Rio Lagartos or Hol’koben

Crocodile or Alligator
Río or Ría

by Mari Pintkowski   (January 2012)
Thumbnail images are clickable for larger photos

So many questions to ponder! This is the fun part of a road trip in the Yucatan Peninsula. My husband, Lou, and I are B&B owner-operators of La Selva Mariposa near Tulum. We have promised ourselves that we are going to block out a few days each month to explore more of this glorious part of the world we now call home. If we are to continue to provide top-notch service to our guests, we and our staff need time to rest and rejuvenate.

We had driven to Río Lagartos once before just to see what the area had to offer. It was flamingo nesting season and no tours were going out into the mangroves, so we went on to Isla Holbox, a little farther west. This time we made a three-night reservation at Hotel Villa de Pescadores on a recommendation of friends who had recently visited.

We reminded ourselves when we departed LSM that this was about the journey, not the destination. We headed in the direction of Valladolid. Just before Valladolid, we took the right turn and followed the signs to the Merida and Chichen Cuota as well as the Highway #180 free road.

We became aware that topes or speed bumps were not marked by the familiar drawing as they are near Tulum. Instead, a sign with the words reductor de velocidad was placed directly on the side of the bump; needless to say, we needed to pay close attention as this stretch of road included many such signs.

Temozon is the first town we drove through. It is well known for furniture building and smoked sausage. Since Lou is a furniture maker, among other things, we always keep our eyes peeled for interesting furniture designs as we pass the many storefronts along the road. Most stores in this Pueblo carry the same colonial-type furniture.

As we drove on toward Tizimin, we saw large ranches and farms. We recognized the Brahma-type cattle grazing on the land that is slaughtered and sold to the locals every week in our little pueblo. Government signs indicated that irrigation projects were being supported. There was a large henequin ranch with small plants covering a large tract of land. We spotted a sign to Rio Lagartos that was covered with vines. It assured us we were heading in the right direction.

Mass at the large Catholic Church in Calotmul that was adorned with blue and white flags was letting out as we passed. We slowed down to watch the procession spilling from the church steps. Mayan ladies, carrying banners, were followed by men playing drums and an assortment of people of all ages. They marched out of the church grounds, down the main street and around the corner. I jumped out of the car to take a photo and Lou followed along around the main square (zocalo), past the rodeo grounds and back to the church. This would be the first of many events we would witness as part of the ten-day Virgin of Guadalupe celebration that was just beginning.

This festival, to commemorate the Patron of Mexico, is celebrated all over Latin America. Tepeyac, now part of Mexico City, was the place that the olive-skin virgin appeared to Juan Diego in the early 1500s and asked that a church be built in her honor in that location. Several miracles were performed before the Bishop believed the peasant and granted her request to build a church. Each year, more than 3 million people make a pilgrimage to the site. In the Yucatan Peninsula, young people, antorchistas, run relay style with a torch or pedal on bikes from their pueblo to one of the churches in the Peninsula dedicated to the Virgin and return home on the 12th of December. Each group of young pilgrims is followed by support vehicles adorned with lavishly decorated altars honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe. We saw the first sign of these young travelers on the outskirts of town.

Tizimin, the largest town in this part of the Peninsula, appears to be untouched by tourism. The church across from the zocalo was the center of activities on this Sunday afternoon. As we drove out of town, we saw another interesting site. Many screened-in green houses were growing the popular habanero peppers. Unfortunately, no tours were available as everything is closed down on Sundays.

46 Km from Río Lagartos, just past Tizimin, is the small town of Kikil. On the right side of the road is an ancient 16th century ruin of a Church and a huge ceiba tree opposite it. I had heard about this ruin and tree, but had no idea exactly where it was located and could not find anything about it online before we left. I was so excited that we stumbled upon it on our own. If you find this treasure, walk around to the back of the church and up the hill for a surprise … be careful not to fall in! We later found out that there was a cenote a block in front of the church. (Follow the road along the side of the mini-market for about 50 meters until you pass two large trees, and then turn right and go 20 meters and park.) It is possible to climb down the bank and swim in the fresh water. We stopped on our way back to check it out and take a photo.

    The road leading into Río Lagartos is lined with green and white planters filled with coconut palms and a large sign with flamingos welcoming visitors. We drove toward the malecon, or waterfront, turned left and proceeded a block or so toward the square light house. It was easy to find the Hotel Villa de Pescadores with its separate two and three-story buildings, restaurant and secure parking.

