Neotropics

A quiet street in Celestún, Yucatan, Mexico

Ghosts of Celestún
Biosphere Reserve

Into the mangroves and pink lagoons of Mexico's Yucatán Coast.

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he Celestún Biosphere Reserve, with its clusters of hammock islands, dense mangroves, salt salinas, freshwater cenotes and pink lagoons, has summoned me.

I’m in Mérida, capital of Mexico’s Yucatán state, where I am handing my ten-year-old son off to live with a Yucateno family for a week.  

That moment of sending your kid off into the unknown, is terrifying, but once he and his carry-on have disappeared around the corner, it’s no longer fear, but  a completely new sensation.

Maybe this is a taste of how parents feel after sending their kid off to college - that deep, unsettling feel of, huh, what now?  

A school-parent friend once told me that I had been dubbed Ghost Dad, never showing up for drop-off or pick-up.  But now was my time to make up for six years of absence; I could finally get to know the parents, all holed up together in a downtown Mérida hotel.

I told the parents that in the morning, I would be heading just outside the northwest perimeter of Mérida, where there were some wetlands and open meadows. Would you join me?

Sundrenched walls at the Cantina Costa Blanca in Celestún

Sundrenched walls on Calle 17 in Celestún.

Kai Luum and the Private Lagoon

Not much of a response comes through on our messaging app, and none of the dads show up at the taxi the next morning. I wonder: maybe I didn’t sell that well enough?  

I had almost told them that this would be the most memorable day of their entire trip.  But I held back, not being able to promise that at all. In fact, I would be winging everything; bumbling tour guide to a place I’ve never been.

My taxi driver, who had insisted I didn’t really want to go to the place I insist on going, gives up and drops me off on a quiet street near the Kai Luum ecological area.  How will you even get back? He had asked. Maybe you'll pick me up?

Almost instantly as I walk into the bounds of the park, life is everywhere: Malachite butterflies, dainty wildflowers, and fluorescent-colored Painted Buntings.

After roaming the park for a few hours on my own, I am approached by the only other man in the park, Jorge, who has been honing his photography skills in Yucatán’s natural areas each weekend.

We introduce ourselves, and then Jorge explains that there is a lagoon just a kilometer away.  I tell him that I didn’t remember another body of water around here. He insists that due to its large size, there is much more wildlife there.

Yucatan Jays near Kai Luum

Yucatan Jays (Cyanocorax yucatanicus) moving through dry forest on the outer perimeter of Mérida.

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agree to join him, and hop in his car.  After we pass the kilometer mark, he tells me that the lagoon is just a few more kilometers away.

We pull into the parking lot of a new apartment building, and park discreetly at the corner of the property.  In front of us is a sign: Propiedad Privada No Traspasando.

“I know the sign says no entry, but this is the Yucatán.  Everybody is very friendly here! It’s no problem,” Jorge explains.

We navigate under the sharp cow fence, and walk down a rocky and abandoned road.  When we get to the lagoon, it is almost completely devoid of life, unlike the nearby Kai Luum park.

Jorge insists that he has been to this place many times, and we should walk around the lagoon.  There may even be Yucatán Jays, he explains.

We walk on an overgrown trail around the lagoon, looking for what is surely Southern Mexico’s most beautiful bird.  But the sun is beating down on a windless day, and it’s getting closer to noon; that classic combination that makes wildlife disappear.

I follow Jorge toward the other side of the lagoon.  Nothing there. We start to head back to the car, and I remember the promise I held back from the dads: It’ll be your best day in Mexico!

Jorge says, “let’s try down here.”  Again, we walk down a new overgrown trail, heading into lagoon-side dry forest.  There they are, six Yucatán Jays: jet black heads, yellow eye-rings, azure blue wings, long slender tails.  They are moving as a tribe through the trees, their wingbeats flashes of brilliant blue. Instantly, the day feels glorious.

After Jorge drops me off at the ecological park, a text comes through from one of the parents.  “Haven’t heard or seen much from you in the last twenty-four hours.” He kindly invites me to join up with the group.

I want to break my reputation as Ghost Dad, but at the same time, I had just answered my question - huh, what now? - and arrange with the taxi driver to leave Mérida entirely, heading west to the Yucatán state’s northwest coast.


