Have you ever dreamed of exploring a magical place where animals and nature reign above everything else? This place does exist and it's only a 2 hour drive from Cancun!
It is the largest biosphere reserve in the Riviera Maya. Since the moment you hear its name, you know it is referring to something special, even sacred: Sian Ka'an.
Get ready to explore one of the most beautiful places in the Yucatan Peninsula. Let's go!
Today we will talk about an extraordinary place, a true treasure of nature whose incomparable biodiversity is famous throughout the world. This earthly paradise is a secluded corner of the Riviera Maya.
With an area of 75 miles (120 kilometers) of coastline, 990,000 acrres (400,000 ha) of land and 300,000 aceres (120,000 ha) of marine area, the Sian Ka'an Reserve is, without a doubt, the largest protected area in the entire Mexican Caribbean region.
Sian Ka’an has been a designated biosphere reserve since 1986, which means that it has successfully avoided falling into the trap of over-development so common in other destinations.
Nowadays, the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve has become a haven for lots of species of plants and animals, and one of the best places to visit in Mexico to practice ecotourism activities. The wildlife here is nothing short of spectacular and you’ll be surprised by the variety of eco tours available in the area following strict guidelines of sustainable tourism.
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is located in the Quintana Roo municipality of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, two hours south of Cancun and just 20 minutes away from Tulum.
You can take a loo to the map 👉 here.
To get to Sian Ka'an reserve from Cancun: follow this route.
In 1987, UNESCO declared Sian Ka’an a World Heritage Site due to its exceptional biodiversity, its “aesthetics and beauty” derived from the “undisturbed interface of sea and land”, and the “fascinating range of life forms” supported by this ecosystem.
The recognition by UNESCO has undoubtedly contributed to the protection and conservation of this small corner of spectacular nature. Actually, the area has also been included as part of the Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, “the first modern treaty between nations aimed at conserving natural resources.”
For more informatiion: check out Sian Ka'an sheet in the World Heritage site.
In summary, we’re talking here about one of the most extraordinary corners of the world and one of the best eco travels in Mexico you can have.
CANCUN FOR NATURE LOVERS: Get ready for a 6 day trip to Cancun 😎! Relax on the beautiful beaches 🌴 ☀️, go on a birdwatching tour 🦜 🦉 🦅 & get close to the wildlife 🦇 🐊 🐢 in the Mexican Caribbean 🇲🇽.
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is a magnificent mix of tropical forests, palm savannah, wetlands, mangroves, lagoons, sandy beaches, and dunes.
Regarding the impressive flora of the biosphere reserve, there’s record of more than 850 vascular plants and 120 woody species
A large part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (the second largest barrier reef in the world) is located inside the marine area of the reserve, protecting about 80 species of reef-building coral, 400 species of fish, and lots of other marine species, including rays and four species of sea turtles.
Overall, Sian Ka’an is home to over
This region is also home to 318 species of butterflies, 90 species of bees, 74 species of beetles, and 47 species of dragonflies. Sadly, it also hosts 310 species of mosquitos and any kind of insect repellent is forbidden in the protected area.
Finally, it’s important to mention the presence of “cenotes”, which are natural sinkholes filled with water, and petenes'", or tree islands that emerge from the swamps. They are connected through a fragile network of underground freshwater systems, in what’s a truly unique feature of the Riviera Maya ecosystem.
As you can see, the biodiversity in Sian Ka’an is like no other in the world.
Where else can you find a protected area that includes a barrier reef and cenotes, swamps and forests, mangroves and beaches? Which makes sustainable tourism the only kind of tourism appropriate for a place like this and Sian Ka’an has done a great job developing precisely this type of tourism.
The name of Sian Ka'an is, of course, from mayan origin, it means "the place where the sky was born". In the same way as the famous cenotes (for more information, do not hesitate to consult our Riviera Maya article: 15 excursions you must not miss!) that were considered sacred places directly linked to the underworld, the Sian Ka'an Reserve is also related to religous beliefs and Mayan superstitions.
What’s known these days as the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve was inhabited by the Mayans since 350 BC, although by the 16th century (when the Spanish people arrived to the Americas) it was completely abandoned.
Even today, you can still visit a few archaeological sites located inside of the reserve and as many of 23 of these ruins have been discovered in the area, although not all of them are open to visitors.
Would you like to visit an archaeological site in Sian Ka'an?
Discover Muyil, more information 👉 here.
The legacy of the Mayans is not just limited to the 23 archaeological sites found in the area. Ancient Mayan canals were excavated in the region to allow the boats to move from the sea to the interior of the lagoons. This transportation and trade route is a testimony of the relations that existed between the Mayans of different regions in the peninsula and of their exchanges with other cultures.
Something that may seem incredible in the heart of an unspoiled reserve like Sian Ka'an, is that there are vestiges of a very different nature.
Incredibly enough, at the beginning of the 20th century a railway was built in Sian Ka’an to support the Mexican army during the Caste War against the Mayans. It used to connect the port of Vigía Chico to Felipe Carrillo Puerto and once the war was over, it was used to transport woods and gum from the region. Nowadays, you can still see some vestiges of the original tracks.
