Rio Lagartos is one of the Yucatan’s best-kept secrets. This quaint fishing village sits on the northern tip of the Yucatan state, close to the Gulf of Mexico.
If you are interested in birdwatching, seeing the famous Yucatan flamingos, or immersing yourself in nature, you will enjoy Rio Lagartos. Life moves at a slower pace here.
The town is frequently overlooked by most travelers to Mexico. It provides a nice opportunity to escape from the crowds that you have to contend with in Chichen Itza, Cancun, and Tulum.
Rio Lagartos, Yucatan
Rio Lagartos literally means ‘Alligator River¨. It was named by Spanish Conquistadors during the colonization of Mexico some centuries ago.
Interestingly, the name is completely wrong! Rio Lagartos is actually a lagoon, not a river. Similarly, there are no alligators in the water here, though there are some crocodiles…
The little settlement has grown on the banks of its namesake lagoon and is home to less than 4,000 permanent residents. The restaurants and cafes along the Malecon offer unparalleled views of the lagoon and showcase the best of Yucatecan cuisine.
Up until recently, most locals depended on fishing and agriculture to make a living. However, in recent years, tourists have started to trickle into the region.
You really only need to allocate a day of your Yucatan itinerary to exploring Rio Lagartos. You can extend your stay to be here for two nights if you want to explore at a slow, leisurely pace.
The town makes a good base for exploring the Instagram-famous pink lakes of Las Coloradas. From here, you can also continue an hour east along the coast for El Cuyo.
Things to do in Rio Lagartos, Yucatan
Rio Lagartos biosphere reserve was designated as a UNESCO site in 2004. It covers a surface area of 60,348 hectares and consists of fundamental wetlands, recognized by the Ramsar Convention. This is, without hesitation, one of the best places in the Yucatan to visit.
Most activities in Rio Lagartos revolve around exploring the lagoon. If you have access to a car, you can also drive to some of the nearby beaches.
Take a tour of the lagoon
As you walk along the Malecon of Rio Lagartos, you will notice a lot of locals offering tours from their fishing boats. You pay for the price of the boat, not per person.
It is worth speaking to a couple of different tour guides to obtain the best price as prices quoted varied from 900 pesos ($45) to 1200 pesos ($60) for the same 3-hour tour. The boat can accommodate up to 6 people.
If you want a private experience with your travel buddies, that’s great. Alternatively, you can find other tourists in the area and see if they want to share the boat ride with you to cut the cost.
The tour takes you along the lagoon, through the four different mangroves in the area, and across to one of the region’s beaches. You will stop for a few hours at either Playa de San Felipe or Playa Publica.
From the boat, you will also have the opportunity to see crocodiles, birds, and other wildlife in their natural habitat. Some of the crocs living here are as much as 6-7 feet long!
There are two species of crocodile that call Rio Lagartos home. Namely, the aggressive freshwater Marinette crocodile and the saltwater Acutus crocodile. Your guide will point out the areas where the crocs hang out.
Take a romantic sunset boat ride
Most Rio Lagartos boat tours are several hours long and feature several stopping points and opportunities to take photos or view wildlife. Some local guides also offer a sunset tour.
If you want a relaxing boat ride and you are not so into wildlife spotting or beaches, you can sail out into the lagoon with your loved one and watch the sunset on the horizon. If you like, you can do both the sunset boat ride and the typical Rio Lagartos tour. Tour guides will often give you a good deal for doing both.
Enjoy local cuisine
Several restaurants line the Malecon of Rio Lagartos. To be frank, they mostly cater to tourists, not locals.
You probably won’t have your absolute best dining experience in Mexico here but regardless, you can still sample some Yucatan delicacies. The waters of the Rio Lagartos lagoon and the town’s close proximity to the sea mean that this is a great place to eat seafood.
El Perico Marinero (Calle 9) is a nice spot to tuck into fresh fish caught earlier that same day. Nearby, the two-story palapas restaurant Ría Maya Restaurante offers a great viewpoint over the lagoon.