The intriguing geography of Celestún and the Celestún Biosphere Reserve. In my full-size, hand-drawn map of the reserve, you can see the reddish-colored salinas.

Map Detail of Celestún

The Scent of Coastal Wetlands

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hen the taxi passes over the bridge to the isolated, peninsular town of Celestún, I can smell it in the air; it’s that scent of mangroves and coastal wetlands.

Coastal wetlands have not one, but many scents; the smell of salt-soaked mud, drying algae, hydrogen sulfide,  sweet spring blossoms, the fishy smell of decaying aquatic creatures. Some mangrove smells are pleasant, others are not, but I enjoy them equally.  Together they evoke a sundrenched memory, tied not to one place, but to a mysterious habitat type that wraps around the world’s intertropical latitudes.

Every coastal wetland is different, but the mangroves of Celestún and the north coast of the Yucatán stand out because so many different habitat types are packed into one relatively small area; creating an unusually rich array of flora and fauna.

Spider in Celestun, Yucatan, Mexico

Unidentified spider, Celestún Mangroves

Salt on the Brine Flats

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nrique, who manages the small posada where I am staying, offers to take me on a drive and show me around Celestún.  

We drive north of town, then veer right, on a dirt road that crosses maze-like mud flats and saline rivers.  Enrique parks the car, jumps out, finds a big chunk of dirty white rock the size of a football.

“This is old salt, from last year,” he explains.  I follow him to the thin saline beach, where he points to a long, white line of foam.  “And this is where Celestún salt originates. This foam will create this year’s salt.”

He shows me how the salty foam dries along the beachside; this foam salt is one form that is collected by the local octopus fishermen, who seasonally shift to salt production when the wet tidal flats dry out, leaving the salt stained with the pinks, oranges and purples of desiccating algaes.

As soon as I am out on the salt and sand, I feel at home: the heat, the distant ocean breeze, the hummingbird on a bare branch in the distance.  

Love affairs for shallow, clear, placid water are not commonly depicted in popular culture, but they are not without precedent.  In Miyazaki animations, flooded, clear water symbolizes sanctuary; the train ride through shallow water in Spirited Away, the flooded forest in Ponyo, the clearwater cave in Porco Rosso, the crystal clear forest pools of Princess Mononoke.

But there are differences in the tenor of flooded coastal forests and animated depictions of sanctuary.  As barriers between land and sea, there is an unexpected quality to mangrove forests, of not knowing exactly what lies beneath or beyond.  And mangrove forests are no sanctuaries; they are dynamic transition zones; givers of life, conservation battlefields, breeding ground to sharks, nursery to the reefs.

My love for these coastal habitats began early in life.  I even had a photographer’s dream, the only one of its kind, at age 13, of an imaginary environment that resembled a tidal lagoon like this.

Russet-naped Wood Rail in Ria Celestún

A Russet-naped Wood Rail foraging under the protection of Red Mangroves n Ria Celestún.

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n this dream, I am standing with a submersible camera in a clear tidal lagoon.  It is nearly night, and rainstorm clouds are apparent in the distance. There are no trees, and the ocean beyond is just barely visible beyond dunes of sand.  

The dunes spill out into the water, creating islands of rippled bedforms. Just below the clear surface are orange-colored sea creatures, pulsating.

While there was nothing outwardly compelling about the scene, I eventually understand that the dream was my subconscious; encouraging me to find beauty in less respected landscapes.

Enrique explains that this salt, which is collected partially for seafood packing here in Celestún, and partially as gourmet salt used in export markets, has been collected here since pre-Columbian times.

Seeing how the salt is collected with buckets, shovels and flatbed trucks, it’s easy to see how the process has changed little.

Yellow Door in Celestun

Door and window detail from Calle 11 in Celestún.

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alt was actually the most valuable export commodity in the Mayan world.  It wasn’t used just to flavor food, but in bulk for varied purposes, from food preservation to daily rituals. Then, salt was today’s oil.  

The Yucatán north coast region, which began exporting salt as early as 2,500 years ago, often held a near monopoly on the commodity, and the cities of the north Yucatán coast, in fact, sprung up as responses to the demand for salt.  

