Visiting Mexico is on many people’s bucket lists. And one of the main reasons why people want to come to Mexico, besides food and tequila, is definitely because of its beaches and its abundant nature, including extraordinary places such as the Sian Kaan Biosphere.
In this guide, I will tell you all about it and all the many ways you can visit this protected region of Mexico.
Obviously, there are many places that are advertised, like the beaches of Cancun or Tulum or the “eco-parks” that are “pretty” and “fun”, but not so much “eco” as they may want you to believe.
Then there is this magnificent protected nature spot that thankfully has not yet become people’s #1 choice and yet, it’s going to offer THE BEST experience during your time in the Mexican Caribbean. But please don’t tell anyone! 😉
We are talking about Sian Ka’an, “the place where the sky is born” in the Mayan language.
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Located on the eastern shore of the Yucatan Peninsula, 20 minutes away from Tulum, Quintana Roo, Sian Ka’an is a biosphere reserve declared as such on January 20th, 1986.
In 1987 it was then proclaimed by UNESCO as a world heritage. Its extension is of more than 600 thousand protected hectares of land, ocean, sinkholes, lagoons, mangroves, and wetlands.
It is the 3rd largest natural protected area in Mexico.
Sian Ka’an has also been declared a Ramsar site. Ramsar is the list where we find the wetlands of international importance because of their uniqueness and biodiversity.
Sian Ka’an biosphere overview
Sian Ka’an is home to 9 different ecosystems, a wealth of flora and fauna, including 320 bird species, around 100 mammals, 90 species of native bees, 47 species of dragonflies, 74 species of beetles, 310 species of mosquitos (no, you can’t bring mosquito spray, sorry!), 318 species of butterflies, 84 species of coral, and 5 neotropical felines (to mention some).
It is also home to many archeological sites like Muyil, and, 120 kilometers of the Mesoamerican reef are included in it, which provides the area with a double heritage UNESCO designation.
Sian Ka’an, as a tourist destination, is also part of Maya Ka’an, a very rich region that offers very unique experiences in natural environments combined with the historical and cultural elements of the Mayan communities of today.
Historically it is said that the channels of the biosphere reserve were used by the Mayan people (and other indigenous groups) used as commercial trade routes to reach the site of Muyil.
It is said that the canoes (transportation mode of those times) would enter from the Boca Paila side of the Caribbean Sea. (Boca Paila is another attractive spot in the Biosphere reserve)
The main natural importance of Sian Ka’an lies in the “PETENES”. Peten is the name given to the mangroves that are formed in several islets within the reserve that can grow up to 30 meters tall, and of course, they are home and hosts of endless biodiversity.
But, what is a biosphere reserve?
According to the National Geographic Society, the biosphere is made up of the parts of the earth where life exists. It extends from the deepest root systems of the trees to the dark environment of ocean trenches, to lush rainforests and high mountaintops.
The biosphere is also sometimes thought of as one large ecosystem that hosts a complex community of living and nonliving things functioning as a single unit.
So, a biosphere reserve is a portion of the biosphere where efforts are made to promote its sustainable development and to establish a working, balanced relationship between humans and nature.
According to the mentioned source, there are 536 biosphere reserves all over the world.
How to get to Sian Ka’an
The best way to explain how to get to Sian Ka’an is to tell you to first make your way to Tulum, Quintana Roo. Tulum is not only an archeological site but also as many of you know, one of the most important tourism destinations in the area.
In Tulum, we have the downtown area and the beach and hotel zone area. In order to get to Sian Ka’an you need to head by car, shared transportation, or a tour towards the end of the hotel zone (Tulum coastal road) until you reach the “Mayan arch” that marks the entrance to the reserve.
Sian Ka’an reserve collects an entrance fee of 100 pesos (September 2021), and, if you go on your own you have to pay it. If you go on a tour you need to check if the fee is included in the cost.
Going to Sian Ka’an by Public transportation:
This is information that interests the most adventurous or the budget travelers. The information is very hard to find and although it’s not very reliable (mind, don’t say I haven’t warned you) there is one shared van that leaves every evening between 4 and 5 pm from downtown Tulum.
