Journey into the Wild: Visiting Sian Ka’an
It’s one of the lesser-known gems of the Mexican Caribbean coast, so it’s quite possible that you’ve never heard of Sian Ka’an. And yet it’s an area of outstanding natural beauty, and since 1986 has been a designated Biosphere Reserve. It’s also a UNESCO world heritage site, the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean. Offering both stunning natural beauty and unrivaled opportunities to see a vast range of flora and fauna Sian Ka’an is an absolute ‘must see’ for any visitor to Tulum.
Where Exactly is Sian Ka’an?
Sian Ka’an Tulum is found on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. The reserve itself extends over both land and ocean. While Tulum is the nearest town, you’ll need to journey on from there to get to the protected area itself, there are two main entrance points. If you’re hoping to visit the interior and the jungle you’ll come to it via Muyil, which is just 20 km south of Tulum, reasonably accessible by road and has designated parking. The most common access point for the ocean, lagoons and marine side of the biosphere is located at Punta Allen. Punta Allen is difficult to get to overland, many tour groups travel from Tulum to a half-way point where visitors transfer to a boat and complete the journey by sea. This latter option certainly offers the most beautiful approach to Sian Ka’an and grants the opportunity to view it from a distance without the distraction of traveling over a bumpy road.
What Makes Sian Ka’an Unique?
Many of the elements that make up Sian Ka’an can be found elsewhere. Mangroves, marshlands, tropical forests, coral reefs, shallow bays, and lagoons are found in various locations across the world. What makes Sian Ka’an so special is the co-existence of all of them within the boundaries of the 6520 km2 reserve. Together, these different environments make up a unique, complex and interdependent ecosystem.
Paradise for wildlife lovers
As you might expect, the diversity of the environment lends itself to a vast array of wildlife, much of which is unique to the region or rare worldwide. Ocelot, Jaguar, and puma roam the forests, along with several different monkey species, tapir, and other mammals too. The wetlands and marshes play host to hundreds of species of birds, both migratory and resident. More than forty species of amphibians and reptiles are to be found within Sian Ka’an, many of them rare or endangered.
Moving from the land to the marine environment, the reserve maintains its riches. A large part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is protected by the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve and there are more than eighty known species of coral to be found here. Hundreds of fish species are supported by the reefs, and by the seagrass found at the bottom of some of the shallow bays. Snorkeling in the reserve may lead to encounters with turtles, rays, manatees and much colorful fish. At certain times of the year, you can even swim with the sharks! Dolphins live here too and a Sian Ka’an boat tour is the ideal way to observe these playful creatures in their natural environment.
Low Impact Tourism in Sian Ka’an
Managing tourism in ecologically sensitive areas is always a delicate business. The income generated is important for the people who live in and around the region and a proportion of that income is used to support the conservation projects that will preserve Sian Ka’an for future generations. In order to maintain the delicate eco-system, it’s important that tourism is carried out in a respectful, low impact and environmentally conscious way.
The Best Way to Visit the Reserve
It is possible to visit Sian Ka’an as in independent traveler though local road conditions aren’t great – remember this is a journey into the wild! On the whole, it’s much easier to book your travel through one of the local guided Sian Ka’an tours. This will simplify arrangements and you’ll be sure to be with someone who’s aware of the local conditions and the restrictions which are necessary to make sure that you don’t unwittingly risk damaging the very things you’ve come to admire. Local guides also know the local secrets and they’ll work hard to make sure that you get the very most out of your time in the reserve.
What to Do in Sian Ka’an
How you spend your time in Sian Ka’an is up to you. You may find that one of the standard packages suits you, but if not, most tour operators will be willing to customize an itinerary so that you get exactly what you want. Some popular options include:
Exploring Mayan Ruins – Either those located at Muyil or some of the others found within the park. A trip along the ancient waterway of the Sian Ka’an canal is one way of exploring ancient ruins if you don’t want to drive to Muyil.
Take a boardwalk through the jungle – From the Muyil ruins, it’s a short walk to a carefully designed boardwalk which leads you through jungle marsh taking in an observation tower along the way. It’s a steep climb up the tower but definitely worth it for the view.
Snorkel in the Sian Ka’an reef – This is considered to be one of the top snorkel sites worldwide, and the warmth of the Caribbean waters means that it’s an enjoyable experience as well as an awe-inspiring one.
Birdwatching at sunset – This is best done in the winter months, from October through to April. For some reason, beautiful places are often at their most beautiful at sunset and it’s definitely the best time to admire the tropical birds as they flock together to roost for the night. Birdwatching is generally done as a boat tour, so it’s a truly relaxing experience.
Sian Ka’an nature tour – Again this is best done as a boat tour and different organizations offer different options. Typically your boat will pass through lagoons and into the mangrove canals beyond. You might spot a crocodile or two, and you’re assured of seeing tropical birds, colorful butterflies and lots of native plants including orchids.