Why you should care

In a week, you might see up to 400 species of spectacular birds.

The OZY Top 25: Each week we share an irresistible vacation hideaway, chosen by OZY staff.

My broad-brimmed hat and the canopy of the small boat were of little use when the morning sun angled in, rising steadily above the horizon, as we headed out into the brackish lagoons of the Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Our destination: a flamboyance of flamingos several miles to the east. And we weren’t disappointed, as dozens of the large pink wading birds took flight, their long spindly legs seeming to sprint atop the water’s surface until they lofted into the air. But in many ways, it was getting there that was most alluring, as our small craft navigated the winding shallow waters between banks of dense, largely pristine tropical jungle, rimmed with mangrove trees — stopping each time we encountered a large bird, from hawks to herons.

Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is a popular tourist destination, especially the beaches and reefs from Cancún south to Playa del Carmen and Cozumel. But far from those crowded shores — that is, too far for a day tour — are charming colonial towns, amazing Mayan ruins and a jewel of a nature reserve at Rio Lagartos. Its location at the northern tip of a peninsula where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea makes it “unique for its biodiversity,” says Diego Nuñez Martinez, who runs eco-tours there. On ours we saw (among many others) frigates, great blue herons, laughing falcons, white ibis, black-neck stilts and an endangered wood stork, mostly lurking along the mangrove trees that line the shores, their long exposed roots thrusting into the salt marshes. Nearly 400 bird species have been recorded.

The adventuresome can cover themselves with reputedly therapeutic white Mayan mud.

Serious birders might want to stay for four to seven days, leaving time to explore both the waters and the nearby trails, with simple accommodations costing between $40 and $60 a night. A few days could be enough for others to run through the attractions, which include clean beaches, snorkeling, biking, fishing, kayaking and not a whole lot of people. The adventuresome can cover themselves with reputedly therapeutic white Mayan mud. Watch out for crocodiles too … though not on the beaches.

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Mayan ruins are situated along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula.

Source Shutterstock

Nuñez says the best season for birding is November to March, during the winter migrations. The weather — extremely hot and muggy during the summer (I can attest) — is also more forgiving at that time of year. The town, not exactly beautiful, hasn’t changed much in 20 years, though Nuñez expects development is on the way, given the growing popularity of ecotourism.

By contrast, the old Spanish town of Valladolid, a 90-minute drive south early in the day before traffic starts up, offers an abundance of excellent boutique hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. For a memorable meal try the sopa de lima or cochinita pibil at El Meson del Marques near the town square. The guacamole is just too good to pass up, as well. To the west of Valladolid are the amazing Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, best enjoyed in the early morning before the mobs of tourists and souvenir vendors arrive. Yet farther to the west, the crowds thin. The city of Mérida retains its splendid colonial charm, and to the south, the large Mayan site of Uxmal is serene and beautiful.

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