Whoever decides to use this service must be aware of the fact that there is no way back until the next day in the early morning, and, that the road of the reserve is in very bad conditions, which means that most probably a journey that you expect to be of 1-hour ends of taking 4 hours (if you go all the way to Punta Allen). So, please, if you decide to take this option, do proper research.
In Punta Allen, you can find modest accommodation where to spend the night or you can camp.
Going to Sian Ka’an by Rental car
Renting a car in the Yucatan Peninsula, including Tulum, is an easy venture, but, when it comes to driving into the reserve, I would consider a couple of things.
You definitely need to rent a 4×4 car in order to navigate the unpaved road and you have to be super patient with all the potholes that you will find on your path.
If you are a responsible driver, even if with a 4×4, you have to keep in mind that you must go slow in order to protect the fauna that lives there and crosses the roads.
Of course, the reserve’s path is full of 4×4 vehicles and jeeps that don’t respect the speed limit, but, we know you are not that type, right?
Browse through international and local car rentals and find the best deal.
Please note that most areas of Sian Ka’an are closed to the public. So, unless you are heading all the way to Boca Paila (watch out for the crocodiles), or Punta Allen, you will have to drive for several kilometers before finding public access to the beach.
Once you get to Punta Allen you can look out for some boat tours with local fishermen to look for dolphins.
Mind that these dolphins live freely in the area, they are not kept in captivity which is the only kind of dolphin tour we promote! On the other hand, you are not 100% sure to see them. But that’s how we like it.
Organized tours to Sian Ka’an
The easiest way to get to Sian Ka’an, to its beaches, and to all that the destination has to offer is by far by joining an organized tour.
The great thing about taking an organized tour is that the drive is not as long and as strenuous as if you were to go on your own.
There are many types of tours in Sian Ka’an, but, to put it simply, some that depart from Muyil only involve the lagoons and the channels, where you can float in the river and navigate all the way to Punta Allen and, the ones that depart from the main entrance of the reserve or from Punta Allen, include the snorkeling and the manatee and the dolphin spotting.
Organized tours will depart all the way from Playa del Carmen and Tulum, or, will have meeting points in Muyil and the Mayan arch.
Getting to Sian Ka’an by bicycle
I am adding this option for the very sporty, the very adventurous, the very fit, and the mountain bike lovers. Venturing into Sian Ka’an with a mountain bike offers you a wonderful and exciting day!
Of course, consider the road conditions, the fact that there is nothing around for you to buy water or food, so you have to stock up on supplies (take back your garbage) and you have to have everything you need in case of a flat tire.
Where to book your tours to Sian Ka’an
Sian Ka’an is a destination for nature and animal lovers, silence seekers, born explorers, and hopefully, responsible and sustainable travelers.
There are many different activities that one can do that involve all the elements of the region: culture, nature, gastronomy, and adventure.
I am going to talk to you about 2 different local cooperatives that work in the reserve and that if you chose to visit the reserve with them, you would be contributing to fantastic projects and would be benefiting many families of the communities of Muyil, Chumpon, and Punta Allen.
Community tours Sian Ka’an
We have mentioned the many ways to visit Sian Ka’an, but, we want to make sure we talk about what we believe is the best option to do it in the most sustainable way.
Community tours was founded officially in 2004 as part of an initiative to train local people of the Mayan communities as nature guides and in entrepreneurship, to build an eco touristic project that would provide the necessary income for the families and to replace fishing and tree felling as the main economic activities of the area.
Presently, they are a social enterprise that offers a combination of eco touristic experiences that are based on the principles of low environmental impact, education on the challenges for the conservation of the reserve, and the promotion of true cultural exchange.
Community tours is an enterprise that is committed as well to 0 carbon emissions, and so, much of their revenue goes into that project. 30% of the income of the site goes directly to the families of the communities that are involved in it.
