The “Painted Stone” in Celestun on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

On a recent visit to Merida, the capital city of the Yucatan State, we opted for a side trip to the Reserva de la Biosfera Ria Celestun (Celestun Biosphere Reserve).

This protected, coastal wetland reserve and wildlife refuge encompasses over 147,000 acres and showcases their hugh flocks of vibrant pink Caribbean Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber).

The flamingo nesting area was one thing, but pink was not the only spectacular color on parade.

We were pleasantly surprised by the wide spectrum of other colors that Mother Nature has on display… more than justifying the name Celestun which means “painted stone” in the Yucatec Maya language.

The Drive to Celestun from Merida

The drive out of Merida was through small, congested villages with multiple speed bumps and the occasional “traffic” jam created by the residents and their assorted modes of transportation and a livestock trailer or two.

Once you get out of the city traffic and head southwest to the coastline you are driving on Route 281 which is a well-maintained two lane road that goes for 56 miles straight through the jungle… straight as an arrow… straight as a bowling alley with no intersections, or landmarks… just a hypnotic drive through millions of trees.

The ingenious people living along this strip of asphalt mark their homes/driveway by hanging painted tires from a tree to announce their location… such as… turn into the first driveway past the two red tires.

Arriving at the Celestun Biosphere Reserve

There are numerous options for touring Celestun and the famous flamingos. You can take an organized all day tour from Merida with transportation and lunch included, or drive yourself and make your own arrangements… dependence versus independence… as usual we opted for the latter.

The official reception area is well marked and set up for tour buses and car parking. We purchased our “cuota de recuperacion por servicios” (admission tickets) at the office and arranged for a boat. (This was about 175 pesos or less than $20 USD at the time.)

Tour Boat dock area
There was another couple scheduled for our tour but they did not show up so after five minutes we left the dock with our now private tour guide Francesco and a pleasant, smooth ride out into the vast lagoons and mangroves.

The flamingos were the main attraction but to our amazement the reserve proved to be an outstanding excursion into nature on dramatically colorful and calm waters throughout the shallow lagoons.

The tour boats keep a respectful distance from the birds as we glide past large flocks of more mature birds with deeper pink tints and smaller groups of young birds with various shades of white and pink colors.

As a flamingos go… you-are-what and where-you-eat.

These majestic, social birds live in groups consisting of a few pairs to thousands and they forage in these shallow lagoons for algae and small crustaceans, such as shrimp, which provide their vibrant colors.

Cruising through a Bird Sanctuary
There are over 300 different migratory and resident bird species nesting here; the largest mangrove area in the Gulf of Mexico… a bird watchers paradise!

Celestun biosphere reserve is also “home” to other critters such as jaguars, ocelot, crocodiles, iguanas, boa constrictors, and four different species of sea turtles… Hawksbill, Green, Loggerhead, and Leatherback, as well as assorted land turtles, to name a few.

Yes it IS a jungle out there!

The Painted Stone’s Water Features

Throughout the boat ride you are continually going from one color hue to another. The blending of saltwater and freshwater with the algae along the mangroves produces amazing pigments throughout the reserve.

Fresh Water from Underwater Aquifers
The water becomes crystal clear inside the mangroves and our tour boat captain skillfully worked our way through assorted tree tunnels and passageways up to a boardwalk area inside the canopy.

We were invited to jump in and swim in this tranquil natural pool setting but remembering the part about crocodiles during the over view and we opted to just take some pictures.

After the two hour tour we headed to the beach for a few cold beers and lunch… It was tough saying “wow, look at that!” and “isn’t that beautiful!” and “what colors!” for almost two hours.

The Beach Dining Options

We drove to the beach area and the recommended “La Palapa Restaurant”. The Yucatecan Cuisine menu was a seafood lover’s delight with all local and fresh ingredients such as shrimp, lobster, fish, blue claw crabs, stone crabs, conch, octopus, and crab cakes.

We dined on the beach and enjoyed Quesadillas De Camaron (tortillas stuffed with cheese and shrimp), followed by Los Filetes Al Mojo De Ajo (fish fillets in butter and garlic sauce) and finished off with Lopulpos Al Mojo De Ajo (grilled octopus in butter and garlic sauce)… and of course the requisite number of ice cold cerveza.

The eventful day was topped off by a delicious and memorable meal which made the drive back to Merida more pleasurable… still boring and hypnotic… but tolerable.


The Painted Stone provided us with vivid memories and we were awestruck by this abundant and beautiful environment which awaits the adventurous that step out of the tourist comfort zone and into exploring nature in its purest state.

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired…

© 2017 Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

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