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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!
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Haphazard Rating for Rio Lagartos and Las Coloradas: 2 of 5.
Get There: Fly into Cancun and drive. Or, book a Rio Lagartos tour from Valladolid, Merida, Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or other cities in the Yucatan.
To See/Do: Boat excursions to see flamingos, crocodiles, assorted shore birds of the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve; sport fishing tours; plus the amazing pink waters of Las Coloradas.
When to Go: Flamingo season in Rio Lagartos 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. To see the Las Coloradas lakes at their most pink, I found one source that said to visit in March and July-August.
Where are Rio Lagartos and Las Coloradas?
Rio Lagartos, Yucatan 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 Merida. Rio Lagartos means “alligator river” and is located at a lagoon, the Ria 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).
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: Celestun Biosphere Reserve near Mérida, on the western coast of the Yucatan
- Mexico: Rio Lagartos, a town on the northern point of the Yucatan in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve
Celestun or Rio Lagartos?
If you’re visiting Merida already, it makes more sense to make a stop or a day trip to Celestun. But it is more remote, and there’s not much to do there. Rio Lagartos can be seen on a day trip from Valladolid or even Tulum.
I had a hard time deciding between Rio Lagartos and Celestún since I was visiting both Mérida and Valladolid. In the end, I decided Rio 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 Rio Lagartos
Flamingo season in Rio Lagartos 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 promised MILLIONS of flamingos 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 Rio Lagartos can be arranged with tour operators from cities across the Yucatán. You can easily take a trip from Valladolid to Las Coloradas or even Tulum to Las Coloradas. Check out these options:
- Day tour from Cancun to Rio Lagartos, Las Coloradas and Ek Balam
- Day trip from Cancun or Playa del Carmen to Rio Lagartos, Las Coloradas and Cenote Palomitas
- Day tour from Merida to Rio Lagartos and Las Coloradas
Because I had rented a car, I opted to drive from Valladolid and make a day of it. There are hotels in Rio 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.)
You can also take a bus from Merida, Valladolid and other cities to Tizimin; then take a connecting bus or collectivo van to Rio Lagartos. Find out more here:
IMPORTANT: Some of he day trips from other cities don’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. Or consider booking a private tour which you might be able to customize.
Driving to Rio Lagartos & Las Coloradas
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.
Rio Lagartos Tours (Or How to Hire a Boat from the Docks)
When you reach the town of Rio 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 Rio 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.
Photographing 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.
Ria 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 Ria Lagartos 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.
El Baño Maya
On the return trip, the boats usually stop so that you can enjoy a Mayan mudbath at el Bano Maya! 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.
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
Rio Lagartos Flamingos and Las Coloradas Resource Links
- Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve
- Facts about flamingos from LiveScience.com
- Find more info about Rio Lagartos tours and sport fishing trips
Search More Rio Lagartos Hotels
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