Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
Sian Ka’an is Maya 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, 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, especially for the “big three” catches: bonefish, tarpon, and permit.
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.
Getting to Sian Ka’an
Many of the hotels include airport pickup/drop-off, which is convenient and helps 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.
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 (tel. 984/115-5580, US$17, 3 hours) leaves Tulum at 2 p.m. 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 5 a.m.
You also can get to Punta Allen from Carrillo Puerto, a slightly cheaper but much longer and more taxing trip. Combis leave from the market in Carrillo Puerto (a block from the main traffic circle) for a bone-jarring four-hour trip to the small settlement of Playón (US$10, 10 a.m. daily), where water taxis wait to ferry passengers across the lagoon to Punta Allen (US$2 pp, 15 minutes, 6 a.m.–10 p.m. daily). The combi back to Carrillo Puerto leaves Playón at 6 a.m.
There are two ways to enter the reserve, one better than the other. The first and preferred way is along the coast, going south 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$2 park fee. From there it’s 56 kilometers (34 miles) by dirt road to Punta Allen. The road is much improved from the old days of alternating deep ruts and deep sand; an ordinary sedan-style car can make it in about two hours as long at it hasn’t rained in the last couple days. (That is to say that the rainy season—May to November—can be a trickier time to travel here.) Leave early, and fill up on gas before leaving Tulum. There is no gas station in Punta Allen; if you need fuel, a few locals sell gas from their homes.
The other entrance to the reserve is from the west, off Highway 307 between Tulum and Carrillo Puerto. From Tulum, go south on Highway 307 to Km 48 (about 24 kilometers/14.4 miles) to the El Playón/Punta Allen turnoff—it’s a tiny road and tiny sign, so keep your eyes peeled. (The turnoff is about 2 kilometers/1.25 miles past a much more visible road and sign to the right for Chaccoben.) Although shorter than the coastal route, it’s a much rougher and less-traveled road, weaving through tangled wetlands to the port of El Playón, where you can catch a water taxi (US$2 pp, 15 minutes, 6 a.m.–10 p.m. daily) to Punta Allen.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition