Rio Lagartos Flamingos and Las Coloradas

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What if I told you that there was one location on Earth where you could see both flamingos in the wild AND otherworldly pink lakes? It’s in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula in the city of Rio Lagartos and the nearby Las Coloradas. So dye your hair pink, grab your tutu, and lemme give you all the details on how to see pink flamingos in Mexico with bonus pink lakes!

Haphazard Rating for Río Lagartos and Las Coloradas: 2 of 5.
Get There: Fly into Cancun and drive. Or, book a day trip from Valladolid.
To See/Do: Boat excursions to see flamingos, crocodiles, assorted shore birds; sport fishing tours; plus the amazing pink waters of Las Coloradas.
To Eat: Lunch or dinner at Río Lagartos Adventures, overlooking the bay.
When to Go: The best time of year to see flamingos in Mexico is breeding season, March – June.  I went in October and there were around 30-40 flamingos in the bay, with more in the distance at the Las Coloradas salt flats.  To see the Las Coloradas lakes at their most pink, I found one source that said to visit in March and July-August.

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Visiting Rio Lagartos Flamingos & Las Coloradas pink lakes

Where are Río Lagartos and Las Coloradas?

Río Lagartos is a sleepy fishing town in the state of Yucatán, Mexico, about 65 miles (105km) north of the city of Valladolid. The closest airports are in Cancun and Mérida. Río Lagartos means “alligator river” and is located at a lagoon, the Ría Lagartos, which is part of a natural reserve. This makes it a perfect habitat for wild birds, including flamingos. It’s also a popular spot for sport fishing. Las Coloradas is about 10 miles east of here – just follow along the beach road from Río Lagartos (16km).

Rio Lagartos and Las Coloradas Mexico map
Mexico’s Yucatan has two flamingo spotting spots: Celestun Reserve and Río Lagartos!

Places to Mingle with Flamingos in the Wild

There are a few well-down flamingo-watching destinations across the globe:

  • Aruba: The Renaissance Private Island Hotel, but you have to stay at the hotel to use their beach and hang with the birds
  • Bolivia: Salar de Uyuni, where travelers hope to catch flamingos mirrored against the glass-like surface of the salt flat pools
  • Kenya: Rift Valley lakes

In Mexico, there are two places where you can see flamingos:

  • Mexico: Celestún Biosphere Reserve near Mérida, on the western coast of the Yucatán
  • Mexico: Río Lagartos, a town on the northern point of the Yucatán in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve

Celestún or Rio Lagartos?

If you’re visiting Mérida already, it makes more sense to make a stop or a day trip to Celestún. But it is more remote, and there’s not much to do there. Río Lagartos can be seen on a day trip from Valladolid or even Tulum.

I had a hard time deciding between Río Lagartos and Celestún since I was visiting both Mérida and Valladolid. In the end, I decided Río Lagartos fit into my trip better and it’s closer to more of the tourist areas.  Plus once I figured out I could add on Las Coloradas, it was an easy choice.

Flamingo Season in Río Lagartos

The best time to visit Río Lagartos for flamingo season is March – June, since spring and early summer are breeding season. Flamingos are present all year, but expect to see significantly more during this time.

I visited in October and there were around 30-40 flamingos in the bay, with more in the distance at the Las Coloradas salt flats. 

My guide actually promised MILLIONS if I would return in spring, which honestly sounded a little scary! In any case, expect to see a lot in the March – June time frame, including hatchlings.

The Las Coloradas lakes are always pink, but I found a source online that said the best time to visit Las Coloradas is in March and then again in July-August for “peak pink,” due to the timing of the evaporation process.

Getting There: Ruta Flamingo

Day tours to either Celestun or Río Lagartos can be arranged with tour operators from cities across the Yucatán. Walking around Merida, Cancun, and other cities, I saw tour operators offering day trips. You can easily take a trip from Valladolid to Las Coloradas or even Tulum to Las Coloradas. Because I had rented a car, I opted to drive from Valladolid and make a day of it. There are hotels in Río Lagartos if you want to spend a few days fishing, birdwatching, or relaxing on the nearby beaches.

The best part of getting there was seeing highway signs that said “RUTA FLAMINGO.” (I would totally pay for this on a shirt, by the way.)

Driving in Mexico - Ruta Flamingo
This way to ridiculous pink birds!

You can also take a bus from Merida, Valladolid and other cities to Tizimin; then take a connecting bus or collectivo van to Río Lagartos. Find out more here:

IMPORTANT: Some of he day trips I saw from other cities didn’t include time for an outing to Las Coloradas other than the quick view you get from where the boats let you go ashore. Be sure to ask when you book.

If you’re driving, the map shows it’s only one road – Highway 295. In Mexico, though, highways turn into small town roads. If you drive, be careful when you get to Tizimin and watch for signs: the highway became a one-way street. Local residents seem pretty used to flagging down tourists because each time someone alerted me, and I was able to make a quick U-turn!

It took me at least 2 hours to get there and 2.5 to get back. I wouldn’t want to drive on that road at night, so either leave yourself time, or plan to stay overnight in Río Lagartos.  Also watch out for trucks carrying large equipment for the salt factory in Las Coloradas.

