lagartos has changed radically since I was last there. I don’t know why. It’s cheery, clean, and colorful. We were delightfully surprised at the new Rio Lagartos. It is every bit as inviting as San Felipe and a lot livelier. Everywhere we went there was music. Of course, it was the day before Christmas Eve, and everything and everyone was at their best.
We made arrangements for our guide the evening before our trip, so we could leave at daybreak. I was pleased to find Pecas, a guide I’ve known for many years, and he agreed to take us out the next morning.
We got up awfully early and stumbled into the boat, drinking cold coffee. Within minutes, we were fully awake. As we entered the estuary and saw the stunning assortment of birds, huge and tiny, Susan said that was like entering Eden.
It was overcast and even rained now and then. At every twist in the mangroves, a new diorama of beautiful birds appeared, so varied and so multitudinous, they brought tears to my eyes. Most were very still, fishing with their huge bills and sharp eyes, hunting. Pecas slowed the boat at each dramatic scene while some of us riffled through guidebooks and some just gazed.
When we floated beneath a tall tree under a couple of Blackhawk Eagles, the guide slowed down and began a strange whistling. The eagles watched carefully as he stopped and threw a fish into the water. One of the eagles swooped down, just a few feet from our boat to retrieve it. Here is my very bad photo of that event, where you see more of Bill’s head than the eagle.
- At another twist in the water, Pecas dangled a raw fish in front of two frustrated pelicans. They stretched their necks up and down in rhythm with the fish, as if dancing, and we had an opportunity to see them from just a few feet away.
The channel is about 80 feet across and lined on both sides with thick mangroves. So many huge birds were flying back and forth over the water and disappearing into the vegetation, we realized that there must be hundreds of thousands of them in there.
Susan and Bill, the true birders on this trip, identified the Yellow-crowned night heron, Cormorants and Anhingas, the Great blue heron, Ospreys, the well disguised Tiger heron, the iridescent Green heron, Cattle egrets, Snowy egrets, Brown and White pelicans, several varieties of Kingfishers, and more. Susan explained how to pick out the Ibis from the thousands of magnificent white birds by their yellow, downward-curved bills. And, of course, the flamingos, although there were relatively few in Rio Lagartos that day.
We went quite far, past Las Coloradas and the salt flats, where there were a few flamingos feeding and chatting with each other in their low rumbles. We got out of the boat there and Susan and Jessie got as close to the birds as possible without frightening them. It was raining lightly and there was a rainbow.
At one point in the estuary, there was a massive roiling of the water on one edge and we all knew it had to be a crocodile. A bit later, one of the huge creatures raised his prehistoric looking head quite close to our boat and pretended we weren’t there for a few minutes before diving downward.
Pecas poled the boat in toward some flamingos among the mangroves. There was a mud island there, littered with the remains of giant horseshoe crabs, and we all got out. About 100 feet away was a spit with a lot of vegetation on it. Through the green, as if in another world, was a sight none of us will forget.
A population of hapless brine shrimp, migrating down the waterway, was accosted by hundreds of birds, all in one location. Through a break in the trees that framed the scene, we saw literally hundreds of white birds, including White pelicans and all kinds of white Egrets circling madly, in a feeding frenzy. The flapping of their wings and their cries were nothing short of ecstasy. Standing in the middle of the mad circle, two brightly colored flamingos fed calmly on the shrimp with their beaks buried in the mud. And above, in a tall tree, were two enormous Wood storks and two Roseate spoonbills.
We all watched this magnificent scene for about ten minutes, until the shrimp moved away, taking the circling birds with them.
When they left, one of the Wood storks lazily rose from the tree, exercised his six-foot wingspread, and sailed over to a tree closer to us. He was soon joined by one the the spoonbills, who posed and preened as if to show off his wonderful bill. Then the other spoonbill sailed over to sit on the other side of the stork. He kept his wings open, just showing off how gorgeous his pink feathers looked. (I know perfectly well I am anthropomorphizing, but I don’t care.)
We were all enchanted and came back from the three and a half-hour trip with silly smiles on our faces.
I need to say the trip wouldn’t have been what it was if not for this particular guide. Pecas was born and raised in Rio Lagartos and is passionate about the wildlife.
There are two guide outfits in Rio Lagartos – one, when you first come in, called Isla Contoy, which has quite a good restaurant and professional guides who didn’t appear local. Pecas works through the other group, Rio Lagartos Adventures, located on the quay in front of the La Torreja restaurant and owned by a group of families native to Rio Lagartos.
Right next to La Torreja is a pleasant looking hotel called Villa de Pescadores that has balconies overlooking the water. Next time I go, I will stay there.
After the boat trip, we went back to San Felipe and had lunch at the Restaurante Vaselina. I mention it only because of its extraordinary name, although the shrimp was not half bad.
Every once in a while in Yucatan, I see something so magnificent, so perfect, that in the back of my mind I think it must have been created by Walt Disney. So much beauty can’t be real.
Here is the last glance we got of flamingos, on the way out of Rio Lagartos.
Apologies for my bad wildlife photography that doesn’t do justice to the birds. I use a tiny Leica C-Lux camera with a limited distance lens. It’s also kind of slow.
More about guides:
Pecas does not work directly for Rio Lagartos Adventures although he operates in cooperation with them and can be reached there. If you request him at La Torrejas restaurant, they can call him on his cell. Or, you can call him directly. If you wish to do this, please contact me for the number as I don’t wish to put it online. Reach me at: email@example.com. Remove the Xs.
Pecas speaks limited English.
The going rate (12/2011) for a two-hour trip is 700 pesos at either Isla Contoy or Rio Lagartos Adventures. You will be in a well-maintained motorboat that seats six. The guides expect to be tipped for a job well-done. I put Pecas in a different category and he may just ask you how much you feel you should pay.