Without question, this little trip was one of the highlights of my Mexican travels. First a little clarification regarding the rather treacherous name. Rio Lagartos (Spanish for “Alligator River”) is a small fishing village in the Northern shore of the Yucatan peninsula; Ria Lagartos however refers to the estuary (ria is Spanish for “estuary”) the town is located at. According to Lonely Planet, the Maya called the place Holkobén and used it as a rest stop before continuing their journey east on the water. Spanish explorers mistook the narrowing of the ría (estuary) for a río (river) and the crocodiles for alligators, hence the confusion in the name.
It would be demeaning to simply call Ria Lagartos an estuary. Taking a boat ride to the east is simply breathtaking. Lined by mangroves several meters high on either sides, the lagoon is part of a nature reserve that gives home to over 300 different species of birds; herons, ibises, pelicans and flamingos among others. This area also serves as a refuge for one of the largest populations of pink flamingos on the planet. Undoubtedly what attracts most tourists here and why we decided to visit. It takes about an hour to reach to the flamingos’ habitat. But that hour spent on water is anything but boring. You can spot other species, like an occasional crocodile, or a cucaracha del mar (Spanish for cockroach of the sea, also known as chiton), which looks like a living fossil; rare, but supposedly quite delicious.
After visiting the flamingos you can make a quick stop at Las Coloradas, a salt mine. This shallow part of the estuary is so rich in salt that it creates a buoyancy effect, having you floating on the surface without effort. After your swim, it’s time for your spa treatment. On the way back your guide will take you to a place where you can take a Mayan “mud bath”. Close to the shore you can dig down and scoop out some of the white clay, which is completely odourless (make sure you don’t take any from the surface), full of essential minerals and salts, with excellent exfoliating properties. Apply it to your face and body with confident motions and let it dry. The clay will leave your skin smooth for days. The Mayans used is as a sunblock when working in the scorching sun all day.
When I think of me sitting in the boat in my bikini on the way back to the village, cold and hungry, covered in white mud that rendered a perpetual smile on my face as it dried, I realise how silly I must have looked. Taking a skyclad shower in the harbour after nightfall and running to the car in nothing but our towels to fetch dry clothes just added to the silliness. But in that moment, I couldn’t care less what anybody was thinking…
If you decide to embark on this little journey, here are my tips:
- Have a change of clothing with you (including a long sleeve shirt or light sweater) that you don’t mind getting wet or muddy. You will most likely take a swim at Las Coloradas (I would’t miss it if I were you), you will probably also try the clay and smear it all over yourself (it works wonders with the skin), so there is a good chance you will be chilly sitting on the boat on the way back.
- Keep your valuables in a waterproof bag. The boat ride is less than smooth. You could even call it bumpy at times (if you encounter traffic going the opposite direction, which you will). Getting in and out of the boat can also be messy and water collects on the bottom. You don’t want to get your camera wet. Not to mention your passport…
- Make sure you don’t disturb the wildlife. Ask your guide not to drive too close to the birds’ nesting grounds, or they will be scared into a flight. That eventually will result in them not feeling safe in the habitat and leaving the area for good. Also refrain from using harsh cosmetics before your trip: use biodegradable sunblock and no lotion or perfume. The chemicals in your cosmetics can effect the delicate balance of the habitat. You will also benefit more from your clay treatment that way.
- Prepare some food for after the trip. There are very few shops in the village, no restaurants or hotels, so think ahead, because I guarantee you will be hungry by the time you get back.
- Have enough cash on your person. We only learned about this later, but there are no ATMs in the village. The guides only accept cash. The standard boat ride is 700 pesos (for a boat that fits 4).
- Pick the afternoon for the trip. The sun will be behind you when you set out, and you can catch the sun setting behind the village on the way back, which allows for the most amazing pictures. Keep in mind that the standard boat ride takes about 2-2,5 hours. For a little extra cash your guide will show you some of the local wildlife and allow you to spend a little more time on the water.