Grab your binoculars, camera and snorkel mask and set sail for an island adventure. A two-hour boat ride to the north of Cancun, you’ll spy a tiny island of mangroves, dunes and palm groves. This desert island is Contoy, also known as la isla de los pajaros or “the island of the birds” in Spanish and when you disembark you’ll understand why! There are birds everywhere: pelicans waddle along the wooden pier, frigate birds circle overhead looking to snatch a fish dinner from an unsuspecting gull, dainty terns swoop low over the waves and the mangroves echo with the raucous cries of nesting cormorants and egrets.
A protected area since 1961, and declared a national park in 1998, Contoy is a refuge for 150 species of native and migrant birds. It has one of the largest populations of brown pelicans in the Caribbean, a 5,000-strong colony of frigate birds and 3,000 double-crested cormorants. Other residents include roseate spoonbills and ten members of the heron family such as the great blue heron, reddish and snowy egret, the yellow-crowned night heron and the boat-billed heron or kuka. Flamingos can sometimes be spotted and during the winter months the island is a refuge for ducks, plovers, sandpipers and other shore birds that migrate south to escape the cold of northern latitudes.
Sea turtles nest on island beaches during the summer and the calm waters of Imaxpoit Bay are home to rays and colorful fish such as sergeant majors. To the south of Contoy is Ixlache Reef, the first link in a chain of coral reefs stretching south through the Mexican Caribbean to Belize. Known as the Mesoamerican Reef, this incredible coral formation is the second longest in the world.
Getting here is half the fun. Your boat journey will take you through a stretch of water sporting shades of turquoise you didn’t know existed and you may be lucky enough to spot flying fish and dolphins. Spend the day snorkeling, relax on the beach and explore the island’s nature trails on the lookout for birds.
Contoy is uninhabited except for the park wardens and the occasional biologist doing field work. Visit the museum beside the pier to find out more about island ecology, flora and fauna and be sure to climb the observation tower for a better view of the island and the birds.