El Palmar Nature Reserve in Sisal, Mexico: Camping In a Unique Biosphere
By Mark Viales
A flock of flamingos took the form of a perfect pink arrow in the sky as Andres parked his classic Volkswagen Beetle by the beach.
“Welcome to paradise,” he said, relaxing his shoulders with a sigh.
We had just arrived at the quiet fishing village of Sisal in southern Mexico after a short drive from the vibrant Yucatan state capital, Merida.
Andres had convinced me to divert from my original route and visit this hidden treasure within the vast expanse of El Palmar nature reserve.
The unique biosphere, covering almost 48,000 hectares, is home to hundreds of species of birds and aquatic life, including crocodiles, migrating ducks from Canada, and, of course, flamingos.
On one side, a limitless swampland is bordered by mangroves that create a labyrinth of canals. On the other, the calm bluish/green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I was in heaven.
Spectacular Seafood Meals
Fond memories of home flared inside me through the scent of the sea with a collection of familiar aromas typically found when cooking fish, prawns, or octopus.
I was delighted to discover my favorites were all on the menu and prepared in numerous ways. Sisal certainly surprised me in many ways, but the food was an instant hit.
I felt the urge to grab a beer and some botanas (small side dishes) from a cantina and rub shoulders with the locals. Instead, Andres, who could not join me, recommended a visit to Don Zurdo’s Palapa, a popular local rustic restaurant with a spectacular view of the swamp and all the local dishes, beers included.
The guitar on my shoulder was the first thing to catch Don Zurdo’s eye, and after a few tunes, we cracked open some cahuamas (one-liter beer bottles) to get to know one another.
It was a family affair, and soon I was introduced to several generations before his eldest daughter, Paola, appeared from behind a gorgeous aromatic cloud. It was the steam from the fresh prawns cooked in a smooth coconut cream sauce.
I’m unsure if it was due to a two-taco breakfast and a belly full of beer, but I devoured the dish voraciously and without shame.
After dinner, Don Zurdo offered to take me on a tour of the mangroves on one of his canoes. As I boarded the small wooden boat painted in a bright blue, in contrast to the deep maroon of the muddy swamp, I noticed Don Zurdo pick up a large wooden pole. I would be pushed through the mangrove maze as if I were on a gondola in Venice, which made me feel pretty useless.
At least it allowed me to focus on spotting crocodiles and flamingos, although I was assured the ‘lagartos’ – as they are known locally- only came out at night.
I felt the thud of the wooden pole hitting the bottom of the bog. It couldn’t have been more than half-a-meter deep. Enough to hide an adult-sized lagarto, I thought.
The morlet is a relatively small species of crocodile, yet it can still grow up to three meters long, and Don Zurdo told me he had seen some much bigger. I shifted nervously when a scraping sound brushed against the boat’s underside on entering the first canal, almost sending us both into the murky waters.
“Hey, relax!” said Don Zurdo while steadying the vessel with his pole to prevent it from capsizing. “They’re just the roots of the mangroves hitting the canoe.”
Gliding through the narrow passages, it was possible to spot a diverse cross-section of avian species that thrive in the Yucatan jungle. Several snowy egrets burst out of the trees with their majestic white wings to stage an angelic scene before the next section.
I could see more white birds in the distance but with a slight pinkish tinge. They were flamingos alright, yet much paler than I imagined, except for two.
“These are the babies,” said Don Zurdo. “You see the two that are darker? They are the guardians. The main flock must be further away.”
As we pushed through more canals, I could not help but admire this man’s knowledge and genuine connection to the jungle and its wildlife.
Every few minutes, Don Zurdo would give little titbits of information he could only have learned from years of studying the natural wonders around him.
I was in the company of a self-made biologist with a healthy respect for the unique environment he had lived in for almost seven decades.
Eyes at Night
On our return, Don Zurdo asked where I would spend the night and quickly rubbished my idea to free camp on the beach. He pointed to an elevated wooden platform with a palm roof overlooking the swamp and invited me to stay as long as I wished, so long as I purchased my meals at his restaurant.
Who could resist when it costs one hundred pesos (five dollars) for wholesome portions of fish, octopus or prawns? It did occur to me to ask about my safety, seeing as the platform was just a few meters from the lagoon level. I’ve seen videos of crocodiles jumping.
“There has never been a serious attack on humans around here,” he said with a relaxed smile. “They prefer birds, especially flamingos. These are not the same as larger crocodiles, but they can be dangerous. Don’t mess around with them.”
I took another look at the wooden tower, decided it was high enough, and said to myself the sunrise alone would be worth it. Besides, all the houses and palapas were practically on the lagoon, so I figured it was not too dangerous.
The sunset came as a settled heart to the horizon as if the sky itself could speak of unparalleled beauty.
Its final glow brought warmth to my cheeks as I plucked away at my guitar, my most trusted travel companion all these years. ”
I heard the shuffling of footsteps in the sand behind me. It was Paola. She brought with her a pan-sized lantern and a crooked smirk.
“Would you like to see the lagartos?” she said, unable to contain her giggles.
“You mean they are here?” I replied somewhat apprehensively
“Of course they are. When the sun goes down, and I switch on this light, we can see their eyes reflected like a cat’s, only much bigger.”
When the colour of fire hearths and tangerines in the sky morphed into darkness, it was time. The burst of light revealed several pairs of glowing spheres moving slowly around the lagoon, the closest approximately twenty meters away.
“There’re loads!” I cried.
“It’s ok,” Paola reassured. “This is when they are active. They won’t come too close. Lagartos know where the humans are and stay away, so we respect them, and they respect us. We even do tours at night for tourists. It’s all done with the safety of visitors in mind.”
I must admit, Paola had put my mind at ease and allowed me to appreciate the natural phenomena that were close enough to touch but not advisable.
The early morning came as a promise kept. Huge flocks of birds awakened and took to the sky in search of a safe feeding ground away from predators.
Hundreds of pelicans crisscrossed the sky in chaotic grey lines, croaking guttural squawks audible many miles away. They then were replaced by the pink, and now noticeably white, arrows.
At lagoon level, several species of duck chased one another and crash-landed clumsily with a splash, except for one kind that roamed around in pairs.
Like an elegant dance between lovers, whistle ducks darted underwater as they hunted for small fish and crustaceans, leaving a cloud of silt in their trail. It was a perfect start to another day in Sisal.