Friday, April 13, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 5: The town of Celestún and its beautiful beach

A beautiful, sunny day in January at Celestún's beach. The turquoise water gleams and sparkles. The white sand beach is littered here and there with lovely white shells. Puffy clouds dot the azure sky above. In the distance, restaurants shaded by palm-thatched palapas prepare delicious meals from locally caught fish. What a day to hang out at the beach! The small town of Celestún stretches out along the coast on the strip of land that separates the Gulf of Mexico from Celestún Lagoon. It's a sleepy town, even at the height of the winter tourist season. Only about 6,200 people live here, although the population swells to 10,000 during the octopus hunting season. Other than tourism, the populations works mostly at fishing and the production of salt. These last two occupations have been central to Celestún's economy since long before the Spanish arrived. The beaches, when we were there, were mostly empty save for the handful of people sunbathing in front of some of the restaurants. For a map of Celestún and Yucatan's Gulf Coast, click here.

Celestún's Gulf Coast beach

Boats wait for tourists and fishermen as a family walks by. The town is completely surrounded by the Celestún Special Biosphere Reserve seen in Part 4 of this series. The Reserve is also called Parque Natural del Flamenco Mexicano and contains thousands of pink flamingos as well as many other species of birds and other animals. In January, the mid-day temperature averages a balmy 29C (84F) and drops at night to a comfortable 17.3C (63.1F).

Looking south, the only person in sight was a lone woman out for a stroll. In the distance, a pier stretches out into the warm, gentle waters of the Gulf. The vast majority of tourists who come to Yucatan for a beach experience go to Cancun or the Maya Riviera on the Caribbean side of the Yucatan Peninsula. Even those who visit Mérida don't seem to head for Celestún's beach. The Port of Progresso, a short distance due north of Mérida, seems to attract more attention. Those looking for a lively social scene with wet t-shirt contests etc. had best head for Cancun. Celestún is for those who seek a quiet, dreamy, seaside paradise. For anyone looking for such a place, click here for TripAdvisor hotel recommendations.

Palapa restaurants are open air and face right onto the beach. They are surrounded by small groves of palm trees fluttering in the ocean breeze. Some of them are little more than a few posts sunk into the sand and roofed with thatched palm fronds. A few plastic tables and chairs are served from an open air kitchen where fresh fish is grilled over open fires. My kind of place.

Our restaurant was large and open, with far more tables than customers. Out the front door, a group of lounge chairs waits on the beach for those intent on improving their tan. Sitting inside in the shade, the cool ocean breezes wafted through the open sides of the restaurant, creating the perfect temperature: not too hot, not too cool. Just right for enjoying a feast of fresh fish.

As I walked through the restaurant, my eye was caught by this unusual wall. The swooping design somewhat resembled an ocean swell. I stepped closer for a better look and was stunned by what I found.

Thousands of nearly identical shells were used to create the design. The rows of shells were at least 18m long (60 ft) and perhaps 1.2m (4 ft) wide. In addition to the wall covered by these shells, the floor immediately in front of the wall contained thousands more. It must have taken someone a lot of time and effort to collect all these shells, much less to cement them individually into the wall. But then, things tend to move slowly in Celestún, so perhaps he had plenty of time after all.

A stroll around town

Celestún's Palacio Municipio is small but attractive. It sits on the south side of the town plaza. There are no precise dates for when indigenous people first occupied the area of Celestún. However, it is known that the town served as a place for collecting and storing products from the sea such as seafood and salt. It was part of the ancient Maya province of Ah-Canul.

Local transportation. There were few taxis in the area, but motorcycle-driven jitneys like this one seemed to fill the gap. Other jitneys we saw were driven by bicycles. The jitney above is passing by one of the local watering holes, El Lobo (The Wolf) Restaurant. The Spanish pueblo of Celestún was founded in 1718, as a sub-district of Sisal, a port to the north. Hennequen, a natural fibre originally used by local Maya for ropes, mats and other goods, is often called sisal. The name comes from the Port of Sisal through which the hennequen passed on the way to overseas markets. In the late 19th Century, sisal was discovered to be perfect for string, and the market grew explosively.

