Quietly situated on the northeast coast of Mexico’s Yucatán state lies quite possibly the region’s very best-kept secret: Río Lagartos. This sleepy fishing village flies so under-the-radar that we ourselves barely knew about it until we started researching how to visit Las Coloradas – home of the nearby, insta-famous pink lake. Which, as we discovered, is only one of many reasons to visit this stunning and diverse region.
First, let’s break down what’s what in the area. Río Lagartos is a tiny fishing village that’s part of the surrounding Biosfera Ría Lagartos: a UNESCO-protected biosphere reserve. This vast wetland region is home to a wide range of ecosystems and wildlife, from mangroves, marshes and otherworldly dunes to crocodiles, pink flamingos, rare birds and 100+ fish species. The reserve stretches a whopping 230+ square miles, including the nearby community and salt lakes of Las Coloradas. That’s right, salt. Made insta-famous as “pink lakes,” these are actually operational salt mines owned by the sea salt production company ISYSA. They happen to appear pink due to the magenta-hued plankton, algae and brine shrimp that inhabit the water. (Fun fact: this is also why flamingos are pink! From feeding on these magenta-hued microorganisms.) The biosphere stretches further on, also encompassing the even-tinier fishing village of San Felipe and the laid back beach town of El Cuyo.
But let’s get back to our primary focus: Río Lagartos. In early Maya times the settlement was called “Hol-Kobén,” loosely translating to “the three stones that form the fire.” Fast forward to colonial times and the region was renamed “Río Lagartos” by the Spanish conquistadors. Directly translating to “Alligator River,” you might be surprised to know that there are no alligators to be found here, nor a river. Rather, you’ll find plenty of crocodiles in addition to a system of lagoons, estuaries and connecting canals. As it turns out the colonizing Spaniards were a bit confused about this but nonetheless, the name has stuck.
Growing ever so slowly over the years, Río Lagartos today remains a quaint, waterfront community relying primarily on commercial fishing and most recently, tourism. Here you’ll find a welcoming town filled with laid-back locals, rustic streets exuding character and charm, absolutely excellent seafood and a handful of idyllic, lagoon-front hotels making an overnight stay (or longer!) a must.
Here, our top picks of what to do, where to eat and where to stay right now in this picturesque paradise, from a sunrise boat tour of the reserve to the BEST coconut shrimp to everything you need to know about visiting those IG-famed pink lakes.
P.S. Speaking of IG – head over to our account to see even more from this Yucatán gem in our Río Lagartos Story Highlight!
Editor’s Note: Travel is complicated right now. While there are many factors that will result in your decision of whether or not to travel, this decision is ultimately your responsibility. Travel rules, restrictions and entry/exit requirements are subject to change frequently. Please check with both your home country’s official advisories as well as those of your destination country prior to traveling for up-to-date information.
Disclosure: Information, prices and timetables listed below are accurate as of time of writing (August 2021), however are subject to change.
BUT FIRST – LET’S TALK COVID
Within the current climate of the Covid-19 pandemic, Río Lagartos is now open and welcoming visitors. Hotels, restaurants, shops and more businesses are open with Covid safety measures in place. These include but are not limited to: mandatory temperature checks and hand sanitizer (and/or hand washing) upon entry, capacity limitations, required mask wearing and social distancing. Indoor dining is allowed, although the vast majority of restaurants here are open-air and/or fully outdoor.
If you do choose to visit now, please be considerate of not only your health but the health of those around you. Practice social distancing. Wear a mask. Mask wearing is not only a courtesy but expected, if not mandatory, when walking around both indoors and outdoors (especially downtown). Support small businesses, street stalls and local vendors and tour guides. The pandemic has had a profound impact on the local economy which will greatly appreciate your support. If you choose to visit Río Lagartos now, please visit conscientiously and responsibly.
For up-to-date information on Covid-19 in Yucatán, please visit the state government’s official Facebook page here.
ALSO – TRAVEL INSURANCE
Whenever, and wherever, you might be traveling, travel insurance is always a good idea. We personally love SafetyWing for their transparent, easy to understand and thorough coverage starting at just $40.00 USD/month. Their two-tier coverage offers medical benefits in the event of an accident or illness while abroad, in addition to travel benefits such as compensation for delayed trips and lost luggage. Plus, all new SafetyWing policies automatically include COVID-19 coverage. Please note testing for COVID-19 is not covered unless deemed medically necessary by a physician. This means pre-flight tests do not count, nor do antibody tests. Find out everything you need to know about SafetyWing travel insurance, here!
LASTLY – A HEAD’S UP ON WIFI & ATMS
Be sure to plan ahead for your visit to Río Lagartos. Most businesses are cash-only yet there are no banks in town and only one, lone ATM. It’s located in the town square by the clocktower…and works most of the time. Tizimín, about 45 minutes away, is your closest location for banks and (fully-functioning) ATMs. You’ll also need to be prepared for non-stellar wifi and cell reception. Our experience was slow and spotty at best. Fine for basic emails but I wouldn’t plan on taking any Zoom calls here (and forget about file uploading or downloading).
TOP 10 THINGS TO DO IN RÍO LAGARTOS, MEXICO
1. Go on a sunrise boat tour of La Biosfera Ría Lagartos: the surrounding, sprawling nature reserve earning UNESCO-protected status as of 2004. In addition to crocodiles, beautiful pink flamingos, rare birds and countless fish species, this vast wetland region (stretching a whopping 230+ square miles) features a range of eco-systems from mangroves, marshes and estuaries to semi-evergreen forest and otherworldly coastal dunes.