Treat yourself to a Mayan mud bath
Baño Maya Río Lagartos is a spot where you can indulge in a Mayan clay mud bath on the banks of the lagoon. You will find it marked on the map, and most Rio Lagartos tours make a quick stop here.
The area seems relatively nondescript. You will approach a hole in the ground that is filled with soft, white, clay mud.
The mud contains a high concentration of sulfur, minerals, salts, and algae. It both smooths the skin and acts as a gentle exfoliant, removing all dead skin cells.
There are just a handful of places around the Yucatan where you can find this mud, and Rio Lagartos is one of them. The Ancient Maya would both use the mud as a spa therapy treatment, and to paint their faces for battle/for a celebration.
To try a Mayan bath, slather a generous amount of the mud over your face and body and leave it on until it dries. There is a small beach nearby where you can wash it off.
Enjoy rooftop cocktails with a view
There are a small handful of bars along the Rio Lagartos Malecon where you can enjoy a chilled cerveza or a spicy michelada drink at the end of a long day. Arguably the best ambiance is found at the rooftop bar on the top of Hotel Rio Lagartos.
Live musical performances are hosted here most nights and the cocktails here are the best in town. Order yourself a pina colada or a margarita made with fresh fruit.
The mango margaritas here are to die for! The bar sometimes has a Happy Hour or offers certain drinks on a 2-for-1 offer.
Enjoy a spot of birdwatching
Rio Lagartos is home to over 395 species of birds. Most famously, the American pink flamingos can be found here.
You don’t have to venture far or do a tour to spot the birds here as there are so many different species in abundance. Just strolling along the Malecon, you will see flamingos flying overhead as they migrate east, and pelicans chilling out, bobbing along in the water, or crowding over people’s fishing boats.
If you can, bring a pair of binoculars to Rio Lagartos with you so that you can get a better view. If you consider yourself a bird-watching enthusiast, you will be delighted to hear that you can take birdwatching tours in this area.
These are suitable even if you know very little about birds and are only just starting to become interested in birdwatching. Your guide will take you to various places where you can spot different birds and then provide you with information about their characteristics, lifespan, breeding, etc.
If you are into photography, Rio Lagartos provides a great opportunity to get some impressive shots of the various resident birds as they huddle up with their chicks or dive into the water to hunt fish. Other species of birds to look out for besides the infamous flamingos?
Here, you can also spot wood storks, herons, pygmy owls, various species of woodpeckers, pygmy kingfishers, and countless others. Some bird species are indigenous to the Yucatan.
Take a photo at the colorful Rio Lagartos sign
Rio Lagartos, like most towns and cities in Mexico, boasts a colorful sign displaying the town name in bright, bold letters – right on the bank of the lagoon. Stop to snap a quick obligatory photo here. If you haven’t got a cheesy photo of yourself in front of every Mexico town sign, have you even been there?
Relax on the nearby beaches
Rio Lagartos’ proximity to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico means that there are several gorgeous beaches nearby. You will stop at a couple of these Yucatan beaches if you take the Rio Lagartos boat tour.
However, the stops will be relatively brief and sometimes you want to spend more than just an hour at the beach. A 20-minute drive from Rio Lagartos takes you to the serene beach of Cancunito.
Envisage soft white sands and translucent azure waters and you are halfway to imagining what Cancunito beach is like. Cancunito is essentially a virgin beach.
There are no stores, restaurants, or amenities here, but there are no crowds either. If you want to enjoy your own private slice of paradise for the day, Cancunito is the place to do just that.
Visit Las Coloradas
From Rio Lagartos, you can head out to the Instagram-famous pink lakes of Las Coloradas. You can opt to do so on a tour or you can visit independently.
There are several of these pink lakes in Mexico. (Laguna Rosada is also very beautiful.) However, the lake at Las Coloradas is the most famous.
