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See wildlife and nature near Cancun

Going wild in Mexico doesn't have to mean a tequila-fueled beach vacation dancing on tabletops surrounded by carousing spring-breakers. In fact, the big party destination of Cancun is a short distance from lush parks hosting wildlife of another sort.
Image: Xcaret, near Cancun, Mexico
Xcaret, near Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico is known as the Riviera Maya. Cancun and its surrounding area of the Riviera Maya is Mexico's top destination for international travelers, drawing more than 3.5 million visitors a year.Mexico Tourism Board / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Going wild in Mexico doesn't have to mean a tequila-fueled beach vacation dancing on tabletops surrounded by carousing spring-breakers. In fact, the big party destination of Cancun is a short distance from lush parks hosting wildlife of another sort.

Neon pink flamingos, howler monkeys, brilliant toucans and mysterious sea turtles are just a few of the locals you can meet by trading la vida loca for a more nature-friendly trip.

Cancun and its surrounding area of the Riviera Maya are Mexico's top destination for international travelers, drawing more than 3.5 million visitors a year. The beach was the lure for the first visit my wife and I took six years ago. But since then, we've returned to explore the Northern Hemisphere's largest barrier reef off the coast, natural springs pocking the Yucatan, mangrove swamps, salt marshes and thick jungle.

Much of the Yucatan is a flat limestone slab, topped with low jungle and scrub. There are no real rivers; the heavy seasonal rain seeps into sinkholes, known locally as cenotes, that have eroded over the millennia into the porous stone. The fresh water travels underground and percolates into the sea from natural springs.

The woods, cenotes and waters off the coast host a riot of colorful animals. Great blue herons, anteaters, the Yucatan rust rump tarantula, giant iguanas, ocelots , manatees and countless other animals make their home in the region.

Families or other travelers who want to heed the call of the wild can check out the three eco-parks of Xcaret, Xel-Ha and Tres Rios. All are just a short ride away from the resorts at Cancun, Playa del Carmen and the rest of the Riviera Maya.

Xcaret is the most developed. It's a bit like a U.S. water park -but with a walk-through butterfly pavilion. You can also follow a narrow river from a spring out to the Caribbean and swim with dolphins and manatee (a practice that quite a few biologists frown upon as stressful for the animals).

Xel-Ha is the middle of the pack. It feels less engineered and is centered around a huge lagoon where fresh spring water mingles with the saltwater. The water teems with schools of electric-colored fish. There are bike trails and a spring-fed river to swim or float down in an inner-tube. Xel-Ha also offers chances to swim with the dolphins.

Tres Rios is our favorite. It's far less developed than the other two parks. You can kayak in the surf or canoe solo through the mangroves (no crocodiles as far as we could see). Take a boat out to snorkel the reef or ride horses. My favorite was the eerie swim from a cool spring along a narrow, tree-canopied stream out to the sea.

More adventurous tourists stray a bit farther, to visit the gem of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Refuge. The UNESCO World Heritage Site sprawls across about 1.3 million acres and includes everything from offshore coral reefs in to the beaches, lagoons, cenotes and low tropical forests.

It's a good idea to book a trip through the local tourism office, as the roads are tricky. We took a day-trip with a fly-by-night tour operator we found through our hotel in Playa del Carmen. Basically, locals rented a bunch of jeeps and handed the keys to us tourists. It was up to us to designate a driver for each vehicle — and we ended up chauffeured by a German tourist excited to drive an American jeep.

We spent a day in the biosphere, slowly making our way on rutted roads through the jungle to a boat that ferried us through mangrove-filled marshes. We spent a good 20 minutes circling a mangrove island packed with two species with memorable names — Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies. Then we headed out to the reef for some snorkeling, where we spotted sea turtles and dozens of varieties of tropical fish. A fresh fish lunch on the beach at the fishing town of Punta Allen capped off the trip. Total for the day: U.S. $70 each.

Flamingos prompted our latest trip to Mexico. I'd never seen a live example of the model for countless tacky lawn ornaments. So we decided to go big and see hundreds of them at once.

We centered the trip in the city of Merida, in the northwest part of the Yucatan Peninsula. Two of the best spots for flamingo-watching are the villages of Celestun and Rio Lagartos. We chose Celestun, on the Yucatan's West coast, since it fit in better with our itinerary. Rio Lagartos would likely be easier to reach for travelers coming from Cancun.

Tens of thousands of flamingos spend a good part of the year in these two spots, socializing, feeding and mating. They gain their distinctive color from the shrimp and other crustaceans they spend all day hunting in shallow water.

It sounds like a cliche, but Celestun really is a sleepy fishing village. There are two main roads, a handful of restaurants, stray dogs and a few hotels on the beach — one of which we stayed in for a few days. (Make sure you bring enough cash, as we couldn't find an ATM in town.)

A highlight of our stay was the night we spent on the rooftop deck of El Lobo, enjoying a few beers while watching a soccer game with the locals and a sprinkling of tourists.

You can catch a flamingo tour either from the beach, or by the side of the bridge as you first enter town. We joined a French couple for a half-day tour by boat from the beach for about U.S. $20 each. On the way to see the flamingos, we spotted egrets and albatrosses, and landed to take a hike into a "petrified forest" of trees killed off long ago by saltwater.

When we reached the flamingos, our guide, Jose Ojede, killed the motor and we coasted about 100 yards from a group of perhaps 75 of the birds. As the boat rocked gently, it was a bit of a shock to hear the elegant birds chatting — they sound almost exactly like ducks quacking.

For about a half-hour, we slowly moved from group to group, always giving them a wide berth. Don't urge your guide to move too close, as it can disrupt feeding and mating and could eventually drive flamingos away from their prime breeding grounds.

Locals realize the importance of the birds. Ojede makes his living as a fisherman and a guide. "When the octopus season begins, we fish. But when the tourism gets strong, during the holidays and especially December, then we work in tourism," he said.

And, increasingly, Mexico sees eco-tourism as a way to steer jobs and investment to some impoverished rural areas.

"We want to change the perception of Mexico that it's just sun and beach," said Eduardo Chaillo, director of the Mexico Tourism Board's Strategic Business Unit for U.S. and Canada. So Mexican tourism officials are working with National Geographic and tour operators to introduce the world to its natural spots.

"But we cannot risk these precious places by promoting them massively," said Chaillo.

For now, it appears tourists aren't exactly swarming the Yucatan's wild places. So, whether it's a quick break from the beach or the theme of your trip, Mexico's wildlife is waiting.