Rio Lagartos and Las Coloradas, Mexico- an Alligator River and a Pink Lake?

We visit Cancun, Mexico, annually and are pretty adventurous. We love the idea of exploring a different area every year. When I came across pictures of a beautiful pink lake that four hours from Cancun, I knew I had to visit Rio Lagartos and Las Coloradas. What I found was better than I expected, but not exactly what I read about on the internet. Join along on my adventure and see what I found in Rio Lagartos, Mexico.

Rio Lagartos and Las Coloradas Mexico

How to get to Rio Lagartos from Cancun, Mexico

It is possible to take a day trip to Rio Lagartos from Cancun, although it will be a long day.

  • You can catch a bus from Cancun or Merida. Check out the schedules.
  • You can arrange an organized tour from Cancun that includes a boat tour on Rio Lagartos and a visit to Los Colorados.
  • Rent a car and drive yourself. If you take the tollways, the drive is pretty direct and straightforward. The only problem you may encounter is that this far from touristy Mexico, so fewer people speak English. When we visited, a search was going on for El Chapo’s kidnapped son. Having a fluent Spanish speaker made it quicker getting through the Federales checkpoints.
  • Secure a driver who can take you from Cancun to Rio Lagartos. This is my preferred method of sightseeing when I travel. I like that we can move at our own pace, stopping wherever and whenever we want. I also learn much more about the politics, culture, and lifestyle of an area by really getting to know one of its locals. We are fortunate to have had the same driver, Daniel, for the last twenty years. He was our driver on our ill-fated trip to Belize, and it might not have ended so well without him there.

The Town of Rio Lagartos, Yucatan, Mexico

Rio Lagartos, Yukatan
The town of Rio Lagartos from the water

Rio Lagartos is the name of the quaint, typical Yucatan fishing village on the coast of Ria Lagartos. There is not much more to the town than humble housing for its residents, a few hotels and restaurants for the tourists. There are also docks for the fishing and octopus catching boats, which are also used to give tours.

Ria Lagartos, The Natural Reserve

Where to find crocodiles in Mexico
Your guide should know where the crocodiles hang out. We found this guy under a mangrove tree.

What is Ria Lagartos?

Ria Lagartos is a UNESCO world heritage site for its important birds. In 1517 when Francisco Hernandez discovered the river, he named it “Lake of Many Dragons, or alligators.” This is the first misconception about what we would find here. Although we did see reptiles, the particular dragons in question are really crocodilos, or crocodiles.

A mangrove tree on Ria Lagartos, Mexico.
Ria Lagartos is a mangrove forest located on an estuary.

To see the beauty of this river and to get to see many of its birds, particularly the numerous flamingos, you need to go by boat. If you do not go into town with an organized tour, it is effortless to find a fisherman waiting to offer you a tour at the docks. They will only accept cash, and the town does not have an ATM. The cost is usually around $100-$150 for a two-hour tour of up to six people. We were fortunate, and Daniel’s nephew, Manuel Abraham Silva, was available to give us the tour. Manuel works typically as an octopus fisherman but is very happy to do a more lucrative tour. If you are interested in hiring him for a tour, his phone number is 5-998-219-2430. The best way to get a hold of him is to DM him on Facebook.

A great egret in Ria Lagartos, Mexico.
The great egret, pictured in Ria Lagartos, Mexico, was near extinction in the 1800s due to being hunted for feathers to adorn lady’s hats.

Manuel’s boat was spotless with a covered area to protect all seven people on board from the sun. He also had an ice chest in which we could store our drinks and snacks. We first spent half an hour exploring the mangroves on the way to view the flamingo lagoon. We spied many beautiful birds, such as herons, egrets, ibis, and kingfishers. There are over 395 different bird species here.

An osprey on the shore of Ria Lagartos, Mexico
Ospreys, like this one perched on the shore of Ria Lagartos, Mexico, is a unique raptor that can dive underwater to catch its prey.

Flamingos in Ria Lagartos

Flamingos in Ria Lagartos, Mexico.
The flamingos congregate on the salt marshes closest to Las Coloradas, Mexico. It is said the flamingos in this area outnumber the humans three to one.

Did you know there are flamingoes around Cancun? This lagoon has the highest concentration of birds in Mexico. The flamingos congregate on a shallow lagoon, and the boats can’t get too close. Therefore, bringing binoculars would be a great idea. Humans staying away is good for the birds, so as not to disturb their habitat. There are always flamingos here. I was impressed with the number we saw in August; however, there are thousands in the spring. It must be magical at sunset to see so many in one place!