So are the lakes worth visiting and why are they pink? Unfortunately, the lakes are another example of where social media and over-tourism have had an extremely detrimental impact on a place.
Sure, it is interesting that the water here is bright pink. It certainly isn’t something that you see every day.
However, even if you venture here early in the morning, you will usually be met by a busload of tourists who want to take photos. That is not to say that you should not visit the lakes while in the area. But you should manage your expectations.
Las Coloradas means ‘blush red’ in Spanish. The waters are part of a privately owned salt farm and indeed, when you stop by, you will probably see local workers in action, harvesting the salt from the water.
Salt has been a commodity in this part of Mexico for thousands of years. Even the Ancient Maya would harvest and trade salt from these lakes.
The waters are this color because of the bright red-colored algae, plankton, and brine shrimp that live here. It is actually a result of eating these creatures that flamingos get their pink coloring!
Swimming in the waters here is prohibited. There is little to do here besides taking photos and enjoying the scenery.
Admission is 75 pesos per person and there is usually a little stall where you can buy rock salt from. This makes a nice souvenir from your time in Mexico.
Visit San Felipe Village
A fifteen-minute drive from Rio Lagartos takes you to the little fishing village of San Felipe. It is situated on the westernmost part of the lagoon and is another great place to enjoy some alternative viewpoints and spot birds and other wildlife.
You will seldom see many tourists in Rio Lagartos as it is, but in charming San Felipe, you will likely be the only one. There are a couple of restaurants here that make a nice place to stop for lunch.
Restaurante Danilu and the waterfront Restaurante Vaselina both serve very good seafood, among other options. You will also find a lot of street food vendors selling tacos and other light bites, as well as locals selling homemade empanadas and pastries from their front gardens.
The little port at San Felipe is made up of rustic multi-colored wooden houses. For a few pesos, many of the local fishermen are happy to take you out to the beaches across the lagoon. You will typically find cheaper rates here than in Rio Lagartos town.
Meet the Local Fishermen
Early in the mornings and late at night, you will see local fishermen casting their nets into the water to fish for shrimps. Several local tour companies also offer the opportunity to enjoy a day of fly fishing.
Giant Tarpon, Snook, ladyfish, baby tarpon, and Jacks are just a few of the fish that you can find here. Permits are required to fish here (which the tour operators have). All fish caught are then released back into the water.
Getting to Rio Lagartos, Yucatan
It can be a bit of a headache to get to Rio Lagartos if you are not renting a car in Mexico. That is not to say that visiting is not worth it, particularly if you have an interest in birdwatching and wildlife.
Take a guided tour
You can organize Rio Lagartos boat tours locally once you arrive in the area or you can book one in advance.
It is possible to take a Rio Lagartos tour from Cancun, Tulum, Playa del Carmen, or Merida. These tours include pick up and drop off at your hotel and take a lot of stress out of the logistics of getting to the area.
Some Rio Lagartos day tours also include stops at several other notable attractions en route. For instance, Mayan ruins or cenotes.
A selection of reputable Rio Lagartos tours is detailed below for your consideration. Do note the pick-up location for each one before booking.
- Río Lagartos and Las Coloradas tour from Playa del Carmen and Cancun
- From Cancun: Ek Balam, Cenote Hubiku & Rio Lagartos
- Valladolid, Río Lagartos and Las Coloradas tour from Cancun
Drive to Rio Lagartos
Driving in Mexico is not as intimidating as it may sound, especially not in the Yucatan. Having access to a vehicle gives you a lot more freedom and flexibility with your schedule.
Not to mention, public transport in the Yucatan region often leaves a lot to be desired. Buses and colectivos here run on an infrequent schedule and sometimes, getting to attractions and points of interest means having to take multiple forms of transport.
It will take you a couple of hours to drive to Rio Lagartos, whether you are driving in from Merida, Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Valladolid. If you are further afield in Quintana Roo, you may want to spend a night in Valladolid en route to break up the journey.
