I wonder if the Mayans planned to build such a fun tourist experience.
I assume not. It’s unlikely they ever envisaged their ancient creation would effectively become a water slide, that one day I would be floating along with a huge smile on my face, thanking them for their clever engineering.
But, even though it was probably not intentional, I would like to give thanks to the Ancient Mayans for what they have left us at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve near Tulum here in Mexico.
When it comes to Sian Ka’an, the focus is not actually on what humans have created, though. It’s on the unique ecosystem that nature has sculpted on the coast of Mexico.
Even the Mayans acknowledged how special this place is, with Sian Ka’an meaning ‘Origin of the Sky’ in their language.
Why is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve important?
It’s the range of the biodiversity that makes Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve so significant, with tropical forests, mangroves, marshes, and even a barrier reef. Sian Ka’an is home to more than 300 bird species, as well as animals including jaguars, pumas, ocelots, and tapirs.
Is it worth visiting Sian Ka’an?
It is well worth visiting Sian Ka’an to see both the landscapes and the wildlife within the reserve (as well as the Mayan ruins at Muyil). Although the protected area is vast, there are a few ways to easily access Sian Ka’an as a tourist.
Are there tours to Sian Ka’an?
The easiest way to visit Sian Ka’an is by tour and there are two main options from the riviera towns – either by boat to the marine area around Punta Allen, or by road to the lake area around Muyil (the more popular choice).
I’ve been making an effort to visit all of the World Heritage Sites in the Mexican Riviera as I travel through this region. So far, they have all been related to the Mayan civilisation or the Spanish colonial period, but this is the first one I’ve been to that is about the nature.
It’s one of the reasons why Sian Ka’an has become such a popular day trip from Tulum.
If you’re interested in visiting, I think this tour from Tulum is the most convenient and affordable guided option.
It takes a lot for UNESCO to add a natural site to the World Heritage List – but that just goes to show how special Sian Ka’an is. Let’s have a quick look at why.
What is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve?
The biosphere reserve has a few different elements and it’s the way that they interact that makes it particularly interesting.
In some parts there are tropical forests and palm savannahs that then merge into mangroves and marshes. There are lakes that have formed inland and rivers that lead to the coast, with long beaches and sandy dunes. Off the coast, there’s a large marine section that is also part of Sian Ka’an, including a barrier reef.
And, with such a diverse environment, you’ll find a lot of different plants and animals.
In the forests, there are jaguars, pumas, ocelots and tapirs. In the water, there are manatees, turtles, and fish. And flying above it are all sorts of resident and migratory bird species.
When it comes to visiting Sian Ka’an, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to see all of these because they’re spread out across the vast reserve that is one of the largest protected areas in Mexico.
In fact, the whole Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve includes 120 kilometres of coastline and covers about 400,000 hectares on land and 120,000 at sea. (To give that some context, it’s about the same size as the US state of Delaware.)
But, with almost no development within the boundaries, there’s a good chance of seeing something of interest, whichever part of Sian Ka’an you end up visiting.
Things to do at Sian Ka’an
For people wanting to visit Sian Ka’an, there are only really two areas that are easily accessible.
The first is to go to Punta Allen, which is on the coast and offers the opportunity to see the marine elements of the biosphere.
The second is to go to Muyil and see some of the inland parts of Sian Ka’an, including the forest, mangroves, and lagoons.
The first way – going to Punta Allen – is more difficult. To do it as a day trip, the only option is to go on a tour that will take you there by boat. Going independently, you’ll need to do it as at least an overnight trip because it takes a long time to get there along a poor-quality road.
If you want to visit the Punta Allen part of Sian Ka’an, I would recommend this day tour from Tulum. I’ll discuss some other options shortly.
The much more popular option is to head to the Muyil part of Sian Ka’an. It’s cheaper, easier, and possible to do independently from Tulum. It’s the way that I choose to visit Sian Ka’an.
Once you’re at the Muyil section, there are a few different things to see in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
The first thing you’ll notice at Muyil are the Mayan ruins by the roadside. The old city of Muyil is quite small, especially compared to the Mayan ruins in Tulum or the epic structures you’ll see when you visit Chichen Itza.
Still, there are a couple of nicely-restored temples and pyramids to see at Muyil.
Historians believe it was occupied for more than a thousand years and was located on an important trading route. They’re not the kind of ruins that are worth going out of your way to see, but I think it’s definitely worth popping in while you’re here.
There’s an exit at the far end of the Muyil ruins that will take you to a path that leads down to the edge of a lake. Along the way, there’s a lookout tower that you can climb to get a 360 degree vista of Sian Ka’an.
Turn around, take it in, and realise how large the protected biosphere here is. This is one of the largest reserves in Mexico and the green stretches out in every direction until it reaches the ocean or the horizon.
