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World Heritage Site

for World Heritage Travellers

Sian Ka'an

Sian Ka'an

Sian Ka'an is a biosphere reserve in the coastal lowland, with land that is frequently inundated.

Part of the reserve is on land and part is in the Caribbean Sea, including a section of coral reef. It is located in the state of Quintana Roo, Yucatan peninsula.

Five species of cat are found in the reserve, including the jaguar and puma, as well as the tapir and a wide range of bird species.

The reserve also includes some 23 known archaeological sites of the Maya civilization including Muyil.

Map of Sian Ka'an

Legend

  • Natural

Visit January 2014

There are three ways to enter Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve: one from the south (Chetumal side) and two from the north (Tulum side). I had originally wanted to visit it on an organized day trip, but I could not get a confirmation from the company I wanted. This is quite common according to the manager of my B&B in Tulum: the tour companies in Tulum are notoriously unreliable in making commitments. Also read the reviews on Tripadvisor and you’ll see what I mean. But after a bit of searching on the internet I found out it was perfectly doable to visit the core zone of the WHS on my own. I choose the approach from the archaeological site of Muyil, some 20 kms south of Tulum.

Muyil is a small Maya site in the “West Coast” architectural style, the same as the nearby ruins of Tulum which I visited yesterday. These are very late constructions (up until 1550!), so they are also more technically advanced then for example Calakmul. A few buildings have some coloured painting and murals/reliefs left on them. The “Castillo” shows an appropriate relief for a natural WHS close to the sea: two birds, one of which looks like a pelican.

January 2014

From the archaeological site of Muyil, there’s a “hidden” access to the biosphere reserve. The jungle path is common knowledge among tour guides and info can also be found on the internet, but it’s not signposted or advertised in any way at the site itself. From behind the Castillo, you have to follow the sacbe (traditional Mayan road, this one has a sign). It will lead you on a short walk through the jungle and ends up at a gate. There you have to pay 50 pesos to enter the nature reserve. The guard had to leave his hammock for me, but was not surprised at all to see a lonely visitor coming this way.

What follows is a newish boardwalk across the mangroves and pools. This is the part of the excursion that I enjoyed most. It takes about half an hour. Because the vegetation is very dense, it can be spooky at times walking their on your own. I was startled more than once by a bird landing on the tree branches above my head. But I did see relatively few birds. The other visitors I had seen at Muyil were a couple of birders, so there must be something there. About half way there’s a wooden watch tower which you can climb. It’s very steep and I stopped half way without seeing anything remarkable.

January 2014

The boardwalk ends at a beach, which also can be reached by car (it’s the first unpaved road left after Muyil). From here you are supposed to be able to rent motor boats for a trip into the lagoon. I found a couple of guides there, and they were willing to add me to a group that was arriving at 10 a.m. I knew already that they charge a lot and had brought extra cash. The (half) day trip I had looked into would have cost 105 US dollar, and this boat ride alone costed me 1000 pesos (57 EUR). Well, it’s not the most I have ever paid to enter a WHS and I felt that a visit would not be complete without a view from the water (although you can really tick it off at Muyil already).

A group of French and German tourists duely arrived, all-in their swimming suits. Most of them even had not brought cameras! I was still wearing my hiking boots and normal travel clothing, and looked the odd one out. But I wanted to get on the water, and joined some of the French and a French speaking guide on one of the boats. We navigated the Muyil lagoon at full speed, the boat men and guides enjoying this way of travelling. Obviously we didn’t see anything. We then went through a narrow passage with some mangroves (if you have seen mangroves once, you’ve seen them all). And ended up at a little island with a small Mayan building. The group went “floating” from there (floating in their lifejackets on the strong currents downstream), and I walked another boardwalk. And that was it – the boat trip took 1.5 hours, but there was not much enjoyment of nature at all. Maybe I should have tried harder and find a reputable company beforehand, but I wasn’t impressed what these guys (Sian Kaan Community Tours) delivered. They’re there to entertain the big tour groups, aren’t interested in individual travellers and – maybe the worst of it – aren’t by far as eco-conscious as they advertise to be. They race their boats, and at the end I saw one of the guides walking away on the boardwalk smoking and playing loud music from his cell phone.