Export routes throughout the Mayan world were organized and sophisticated, and the longest were maritime and riverine passages connecting city-states through southern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. Imagine massive canoes, powered by twenty-five paddlers, loaded with pink salt and salt-packed fish, plying the open oceans of the Gulf of California and Caribbean.

Vermillion Flycatcher at the Celestun Biosphere Reserve

Vermillion Flycatcher in the Celestun Biosphere Reserve.

Downtown Celestún

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s I walk out in search of a place to eat, I make note of what I am actually looking for: not necessarily the best food in town, but a comfortable seat.  Somewhere quiet, maybe giving me a street view.

In Mérida, I noticed how important and habitual travel-by-review has become.  Travelers are actually using TripAdvisor or Yelp to string their vacation into a collection of high-rated events.

As I find a place to eat: shrimp in a lime and garlic sauce,  double shot of rum, straight, I ponder why I distrust and dislike traveling under the influence of online reviews.

One thing I learned as a boy’s dad is through legos: you build a lego set, you’re amazed by how easy the instructions make it.  And then, magically, there is this beautiful creation in front of you. It’s design and features are notable. It looks almost as good as on the box.  And you are proud of the accomplishment.

But then you realize that something about it is wholly unsatisfying.  It’s a museum piece more than a functional toy, and the process of building it went a little too fast.  It was too easy!

But when you spill the legos out on the table, and with no rules create something from scratch, you are entranced, excited.  The process invites family interaction, creativity, relaxation and skill-building. The end result will invariably be inferior to the packaged set.  You may even use, god forbid, non-matching colors! But in the end, improvising your lego-building and doing it yourself is entirely more satisfying and rewarding.

Tour Boats at the beach in Celestun

Tour boats on the beach in Celestun.

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see travel the same way: travel reviews are like official lego sets.  You can follow them like instructions, but altogether, experiencing something through a common denominator feels unsatisfying.

When you piece your travel together, independently and outside the influence of others, you’re building something that might be rough around the edges, but in every way better.

You can visit a museum, and get an official view of a history.  It will be comprehensive, educational, and important to the area you are visiting.  But let’s say you just wing it, go light on the museums, and skip the reviews. Maybe you’ll get as lucky as I did today, and you’ll stumble on that history, in a way that becomes your own.

American Pygmy Kingfisher in the mangroves of Ria Celestun

The American Pygmy Kingfisher, smallest of all New World Kingfishers, specializes in spearing tiny fish and tadpoles in dense coastal wetland habitat.

Pink Denizens of the Hypersaline Ria Celestún

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had asked my posada manager if he could find me a guide, someone with a boat and naturalist experience, who could start early and spend all day in the mangroves.

Before sunrise, Jesus arrives on his motorcycle.  We cruise through Celestún and to the docks, and within minutes we’re on the flat pre-dawn water of Ria Celestún, a long hypersaline channel which often glows in shades of pink and red from salt-loving brine shrimp.

Soon, we can see them: four hundred vivid pink and orange bodies bobbing, dunking and chattering through goose-like honks: a colony of American Flamingos.

But there are more up ahead, maybe a few thousand: a much larger congregation.  But then, the sky alights with an additional ten-thousand flamingos, and they’re flying directly overhead.  No, they are landing, right here, all around us.

Altogether, we estimate twenty-thousand birds in the lagoon: the largest colony of this species in one place.

I have never seen American Flamingos before, and while I have seen many large flocks of birds, this is a spectacle which goes far beyond any birdwatcher’s itch: this moving sky of pink is a wonder of the world.

The spectacle makes me wonder, though: what are flamingos?

I had always assumed they would naturally be related to the birds that appear next to them in the field guides.  The Spoonbills, also colored pink by their hypersaline diets, and the storks and ibises, tall and awkward. After all, all these birds do sort of look alike.

In flight, though, flamingos appear like no other bird.  Their entire body stretches out into a horizontal plane. They look like straight lines across the sky.

It turns out that ornithologists are shifting their views on exactly what they are.  Morphologically, flamingos have no relation to the other wading birds, and they have no direct connection to the waterfowl either.  

