Where to see wildlife in the Yucatán

Yes, the Yucatán is blessed with incredible beaches and ancient ruins, but thanks to its position out on a limb from the rest of Mexico, it’s also home to is home to a distinctive wilderness that hides a rich variety of birds, mammals and marine life.
Whether you like watching birds, exploring the jungle in search of jaguars, or swimming through clear waters next to brilliant swarms of fish, you’ll find plenty of nature activities to keep you occupied here. And even if wildlife watching isn’t your main aim, you’ll find it present everywhere you look – from the swoop of birds and bats inside long deserted pyramids to the eerie calls of howler monkeys echoing through the jungle as you explore ancient ruins.
Unfortunately, many of the Yucatán’s wild inhabitants are in danger of disappearing altogether. Mammals from jaguars to porpoises are under threat from poaching and habitat loss, and accelerated urbanisation in the peninsula has led to poor waste management, with plastics and sewage ending up in marine environments. Visiting the area’s parks and reserves can open the door to this endangered animal kingdom while providing much needed income to those that protect it. Ask your tour operator what they are doing to help the region’s wild spaces.

Where to see wildlife in the Yucatán

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

Most of our holidays to the Yucatán include a visit to Sian Ka'an – a UNESCO-listed biosphere reserve. Set on the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, it’s one of Mexico’s most impressive natural wonders, as well as one of its largest protected areas, with a massive 400,000ha of land tucked behind 120km of coastline. Inside its borders, you’ll find tropical forests, mangroves, marshes, multi-hued lagoons and vast swathes of oceans hugged by a barrier reef. Rare natural phenomena here include cenotes (water-filled natural sinkholes) and petenes (islands thick with vegetation emerging from the surrounding swamps).
Over 100 species of mammal are found here, including pumas, ocelots, Central American tapirs, black-handed spider monkeys and jaguars (around half of Mexico’s 4,000 jaguar population are found in the Yucatán). As well as myriad fish species, a small population of vulnerable West Indian Manatees live in the coastal waters, and American crocodiles stalk the reserve’s rivers. Look skywards and you’ll catch some of the 330 bird species that have been recorded here, 219 of which breed in Sian Ka'an.
Tours will take you to explore the area in depth on foot, by bike, by boat or by kayak.

Calakmul Biosphere Reserve

A beguiling mix of wildlife, nature and ruins, the sprawling Calakmul Biosphere Reserve covers some 1.8 million acres and is one of the largest jungles in the Mayan region, with the greatest diversity of mammals. Most visitors head for the ancient structures that lie scattered amongst the thick rainforest, but more and more people are coming here for the wildlife, too. In this thriving patch of greenery brightly-coloured wild turkeys dart through the trees, spider monkeys rustle in the branches and toucans, vultures, motmots and parrots are among the 350 bird species found here. There are also five species of wildcat in the area, including jaguars and pumas – though you’re unlikely to spot them.

Celestun Biosphere

If you’re a keen twitcher, Celestun Biosphere, a protected 146,000 acres of eerie mangrove forest, marshes and salt flats brims with winter migrating birds, is a deservedly popular spot. It’s home to more than 300 bird species, but its main attraction is the colony of flamingos that migrate to its muddy salt flats between the months between November and March.
At the heart of the reserve is a wide saltwater estuary that winds its way to the Gulf of Mexico. You can take a guided boat trip down its length, from where you’ll spot kingfishers, cormorants, hummingbirds and pelicans, as well as the famous flamingos.

Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Lagartos

Another spot well worth visiting for bird lovers is the Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Lagartos, a mangrove-lined estuary on the northern tip of the peninsula. It’s home to bird species including snowy egrets, red egrets, tiger herons, and has a healthy population of flamingos.

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Getting under the water in
the Yucatán

The Mesoamerican Reef, also known as the Great Maya Reef, is the second largest reef system in the world, running alongside the Yucatán’s Caribbean coastline and on to Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Around the reef you’ll find vibrant butterflyfish, spotted eagle rays, pufferfish and giant anemones, among other species, while giant green sea turtles come in to feed near Akumal. The corals are just as vibrant as the fish, from the giant orange corals near Cozumel that soar 20ft off the sea bed to colourful clumps of brain coral and swaying sea fans and plumes.

For marine life of a much larger variety, head to the waters around Isla Holbox, Isla Mujeres and Isla Contoy from June to September, when large numbers of whale sharks arrive to feed and mate.
All our Yucatán tours include time at the beach, where you’re free to explore the underwater world at your own pace, or with guided instruction. Alternatively, you could opt for an entire week swimming with and watching whale sharks, either with a small group of likeminded travellers, or joining an expert team on daily research trips, recording behaviours and monitoring habitats.
Sadly, the waters of the Yucatán are under threat from lionfish. This invasive species reproduces rapidly and eradicating it is an ongoing job. Lionfish are indigenous to the Indo-Pacific oceans and the Red Sea – but were introduced to these waters in the early 1990s. They have no known predators here, which, coupled with a voracious appetite, causes serious destruction to indigenous species and negatively impacts the balance of reef ecosystems.
In an effort to control the population explosion, fishermen are being encouraged to catch lionfish to sell as food, and many dive operators offer lionfish-hunting expeditions.

Practicalities

The Yucatán’s waters are warm year round, so there’s no bad time for diving and snorkeling, but dive and snorkel sites will be at their least crowded between May and September. This is also the time that green and loggerhead turtles arrive to lay their eggs in and around Playa del Carmen, while whale sharks visit the waters near Isla Mujeres, Isla Holbox and Isla Contoy between June and September, with numbers at their highest in July and August.

If you’re a keen birdwatcher, thousands of birds migrate here from harsher climes between November and February, including flamingos, whose numbers are greatest at Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Lagartos and Celestun Biosphere during this time.

While you can visit these parks and reserves independently, an organised itinerary takes the pressure off. Both our small group and tailor made tours take in some of the region’s best wildlife sites, with guides included to help you make the most of your time.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Andy Blckledge] [Bats: Cristopher Gonzalez] [Sian Ka'an: Umberto Nicoletti] [Celestun Biosphere Reserve: Harshil Shah] [Whalesharks: Brian Lauer]
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