If you think you might rent a car, read my post on driving in Mexico.

Great egret at Ria Lagartos Biosphere
A great egret in the Ria Lagartos Nature Preserve

Río Lagartos Tours (Or How to Hire a Boat)

When you reach the town of Río Lagartos, you’ll see signs for Río Lagartos Adventures.  I tried to book online before my trip, didn’t get a reply to my messages. So I showed up and hoped for the best, and it worked out just fine.

You can also hire a boat at the docks for a tour. If you check TripAdvisor, too, some travelers have posted contact info for their guides. Tours were around $110-140 per boat depending on the length of the tour.

I lucked out with Río Lagartos Adventures and was able to join a couple on their excursion, so I paid only around $40. Other travelers on TripAdvisor report being able to match up with groups at the dock. I would go early if you’re counting on this option in case it takes time – particularly if you need a tour in English.

Where to Spot the Flamingos

On the tour, I was surprised to see that the flamingos were right in the bay just a few minutes from docks!  We also saw some off in the distance at Las Coloradas. The guides were careful not to get too close to the flamingos and disturb them, so it helps if you have a zoom lens or camera with a digital zoom. My photos were taken with a 200mm lens, and I still wished we could have gotten closer.  

Rio Lagartos Flamingos
A pair of flamingos – did you know that what looks like their knee is really their ankle? That’s why it’s so bendy. Their knee is hidden under their feathers!
Rio Lagartos Flamingos
More trivia: Did you know a group of flamingos is called a flamboyance?
American Flamingos a Rio Lagartos
There are six types of flamingos. Those found in Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve are American flamingos.

Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve

If you’re a bird-lover, consider taking a longer tour of the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Here you’ll find mangrove estuaries and wetlands that are home to vulnerable and endangered plant and animal species. The beaches are also a nesting zone for marine turtles, including the hawksbill and green sea turtles.

Our guide got us up-close with a crocodile and several shore birds including cormorants, egrets, and a common black hawk.

Rio Lagartos means alligator river
Did you know that you can tell an alligator from a crocodile by if they see you later, or after while? #dadjokesbadjokes

El Baño Maya

On the return trip, the boats usually stop so that you can enjoy a Mayan mudbath.  It reportedly has healing properties here!  It’s funny to see boatloads of tourists returning slathered in mud.  Our guide gave us a chance to stop at a beach before returning to the docks, so we could paddle around a bit and wash off.

What makes the Las Coloradas Lakes Turn Pink?

Mexico’s Las Coloradas pink lakes are a landscape practically meant for Instagram. Its lakes are actually salt flats from the nearby salt extraction plant. The algae in the water, coupled with the sun and extraction process, turn the waters bright pink. Its colors are reportedly best in July-August and March, due to the 6-month evaporation process.

On a boat tour, you can see Las Coloradas from the waters of the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Preserve. We saw some flamingos in the distance and I collected feathers for a photo. But the best views of the water are from the other side, by the salt extraction plant.

Rio Lagartos Flamingos and Las Coloradas
The view of Las Coloradas from the boat excursion
A flamingo feather from Las Coloradas
Be sure to collect feathers! Not when attached to birds though 🙂
Flamingos at the salt flats
Flamingos in the distance at the salt flats

Getting to Las Coloradas from Río Lagartos

If you drive or take a taxi to Las Coloradas, you’ll follow a road that stretches along the northern Yucatán coastline. I took a quick peek at the beaches, and they looked deserted and pristine. I’ll definitely be spending some time there on my next trip!

Follow this the road until you pass the salt extraction plant. Then you’ll start to see the salt ponds. Keep driving until you see a small town up ahead and signs for the protected area. A wide turn-off on the right allows you to drive between the bright pink lakes and get close to the water.

Can You Swim in Las Coloradas?

Unfortunately, not any longer. Swimming at Las Coloradas is now prohibited, and you’ll see a lot of signs posted to remind you. Technically, the salt flats are private property, so you definitely need to respect the rules. There are security guards on motorcycles patrolling the area, and even some guys offering tours, but they were all friendly.

A warning: the salt flats themselves are an industrial area. You’ll be able to get photos of the pink sand beach and rose-colored water, but you might have to position yourself to avoid some power lines and trash! (Yes, really.)

Why You Should Visit

If you have a tattoo that says “FLAMINGOS 4-EVER,” you pretty much have to go. Or a shirt that says “Ruta Flamingo.”

OK, but really, Río Lagartos and Las Coloradas are destinations that still aren’t on a lot of travelers’ radars.  If you’re a nature lover or photographer, or if you’re looking for unique day trips in the Mexico’s Yucatán, I think a trip to see the Las Coloradas flamingos should be on your list!

Where to Stay in Rio Lagartos

Hotel Rio Lagartos - Where to Stay in Rio Lagartos
Villa Nirvana Blue - Where to stay in Rio Lagartos
Villa Ríaluz - Where to Stay in Rio Lagartos

Río Lagartos Flamingos and Las Coloradas Resource Links

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Rio Lagartos Flamingos & Las Coloradas Pink Lakes

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