Mexico is home to between 10 and 12% of the world’s biodiversity, with more than 200,000 species of flora and fauna across the country. The Yucatán Peninsula is a major haven for this plant and animal life thanks to its well-protected habitats, ranging from inland jungles and dense coastal mangroves to fresh-water lagoons and large barrier reefs. While a lot of the wildlife remains elusive to visitors, here are a few animals that can be spotted with relatively little effort.
One of the most unusual animals in Latin America, tapirs have scurried through the region’s jungles for millennia. Unfortunately, they find themselves on endangered lists today as habitats become threatened by development. Thankfully, there’s a strong conservation effort taking place in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve where you may catch a lucky sighting in the wildlife-rich network of inlets and mangroves. Despite weighing almost 800 pounds, tapirs are excellent swimmers and are great at moving through dense undergrowth.
Experts suggest there are more than 360 species of birds in the state of Quintana Roo, plus hundreds more that use the peninsula as a stopping point on winter migrations. If you own a pair of binoculars, add them to your packing list as they’ll come in handy to spot a wide range of birdlife, including the flame-colored Altamria oriole. Found in dense shrubs or perching on palm trees, the pop of orange makes them one of the easiest to spot, and the two-foot-long nests dangling from branches are feats of natural engineering.
Loggerhead sea turtle
Thanks to its soft sand beaches and calm waters, Riviera Maya offers prime real estate for nesting turtles. This critically endangered species has a tough time battling for beach space and avoiding fishing nets, but local preservation groups are working hard to protect vital breeding grounds from resort development. The bay at Akumal is one of the most important loggerhead nesting sites in the Americas. Here, it’s possible to swim with these gentle giants, which remain under close protection of the team at Centro Ecológico Akumal.
Somewhere between a racoon and a lemur, these jungle dwellers were revered by the ancient Mayan civilizations, who believed they possessed mystical powers. Today, their numbers are in steady decline but it’s not unusual for guests at Tulum’s luxurious resorts to spot bands of 20 or more coati rampaging through the hotel grounds, with youngsters tumbling and playing as they head for cover in the surrounding jungle.
A colorful cousin of North America’s wild turkeys, the ocellated turkey dazzles with its vibrant blue, green, and bronze plumage and its light-blue head covered in orange, wart-like dots. Like the coati, these were significant animals for the Maya who believed they held god-like powers. The birds still roam wild, and you may be fortunate enough to spot them during jungle treks, but your best bet is to find them wandering through the archaeological ruins of Cobá.
Black spiny-tailed iguana
With a top speed of 21.5mph, the Guinness Book of World Records lists these four-feet-long iguanas as the fastest lizard on earth. Thankfully, they also spend a lot of the day sunning themselves on rocks, and it’s not uncommon to spot them when you’re touring the ancient ruins surrounding Tulum. While they look fearsome with long claws and spikes along their backs, they’re mainly herbivorous. That said, they can strike with their tail when threatened, so it’s best to keep your distance!
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