Flamingos in Flight over Ria Celestun

American Flamingos preparing to land in the Ría Celestún.

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lamingos, it turns out, are related to grebes, which, are often considered a type of duck, but in fact have no close relation whatsoever.

Flamingos and grebes, as different as they appear, may originate from a sort of proto-flamingo, a bird that appeared in the fossil record in the middle Oligocene, and which shared traits of both flamingos and grebes: it was tall like a flamingo, but designed to swim and feed underwater, like a grebe.

What makes the story of the flamingo’s evolution even more wonderful is that the proto-flamingo itself shared no close relation to the wading birds or the ducks either: rather, it evolved from the precursors to our modern pigeons, doves and the desert-dwelling sandgrouses of the eastern hemisphere.

What’s remarkable about this is that one unlikely ancestral bird became the stepping off point for two very, very different bird orders.  To me, this is remarkable in that it shows how evolution so often reproduces the same features in completely different lineages. Imagine going from proto-pigeon to proto-flamingo and then branching ultimately to flamingo and grebe, and you can see how evolution essentially recreated the wading bird and diving duck.

All this suggests that nature comes to the same conclusion about what forms and functions work best over and over again.  For the flamingo, which has evolved to thrive in the harsh environment where almost no other animal can live, has evolved a thick, bristled tongue that in many ways resembles the filter-feeding teeth of the baleen whales.

No other birds have evolved a feeding system like the flamingos.  When they actually feed by dunking their head underwater, they curl it towards themselves so that the head is actually upside down.

If you look at a flamingo beak, it looks almost as if it is shaped upside down.  Indeed, evolutionary biologists found that the flamingo beak came to the same conclusion as other bird beaks, although in reverse.

Turquoise-browed Motmot in Merida

Turquoise-browed Motmot

Cenote Mangroves

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e motor along the edge of Ria Celestún.  To our right is a forest of sixty-foot tall red mangroves trees.  I am used to seeing this same tree species in places like Florida, the Bahamas or Baja, growing at most twenty-feet tall.

But in ideal conditions, this saltwater-loving tree can surpass eighty feet in height, creating a dense and dark tangle of life between land and sea.  

The word mangroves refers to different things: broadly, it refers to these types of coastal forests in general.  But usually, when we talk about mangroves, we are referring specifically to the Red Mangrove tree; the pioneer of the intertidal zone whose roots form buttresses against the ocean.

Jesus explains how Ria Celestún is flanked by dozens of freshwater springs; the famous cenotes of the Yucatan, which supply the Celestún mangroves with continuous fresh, crystal clear subterranean water.

The cenotes are cited as being key to the particular health of this ecosystem: the flow of pure freshwater appears to push the health of these mangroves, assisting in the intertidal process that is basic to the function of the species, and therefore the habitat.


Wall detail in the town of Celestun, Mexico

Wall detail on Calle 14 in Celestún.

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elestun’s mangroves are among the most protected of any on Earth, which is why, even as we coast along these mangroves on a small boat, we see the extravagant hints of the life that abounds in the interior.

The life is beyond the pale: legions of crabs, schools of fish, lizards and butterflies at the forest edges, and sublime birds, like the multicolored Russet-naped Wood-rail and the smallest kingfisher in the world; the orange and green American Pygmy Kingfisher, which would fit in the palm of your hand.

For over ten years, I have been writing about a golf megadevelopment in the Bahamas which was opposed by the locals who lived on the island because they believe the development would destroy the island’s mangroves, a key, they believed, to the health of their coral reef, crabbing grounds, bonefish flats and other key benefits the mangrove forest played in the island’s ecosystem.

Just this week, a videographer shared images of the small protected mangroves that were left protected by the developer.  The locals argued that the backfilling of the mangroves area and the flushing channels of the marina would alter the intertidal flow that made that area robust and healthy.

The videographer’s drone footage, shot at mid-tide, proved that there is no longer any flow of seawater into the mangroves, and the evidence that the mangroves are indeed dying is evident.  The water in the mangroves looks stagnant; more like a dead swamp than a living ecosystem, and the mangrove trees appear to be losing their leaves.

