Rio Lagartos – Sleepy fishing town, crocodiles, and more flamingos

Rio Lagartos was yet another small town on the northern Yucatan facing the Gulf of Mexico. Getting here was a little bit bigger of a chore than Progreso, but the reward was well worth it. Taking three buses from Progreso, we went back to Merida, then over to Tizimin, then a third bus up to Rio Lagartos. The town doesn’t have more than a handful of places to stay and maybe three restaurants, of which we went to one. The shoreline is lined with boats and many people offering tours out to see the incredible wildlife of the region. Truly, this is a sleepy river town with a small population and not much to do.

The town of Rio Lagartos (Rio meaning river and Lagartos meaning alligators) is a misnomer as the body of water is not a river, but a lagoon, and it is populated by crocodiles not alligators. Unfortunately, due to hunting for the skin of the crocodile which produces local leather the population of crocodiles is down to only 20 or so individuals in the nature reserve.

Flamingos have blossomed under the protections provided for the area starting in 2007, and have increased their numbers from roughly 1,000-2,000, to now an estimated 40,000 individuals throughout the Yucatan. Considering the flamingo only yields one egg per year that is a rapid expansion! The water of the estuary has a high salinity which produces tons of the flamingos favorite food, brine shrimp. Using a special filter on its beak the flamingo can feed almost completely underwater after doing a little dance to release its prey from the sand.

Our tour guide has been running tours for the last 20 years, so he knew the area very well. We started by heading out to see the flamingos, this time getting significantly closer to the flamingos than in Progreso. Once close to the flamingos, our guide paddled the boat towards the animals to avoid spooking them to flight. At points we were only 5-10 feet from the majestic birds. Watching the pink flamingos take off and land was mesmerizing as these birds are roughly 6 feet in length from tip of beak to their feet.

After getting out of the boat and walking amongst the birds for a time, we piled back in to go into the biosphere itself, where there were several crocodiles waiting on the shores of the mangroves. Our guide lured the crocodiles out from their hiding places by splashing fish on the surface of the water, and then throwing the fish into the gaping jaws of the crocodile when it was mere feet from the boat. These creature’s raw strength and quickness in the water was equal parts alarming and exhilarating.

After heading through the mangroves, we set out for Los Colorados, another set of pink salt flats only significantly bigger. On our way out our guide let us know our friend Pancho would be boarding the boat. Pancho, identified by a white patch over his eye, is a pelican. He recognized our guide’s boat from probably 100 feet away and took flight to land on the front the boat and give us the eye; he looked hungry.

The guide encouraged me to sit as close as I could to the pelican while he placed a fish on the top of my head. Slowly I inched back towards Pancho, with my back to him, until, bam! He snatched the fish from the top of my head. Certainly, an odd experience, but I felt close to my friend Pancho by the end of the trip.

After a brief mud bath adjacent to Los Colorados, and a dip in the cenote, we headed back to the dock where we took off from, just across the street from our hotel. As we digested and processed the pictures and videos from the day, we realized just how close we were to these magnificent creatures, and how lucky we were to be able to see them.

The irony of this trip into the Rio Lagartos nature reserve certainly was that the tour guides are feeding the wild animals that are protected. Although it was great to get this close for photos, ethically we found it a little off putting. Particularly with the crocodiles whose population is in such peril. The results for the flamingo population as well as the other bird species such as black hawks, cormorants, gulls, among others, certainly show some of this is working, but there is more work to do. We left feeling a little conflicted. The experience was amazing, but is it sustainable?

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