As one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, natural beauty is abundant in Mexico. Finding a breath-taking scene is just a matter of being in the right spot. Plenty of people know about the scuba diving near Cozumel and the incredible aquatic life in the Sea of Cortez by the Baja peninsula. But how about the hidden, or dare I say, Off Path locations?
Ten miles (16km) north of Puerto Escondido is home to Manialtepec Lagoon. Hundreds of birds species serve as the sideshow to the main attraction: bioluminescent water. Tiny plankton have evolved to ward off predators by emitting ultraviolet light when startled, literally glowing in the water. Hop in the water under the darkness of night and watch as the tiny creatures glow as you splash around.
Visit the bioluminescent Manialtepec Lagoon. Take a taxi, drive a car, or go with a tour – however you get there, you won’t regret it.
Tour Options for Manialtepec Lagoon
After a nice day of checking out the surfers in Puerto Escondido, Kristina and I walked over toward the Adoquin (Av. Alfonso Pérez Gasga) to check out the options for tours of Manialtepec Lagoon (Laguna de Manialtepec). There are three main choices which any tour vendor can set you up with: (1) early morning bird-watching boat tours (5/6am – 11am; approximately $400 pesos), (2) afternoon tours to beaches with sea turtle hatchlings making their way to sea (1pm – 5pm; $300 pesos), and (3) evening boat tours to swim in the bioluminescent Manialtepec Lagoon (5pm – 10pm; $300 pesos).
But we had a trick up our sleeve, as usual, and selected none of the above. Instead, we climbed into a shared taxi ($25 pesos) which took us 20 minutes north to our hotel for the night: Best Night Hotel La Laguna, situated on the banks of Laguna de Manialtepec. Since we called ahead we knew they have a pool, accept credit cards, and even had a restaurant onsite. Perfect!
Well, no. It was apparent we spoke with someone who was not onsite. Manialtepec Lagoon is full of beautiful water inviting for a swim, but the hotel pool was more like a swamp in the Florida Everglades. Dark green color and downright putrid look. The restaurant was closed; it wasn’t busy season. And they would not accept a credit card for the $700 peso tab.
Thankfully, we didn’t come for the hotel and we brought enough cash to cover the bill (a must for visiting most off path destinations in Mexico).
We were happy to be at the lagoon. The scene was beautiful. Lush forests covered the mountains behind us; mangroves shot out of the edge of the lagoon’s glassy water; and a small, green island interrupted the vast horizon.
Sunset Dinner and Tour Plans
The hotel receptionist informed us that this tiny block of establishments included all of the basics. The guy next door, he said, does evening tours for $200 pesos. And there is a waterfront restaurant on the other side if you’d like to grab a bite before you head out. Kristina and I, already on the brink of hangry, were relieved to find out we weren’t going to starve.
As we rounded the corner on the walk over to the restaurant, a sudden and vicious bark lurched out of the bushes. Snap! Went the chain connected to the nearby tree – and the jaws of a large dog, just inches away from grabbing a piece of Kristina’s leg. A close call which got our blood pumping.
The restaurant was empty, but had incredible views. We ordered and went to the dock’s only bench to wait for our meals. The two of us sat in near silence as the sun set across the lagoon and set fire to the sky. The meal was fine, grilled shrimp for me and quesadillas for Kristina ($250 pesos), but the experience was sensational.
As we finished dinner, a couple showed up to rent some paddle boards from next door – a bar which also rents aquatic equipment – and set off into the sunset with their guide (required for paddle board rentals). We then went back to the hotel, changed into our swim gear, packed a few things into our favorite dry bag, and went over to the dock to meet our captain for the evening.
Bioluminescence in Laguna de Manialtepec
Edmundo is the proprietor of a small tour company – and a friendly person with a constant smile from ear to ear. We loaded into one of his boats with 7 other people and took off toward the area of the lagoon with the bioluminescence.
Here’s the real secret of visiting Laguna Manialtepec: You MUST visit at a time when the moonlight is at a minimum. Otherwise, the moonlight can easily overpower most of the glowing plankton. You’ll be forced to go inside of a tiny hut which blocks the moonlight. It’s not always easy to plan around mother nature, but just like you have to plan ski trips around the snow and beach vacations around hurricanes, plan a trip to Puerto Escondido around the moon phases. If you see bad reviews of Manialtepec Lagoon, I’m willing to bet they went when the moonlight was strong (or they were afraid of swimming in the dark).
