Sian Ka’an: an ecological biosphere and UNESCO World Nature Heritage South of Tulum

Sian Ka’an is a protected area south of Tulum, an ecosystem of rain forest, wetland, coastal areas and the ocean. Regular day trip to Sian Ka’an are available but their program differs greatly. A coastal tour leads to the little village Punta Allen with many opportunities to see all kinds of water animals and birds and do a trip to a lagoon and some snorkeling.

What is Sian Ka’an?

Sian Ka’an is a vast protected area, a UNESCO World Nature Heritage that stretches along a huge area of 5200 sqm. The area is on the eastern coast of Yucatan, south of the main tourist areas in Playa del Carmen. The Sian Ka’an coastline is almost non-settled and is thereby stands in contrast to the entire Yucatan Peninsula and its famous city of Cancun in the north or the Playa del Carmen holiday area further south. Also, there is very little infrastructure. The only “town” is Punta Allen can only be reached on am offroad path, there are no solid streets. On the way to Punta Allen, you can see a few smaller places to spend the night. But there aren’t many of them.

Yucatan’s east coast is rather tightly populated and has almost no empty space at all. Sian Ka’an makes the only exception: a huge piece of land with no buildings, streets or people, a highly complex system of water streets and mangroves in a swamp. It offers shelter for many species, animals and birds.

Doing a Tour to Sian Ka’an

For 100 dollars (or more) you can book a tour in a minibus to Sian Ka’an. It takes two hours (130 km) from Playa del Carmen to reach.

Sian Ka’an is huge and two routes are possible: driving along the coastline to Punta Allen or off the coastline in the swamp to Muyil. When we booked the tour, only one option was offered: driving along the coastline. The latter was never even mentioned. We could choose between two others options: a 10-person-minibus with a driver or driving in a Jeep ourselves.

According to our travel agency, the tour does not take place every day. We could only choose between Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. They said, jeep tours were not available for the day we picked. More about that follows later. It was ok for us; we wanted to go by minibus anyways. The tour started very early, we left at 5 am. The bus makes its tour, collects several people on the way and things are rather easygoing for the first two hours. The bus drives to Tulum where we meet all the other busses all vehicles continue the route together, heading to the park.

Several Hours of Offroad driving: Tour to Punta Allen

At this point, the tour gets interesting. The bus drives very slowly on a totally uneven, bumpy “road”. Calling it a road is already too much. There are huge bumps, the street is an uneven, unpaved mess and big trees and branches are everywhere. The ride itself is very, very bumpy. Thick branches get very close to the windows and things are getting exhausting. All the vehicles can only go very slowly. After 30 minutes, there is a stop at a viewpoint. After that the adventurous ride continued for another 3 hours. Nobody felt really good in the bus, everyone was eagerly waiting for the ride to end. If you have problems with this, make sure to sit in the first row on one of the passenger seats. We only had a Spanish speaking driver, the tour guide was somewhere else and the two front row seats were empty.

In Punta Allen, everyone was just exhausted and tired. I have to admit, I did not see a lot during the ride.

In Punta Allen, they have a short break for everyone and a smaller snack is served. If you fancy crab in the evening, you can order now. The restaurant itself is very nice, a rustic wooden construction with only a roof to offer shade, not even a solid building.

Boat Tour to A Coral Reef and Bird Island

The entire group (about 40 to 50 people) is not split into a Spanish speaking group and an English speaking group. We are to sit in little motorboats in groups of six. All the boats are leaving, not all together but in blocks. We saw dolphins (not so much of a surprise). The salespepople told us we would see sea turtle, that’s their way to promote the tour. But these sea turtles are very shy, you have to be very lucky to see them. One came up very shortly, saw all the boats and disappeared into the depth within seconds.

The boat ride on the ocean is anyways really nice. The sea shines in many different colors of blue and green, the coastline is very pretty. After a while, we reach a riff. Now it’s time to snorkel. Our little boat had one guide who also did the snorkeling tour. He really did jump into the water with all his clothes on (long pants, long shirt) and that is how he swam. After a few minutes, the snorkeling is over and you get back on the boat.

The second boat stop is “Bird Island”: two mangrove islands full of birds. You can see many different species here; Sian Ka’an has 379 different bird species. All the boats circle the small islands slowly, the birds don’t care about the boats and you have time to take some pics.

After that the boats stop in a lagoon, you are still deep in the ocean but the water is flat (only about 1.5 meters) and you can walk to the beach. After a short time to swim, the boats go back to Punta Allen.

Back in Punta Allen: Dinner and Driving Back

In Punta Allen, things get a little messy because everyone takes off their swimming clothes and changes. A dinner buffet is served and after that the bumpy drive back starts.
This trip is much worse than the first because now you know what’s waiting for you. After a long, bumpy ride you reach road 307 and Tulum. While we were driving back, we met the Mexican Army, on the same bumpy road, driving equally slow. But several soldier with machine guns were standing on the pick-up.

More Tour Varities: Self-Drive Offroad Tours

As mentioned above, they told us Jeep tours are not available for that day. But: several jeeps were driving with us. I seriously doubt that this makes a cool trip. Every jeeps has four passengers, if there is only two of you, you need to share the car and the driving experience with strangers. The jeeps tour was even more expensive than the bus tour. Before you book a jeep tour, you should definitely be aware of the fact that the jeep is not just for you but needs to be shared.

On the way to Punta Allen, at the viewpoint, some tourists did not get back to the bus but in several boats and reached Punta Allen by boat. Why nobody ever offered us this option, I really don’t know. It would have been great to spend less time in the bus on that shitty street.

Muyil Entrance

Muyil is another entrance further south. Here, you can find more Maya ruins and more countryside: fresh water, mangroves, manatees, the jungle, swamps and many animals. We did not do this tour but I would like to do it someday.

Nature Protection and Animal Preserve Area

It becomes very obvious that this is a protected area: swimming with sea turtles is not possible (very good) also dolphins are never chased or surrounded. All boat drivers did that very well. Also, there are very few buildings anywhere, for most parts it’s simply pristine nature.

About the Tour: Information and Some Advice

Our tour guide shortly introduced himself in Tulum and was not seen again till Punta Allen. He was the only English speaking tour guide for the whole group. In Punta Allen, he talked to us again, and apologized that he cannot be in all the busses at the same time. Our bus driver was very nice but knew close to no English whereas we know only very little Spanish. Communication in the bus was only possible because two guests from Spain who knew English very well, were translating for all the other 5 English-speakers. They could translate some stories and anecdotes which was actually great.

When it comes to these organized tours you never need to worry about food. Dinner and lunch is not a five star meal but it’s ok.

Driving took a long time, we did a day trip from Playa del Carmen. I would not do it again, I would rather stay in Tulum and go from there. Maybe even two or three nights in Tulum, for tow day trips one to Muyil and one to Punta Allen.

A second way to do it is to sleep in Punta Allen or somewhere else in Sian Ka’an. I find some offers online, for example sleeping in a tent on the beach. I’m sure that is a great thing to do: being here in the mornings and evenings with only a few people, before all the day trippers arrive. I’m not sure a how you can reach by yourself: my first guess is a rental jeep supposedly, there is also a collective.

I would not book the off-road jeep tour for four; I find it too expensive for too little. I would ask if I can reach Punta Allen partly or entirely per boat and try to avoid the long, exhausting ride.

In conclusion, I really want to recommend Sian Ka’an to everyone. It is so beautiful, considering some of the organizational remark I have made, and you will definitely be able to enjoy a trip here. I would come back any time!

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