Ghosts of Celestún
Into the mangroves and pink lagoons of Mexico's Yucatán Coast.
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?
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.
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.
The Scent of Coastal Wetlands
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.
Salt on the Brine Flats
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.
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.
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.