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Less than two hours from Merida, the capital of Mexico’s Yucatan state, is the Celestun Biosphere, a protected reserve brimming with winter migrating birds. Far from Cancun’s crowded beaches and ruins, Celestun is a relatively undiscovered luxury wildlife retreat, with fantastic bird watching opportunities and environmentally focused luxury lodging.

The reserve
Spanning two states and 146,000 acres, the biosphere is home to mangrove forests, crocodiles and more than 300 bird species. Awarded protected status in 1979, the biosphere’s main attraction is the colony of flamingos that end their winter migration on its muddy salt flats. The best time to visit is during the winter months between November and March, but small numbers of flamingos can be seen year round.

The heart of the reserve is a wide saltwater estuary that winds past small, shrubby islands on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Guided boat trips can be picked up in Celestun, and immediately, kingfishers, cormorants, hummingbirds and pelicans can be spotted on all sides. Farther upstream, the horizon turns pink and the boat punts towards hundreds of squawking flamingos, hopping in and out of the water as they forage for lunch or fly off to the riverbanks.

The estuary waters are cloudy from sediment, but as soon as the boat swerves off into the undergrowth of the surrounding mangrove forest, you can see right to the bottom of the riverbed. The water is full of darting and jumping fish, and the mangrove roots -- some the height of a double-decker bus -- tower over the boat. After the wide-open water of the estuary, the mangrove forest feels eerie and magical. Park authorities built a raised walkway through the forest, so you can leave the boat and wander through the trees or go for a dip in one of the freshwater springs.

Back on board, the boat speeds down the estuary until it reaches the biosphere’s border with Campeche state, for a short stop at a petrified island. The water table rose several years ago completely flooding the island and the incoming saltwater killed off the trees. Set against successful replanting of low-lying bushes, the dead and brittle trees are strangely beautiful.

The boat tour takes between two to four hours and the guides, available in English or Spanish, make great efforts to point out all of the birds -- and lurking crocodiles -- along the way.

Accommodation
There are a few lodging options in the area, such as the Manglares and Sol y Mar hotels, but neither matches up to the Eco Paraiso hotel in terms of luxury or environmental credentials.

The Eco Paraiso hotel is a cluster of luxury bungalows arranged along a virgin beach, with each room discreetly spaced to ensure maximum privacy for the hotel’s guests. The key to this hotel is its combination of genuine luxury with a serious commitment to leave no trace.

The bungalows are built with traditional thatch palapa roofs and all water is drawn from a local saltwater well that is treated using non-chemical processes. Wastewater is reused for watering the gardens and a rigorous recycling program ensures that only three bags of rubbish are sent to the local dump each week. The bungalows are also built one low-rising dune back from the sea so that the sea turtles still have a place to come and hatch their eggs between April and June.

Kitted out with four-poster beds, a private terrace with a hammock big enough for two and a plunge pool overlooking the sea, the outside world is suitably far away. In the afternoon, coffee and cake is left in a hatch next to your front door and, without internet, television or phone signal, there is not much more to do than watch the sun set from your terrace.

A short hop from the bungalow is 5km of deserted beach. No matter where you stay in Celestun, the beaches are practically empty, apart from the odd pelican, and the waters are calm and shallow.

The hotel restaurant sources the majority of its food locally and serves up traditional Yucatan food with an incredible amount of skill. A highlight is the fish marinated in axiote, a burnt orange coloured spice from the lipstick tree, all slow cooked with nopales (cactus) in a banana leaf. A delicious end to a perfect day with the birds.

 

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