Where to find wild flamingos in the Camargue
Who knew there were wild flamingos in France? Not me! The Camargue region of France is an area that is almost mythical in my memories. As a child I loved horses, and the iconic images of the Camargue ponies crashing through the marshes were pinned to my bedroom walls. The Camargue was always on my ‘wish list’ of places I’d like to visit on this adventure of ours, and to glimpse those wild ponies.
The time was right this autumn as we returned to France after a few months in Italy and Slovenia. On doing some research into the Camargue, I discovered that the area is also known for its black Camargue bulls (le taureau de Camargue) and wild flamingos. Flamingos are such an exotic seeming bird, one that we have only seen in zoos, so the discovery that they can be seen in the wild in France was quite thrilling! I was then determined to try and spot one in the Camargue.
We headed into the Camargue in November, with a list of things we wanted to try and find: Camargue ponies, Camargue bulls, pink salt lakes, and wild flamingos. It also turns out that the Camargue is a rice growing area, which was another fascinating discovery about this wildly beautiful place.
I’ve marked a few places on the map to help you locate the places we saw the flamingos and where we stayed.
My research had shown that the Parc Ornithologique in the Camargue is a great place to see flamingos and many other birds. It does cost to go in, which when you’re on a €30 a day budget, suddenly seems a lot. So we decided that first we’d attempt to spot the flamingos from the road, we had the ornithological park as a back-up.
We drove into the Camargue on the main road (D570) that runs to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. It was lovely watching the change in the landscape as we drove further into the Camargue, increasing in beauty as we went. The landscape was flat and fields watery, grasses waving in the wind, and further on it became pools and lakes surrounded by tufts of rust hued bushes.
Finally we hit the sea and the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. It was not our cup of tea! Busy with tourists even in November, it was built up and full of those generic type shops that appear in tourist hotspots. Encouraged to leave as quickly as we arrived, we decided to drive out the other side of the town on the D85A.
Wild flamingos near Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Barely out of the town and there they were – three flamingos wading in the waters to the side of the road. I was surprised by how exciting it was to see them. We all jumped out of the Baby Bus and stood watching them for a while. Our pair of binoculars were dug out and we were treated to a closer look at these magnificent birds. Nick joked that here we were excited over three flamingos when there were probably 3,000 just around the corner.
With the binoculars in hand, Nick and our eldest daughter climbed up on the roof of the Baby Bus to get a better view. It’s one of the perks of a campervan like this, being able to climb up and sit on the roof, affording you a different perspective. It turned out there was about 3,000 flamingos “just around the corner”! From the roof of the Baby Bus, you could see huge flocks of pale pink flamingos in the distance.
Driving further along the road, we found another place to pull over and get a better view of these large flocks of flamingos. We weren’t able to get really close – there were a few tracks that could have got us closer, but those were closed to campervans.
Can you spot them in the pictures below?
Another way to get closer would have been to take a horse ride or one of the Land Rover safaris we saw. Our viewpoint from the Baby Bus roof, catching a glimpse of these beautiful birds, was quite good enough for us.
Thoughts on Camargue ponies
I knew that the iconic images of my childhood of the Camargue ponies crashing through the water was not how I would see them ‘for real’. However, I was disappointed/surprised by my lasting memory of how I saw the Camargue ponies in this landscape.
>> I preface this all by saying we were only there for a day, so these are my thoughts based on just a day spent in the Camargue. Therefore they are quite possibly an inaccurate portrayal of the Camargue ponies, but this is what I saw. <<
Before we arrived in the Camargue I had seen references online to the “semi-wild” Camargue ponies, so I was sort of prepared to be ‘disappointed’. We did see a few small herds of Camargue ponies in large fields, but by far the most Camargue ponies we saw were saddled and tied up at stables alongside the road, awaiting tourists.
I can’t comment on any of these establishments because I didn’t visit or ride with them, so I am in no position to give my opinion on them. I did, however, feel a bit troubled. These ponies are portrayed to the world as being wild and free, traversing the marshes of the Camargue. Yet the reality of what we saw in our brief visit to the Camargue, was stable after stable along the road, of ponies saddled and tied up in lines, flicking flies away with their tails.
Before we visited the Camargue, it was a dream of mine to ride through this area to see these iconic ponies in their landscape. Not so any longer. Perhaps I was naive to think that the Camargue would have escaped the commodification that tourism brings. Maybe I’m overthinking it, and exploring the Camargue on horseback is one of the easiest ways to get around this striking and challenging landscape. All I can share, is that I felt a bit sad about the situation from my outsiders perspective.
Where we stayed: Maison du Riz
We stayed at Maison du Riz just outside Albaron in the Camargue. It is a France Passion stop, but also listed on park4night, so open to all in a campervan or motorhome. Unfortunately the shop wasn’t open when we visited, which was such a shame as I had been keen to buy some locally grown Camargue rice and salt.
It was a lovely quiet spot for a night, and gave us a chance to see rice growing. In front of the shop is an area showcasing different types of rice that they grow – from risotto rice and “riz noir”. A bit like flamingos, rice seems quite ‘exotic’, so whilst I know that it is grown across Europe (in Italy for example), I hadn’t really imagined that rice was grown in France.
I think if we had come earlier in the year, we would have seen fields and fields of rice growing across the Camargue. Visiting in November I think it had all been harvested, apart from the showcase gardens at the Maison du Riz.
Whilst I was taking pictures (or attempting to!) of the rice, I became aware of just how many mosquitoes were around. Clouds of them came up every time I tried to crouch down in the rice to take a picture. My littlest daughter and I went to visit a small group of Camargue ponies, and I was shocked at how many huge mosquitoes were all over them!
Thankfully there was quite a breeze where we were parked and we didn’t have any problem with mosquitoes in the Baby Bus. I can’t imagine what it would have been like visiting in the summer when there were still so many mosquitoes in November. The people and animals of the Camargue are made of tough stuff!
Other places to see wild flamingos
The day we left the Camargue, we drove through Aigues-Mortes. Our plan had been to stop there and have a wander – there is an impressive fortress and pink salt ponds – however, both our daughters had fallen asleep before we reached it, so we carried on driving. As we drove out of Aigues-Mortes on the D979 towards Le Grau-du-Roi we saw hundreds more flamingos!
It was quite a surprise as we hadn’t expected to see any more flamingos after we left the Camargue regional park, but we saw quite a number around Aigues-Mortes, Le Grau-du-Roi, and La Grande-Motte.