La Playa de Las Coloradas

Mexico's Pink River
The ochre waters of Las Coloradas as seen from Ria Lagartos. In the distance, you can see the white mountains of the salt mines.

After our flamingo viewing, we crossed the river to view the pink lakes of Las Coloradas. What we found was actually more accurate to the name, Las Coloradas, which means The Colors, not the pinks. What we found were reddish-brown lakes among a backdrop of stark white mountains protected by a guard on an ATV.

Why is Las Coloradas Pink?
Taking a stroll on the sand that separates Ria Lagartos and Los Coloradas.

The research I had done had promised a naturally pink lake due to microscopic algae in the water. According to our guide, this is far from the truth. Las Coloradas is actually a salt mine. Through a series of dams, water is contained in pools and is treated with chemicals. This causes the salt to precipitate out, so that it can be mined and later made into the big white mountains, then sold. Depending on when you visit, the water may be pink, red, or brown, depending on how much water has evaporated out. Although it was not as strikingly pink as I expected, it was still a unique and beautiful sight that I am happy to have seen. And when I started researching my trip to Las Coloradas, I didn’t realize I would get to see flamingos. So I still got my fair share of seeing pink!

You can also access Las Coloradas pools and its town by car. There is a chance that the water’s color from that side, where there is a bigger pool, is due to the microbes, but it is also adjacent to the salt mine, so I am suspect. We visited the lakes in the afternoon. I have also heard that the color changes throughout the day as the sun warms the water.

Baño Maya or Clay Baths in Ria Lagartos

The shores of Ria Lagartos, Mexico.
Trudging along a salt marsh to find the perfect clay to apply to our bodies.

The sulfuric clay that lays along the beaches of Ria Lagartos is said to have curative properties. Most tours end with a good old slathering of the mud on tourist’s bodies. Many of the tours put it on at the Playa Las Coloradas. Manuel took us away from the masses to a more private beach where he painstakingly looked for the perfect clay that didn’t stink near as much.

Los Colorados Mexico
I think we look a bit like zombies, but it was a fun family activity covering each other in clay.

You will then take the boat ride back toward town, looking like the strange-looking ghosts that you saw going past you on your way in.

When in St. Lucia, we did a different kind of mud bath– straight from a volcano. Read about Lipstick and Luggage’s experience on St. Lucia.

Animals to see in Ria Lagartos, Mexico
Three brown pelicans chilling on a pier near Los Coloradas, Mexico taking a break in the afternoon sun.

A Bath at the Beach

Rio Lagartos beach, Mexico.
The shore was shallow for a long distance, and the salinity made for perfect floating.

Manuel then took us to a fabulous shallow beach accessible only by boat. There we washed off our clay. We spent a while frolicking in the perfect water. As a note of caution, we all ended up with a sunburn. I think this was because the clay exfoliated us. We then spent so much time in the shallow water. We reapplied sunscreen when we got out, but we were burnt already.

Under a palapa, he fed us lunch of an incredible ceviche that he made yesterday’s catch of octopus. This whole experience was a highlight of the day. The beach was a great escape from the hordes of tourists that we had been with around Cancun.

Ceviche, Mexico
Manuel was a generous host, thrilled to share information with us about the area, the life of an octopus fisherman, and the beauty of the river.

A Road Trip from Cancun to Ria Lagartos

A Mayan village in the Yucatan, Mexico.
A typical Mayan village with palapas. Residents generally sleep in hammocks.

The ride to Rio Lagartos through Mexico was interesting, as well. It goes through many Mayan villages where you can stop, meet natives, and try some food. Even though their houses look primitive, the happiness and open smiles of these people are a good reminder of what is truly important in life.

Tizimin, Mexico
It is worth stopping in Tizimin to see the 16th century Church of Los Santos Rios.

If you are a nature lover or want to see a more remote, but equally as beautiful part of Mexico outside of Cancun, a visit to Rio Lagartos and Las Coloradas is a must add to your Mayan Riviera itinerary. Another of my favorite things in this area are cenotes. Explore them with Savored Journeys.

To see more Mexican wildlife, consider swimming with sea turtles in Tulum.

This trip was a great reminder to me that sometimes the best adventures are those that don’t go the way that you plan.






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7 thoughts on “Rio Lagartos and Las Coloradas, Mexico- an Alligator River and a Pink Lake?”

  1. Thankyou. This post is going to be an enormous help. We are going to Cancun next year and I have left time to see the Flamingos but I didn’t really know how to go about organising a tour. I am going to telephone Manuel and see if he will take us. The pink lake will be a bit of a bonus. I didn’t know it was there.


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