During the 3-hour trip you’ll be able to spot the aforementioned wildlife (crocodiles and flamingos very much included!) and even have the chance to slather on some mineral-rich mud with skin enhancing benefits. You’ll also be able to glimpse the pink lakes during this tour, but it won’t be an up close view – nor the ideal time of day to see the lakes at their pinkest. For this you’ll want to head to Las Coloradas at midday (more below!).
We booked our private sunrise tour for two with Diego Marfil (pictured above) for $1800 pesos total (about $88 USD) and highly recommend him! He’s born and raised in Río Lagartos, speaks both English and Spanish and knows the reserve like the back of his hand. We especially love that he’s committed to a community-first approach. Time permitting, ask Diego about his other tours such as visiting the tiny, neighboring fishing village of San Felipe – where you’ll meet a local family and grill the day’s fresh catch right on the beach.
2. Stay the night! Better yet, stay at least two nights to take advantage of everything Río Lagartos has to offer. And in our opinion, there are really only two places to stay.
The first is Hotel Río Lagartos, a beautiful lagoon-front oasis offering stylish rooms-with-a-view (and balcony!), tranquil swimming pool, sprawling rooftop restaurant & bar and a picturesque dock perfect for catching stunning sunsets.
The namesake hotel further offers an excellent included breakfast, plus use of free bikes. We personally stayed here two nights and only wish we had time to stay longer! TIP: You can also request a telescope from the reception desk for nighttime stargazing on the rooftop.
The second is Yuum Ha Boutique Hotel. A welcome arrival on the scene at just four years old, Yuum Ha counts six modern, minimalist rooms each boasting a king bed, bathtub and balcony with lagoon-front views. A large back courtyard with swimming pool awaits as does an exceptional on-site restaurant & bar.
3. Take advantage of the free bicycles offered at Hotel Río Lagartos and explore town! Bikes are free for hotel guests; non-hotel guests can inquire as to rental pricing.
It won’t take you long to pedal through the charming, rustic streets, filled with character, friendly locals and plenty of photo ops. The town is small enough that in lieu of bikes you can easily cover end to end on foot as well.
4. Keep pedaling to “Sendero Petén Mac” at the end of town. Here you can walk along a short, winding boardwalk through the mangrove, leading to an open pond where you’ll find a large crocodile discreetly chilling in the water.
Don’t worry – the pond is surrounded by an elevated boardwalk and fenced off for safety. Entrance is free; swimming is (obviously) NOT allowed.
5. Head to El Manglar for literally the BEST coconut shrimp, which you’ll want to wash down with a michelada (or two). You can even take your drink out onto their private dock, complete with IG-friendly swings.
TIP: Just past here is the above-mentioned Sendero Petén Mac, making this a perfect stop before or after.
6. Visit Las Coloradas, the insta-famous pink lake located a 25-min drive from Río Lagartos. You can drive yourself or join a tour from the many operators you’ll find in Río Lagartos. Not just one lake, Las Coloradas is a series of pink lakes that are actually operational salt mines. You can drive up and get a decent view of the lakes for free, OR you can pay to go further in and have arguably better views. For $193.00 pesos per person (approx $9.50 USD) you can walk along a narrow, sandy path separating two of the lakes, with a guide who will explain to you the history of the lakes including the salt mining process. OR for $293.00 pesos per person (approx $14.50 USD) you can access the path PLUS climb a mirador (lookout tower) for 360 degree views.
If you’ve seen photos of Las Coloradas on Instagram, you’ve probably seen plenty of stunning drone shots, not to mention photos of people swimming in the lake or lounging on a giant inflatable flamingo. If you have your heart set on creating something similar however, you’ll have to think again. Major changes came to Las Coloradas a few years ago after becoming Insta-famous. Along with it? A new set of strict rules, plus the aforementioned entry fees.
Swimming, walking in or even dipping your foot into the lakes are now a thing of the past. Entering or touching the water in any way is strictly prohibited. And photogs – ONLY phone cameras are allowed. Professional cameras and drones are NOT allowed here and this is strictly enforced.
So is Las Coloradas still worth visiting? If you’ve already seen a pink lake, this probably won’t be mind-blowing. If you’ve never seen a pink lake however, visiting Las Coloradas will certainly be an interesting and unique thing to do. Be sure to go in the middle of the day when the sun is strongest – this is when you’ll see the water at its pinkest. And remember you don’t have to pay anything to see the lakes. You can simply drive up, get out of your car, and get a decent view. For premium views however, you’ll need to dip into your wallet.
7. Visit a virgin beach. On your way to/from Las Coloradas, stop at Playa Cancunito. This stunning stretch of sand has no hotels or services, just sparkling turquoise water and a handful of locals enjoying this hidden paradise.
8. Back in Río Lagartos, grab a sunset cocktail and a bite at Salitre, the rooftop restaurant/bar at Hotel Río Lagartos. The views are epic and depending on the night you might be treated to live music. Stay until dark and you can even request a telescope for nighttime star gazing.
You can choose to sit in their indoor, lagoon-facing restaurant or the charming, open-air back courtyard.
10. Book a Crocodile Night Tour to see these stealth creatures by moonlight. Río Lagartos Adventures offers the tour for $149.00 USD per boat (max 6 persons).
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All photos in this post courtesy of your favorite pair of @travelinglamas.
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