Paulino, one of the owners, was expecting us and checked us into our home-away-from-home. Our second-floor room with a balcony and view of the water, docks and seabirds was roomy, tastefully decorated and had great WiFi. We decided to just leave our things and get settled later, and went for a walk along the malecon towards the Ría Lagartos Reserva at the end of the road. This 150,000 acres of water and mangroves was set aside as a preserve in 1979. We passed many fishing boats and docks lined with seagulls, brown pelicans and cormorants. It was mid-afternoon, so the streets and waterfront were very quiet. There are palapa-covered picnic tables and wooden docks extending out into the ría that borders the mangroves. We suspected this was a very busy place during the summer season, but it was deserted this Sunday afternoon. We spotted a chapel off to the right down a short path into the mangroves. The chapel, with seats for a few dozen people, was festively decorated with flowers, candles, flags and banners, and again no one was around.

The reason, besides fly fishing, that tourists come to Río Lagartos is to see the largest pink flamingo population in Mexico that feeds on krill, or tiny shrimp-like invertebrates in the mangrove-lined canals.
   
We knew the Spanish word for river was "río" and the fact that there were no typical, above-ground rivers in the Yucatan Peninsula, but we were puzzled about the name of the town and the spelling or misspelling of "ría" in the name of the Reserve. Could it have been a misprint, which is not that uncommon for signage in Mexico? We soon discovered that rías are formations which are entries from the ocean to the coast, forming canals bordered by abundant aquatic vegetation called mangroves.
  
The pink flamingos are in Río Lagartos during the winter months to rest and feed on the krill in the red-tinted waters. They peacefully share this unique ecosystem with other migratory and local birds. The current record for birds sighted in the area is 388 and there are around 450 in the entire Yucatan Peninsula, so you can see why birdwatchers come to this area.
   
Another question we had that was answered on the boat tour was about whether there were any actual alligators in the mangroves or only crocodiles that are always pictured on posters and Web sites of the area. The one ancient-looking alligator our guide spotted sleeping in the sun at the edge of the water was so well camouflaged that we had to get very close in order to really see him.
   
Filipe, one of our hotel owners, connected us with a guide, Jesus, whom we made arrangements with to take us into the ría and return to see a sunset over the beach. We let him know what we were interested in seeing and he set the time and place to meet for the launch. (Prices range from 700 to 800 pesos, or about $75 for a private three- to four-hour tour. This is not per person, but per boat.)
   
Since we opted for the afternoon tour because the light was softer (not in our eyes the whole trip) and sunset would be included, we had a few hours to fill. Our hosts from the hotel, offered to take us across the mangroves by car to show us a new development, www.playakuka.com, named after the local kuka’ palm. Friends of ours had recently invested in several lots here. The sandy beach road was a bit rough but the cheerful yellow-flowering bushes full of tropical birds and the numerous black foxes darting across the road made for a nice morning.
   
There was much to learn about the area from Paulino and we soaked in his knowledge about the local bees and honey that is produced in the Yucatan Peninsula and sold all over the world. He also explained that in the winter, seaweed comes ashore on the Gulf beaches and the winds cause the water to look murky. He proudly said that in the spring and summer, the Gulf waters are crystal cleardefinitely the best time to visit the Gulf of Mexico’s beaches. On the way home, he pointed out a 2.5 Km nature trail that could be easily explored without a guide. We took note and put this on our mental agenda for the next day.
   
We met Jesus at 2 p.m. at the restaurant and boarded his little boat with a bright yellow roof tarp that would offer some protection from the sun. We noticed that none of the other boats had covered roofs. We were his only passengers on this leisurely tour into the bioreserve. The route from the docks was marked by buoys and a dozen other boats were also in the canals taking tours. At times the other boats were going very fast and creating waves that clearly disturbed the birds feeding along the shore. We commented to Jesus on this and he agreed it was not respectful. Early on in the tour we saw a few small crocs and the huge alligator that I mentioned earlier. Jesus pointed out bird species: osprey, cormorant, snowy egret, blue heron and white pelican along the way. We did not notice an assortment of other birds as we had expected to see, so perhaps the boat traffic was keeping them away or it was too early in the day.
   
The flamingos were feeding in small groups in the shallow flats at the end of the canal. They varied in color from light pink to brilliant pinkish-orange depending on how much krill they had eaten. We were surprised at how close our guide approached them, purposely coaxing them to fly for our benefit. Causing this type of stress to the flamingos during feeding can be very harmful to them.