We cruised along the smooth water in the pitch black. Every ten seconds or so, we heard a click and Edmundo’s flashlight would briefly shine on the water in front of us – verifying we weren’t going to collide with another boat. The stars were abundant in the sky above. The air was comfortable and smelled of nothing but fresh oxygen radiating off of the chlorophyll around us.
As we entered the plankton-filled area of the lagoon, which was much farther than the paddle-boarders could go, the water at the sides of the boat started to glow. Eventually Edmundo stopped the boat. Just off of the bow, a school of fish were jumping at the water’s surface. It lit up in a symphony of green circles, almost like someone throwing a bunch of glowing stones from afar. Spectacular!
Swimming in the Pitch-Black Waters
After a couple minutes, the boat started up again and took us toward a secluded section. It’s perfectly safe, Edmundo said, no crocodiles or anything to hurt you. Okay Edmundo, whatever you say. He stops the boat and says we can hop in.
Before the last word came out of his mouth I catch some movement out of the corner of my eye, then hear Kristina splash into the water. She may have been looking forward to this just a little bit. I jumped in behind her and two other Italian tourists followed suit. One other family was onboard – and they were quite tentative to climb into the black water.
With each stroke of the arm and kick of the leg, a glow blossomed. Like a burst of tiny stars from a hidden universe, a gentle yet vibrant greenish-yellow color comes out of the darkness. The more you move, the more the bioluminescent colors show. Kristina laughed with delight as the glowing specimens traveled through my facial hair after dunking my face in.
We spent about 30 minutes treading around the water, starting down at the plankton and up at the stars. Our favorite motion was to lay on our backs and do movements similar to making snow angels – with fully stretched out arms and legs swishing back and forth along the surface. The visuals and emotions of that night are etched into my brain forever. Laughter, amazement, and a hint of danger.
Some people don’t get as much out of the experience. The biggest mistake: coming when the moonlight is strong. But you also need to understand that the water only glows when it is startled. So conquer any fears you have and jump in! Splash around, laugh at it streaming off of your arms, and enjoy the best of Laguna de Manialtepec.
Being in open water is not something I have done as much as Kristina. My stomach was full of butterflies the entire time. You can’t see a thing in the water, even when the plankton glows. The other family onboard refused to enter the water and instead spent the first ten minutes trying to shine their flashlight into the water to view the plankton (which does not work). They finally stopped after all four of us in the water said “NOOOOOO” when they shined it on us for the third time, causing our pupils to constrict.
We eventually climbed back onboard and traveled back to the dock. Had a quick shower at the hotel, killed a nasty cockroach hanging out in our shower (another memorable first for me), and went to bed.
Contact Information – Bioluminescence in Manialtepec Lagoon
Before we left for the evening, we made plans with Edmundo to visit the secluded beach at Puerto Suelo in the morning. Check out our next post for details on this incredible paradise!
To take a tour with Edmundo (or his son Edwin – who took us to Puerto Suelo), contact them at +52-954-165-1260 (Mexican cell phone number) or [email protected]. Their current prices are $200 pesos per person for an evening tour of bioluminescence at Manialtepec Lagoon – or $1,500 pesos for a 3-hour private tour including the sunset and bioluminescent swim. They also offer bird-watching tours, leaving around 6am. Prices fluctuate with the seasons and as demand increases.
There is another set of lagoons further north as well. Laguna de Chacahua has bioluminescence and abundant wildlife. It’s over an hour away from Puerto Escondido, however, but is much larger than Laguna Manialtepec.
Top Tips for Visiting Manialtepec Lagoon
Let me reiterate the most important thing to get a good visit out of the bioluminescent lagoon: time your trip so that the moonlight is low. And get over any fears you have. Jump in the water and splash around!
Venture out and swim in the bioluminescence at Manialtepec Lagoon. If you enjoy bird-watching, either stay overnight or head out early to get a tour of a true bird sanctuary.
Have any recommendations for other locations other the world with bioluminescent water? Let us know in the comments below!