That’s why protected mangrove zones like the Celestún Biosphere Reserve are so important.  Mangroves provide global benefits: they combat climate change by locking up carbon at one-hundred times the efficiency of the rainforests, they are the nursery for many coral reef species, and they are the most effective buttress against hurricanes and other coastal storms in protecting nearby human settlements.

Mangroves, still looked down upon around the world as a useless breeding ground of miasma, are threatened globally.  Here on Mexico’s north Yucatan coast, a coming development boon is predicted to ravage the mangroves along the entire coast.  Active development fights over the fate of the mangroves are already happening closer to Cancun.

In a world where almost every nation can sign global climate accords; how about this one? All remaining native mangrove habitat in each of the 118 countries who host such habitat will be protected permanently.


American flamingos feeding in the Ria Celestun estuary

A flamboyance of American Flamingos in the Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

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n the afternoon, Jesus and I motor out to the array of trails and roads that extend into the protected Celestún Biosphere Reserve.  

 We’re at the edge of coastal scrub habitat.  Unlike the nearly impenetrable mangrove habitat to the east of us, this coastal scrub consists of small thickets of dry forest trees, grasslands and open flats of dried mud.  Estuary water mazes throughout this zone. It is walkable terrain.

We walk slowly and deliberately through the habitat, looking for birds and other wildlife.  Jesus, who grew up in Celestún, explains his love of walking. “I can be out here all day,” he says, his binoculars on the trees.

And I agree, and to myself I note that walks like this are what I live for - quiet, peaceful, and…

My phone starts pinging from a messaging app.  I turn the volume down, but in a few minutes, the noise is constant.  I stop to read the messages coming through.

“What’s going on?” Jesus asks.

“It’s the parents in Mérida.  Several of them are sick. They are talking about which medications to get.”

He asks me a few questions, and I have trouble giving the explanation. Our bodies aren’t used to the water here.”

Jesus nods, and walks to a nearby shrub, showing me the local cure for stomach issues.  “Take this, mix it with the leaves of red mangrove trees, and let it simmer for fifteen days.”

We continue walking along the path until we approach a cluster of ruins, which sit at the edge of a large lagoon.  Jesus believes we may find motmots, which like to sleep in the relative protection of the enclosed spaces.

We arrive at the set of buildings, all in various states of decay.

Was this a Spanish mission?  A hidden pirate’s lair? Inside the community’s chapel, I can see ornate tiles, although they are in such a good state, that I have trouble believing my original assumption that this was a Spanish mission.

But this was a successful, although isolated, salt-producing town in the 1900’s known as Real de Salinas.  The many buildings were housing for the people who lived here.

There is no clear history on exactly what happened to this abandoned town.  According to a Mérida newspaper, an incident of violence perpetrated by a member of this community caused Celestún to stop working with, and even selling to, members of Salinas de Real, essentially embargoing the community.

Poverty fell on the community, and the people either fled, or died of sickness and extreme poverty, until only one elderly woman remained. 

Hacienda Real de Salinas

Original tiles face the sun in the abandoned interior of a building in the Hacienda Real de Salinas, Celestún Biosphere Reserve

Her body was found in 1975, although among the fishermen of Celestún, the story of a woman crying out at night persists.

What was that passage from Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez? They were people whose lives were slow, who did not see themselves growing old, or falling sick, or dying, but who disappeared little by little in their own time, turning into memories, mists from other days, until they were absorbed into oblivion.

How could I have aged this place as a Spanish Mission when it only became a ghost town in 1975?  It is a reminder, to me, of the ultimate passage of time.

Where does time go?  How did I get to this point where I am already seeing my son going away, and anticipating that day now that he leaves for college?

Three years before my son was born, I started writing about what would happen to the mangroves of Guana Cay.  I knew then that one day I would report on what would actually happen. But how did that day come so soon?

As the sun dims, Jesus and I start to walk back to town.  He again explains his love for the simple act of walking. He also tells me a little of his life in Celestún; how the combination of walking often and eating fresh-caught fish is essential to his wellbeing.

If it’s just a matter of years before my son is off to college, how fast is life going by?  Soon, I will reunite with my boy. But, before I do, don't let me forget this lesson I learned from walking with Jesus: slow down, walk more, focus on what's in front of you, and live now in your world.