Visiting Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

A crocodile floats half-submerged in glassy green water near the bank.

A crocodile in the Sian Ka’an Reserve. Photo © Robert Pittman licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Sian Ka’an is Yucatec Mayan for “where the sky is born,” and it’s not hard to see how the original inhabitants arrived at such a poetic name. The unkempt beaches, blue-green sea, bird-filled wetlands and islets, and humble accommodations are manna for bird-watchers, artists, snorkelers, and kayakers. But most visitors come here for the fishing. Sian Ka’an is one of the best fly-fishing spots in the world, with all three Grand Slam catches: bonefish, tarpon, and permit.

A huge variety of flora and fauna thrive in the reserve, including four species of mangrove, many medicinal plants, and about 300 species of birds, including toucans, parrots, frigate birds, herons, and egrets.

The reserve was created in 1986, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, and expanded in 1994. It now encompasses around 1.3 million acres of coastal and mangrove forests and wetlands, and some 113 kilometers (70 miles) of pristine coral reefs just offshore. A huge variety of flora and fauna thrive in the reserve, including four species of mangrove, many medicinal plants, and about 300 species of birds, including toucans, parrots, frigate birds, herons, and egrets. Monkeys, foxes, crocodiles, and boa constrictors also populate the reserve and are spotted by locals and visitors with some regularity. Manatees and jaguars are the reserve’s largest animals but also the most reclusive: You need sharp eyes and a great deal of luck to spot either one. More than 20 Maya ruins have been found in the reserve, though most are unexcavated.

Spending a few days in Sian Ka’an is the best way to really appreciate its beauty and pace. Hotels and tour operators there can arrange fishing, bird-watching, and other tours, all with experienced local guides. But if time is short, a number of tour operators in Tulum offer day trips into the reserve as well.


Information and Services

Don’t expect much in the way of services in Sian Ka’an—if there is something you can’t do without, definitely bring it with you. There are no banking services, and few of the hotels or tour operators accept credit cards. There is one Internet café (9am-9pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-2pm Sat., US$1/hour), located inside a mini-mart near the southwest corner of the central plaza; many hotels have Wi-Fi. Cell phones typically don’t work in Sian Ka’an, but there are public telephones in town. Punta Allen also has a modest medical clinic—look for it on the main road as you enter town. There is no laundry, but most hotels will provide the service.


Sights in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

Muyil Archaeological Zone

The most accessible Maya site within the Sian Ka’an reserve is Muyil (Hwy. 307, 25 kilometers/ 15.5 miles south of Tulum, 8am-5pm daily, US$3), on the western edge of the park. Also known as Chunyaxché, it is one of the oldest archaeological sites in the Maya world, dating back to 300 BC and occupied continuously through the conquest. It’s believed to have been primarily a seaport, perched on a limestone shelf near the edge of Laguna Muyil; it is connected to the Caribbean via a canal system that was constructed by ancient Maya traders and still exists today.

Only a small portion of the city has been excavated, so it makes for a relatively quick visit. There are six main structures ranging from two-meter-high (6.6-foot) platforms to the impressive Castillo. At 17 meters (56 feet), it is one of the tallest structures on the peninsula’s Caribbean coast. The Castillo is topped with a unique solid round masonry turret from which the waters of the Caribbean Sea can be seen. Unfortunately, climbing to the top is prohibited.

A sacbé (raised stone road) runs about a half kilometer (0.3 mile) from the center of the site to the edge of the Laguna Muyil. Part of this sacbé is on private property, however, so if you want to access the lagoon from the ruins—you also can get to it by car—there is an additional charge of US$3.50 per person. Along the way, there is a lookout tower with views over Sian Ka’an to the Caribbean.

Once you arrive at the water’s edge, it’s possible to take a boat tour (US$45 pp) that crosses both Muyil and Chunyaxché Lagoons, which are connected by a canal that was carved by the ancient Maya in order to reach the ocean. It’s a pleasant way to enjoy the water, and you’ll also get a view of several otherwise inaccessible ruins along the lagoons’ edges and through the mangroves, with the final stop being Xlapak ruins, a small site thought to have been a trading post. If arriving by car, look for signs to Muyil Lagoon on Highway 307, just south of the similarly named archaeological site. More thorough tours of this part of Sian Ka’an can be booked in Tulum.

Bahía de la Ascensión

Ascension Bay covers about 20 square kilometers (12.4 square miles), and its shallow flats and tangled mangrove islands teem with bonefish, tarpon, and huge permit—some of the biggest ever caught, in fact. It is a fly fisher’s dream come true, and it has been attracting anglers from around the world since the mid- 1980s. Don’t fly-fish? No worries: The spin fishing is also fantastic, while the offshore reef yields plenty of grouper, barracuda, dorado, tuna, sailfish, and marlin.


Getting to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

Many of the hotels include airport pickup/ drop-off, which is convenient and helps you avoid paying for a week’s car rental when you plan on fishing all day. That said, a car is useful if you’d like to do some exploring on your own.

By Bus

By Bus

Public transport to and from Punta Allen is unpredictable at best—build some flexibility into your plans in case of missed (or missing) connections.

A privately run Tulum-Punta Allen shuttle (cell. tel. 984/115-5580, US$21, 3 hours) leaves Tulum at 2pm most days. You can catch it at the taxi station on Avenida Tulum between Calles Centauro and Orion, or anywhere along the Zona Hotelera road; advance reservations are required. To return, the same shuttle leaves Punta Allen for Tulum at 5am.

You also can get to Punta Allen from Carrillo Puerto, a slightly cheaper but much longer and more taxing trip. State-run combis leave from the market in Carrillo Puerto (a block from the main traffic circle) for a bone-jarring four-hour trip down a private road to the small settlement of Playón (US$10, 10am and 3pm daily), where water taxis wait to ferry passengers across the lagoon to Punta Allen (US$2.50 pp, 15 minutes). The combi back to Carrillo Puerto leaves Playón at 6am.

By Car

By Car

To get to Punta Allen by car, head south along the coast through (and past) Tulum’s Zona Hotelera. About eight kilometers (5 miles) from the Tulum/Zona Hotelera junction is el arco (the arch), marking the reserve boundary where you register and pay a US$4 per person park fee. From there it’s 56 kilometers (35 miles) by dirt road to Punta Allen. The road is much improved from years past, and an ordinary car can make it in 2-3 hours. It can be much more difficult after a heavy rain, however. Be sure to fill the tank in Tulum—there is no gas station along the way or in Punta Allen, though some locals sell gas from their homes.


Excerpted from the Eleventh Edition of Moon Cancún & Cozumel.


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