The Mexican Road Trip Rolls On – Part 2
We started our Mexican road trip in the beach town of Puerto Morelos, where we made a side trip to Tulum. My, how Tulum has grown since we were last there about 20 years ago.
From there, a one-day stop in Mexico’s “Yellow City” of Izamal, before our week in Mérida at our amazing Airbnb house. Nothing like a private pool in a warm city. And then we were off to the land of flamingos…
Celestún: A Complete Change of Pace at the End of the Road
We like “end-of-the-road” towns. They just have a different vibe to them. Often times the rules seem relaxed, or the locals just live by their own code.
They’re not all the same though. For example, Key West, Florida with its outlaw, late night gay party town atmosphere is completely different from Boca Grande, Florida, an old-school hideout for the Vanderbilt’s and their pals with private trains. We’ve also been to Tofino, on Vancouver Island’s wild Pacific Coast. There it’s big wave storm surfing, fresh fish and forest foraging where the pavement stops.
Slow Down… You’re in Celestún
And then there’s Celestún. Lonely Planet describes Celestún as “a sleepy sun-scorched fishing village that moves at a turtle’s pace…” That’s about right.
The town is surrounded by water – the Caribbean beaches on one side and the wild swampy jungle of the Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Celestún on the other.
If you were looking to Celestún for a full-service big-hotel resort action, this isn’t it. It’s much more relaxed, small town. Most locals use bicycles, mopeds or hire the ubiquitous moto-taxis to get around. Dining is very casual.
On our Mexican road trip, this was the second town with no banks, just two ATMs, but we were ready with pesos. It will be helpful to know a few words of Spanish because, once again, you’re in a small village, so only a few people speak English. Some menus are in multiple languages, but not often.
Our Celestún Guest House
We had booked at Castillito Kin-Nah, a comfortable little guest house on the beach at the north end of town. It was operated by Frank, originally a German guy who had a building supply company in Germany, then moved to New Brunswick, Canada where he had a dairy farm, and then down to Celestún to operate this guest house. You could only guess at the stories about such radical life changes, but we didn’t ask.
The room at Castillito Kin-Nah was on the second floor, overlooking the pool and the beach. The bed was comfortable, the shower was great, the WIFI worked best on the balcony and the sound of the surf at night was just perfect.
Number One Celestún Sport – Beach Walking
There are a few reasons to visit Celestún – the beaches, the fresh fish in the restaurants, the salt flats and of course, the flamingos. The beaches roll on for a couple of kilometers. At this time of year, it was best to go swimming in the morning when the water was calm. In the afternoon, the north winds picked up and there was a real chop on the ocean.
Walk down the beach and you’ll come by most of the popular restaurants in town. You’ll also find the craft sales, set up on tables, usually near any of the restaurants.
Down at the south end of the beach by the pier was the second leaning lighthouse we saw on this trip (the first was in Puerto Morelos).
The Surreal Celestún Salt Flats
We had heard about the salt flats and they were close to our guest house and part of the Biosphere. Driving down an unmarked dirt road, we found them. White pinkish salt, covered by thin sheets of water stretched on for maybe a kilometre. The heat shimmering over the flats was like a scene out of a movie.
The only salt harvesting we saw was very small scale – four guys with a truck, big buckets and shovels.
We read that these same salt flats have used for hundreds of years going back to the Maya who traded it for other goods. Celestún was one of only two places in the Yucatan where salt was so readily available, and apparently, Celestún salt was and perhaps still is prized for its taste and texture. We should have filled a jar…
All Those Pretty Flamingos
Seeing thousands of flamingos is the reason Celestún was included in our Mexican road trip.
To get close to the flamingos, you have two choices for hiring a guide and a boat. If you’re on the beach, you’ll see guys walking along looking for customers for their boats which are outfitted with eight seats. They’ll take you from the beach and it’s the cheapest way to go.
But there are caveats. You’re going to sit around waiting until your captain rounds up eight customers, and once that’s done, it’s an extra hour from the beach around the harbour into the Biosphere. If the water is choppy, and the sun is hot, you might not enjoy that so much.
The more deluxe way is to take the road out of town (there’s only one – it’s the one you came in on) and head for the bridge that crosses the river. There, you’ll find a parking lot for the more “official” tours where you buy tourist-department-approved tickets at an office.
They were $600M each (about $32 USD). For us, it was worth it.
Right away, we were greeted by Captain Manuel, helped into his flat-bottomed boat and were off. No waiting, just the two of us.
Within 15 minutes, we were in the midst of thousands of flamingos standing in the shallow water. Captain Manuel turned off the engine and let the boat drift so we could take all the photos we wanted. Then he’d re-start and move a bit so we could get different angles.
It’s hard to explain the attraction, but there’s something so exotic about these birds that you just want to absorb the sight. By the way, why are the flamingos that pink-orange colour? From all the shrimp larvae they eat. True.
After we’d looked all we could (how much more can you look at all the flamingos?), Captain Manuel took us through the mangroves, and then back to the dock. A great trip!
Eating in Celestún
By the time we got back, it was time for lunch. There are actually a surprising number of restaurants for such a small town. We had discovered that the best spot for breakfast was The Dolphin, on the beach side of the Hotel Gutiérrez, right downtown. It only opened at 8:30 a.m. and had people lining up to get in. By 9, you’d have to wait for a table.
Lunch and dinner was best at Los Pampanos where the fried fish and ceviche were both fresh and delicious.
For snacks, we found vendors around the square and in the mercado building. We had crepes from a cart on the square – wonderful! – and the best fresh squeezed orange juice from a stand in the back of the mercado.
Celestún Tips – Monday Closings and the Hidden Gas Station
If you’re in Celestún on a Monday, note that many of the restaurants, like the Dolphin, are closed.
