n the afternoon, Jesus and I motor out to the array of trails and roads that extend into the protected Celestún Biosphere Reserve.
We’re at the edge of coastal scrub habitat. Unlike the nearly impenetrable mangrove habitat to the east of us, this coastal scrub consists of small thickets of dry forest trees, grasslands and open flats of dried mud. Estuary water mazes throughout this zone. It is walkable terrain.
We walk slowly and deliberately through the habitat, looking for birds and other wildlife. Jesus, who grew up in Celestún, explains his love of walking. “I can be out here all day,” he says, his binoculars on the trees.
And I agree, and to myself I note that walks like this are what I live for – quiet, peaceful, and…
My phone starts pinging from a messaging app. I turn the volume down, but in a few minutes, the noise is constant. I stop to read the messages coming through.
“What’s going on?” Jesus asks.
“It’s the parents in Mérida. Several of them are sick. They are talking about which medications to get.”
He asks me a few questions, and I have trouble giving the explanation. Our bodies aren’t used to the water here.”
Jesus nods, and walks to a nearby shrub, showing me the local cure for stomach issues. “Take this, mix it with the leaves of red mangrove trees, and let it simmer for fifteen days.”
We continue walking along the path until we approach a cluster of ruins, which sit at the edge of a large lagoon. Jesus believes we may find motmots, which like to sleep in the relative protection of the enclosed spaces.
We arrive at the set of buildings, all in various states of decay.
Was this a Spanish mission? A hidden pirate’s lair? Inside the community’s chapel, I can see ornate tiles, although they are in such a good state, that I have trouble believing my original assumption that this was a Spanish mission.
But this was a successful, although isolated, salt-producing town in the 1900’s known as Real de Salinas. The many buildings were housing for the people who lived here.
There is no clear history on exactly what happened to this abandoned town. According to a Milenio Novedades, a Mérida newspaper, an incident of violence perpetrated by a member of this community caused Celestún to stop working with, and even selling to, members of Salinas de Real, essentially embargoing the community.
Poverty fell on the community, and the people either fled, or died of sickness and extreme poverty, until only one elderly woman remained.