Mexico: Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Even though Mexico is an easy hop from New York City, San Francisco and Chicago, the three cities I’ve lived in at some point over the past 20 years, I’ve rarely visited our southern neighbor, other than for brief border crossings. In fact, the only vacation I had taken there was to Mexico City … in 1991.

I happily corrected that lapse this past December with a weeklong trip to the Yucatán, where I spent as little time as possible in Cancun and instead focused on the southern coast and inland regions of the peninsula.

Being a nature lover, one of my favorite spots was the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve—which means “where the sky is born.” The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest protected area on the Mexican Caribbean, with 1.3 million acres of jungle, mangroves, marshes, lakes, estuaries, ruins, and, of course, plenty of animal and bird life. Trails in the reserve follow ancient Mayan trade routes.

Sian Ka’an is located just south of Tulum, and exploring the reserve on your own can be rewarding—especially if you’re an experienced kayaker—but there also are guided tours to choose from as well, which I recommend of you’re traveling solo or have time constraints. I opted for the canal tour offered by the Centro Ecologico Sian Ka’an (CESiaK), an ecotourism and education center, mostly because it had an office next door to my hotel, the El Crucero. (There’ll be more on this fine, fun establishment in a later post.)

Miguel  Amer, our excellent guide, was a font of information, not just about the reserve and ecosystems—pointing out an array of flora and fauna, including gorgeous orchid plants, vermillion, raccoons, and nearly two-dozen bird species (notably a green heron, tropical kingbirds and white terns, yet, alas, I did not capture any with my camera)—but also the history of the Yucatán, art and architecture, the Mayans, and the region’s economics. He even had available a sample of chicle—natural chewing gum—a which comes from the bark of a local tree and used to be one of the main industries on the peninsula, before it was replaced with synthetic rubber, now used for most gum products. (The brown chunks are hard and crumbly at first, but then readily soften into a tasteless blob.)

We spent a good part of the day riding through various types of waterways—fresh, salt and brackish—made stops to explore partially hidden Mayan temple ruins (complete with resident bats), cooled off with a relaxing slow float down one of the mangrove-lined canals, and snorkeled in the crystal-clear, open-air Ben-Ha cenote, which I had hoped would have housed more fish than it did.

The tour cost $75 and included ground transportation to and from Tulum, park entrance fees, snacks, water, use of snorkeling gear, and lunch, served at the CESiaK headquarters in the park. The pork chop meal was passable, but the view, overlooking a beach for swimming and relaxing before heading back out onto the boats for the afternoon part of the tour, was spectacular. Guests can also rent bungalows for overnight stays. Funds support research, conservation and education programs in the reserve.

While CESiaK offers excellent tours  (in both English and Spanish), Community Tours is the only group offering a tour that includes a guided walk through the Muyil archaeological site just south of Sian Ka’an.

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