Celestun and Rio Lagartos National Parks

A visual sea of up to 100,000 coral-pink flamingos (their Spanish name means “flaming”) feeding in a lagoon at Celestun National Park and Biosphere Reserve on the Yucatan coast, or nesting at Rio Lagartos (also a National Park and Biosphere Reserve) to the east, is a never-to-be-forgotten spectacle. Standing five feet (1.5 m) tall on slender 30-inch (76-cm) legs, their long necks are raised and lowered in a rhythmic, dance-like motion as they first hold heads upside down to allow sieve-like bills to gather and strain out insect larvae, algae, and tiny crustaceans stirred up by high-stepping webbed feet, then straighten up to swallow. Those ready to mate spread fivefoot (1.5-m) wings and do a circling prance. Then they fly off, many to Rio Lagartos, to construct dome-like mud nests where they will raise a single chick, hatched with white down but fed a red carotene-rich “milk” from a parent’s esophagus which may help develop their brilliant plumage. Best time at Celestun is June to late March, before birds begin nesting. Best at Lagartos is April–June.

Both reserves have hundreds of other interesting bird species—herons and egrets, pelicans, magnificent frigate birds, wintering northern songbirds such as scarlet tanagers and rosebreasted grosbeaks. But flamingos are the stars. Boat tours can be arranged. Visitors who stay overnight nearby have the sublime sight of these glorious birds waking en masse at dawn.