And if you’re on a Mexican road trip, you’ll want to fill up on gas before leaving town since it’s a long way to anywhere from Celestún. You’d expect a gas station on the main road leading in and out, but you’d be wrong. The one gas station in town is by the harbour which isn’t right downtown.
To get there, go south down the main street of Calle 12 until it turns into a bumpy mostly dirt road. You’ll soon see fishing boats in front of you. At the Y intersection, turn left and you’ll find the gas station. It’s there mainly to serve the fishermen. As I said, this isn’t a typical tourist town.
Is Celestún for You?
You’ll like Celestún if you’re looking for:
- A place to chill
- A quiet town for walking, swimming, reading and photography
- Simple, casual meals with lots of fresh fish
- A unique nature show – all those flamingos
- An inexpensive sunny place to retire – they’re building homes and communities along the coast
The Mexican Road Trip Continues South to Campeche
Campeche is a typical colonial Spanish-style city in the Yucatan and the region’s second largest city after Mérida. If Mexicans are friendly, and they are, Campechanos pride themselves on being super-friendly and welcoming to visitors.
When the Spanish came in 1540, it was a Mayan village of Can-Pech. With a good natural harbor, it soon became a strategic site for goods leaving the Yucatan region on their way to Spain.
And that, unfortunately, meant it was a target for ongoing pirate attacks. After one particularly brutal assault in 1663, the town’s leaders besieged the King of Spain to build walls and forts for protection.
The massive walls, which are 26 feet high and run for over 8,400 feet, took 18 years to build and were completed in 1704. Today, you can walk along to top with great views of the town.
Campeche Not Yet on Many Tourist Maps
It takes some effort to get to Campeche, and so it hasn’t been invaded by mass tourism. Which, actually, is quite nice. In fact, of the tourists we saw, many were European, particularly French. We had noticed the same in Mérida too.
In order to attract more visitors, Campeche seems to support a local re-vitalization program where houses are being fixed up and painted a rainbow of pastel colors. It’s a magnet for photographers.
Overall, it’s a beautiful city, built on a grid with many squares, generally dominated by a church on one side and shops around a central park. The main square is Parque Principal with the city’s cathedral on the east side and elegant arcades on the other sides.
In the Centro area, there are also a few pedestrian-only streets, which were decked out with restaurant tables for lunch and dinner.
For us, Campeche was a somewhat marred by the one unfortunate hotel choice of our road trip. Although overall, the H177 Hotel gets great reviews, is centrally located and has a helpful staff, when we got there, the rooms had recently been fumigated.
The windows don’t open and even with a fan and AC running, we felt like we were just recirculating the same air. We only had two nights there, and then moved to the Hotel Plaza Colonial near the cathedral. Much better!
An Excellent Café Does Wonders
Wherever we go, especially on longer trips, we look for a café with a chill vibe, great coffee and food where we can just relax and refuel. A block away from the H177 Hotel was the Luan Café at the corner of Calle 14 and 59.
This became our breakfast spot, even after we had moved to our second hotel a few blocks away. It’s worth finding if you’re in the Centro area of Campeche.
Getting Sick In Mexico
We’re usually pretty healthy (touch wood), but Marlene had developed a severe reaction to sand flea bites back in Celestún which showed up when we got to Campeche. Nasty red dots on her legs, headaches, an upset stomach that wouldn’t go away. It wasn’t pretty.
When we got to the Hotel Plaza Colonial, it became obvious that this required medical attention. I went downstairs and asked whether it would be possible to get a doctor to come to the hotel.
“Yes, of course.”
Within an hour and a half, a young doctor came to the room, did an examination, and wrote three prescriptions.
If there was a good side to all of this, it was that the doctor’s fee was $400M (about $21 USD) and the prescriptions came to $256M ($13.65 USD). Within two days, everything was better, just as the doctor said it would be.
We felt lucky this time. But it did make us think of the value of our travel insurance. We didn’t bother with our insurance for this, but it was good knowing we’d be covered if it was anything more serious. BTW, we get travel insurance for all of our trips. You just never know. Here’s one of the most popular insurance companies designed specifically for travellers.
Mayan Museums in Campeche
We went to two museums in Campeche. The Museo Arqueológico de Campeche is at the colonial fort, 4 kilometers southwest of the city. It has a substantial number of Mayan stellae, figurines and jade burial masks from the nearby Mayan sites of Calakmul, Edzná, and from Isla de Jaina.
Built into the wall protecting the city, you’ll find the Museo de la Arquitectura Maya. As the name suggests, it focuses on architecture of the Mayan sites near Campeche, with displays that help decipher the Mayan hieroglyphics. Helpfully for us, these were in Spanish and English.
Is Campeche for You?
You’ll like Campeche if you’re looking for:
- A unique Spanish city in the Yucatan, the only one with extensive walls and forts
- A city not yet over run by tourists, but very visitor friendly
- Excellent local museums – there are also others that we didn’t have time to see this time but sounded interesting
- A good variety of restaurants from very casual to more formal with well-chosen wine lists, focused on bottles from Chile and Argentina
Here is Part 3 of our Mexican road trip where we visit five Mayan sites centered around Uxmal and try to understand what happened to one of the world’s great civilizations.
Planning Your Mexico Road Trip
With all of the information on the Internet, we still like to have a guide book as reference. Our favorites are the Lonely Planet books. Have a look at the Lonely Planet Mexico books here. They’re available both hardcover and digital.
If you’re planning on staying Airbnb for the first time, click here to take advantage of our special discount which gives you the equivalent of $50 CDN off your first visit.
If you’re planning to stay in a hotel, look here for up to date best prices for hotels in Campeche.
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