Something that Community tours pays a lot of attention to as well, is to respect the load capacity of the site, and so, they only have small groups and few journeys a day.
Community tours have alliances with other communities and cooperatives that are dedicated to other eco touristic projects like Punta Allen (that is also found in the biosphere reserve), and with others located in the states of Quintana Roo, Yucatan and Campeche.
Additionally, Community tours have developed educational projects for kids to protect the flora and the fauna of the area through birding tours and workshops, art classes, music classes, etcetera.
In terms of the tourism experiences that one can enjoy, among others, we can find:
- The visit to the archeological site of Muyil
- Learning about the flora and the fauna guided by a local Mayan community member
- Hiking through the jungle trails and interpretative trails
- Boat rides through the Muyil lagoon, Chunyaxche, and ancient canals
- Water channels flotation
- Local gastronomy and lunch in the community
- Learning about the organic chewing gum ancestral extraction practice
- Kayaking and paddleboarding
- Bird watching
- Reef snorkeling
- Spotting dolphins, crocodiles, and manatees.
- Learning all about the “petenes”
- History and culture connection
In conclusion, and in the words of Don Roman Camaal, one of the leaders of this project, visiting Sian Ka’an with Community tours means that the traveler will live an authentic experience in a natural protected area while at the same time, will contribute to the economy of the Mayan people of the area.
More tour options
Punta Allen & Orquídeas de Sian Ka’an
Punta Allen remains as a secluded fisherman’s village now dedicated to eco touristic activities mainly and also to the sustainable fishing of lobster. All the streets are of white sand and palm trees are found all over the town.
Punta Allen offers the opportunity to completely disconnect from the normal world.
To get there by car you need to drive for at least 4 hours through the mentioned unpaved road starting from the Mayan Arch.
In Punta Allen, you can find a couple of tiny hotels in the form of cabins as accommodation and a few local food restaurants to enjoy the region’s gastronomy. The infrastructure is limited, and, for part of the day, there is no electricity.
You can take boat tours from Punta Allen, but, because it is so secluded, it is very hard for people to go on their own, so, if there is no one on the day you chose to go, the cost of the boat might not be very affordable for just one person.
Orquídeas de Sian Ka’an is a cooperative initiative led and managed by 15 admirable women from the fishing village. Similar to Community tours, the women get together to create work and benefit the economy of their people.
These women have been trained as nature guides to offer kayak, bicycle, or hiking tours of the area. They do birding and mangroves tours as well. Of course, in every one of the experiences, people get to connect with nature, learn about people’s everyday life, experience gastronomy, learn about the flora, the ecosystems, and the best thing, spot a lot of the magnificent fauna there.
Final thoughts about visiting the Sian Ka’an Biosphere
Are you ready to include Sian Ka’an in your plans during your visit to the Mexican Caribbean?
Be sure to do so, but, remember. Coming to Sian Ka’an means entering into the habitat of pristine flora and fauna, and so, we must enter with respect and value at every moment the fact that we can still enjoy this paradise.
Book your tours with the local communities and the better practices tour operators, if you bring food or drinks, make sure you take your garbage with you.
Please use a rash vest and a hat instead of sunscreens and try to avoid the use of bug sprays. Use citronella or other natural elements instead.
As the famous phrase says: “Kill only time, take only memories and leave only footprints” when you come to Sian Ka’an.“
About the Author: Bianca Muñoz
Bianca is a woman, Mexican, a traveler, an ally, a dreamer, a creative, 100% human and so much more. Bianca has +20 years of experience in personal travel throughout 3 continents, and many countries, cities, towns, and communities. She also comes with +20 years of experience with customer service in the hospitality and tourism industries. A passionate advocate of her country (despite it all), an amateur writer & blogger, an art lover, a certified yoga teacher, an entrepreneur, a neophyte researcher, a philosophy fan, and knowledge obsessed, she has one dream and mission in life:
“To achieve, through her venture, for travel to be considered and used as a tool for a better education and human development in Mexico”
And, even if in baby steps, she is making the dream, come true through her brand: