I discovered Progreso, Mexico in 2018. Friends of mine who had spent a lot of time in Mérida, the capital of the Yucatan, highly recommended the area. Progreso sits pretty much in the middle of a narrow not-quite-island that is very long. The coastline is pristine beach on the Gulf of Mexico. Far from the all-inclusive crowds of the Mayan Riviera, it is still Mayan, but more. I booked to return in March 2020, a trip that obviously never happened. But this January seemed a good time to return and soak up the sun and culture.
Last time we had flown to Cancun and drove three and a-half hours on an empty “super-highway” toll road. It seemed like the simpler option as flying to Mérida meant a change of planes. Well, that was a mistake as the president of Mexico is building the Mayan Railway around the Yucatan Peninsula. And he wants it done, now. When we hit the road — which only has a few exits — we found that it was torn up pretty much all the way to Mérida.
We ended up driving in the dark on a now-two-lane highway with trucks coming at us and construction crews filling the air with dust and debris. The three and-a-half hours stretched into six. So if you do visit, fly to Mérida until the train is up and running (there was no warning on the web about the construction). There is a bit of controversy around the train as it cuts through pristine jungle. To date, one entire Mayan city has been re-discovered. Who knows what else they will find.
We had rented a house on the beach to the east of Progreso near an area called Uaymitun. Waking up the next morning, looking from the balcony, it was clear that this was going to be a much more relaxing day. The beach goes forever. It is over sixty miles from one end of the barrier island to the other. There are no large hotels in this area, and only a few smaller ones. Most of the beachfront properties are private houses, though low density condos are starting to be built. Mexicans, especially residents of Mérida and nearby areas, fill the beach in July and August. This time of year it is empty. Perfection.
We needed to stock up for the week and so we headed back to the “mainland” for some shopping. We could now enjoy the views of what had been shrouded in dense darkness the night before. There are lagoons, some of which are pink due to a type of algae, between the barrier beach and the mainland.
Some changes have been made to the area since 2018, but not the diversity of nature. Crocs inhabit the lagoon, and all sorts of other species are found all over the place. But the most interesting development has been the scientific discoveries and clarifications around the Chicxulub Crater. In the late 1970s, scientists discovered the existence of a crater that was formed 66 million years ago when an asteroid six miles wide slammed into the earth where Chicxulub is now, leaving a crater ten miles wide. Scientists are still investigating.
They have learned that the event created mega-tsunamis over 300 feet tall, killing 75% of the species of plants and animals on earth, including all non-avian dinosaurs. Debris filled the air, blocking sunlight on the earth for years. And from this hot (superheated plasma) mess, mammals and humans emerged. It is such a peaceful area now, it is hard to comprehend the magnitude of the event. The community built the Jurassic Trail in Chicxulub Puerto in 2022, but it was not open when we passed by. It looked interesting, if aimed for children.
Flocks of flamingos throng the lagoons. You never know where you will find them as they roam everywhere in the shallow waters. The area is one of the prime spots for finding flamingos on the Yucatan peninsula.
After an afternoon on the beach, we went into Progreso for dinner. Crabster has branches in Mérida and Progreso. The food is excellent as is the selection of wines. Mexico produces some excellent ones from the Valle de Guadeloupe. The cuisine: Mexican seafood.
The next morning we headed back to town. Progreso was built as a large port in the 1870s used in the export of sisal, which made the Yucatan wealthy. Sisal farming declined in the mid-20th century.
There is very long well-kept Malecón, or boardwalk, that runs along the pristine beach. Restaurants and other amusements stretch out along the beach, too.
Lunch on the beach at Almadia was excellent. The decor is pretty as it sits on several levels and embraces the sea and fresh air.
Also on the beach is the newly built Meteorite Museum. It explains the scientific discoveries found nearby in a simple and visual way designed so children can see the history that unfolded here.
The Museum is near the very long — four miles! — Progreso pier. An earlier wooden version gave way to a concrete one that was finished in the late 1980s. Cruise ships dock here, but normally only once or twice a week. The pier is usually uncrowded.
We headed back to our part of the beach to take a walk. This area is now known as the Ruta Costa Esmeralda, or the Route of The Emerald Coast. Well-tended houses of all sizes line the beach. Most of the houses belong to wealthy Meridanos, but we met some Canadians who have put down roots. Merida itself has attracted many Texans. A great majority of the houses are for rent and the area is very safe. There are checkpoints along YUC 27, the highway that runs the length of the barrier beach. The police manning the checkpoints wave to you as they recognize your car.
Originally we were going to drive to Mérida and visit the Palacio Canton and its collection of Mayan arts. The museum, however, was closed for renovations so we decided to visit a nearby Mayan site, Xcambó. The name means “Place of the Crabs” or “Place of the Crocodiles.” The pyramid is called the Temple of The Cross. The city, a wealthy one due to the nearby salt trade, can be traced back to 150 B.C. Mayan ruins are scattered all over the Yucatan.
A small, decorated wooden cross stands atop the summit. You can see as far as the sea and over the tops of the trees. Smaller pyramids border the plaza.
A Catholic chapel was built on a Mayan foundation, using stones from the site. In Mayan fashion, it has a palapa-style roof.
A short drive away is the Laguna Rosada, or the pink lagoon. The algae that colors the water also colors the salt taken from the lagoon, and it too is pink. Flamingos can be found here in season and the pink on pink look is spectacular.
Sticking with the nature vibe, the next day we decided to drive about an hour and a half to the Biosphere of Celestun. Located on the Bay of Campeche, it too has beautiful beaches. We stopped for lunch at La Palapa, where we enjoyed delicious coconut shrimp.
The visitor’s center had lots of adorable and friendly coatimundis, or Mexican raccoons, and boats with guides were available for rent. They will take you out onto the waters of the lagoon to see the flamingos up close, and into the mangroves.
Celestún in famous for its flamingos, too. A fun fact: flamingos are white when they are born and turn pink from eating pink shrimp and the algae of the pink lagoons. There were hundreds of them, all talking among themselves. And when they fly, you can see their black tipped wings. Such graceful birds.
After cruising in the lagoon, the boat glides you through mangrove swamps where the light comes and goes. Along with birds and other animals in the trees, and crocodiles gliding in the water.
There are also hundreds of pelicans in the Reserve. Fish and shellfish abound here, and the pelicans appear very well fed and happy.
Fishing is the main industry in Celestún. These men were fishing for shrimps in the lagoon. It explains why the shrimps at La Palapa were so very fresh.
We had a large number of pelicans on our beach, too. In the mornings, rings of twenty or so birds would float in the ocean, family style, and feed in the late afternoon when the angle of the sun made it easy to see the fish.
One day we headed east on route YUC 27 to have lunch in the small town of Telchac Puerto. On the way we pulled over to watch the flamingos in the lagoon. The group milled around for a while and then a formation of them took off and headed to another lagoon.
With beach to one side, and the lagoons to the other, the road stretches peacefully. There were some small condos being built at the approach to Telchac, but it is mostly just pristine.
There are four or five restaurants in town, along with bakeries and small grocery stores — and even a pizza restaurant. The food at Los Tiburones, or The Sharks, is good. The menu features signature Yucatan dishes like poc chuc, a citrus grilled pork, ceviches and grilled fish. The seafood is beyond fresh.
Across the square is the lighthouse and the concrete pier of Telchac. Visitors to the Mayan sites nearby often stop in town for lunch. The entire area had been redecorated since we had last visited; boasting murals celebrating the flamingos, the ruins, and the sea, tributes to sea creatures, and other wildlife. A little kitschy, but sweet.
There were some small souvenir stands with flamingos and beach toys as the beach here is pristine, too. Mexican tourists love to Instagram, and Telchac is ready for them. There is the welcoming shark and oversize chairs and benches placed with a mind to the views.
Telchac and Progreso both feature decorative signs on the beach for easy posting. The views are beautiful, and of course there are pelicans, egrets and more.
It is also very easy to just relax and do nothing. Soft sands, gentle waters and lots of sun and blue skies encouraged us to do just that.
Barbara Hodes is the owner of NYC Private Shopping Tour, offering customized tours in New York and Brooklyn.