As it happens in the rest of the Riviera Maya, the Mayan culture has a strong presence in Sian Ka’an.
Even today, a few Mayan fishing villages exist in the area with a total population of no more than 2,000 people in the whole reserve. It is possible to organize guided tours with Mayan communities.
Contributing to develop local communities is a part of the fundamental objectives of ecotourism.
As a protected natural area, the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve is subject to strict regulations for its conservation. These restrictions mainly have to do with:
As a consequence of these measures, Sian Ka’an has become one of the best ecotourism destinations in Mexico.
If you plan to visit Sian Ka’an the best advice is to do it as part of a guided tour, as the region has a difficult access, good trails are rare, and the waterways present a tricky challenge due to the many mangroves and swamps in the area.
The roads are steep and the canals are not easy to navigate. mangroves and swamps can be dangerous if you don't know the area.
Now that you know these conditions, Sian Ka'an offers a very wide variety of fascinating ecotourism activities that are among the most interesting in the entire Yucatan Peninsula and even in Mexico.
These are some of the best thimgs to do in the Sian Ka'an Reserve if you like ecotourism.
I’ve mentioned lines above that the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is home to over 300 species of birds. Added to this abundance of birds, you have to consider the relatively tranquil and peaceful environment of the area, as access is limited and activities sparse, which means that birds aren’t as hidden as in other places and it’s easier to spot them.
Different service providers offer birdwatching tours to Sian Ka’an, make sure to choose one that highlights the importance of practicing sustainable tourism and respect for nature. And don’t forget to bring your own binoculars to make the most of the experience.
Remember to bring your own binoculars for bird watching and enjoy this experience to the fullest.
Snorkeling in the protected waters of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef has to qualify as one of the best adventure tourism activities in the Riviera Maya. The specific situation of the biosphere reserve means that less boats and people visit the region, resulting in more species of fish and clearer waters.
What’s more, with a little bit of luck you may be able to see dolphins, marine turtles, and stingrays. This is one of the best ecotourism activities available in the area for family vacations.
Do not wear sunscreen or mosquito repellent!
In addition to the fact that these products are strictly prohibited in the reserve, they are extremely harmful to the environment and pollute the waters. The best alternative is to wear a shirt or proper clothing to protect yourself from the sun and insect bites.
Navigating the canals of Sian Ka’an makes you feel like one of those legendary explorers traveling deep into the heart of Africa or the Amazonas basin.
The vegetation is so exuberant and the place so enigmatic, that kayaking in Sian Ka’an is the one activity that I recommend to do if you had to choose only one.
This activity is ideal for athletes who love nature tourism and families with older children or teenagers. Ideal para deportistas amantes del
Although there are controlled and limited fly-fishing tours into Sian Ka’an, Odigoo Travel don’t recommend this practice due to the area status as a biosphere reserve. The whole idea of the existence of biosphere reserves is to protect the different species of flora and fauna in them.
Even if limited, any kind of fishing in a protected area shouldn’t be allowed. There are many other places where you can practice different types of fishing, much better than in a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve.
To get to Sian Ka’an you need to fly first to Cancun International Airport and from there, get to Tulum located 80 miles (130 km) south of Cancun. Once in Tulum, you can go to Sian Ka’an by car, following the Tulum coastal road and pay an entrance fee to the reserve of $100 pesos.
You can also hop on a shared van that leaves from downtown Tulum every day between 4 and 5 pm. However, this option means that you’ll have to spend the night at Sian Ka’an, as the van doesn’t leave the reserve until the next morning.
There is another way to reach Sian Ka’an. Instead of following Tulum’s coastal road, you need to take the highway 307 in a short 20-minute drive direction south and you’ll get to Muyil. There you’ll get easy access to the biosphere reserve, the archaeological ruins of Muyil and the Chunyaxché lagoon. This route is also available by bus, departing from the ADO bus station in Tulum.
If you want to access the Reserve through Punta Allen, we strongly recommend booking a tour with an agency or renting a vehicle with a driver who know the area. The road is very bumpy and will cause you much more worries than pleasure.
When visiting Sian Ka’an keep in mind that accommodations are very limited and make sure to have a booking in place before adventuring to this amazing protected area.
At Sian Ka’an you can find a handful of luxury eco-villas and a few hotels that offer not much more than the most basic amenities. You can also rent a tent to camp on the beach, if you’re feeling adventurous!
The best time to visit Sian Ka’an and practice some ecotourism activities here is the autumn and winter months from September to March, this way you’ll avoid the hottest months of the year and the weather will be more friendly.
There you have it! We are talking about one of the most fascinating corners in the Riviera Maya, a place that you’ll never forget due to its extraordinary natural beauty, and peaceful atmosphere.
Just remember to follow the best practices of sustainable tourism and engage only in ecotourism activities that make a point of protecting the wildlife in the biosphere reserve:
All these actions are within everyone's reach and contribute to the good conservation of the fragile ecosystems for which we are all responsible.
We have reached the end, dear readers! They are ready to visit the Sian Ka'an reserve under the premises of ecotourism.
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As well as all our posts about ecotourism in the Riviera Maya. Check out our section on this very interesting topic: ECOTOURISM.