Although Muyil is one of the best (and only) places from which to explore Sian Ka’an, there’s only so much you can do on your own. There aren’t really any long walking tracks, for instance. The best thing to do is take a boat ride.
Sian Ka’an boat trip
I’ve arrived at Muyil by bus from Tulum and it turns out there are four other people on the bus who have come for the same reason. We get a boat together and head off in the hands of a local ranger.
The water in the lagoon is so clean… and clear. It has such a vibrant blue to it, with tones that changes as we go out deeper.
Along the shoreline are the thriving mangroves and behind them the forest or savannahs. Above me is the wide Mexican sky, which today is warmly beaming down but scattered with clouds.
It could be a watercolour painting, a perfect composition of colours and lights that is simple in its arrangement but much more compelling than the sum of its parts.
As we cross from one lagoon to another, we go through a canal that was cut by the Ancient Mayans. Looking down into the shallow water, I can see hundreds of small fish swimming. Some birds jump between trees and bushes.
We cross another lagoon and, at the other side, reach the canal where we all get out of the boat and begin to float down ourselves.
Floating in a Sian Ka’an canal
It’s this canal that I was talking about at the beginning of this story. Carved out by the Ancient Mayans more than a thousand years ago, it was used by them to transport goods and move around the area.
Now here I am, with a lifejacket tied around my waist, floating along its length.
It’s relaxing – and it’s fun. But it also puts me at a good position to look more closely at the scenery. I can see the mangroves close-up, the way they interact with the water, and the other plants.
The water moves relatively fast and I don’t need to do too much to keep moving down the canal. I just paddle slightly to keep my head above water and avoid some overhanging branches.
Again, the water is so clear that I can see fish swimming around my feet. But I can also see a lot more birds now, circling overhead or resting in the flora on either side of the canal.
I realise that this is one of the reasons that the boat tours at Sian Ka’an include this floating experience. It’s not just for a bit of a lark – although I admit it is the most enjoyable part – but it’s also so we can get up close to the nature.
Without the noise of the boat’s engine and at a meandering pace, you can see so much more of the nature here in the protected area.
So the Mayans may not have intended to create a tourist attraction. They presumably dug this canal for practical reasons. But I like to think they would have wanted future generations to protect and admire it.
Tours to Sian Ka’an from Tulum
So, it’s possible to see all of these things yourself, but it does take a bit of time and planning to do it independently.
If you want to visit the marine part of Sian Ka’an around Punta Allen, where you can head out on a boat to the reef to possibly see animals like manatees and turtles, then I think a tour is really your only option.
To get to Punta Allen, I would recommend this day trip, although there are a few other options here:
The easier (and cheaper) tour option is to Muyil, and I think this is also where you’ll find a more interesting variety of things to see. If you’re unsure which part of Sian Ka’an to visit, this is the one I would recommend.
There are quite a few tours from Tulum to Sian Ka’an and it certainly makes the trip much easier and takes all the hassle out of organising things yourself and having to wait for public transport.
Most of them will include the boat ride, but there are a few tours that offer slightly different experiences if that’s not what you’re interested in.
If you want a general tour that covers all the highlights, I would recommend this popular trip from Tulum, which is a really good overview.
Alternatively, there’s this one that focuses on birdwatching or there’s this one that does yoga on a stand-up paddle board!
You can see some of the great options here:
None of the tours is particularly cheap, and that’s partly because you’re paying for comfortably private transfers and a guide. If you are trying to travel on a budget, you will save money by visiting Sian Ka’an independently.
Visiting Sian Ka’an from Tulum independently
It is possible get to Sian Ka’an from Tulum by public transport, and there is a direct route to the small township at Muyil.
The easiest way to get to Muyil from Tulum is to get the Mayab bus from the main ADO station in Tulum. It leaves every hour or so and costs $31 (US$1.70).
When you get to Muyil, you’ll need to pay an entrance fee of $50 (US$2.80) for the park.
If you also go to the Muyil Mayan ruins, there is an extra entrance fee of $65 (US$3.60).
For the boat ride, there is a fixed fee of $1000 (US$55) per person. They may put you with other people to fill up a boat if you are alone or in a small group. (Each boat has a maximum of 6 passengers.)
To get back to Tulum from Muyil, you can wait for the Mayab bus on the opposite side of the road from where you were dropped off.
There are also lots of colectivos driving past that will give you a lift. The rate probably won’t be fixed (for a foreigner) but expect to pay about $30 (US$1.55).
If you’re not in a hurry, there are some good restaurants opposite the entrance where you can get a meal before you head back.
As you can see, it’s not too hard to visit the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve by yourself. It’ll take longer if you’re doing it by public transport because you have to wait for the bus or colectivo at either end. But you will save a fair bit of money.