A small Franciscan church occupies the east side of the plaza. Notice the two campanarios (bell-towers). These bells are still operated the old-fashioned way, with ropes. The one on the right has the large bell, while three small bells hang from the campanario on the left. In 1872, Celestún became part of a political district called Maxcanú. It remained a subdistrict of Maxcanún until 1918, when it became the seat of the Municipalidad de Celestún. A municipalidad (municipality) roughly corresponds to a US county and usually takes the name of the chief town within it.

Carole takes a break on one of the many benches in the plaza. Nearly all of them were empty, but at the end of the workday, I'm sure they fill up with families and courting couples from the town. A plaza forms the social center in a Mexican town where recreation, business, fiestas, and romances are conducted. One of the busy times in this plaza is Semana Santa (Easter Week). Maya people from villages of the municipalidad come to town to celebrate. The statue town's patron saint is paraded around and then loaded on a boat lined with candles and floated down the estuary and out to sea. The flotilla is joined by boats carrying the patron saints of many villages in the area.

A fascinating return trip to Mérida

Traditional Maya house, called nah in Maya or choza in Spanish. During our return trip to Mérida, we stopped in some of the villages through which our road passed. You can find Maya families living in homes like this all over the Yucatan peninsula. They do not differ significantly in design or function from those constructed 1000 years before the Spanish arrived. Over one of the doors of the famous ruin at Uxmal called the "Nuns Quadrangle" you can see a stone relief sculpture of just such a nah. The structures are made from locally gathered, natural materials. However, for all I know, this nah might be connected to the internet. The only visible modern touch is the PRI political campaign sign. The PRI is one of Mexico's three main political parties. It ruled Mexico from the 1930s to 2000 when it was finally defeated by the PAN, a conservative, business-oriented party. Current polls indicate the the PRI will return to power in the next election.

Another relic of the past. Almost concealed in jungly undergrowth are the remains of the main gate for an abandoned sisal hacienda. We had passed this ruin on the way to Celestún and I persuaded our driver to stop for a few minutes so I could take some photos. If you are one of my regular blog fans, you know I am a "ruins addict". This hacienda was probably abandoned somewhere between the beginning of the Revolution in 1910 and 1936, when President Lazaro Cardenas broke up the remaining sisal haciendas and redistributed the lands to the Maya campesinos. Often, this meant returning lands to Maya families from whom it had been illegally seized by the current hacendados (owners) or their ancestors.

The Casa Grande of the hacienda. The Casa Grande (Great House) was the home of the hacendado and the center of economic operations. However, the owners where often absent, leaving the actual running of a hacienda to professional administrators. The hacendados generally preferred their luxurious mansions in Mérida, or traveling with their families in Europe, to living in the country. Sisal was used for creating the string that bound together wheat sheaves harvested in the United States by the combines of the International Harvester Company. Both the IH Company and the hacienda owners profited mightily from this arrangement, especially since the forced labor of the Maya sisal workers was dirt cheap.

Graceful arched portales frame the porch overlooking the Casa Grande's main entrance. Life would have been good for the hacendado and his family. His house would have been filled with expensive, imported furnishings and his dinner table overflowed with the best foods and wines his hacienda could finance. For his workers, trapped by their debts to the tienda de raya (company store), life was little better than slavery. In fact, actual slavery was often used to offset labor shortages.

Another Maya house, made with slightly different materials. The thatched roof is the same as on the nah seen previously, but the walls are made of chunks of limestone, plastered over. A drowsy dog noted our photographic efforts but didn't think it worth his effort to challenge us.

Our driver/tour guide dropped us back at our hotel at the end of the day. We found all our guides for our various Mérida tours to be cheerful, knowledgeable, and willing to go out of their way to satisfy the interests of their customers. The Celestún tour van was modern, comfortable and a good way to travel the area. Our guide's smile may, in part, reflect the propina (tip) we gave him for his efforts. However, all the Maya we met were so friendly and easy-going that he probably would have acted just the same without any extra incentive.

This completes Part 5 of my Mérida series. Next, we will return to Mérida itself to take a look at some of the interesting sights you will encounter while wandering the streets of the Centro Historico. I always welcome comments and/or corrections. If you would like to do so, please leave your message in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Thanks for the sunshine! I know where I want to vacation.

    Gosh - such a vacation may be possible some day relatively soon.

  2. Nice photo of Carole on the bench!


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim