Rio Lagartos is a small village perched on the shores of mangrove-lined lagoon that holds special appeal for bird-watchers and wildlife photographers. In this tranquil village at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, there is a relaxed vibe and abundant nature. Rio Lagartos offers an opportunity to get a glimpse into the lifestyle of a sleepy, rural fishing community.
The Yucatan Peninsula is a draw for many because of its warmth and beaches. Yet there's more to the Yucatan's cultural landscape than the Riveria Maya's Caribbean coastline. The wetlands area of Ria Lagartos is on the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, and along the Gulf of Mexico; Cuba is about 90 miles offshore.
Rio Lagartos is a straight shot north from Valladolid on the two-lane route 295 and takes about 90 minutes. Designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2004, this 233-square mile ecosphere is a bird-watchers paradise. It also offers an up-close view of creatures such as the Caribbean pink flamingo and the endangered Hawksbill sea turtle.
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Rio Lagartos | The Back Story
If you take a boat for a Rio Lagartos tour, you'll also spot crocodiles, happily from a safe distance! Rio Lagartos means "estuary of the lizard." The area was given this name in 1517 by a soldier accompanying Spanish explorer Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba. Cordoba's expedition marked the European discovery of the Yucatan and, in fact, Mexico. According to an amusing story, when the Spanish asked the indigenous people the name of the area, the response they got, was Yucatán, meaning "I don't understand you;" the rest is history.
Lay of the Land
Rio Lagartos's population is about 2,000 and the town consists of several blocks of buildings painted in cheerful colors. The main street runs along the waterfront. On one side are a few restaurants and on the other, a fleet of small fishing and tour boats tied up. My first glimpse of the indigenous wildlife was the big-billed, comical-looking brown pelicans perched on the bows of the boats. While they seemed as common as seagulls, they were actually listed as endangered in North America in 1970.
Local fishermen supplement their income by offering tours through the saltwater wetlands lined with mangroves and home to 333 species of birds, about half of which are migratory. I spent two hours out on the water, where the skipper's familiarity with the habitat enabled me to see numerous species I would never have noticed: snowy egrets; frigates; stork; kingfishers; and peregrine falcon.
UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
Cristobal Enrique Caceres G. Canton, the Director of Ria Lagartos UNESCO Biosphere Reserve explained to me that many species that call the area home were endangered and, thanks to protective efforts, the populations of a number of species have been stabilized. Cristobal explained the factors that impacted the environment and protective measures have been taken.
“Some of the species are in the endangered category because of loss of habitat,” he said. “This is caused by natural causes as well as manmade ones. Among those include urban growth of villages, deforestation for cattle ranching, and loss of forest habitat that reduces bird populations. Promoting the conservation of natural resources in the reserve, especially in central zones, depends on programs of inspection and vigilance. Environmental education and diversification of production reduces the stresses and risks from manmade environmental degradation.”
“In the biosphere we’re taking measures to mitigate the effects of climate change. In the ANP we have a program to counter forest fires. We’ve implemented this program year after to prevent and control these incidents,” he continued. “Similarly, we promote sustainable projects in the community to reduce consumption of resources, restore bodies of water, and monitor wildlife.”
The undisputed star attraction is the Caribbean pink flamingo. Normally merely tinged with hints of rose, the flamingos here take on a much deeper pink hue because of algae that thrive in the high saline level of the brackish water. The flamingos feed on these organisms and the pigment means that coloring really pops!
Cristobal explained what creates the intensely vivid colors of the birds.
“One of the principles responsible for the coloration of the pink water is the algae Dunaliella salina that produces a large amount of carotenoid substances,” he said. “These algae live in areas of high saltwater, as halophiles, and their principal diet are small crustaceans that they find in the water called Artemia Salina. To have a large concentration of artemia salina in the water intensifies the color of these. These crustaceans and algae are prey for other species of birds such as the pink flamingo and some species of fish.”
Community and Conservation
Cristobal pointed out that Ria Lagartos is not just a habitat for exotic species--it is a place that generations have called home. Yet even residents with deep roots in the area need to be attuned to the changing environment.
“Local communities participate actively in areas of conservation, strategic direction, administration, investigation, education, and leading the economic development and conservation of the biosphere,” he said. "The work that is done is to teach the inhabitants of these communities the management of natural resources in a sustainable way as well as the development of tourist activities that would be in an organized manner, and finally to participate in the development of a sustainable economy and environment.”
While change needs management, long-standing traditions also need to be nurtured.
Cristobal explained that every 25th of July, the community hold festivals in honor of the patron saint of the village, Santiago Apóstol. It begins days before with masses, prayers, processions, rodeos, saint’s celebrations, and bullfighting. For the celebrations for any saint or the day of the dead, residents put an altar in the most important place in the house. There, they offer to the dead food that they liked most and the traditional Mucbil chicken, accompanied by atole made with fresh corn, and water mixed with chocolate. In the regional festivals, the inhabitants dance jaranas and hold competitions between the participants.
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