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The Yucatan: From ruins to roseate spoonbills

sunny 31 °C


While we were staying in Progreso, one of our intended day trips were the ruins at Uxmal, about one and a half hours drive away. Friends had told us about them, I had read a lot about them, and even forums re: Uxmal (UNESCO site) vs. Chichen Itza (UNESCO site and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World) , weighed in favour of Uxmal (if you could only do one). These are two of the biggies in the Maya world.

So how did we end up in a minor ruin, Dzibilchaltun, instead? I'm ashamed to say - we slept in, then we felt disorganized and out of sorts and the idea of walking around ruins in 34 degree heat for hours, bracketed by 3 hours of driving, became more than we could bear. So, we left Progreso, and headed south, intending to visit Dzibilchatun, just 30 minutes away ( from this point forward known as Dzib ).

However, once we saw the signs for Uxmal, we thought " are we crazy?", and pointed our car in that direction instead. "This is better," we said. "How can we miss Uxmal?" Well, we did. We missed the turn-off, drove almost into Merida before we could turn around, and then could not find the sign to Uxmal again. "Rats!", we chorused, "let's go to Plan B." So off to Dzib we went, and we had a grand time. I'm still feeling annoyed at ourselves for missing Uxmal, but hopefully, we will make up for it with a number of other ruins we have on the agenda, including Tulum and Palenque.


Dzib is a three-part wonder - ruins, museum and cenote. It shares with Chichen Itza the same significance of having the astronomical orientations that light up the temples with the sun rising and setting on the spring and fall equinoxes. The site is small, but well-kept, and has the usual massive central square, with several structures to climb up on, and a temple.


I have been very keen to swim in cenotes, and this was our first one. Cenotes are fresh water sinkholes in the limestone shelf of the Yucatan Peninsula; considered by the Maya to be magical entrances to the underworld. In many cases, they are underground, accessible through caves and complete with stalactites and stalagmites. This one was above ground, very shallow at one end, and over 140 feet deep at the other. After our hot walk around, it was a real treat to jump in this cool, clean, crystal clear water.


There were a pile of teenage girls when we first arrived, and about every 10 seconds, one of them would scream because the cenote is filled with tiny fish that "nibble" on you. It was quite hilarious - scream and laugh, scream and laugh - like teenage girls everywhere.


This site has an amazing museum - modern, well-laid-out, everything in 3 languages (Spanish, Maya and English), and filled with Maya artifacts. The entrance is lined with statues and columns that were excavated from the site. Dad, I'm thinking of you a lot in this part of Mexico. You would love this museum.


Some of the displays inside the museum

On to Rio Lagartos, in search of flamingos.


There are two major flamingo sanctuaries in the Yucatan - both on the northern edge of the peninsula - one west of Merida, and the larger one, Rio Lagartos, to the east, within the Biosphere Reserve. This area has a huge estuary protected from the Gulf by mangroves, and it is a natural habitat for 58 mammals and over 395 birds, as well as crocodiles. While there are about 40,000 flamingos in the Yucatan, the best time to see them in terms of sheer numbers, is late spring - fall. This is the beginning of mating season, so we only saw a few dozen of them, but it was still an amazing sight. They did all the comical flamingo things - standing on one leg, tucking their long necks into the water, and sort of loping around. The water is very shallow where they gather - perhaps a foot at the deepest, closer to 6 inches. From a distance, it looks like they're walking on water.


The little grey one is a youngster - they gain their pink colour from the crusteceans they eat, so it takes a while for the feathers to change.


Pelicans hanging out with the flamingos - the white pelicans as well as the more common brown ones.

We booked our tour through a company called Rio Lagartos Adventures. The owner, Diego, speaks perfect English, and his sons, Diego Jr. And Jorge have trained as guides as well. They are all committed environmentalists and conservationists, and act like gatekeepers for this precious region. Jorge was our guide - an affable and knowledgable young man who made every effort to see as many birds as possible in our 2-hour trip.


At one point, Jorge was angling the boat in to see a crocodile (who immediately dove under the water), but as we slowed right down, this fish jumped in our boat! It is a young tarpon - they are born in the ocean, grow in the mangroves in brackish water, then swim out to the ocean again to mature to up to 280 pounds. As Jorge noted, "they are fighters!"

After our flamingo sightings, we headed to the mangroves. These mangroves are incredibly adaptive - their tangled root system allows for twice-daily tides, and provides a safe home for so many birds and animals. The estuary is filled with narrow pathways - at times we had to duck our heads as Jorge steered through.


Look closely, you will see a baby crocodile - perhaps 2 weeks old, already kicked out of the nest


We saw a lot of birds - snowy egrets, cormorants, vultures, hawks, sandpipers, roseate spoonbills, magnificent frigatebirds, great blue herons - managed to get photos of some of them. Gord - you would be in heaven here. Their land birding tours are pretty awesome, too.

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We had fun playing with the pelicans. They are food slaves - Jorge pretended to throw his sandal into the water, and that was all it took to get them excited. Jorge explained the difference in the colouring on the pelican's head - the yellow are the younger ones, the white are the older ones. "Just like you", pointed out my darling husband.


We stopped by salt mines further up the estuary near Las Colorados. It is quite the sight - the incredibly salty Gulf water is fed through and extracted, and then shipped to North America for road salt. It goes through two extractions, and the one channel we were looking at has the salt concentration of the Dead Sea.


Jorge told me I could swim in it, so I gingerly slid in (mucky bottom, kind of freaky), but it was amazing. I lay on my back like a flipped turtle - did not move a muscle - the water held me afloat. That is not a smile, but a grimace - still not sure that a crocodile might not sneak in.


From there, we went for the mud bath - I told Jorge that women pay big bucks for this spa treatment. We slapped on white clay found in the area - Maya people used it as a sunscreen if they were outside all day. Very cool - we then found a beach close to the Gulf to jump in and wash it all off.


There is no reason to visit Rio Lagartos except for these tours, but the town has a pretty malecon, some sweet little houses with a bit of a Caribbean look to them, and it was an extremely enjoyable stay. So many firsts in the past few days - cenotes, flamingos, mangroves, swimming in the Yucatan's "Dead Sea", white clay mud bath. Tomorrow - we're off to Tulum for a week.


Posted by millerburr 19:10 Archived in Mexico

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Great photos you two! Cenota's are really neat, did not feel the little fish nibble when I swam in one.

by Derrill Shuttleworth

I didn't either - not one bite. Steve was beating them off with a stick - they were nipping at his feet, his back, his legs.
Maybe he's sweeter?

by millerburr

I sooooo enjoy travelling with you via my laptop.

by Annie

Gin, I am at the point where I open your blogs with as much excitement as reading an intriguing book. Thank you for the exciting adventures...but please know I am not sure what I will do when you come back home. xox

by Ginny

Jorge's tour sounds fascinating to us ... we'll take a roseate spoonbill over a sparrow any day!

by Heather

Like the rest of your readers, Linda and I can't get enough of your adventures. Keep them coming. You looked like New Guinea Mudmen in one of the pics.

by jon snipper

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