Then, you can spend a little time enjoying the pueblo magico of Valladolid, go swimming in the cenotes nearby, and visit Chichen Itza. From there, you can continue on to Rio Lagartos.
Driving Times to Rio Lagartos
The driving time to Rio Lagartos from various starting points is detailed below. Do also keep in mind that fees are incurred for driving on toll roads so always carry some cash with you.
- Merida – 215km, 2 hours and 44 minutes
- Valladolid – 106 km, 1.5 hours
- El Cuyo – 96.3km, 1 hour and 20 minutes
- Playa del Carmen – 234.7 km, 3 hours
- Cancun – 249.8 km, 3 hours and 20 minutes
Driving to Rio Lagartos
The roads to Rio Lagartos are well-built and maintained. You will be driving along an asphalt freeway that is in good condition, with no dirt trails or gravel roads.
Whether you are driving from Merida or Quintana Roo, you will have to pass by the town of Tizimin. However, it is not necessary to drive through the busy center.
The nearby village of Kikil is a tiny yet adorable place where you can stop to check out an abandoned convent and a cenote. As with driving anywhere in Mexico, it is advisable not to drive to Rio Lagartos at night.
The Yucatan is a very safe region. However, many roads are poorly lit or they are not illuminated by street lights at all. This can make it very difficult to spot topes (speed bumps) and hazards like stray cats, dogs, and wildlife.
Take the bus
There is no direct bus to Rio Lagartos from main Yucatan/Quintana Roo tourist towns. Instead, you need to take a bus to Tizimin and connect there.
You will find the bus times to Tizimin, and from Tizimin to Rio Lagartos detailed below. The buses to Tizimin are operated by ADO – Mexico’s premium bus network.
They boast complimentary onboard wi-fi, air conditioning, and reclining seats. So, though the journey is relatively long, it is comfortable.
All bus times may be subject to change at short notice depending on demand and the season. If you plan to travel to Rio Lagartos via public transport, double-check this first.
Consider Celestun as an alternative
The coastal town of Celestun on the west coast of the Yucatan is home to the Ría Celestún reserve. Between November and early April, approximately 40,000 pink American flamingos call Celestun home before migrating east to Rio Lagartos.
If you happen to be traveling to Mexico in January or February, you may want to consider Celestun as an alternative to Rio Lagartos. This may be a preferable and more convenient choice, depending on where you are basing yourself during your trip.
Air-conditioned ADO buses run between Merida and Celestun. The boat tours offered at Ría Celestún reserve are comparable to those at Ría Lagartos.
The main differences? You will likely see more flamingos in Celestun, however, you will also see more tourists. Celestun is easier to get to from Merida, however, it can also be more expensive.
A one-hour boat tour of Ría Celestún reserve and its mangroves is typically 1800 pesos for a boat that can accommodate up to 8 people. Generally, it all comes down to personal preference but it is worth being aware of the two options.
Where to Stay in Rio Lagartos, Yucatan
There are a limited number of hotels and Airbnbs in Rio Lagartos. However, the little town has something for every budget. A selection of reputable accommodation options is shortlisted below for your consideration.
Hotel Rio Lagartos
The best hotel choice in Rio Lagartos is the Hotel Rio Lagartos, right on the waterfront. The property offers luxury without the luxury price tag, with rooms starting from just $60 a night.
You are greeted with a complimentary welcome drink upon check-in and the property boasts all the amenities that you will need to have a pleasant stay. Rooms are clean and spacious, with many boasting views across the lagoon.
There is an outdoor swimming pool, an on-site spa, an excellent restaurant serving international fare, and a rooftop bar. Click here to check the latest availability and room rates at Hotel Rio Lagartos.
Have you traveled to Rio Lagartos or elsewhere in the Mexican Yucatan before? If you are planning a trip to Mexico for the first time, you might also enjoy reading this list of Mexico travel tips to know before you go.
Have a wonderful time! Safe travels in Mexico! xo