Jesus asked if we wanted to go to the salt flats or the Mayan mud baths. I had my heart set on the clay experience and was not disappointed. This area is covered with soft white clay. Jesus docked the boat and we walked across the slippery surface. He stopped in a clean area and dug down for some soft clay and applied it to my face, hair, chest, arms and hands. I decided that I did not need to be covered on my lower body; enough is enough! Lou had the camera in his mud-free hands and snapped some amusing shots. Jesus explained that the clay protects your skin from the sun, cools by lowering your body temperature, and helps bring you into a very relaxing state. I was way too cold to really relax, but could see the value of this experience on a hot, hot summer day. He said that we could go to an area with fresh water to swim and wash the clay off, or I could sit on a little dock and he would rinse the clay off by pouring fresh water from a spring that was coming out of a pipe from below the ría surface. Because there was a chill in the air, I opted for the shower at the ojo de agua and it WAS very fresh and invigorating.
   
The sun was setting in the western sky as we pulled into the docks in front of Hotel Villa de Pescadores. We decided to have dinner at our hotel again tonight, but instead of the lobster we had the first night we ordered shrimp cooked in butter and garlic. While waiting for Elena to prepare our meal, Filipe, brought us some very special Lebanese appetizers. Again the seafood was accompanied by her uniquely delicious coconut rice, fresh Mediterranean salad and warm bread. We had brought a bottle of wine that had been chilling in their refrigerator, and it was a perfect accompaniment to the meal. The restaurant with windows facing the water is fresh and cheerful, but has more of a breakfast ambiance than that of a romantic dining venue. Both nights, we met up with a German couple also staying at the hotel and shared a glass of wine and tales from the road.
    
The next day we decided to head for the self-guided nature walk known as Peten Tucha that Paulino had pointed out yesterday off the road leading into the Reserve and to Las Coloradas. This turned out to be one of the highlights of our little vacation. There were a dozen hand-carved and painted signs in Spanish along the sandy or wooden paths leading through the mangroves that told the story of this important ecosystem. The four types of mangroves were explained as well as the flora and fauna that make a home in these wetlands. The temperature that day was mild and the air was fresh, and still. There were more than a few mosquitoes. In the wetter months this would be a haven for these pesky creatures, so always have your bug repellant nearby. We let our imaginations get carried away for a moment when we saw the sign describing the crocodiles that live in and around the cenote along the nature trail. We quickly passed without lingering to take too many photos and walked the 1½ Km back to our car.
   
We drove about 5 Km to the small town of Las Coloradas. Before you enter this company town, you pass large mounds of sea salt and a moving tram that was not operating at this time. Its purpose was to transport the salt to the ships that enter from the Gulf on the other side of the road. The salt is then transported to plants in Merida where it is processed and sold to stores around the world. The water surrounding the salt plant and the town has a rosy-red tinge that indicates that it is loaded with shrimp-like invertebrates, or krill. This food source is what the pink flamingos thrive on. The pueblo has only about 400 residents and some very impressive infrastructure, including a large newly constructed church, a huge baseball/football complex, schools, a beach pavilion and a few tiendas.
   
On the recommendation of our hosts, we decided to go to San Felipe, 9 Km west of Río Lagartos for lunch. Like Río Lagartos, San Felipe has an assortment of colorfully painted wood and cement homes (look for my photo essay next month on the facades of RL and SF). It has a picturesque feel as you pass the beautifully decorated cemetery and drive toward the malecon. There is one two-star hotel and a few hostels, and an assortment of restaurants along the malecon serving mainly seafood. We walked around town, had lunch and headed back to Río Lagartos in time for sunset from the hotel’s third-floor deck.
   
We discovered on our last night that in the 1500s the little fishing village of Río Lagartos was known as Hol’koben. This name is now used for the seafood processing plant that is located on the malecon. When I think back about our road trip to RL, I would recommend following in our footsteps if you are a nature lover and like exploring out of the way spots with a friendly local feeling. ¡Buen viaje!

Mari Pintkowski and her husband, Lou, own and operate one of the top-rated B&B’s in the Tulum area www.laselvamariposa.com. Read more of Mari’s stories on Sac-be.com or find her books on www.amazon.com. (Embarking on the Mariposa Trail, Molly the Gecko Hunter, and Shifting Gears, A Journey of Reinvention)
   
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Mari Pintkowski Flamingo