January 2014

But that was not all: after having lunch in Tulum, I gave the other entrance from the north a try. It’s the road that goes from Tulum to Punta Allen, and passes the official visitor center of Sian Ka’an. I had read that the road was in terrible state but wanted to look for myself. First (on a paved road) you pass the “hotel area” of Tulum. It’s more of an alternative seaside resort than Cancun: think yoga hotels and quinoa salads (I really saw signs for both along the way). At the gate to the nature reserve, where the official Unesco sign is, the road starts to deteriorate dramatically. I have experienced a number of bad roads already in Mexico and of course there are always these annoying topes, but this was unseen. After about 2km of bumping around, I decided to turn around and call it a day.

Community Reviews


Thibault Magnien France 14.11.16

Sian Ka'an by Thibault Magnien

As part of our road trip in the Yucatan Peninsula, adding 5 sites to my count, we have visited the biosphere reserve of Sian Ka An. I was not too sure of the way I should do the visit, sailing among the tour operators and the variety of local guides. Thanks god, the reviews on this website allowed me to clarify the visit.

We started by going to the Maya site of Muyil and followed the path indicated by Els. Everything was exactly as described. After a stormy night, the area was quite wet. Walking in the forest among the marshland allowed us to see few birds. Climbing on the mirador turned to be a bit risky due to the wet, but was a good thing to do considering the nice view we had on the nearby laguna. Moreover, it puts people above the trees which is a good thing for birds observation. We finished the walk arriving to the laguna where few guides were proposing tours by boat (700 pesos for 1,5 hour). Due to the prices and also to the foggy weather, we have decided to stop there and to come back through the same path until the entry. In spite of being a nice walk in the forest, I was not fully satisfied of my morning visit. We thus went, for the afternoon, to the second entrance to the reserve.

This entrance is through a road starting North of Tulum, leading to Punta Allen and Boca Paila. Punta Allen lies within the reserve and the 2-hour sand road leading to this fishing village crosses the WHS property. The road was quite bad, especially due to the big rain of the past days. We were doubting of our ability to reach Punta Allen considering our small car and what the locals told us regarding the road. After turning in Tulum towards Punta Allen and Boca Paila, the road crosses a long hotel area followed by a nice view on the sea, before arriving to the entrance of the reserve. This entrance is materialised by a Maya-style modern arch, on which is the official world heritage board. After paying the entrance fee, the sand road took us through the forest. We saw many different birds while driving. The road was becoming more and more tricky with many holes full of water.

After one hour driving, we reached an old bridge where a Mexican family was calmly fishing. This bridge crosses one of the Sian Ka An rivers that goes from the Laguna to the sea. We thus stopped there for few pictures. While walking on the bridge, with the laguna on one side and the sea on the other side, we saw few common birds as well as some fishes. But the peak of the day was when I was staring few seconds at what I was thinking to be rocks and that turned to be a crocodile. This was a tremendous moment. The animal stayed almost one minute floating on the water before being disturbed by a tour boat coming to see it. It vanished in the herbs and appeared again 15 minutes later.

The weather started to get worse and we decided not to continue. However, with the crocodile, we were fully satisfied of our visit.

To me, both ways through Boca Paila/Punta Allen and through Muyil offered a complementary view on this WHS.


Clyde Malta 13.01.16

Sian Ka'an by Clyde

I visited this WHS in December 2015. Sian Ka'an in Mayan means 'Origin of the Sky' and this together with the embossed birdlife reliefs of the Muyil/Chunyaxché ruins hints that the highlight of this natural WHS are mainly birds and mangroves. I tried the route to Punta Allen but decided against visiting after an hour of endless potholes and what was close to offroading. I decided against going all the way mainly because locals informed me that due to the Northerly winds, a lot of waste from cruise ships and from Central America ends up here at this time of year. Instead, I was happy to enjoy the abundant birdlife from the roadside just after 7am (the earlier the better for birdwatching, especially in mangrove sites). Next I headed to the Muyil ruins which open at 8am and just behind the main castillo there is a sacbe and a narrow opening which leads to the Sendero Canan Ha. There was nobody at around 8:15am on Christmas Day so I simply walked on and tried to spot as much birdlife as possible. It is really difficult to spot the rare species among the mangroves but I still managed to spot a Squirrel cuckoo, a pair of Hooded Warblers, Ovenbirds, a motmot and several turkey vultures perched on the high watchtower. Climbing is quite an adventure and the panoramic view of Laguna Muyil and Laguna Chunyaxché is well worth it. The trail leads to a small sandy mangrove beach, where several youngsters offer boat trips to see the mangroves up close and enjoy some drifts. Don't expect to see rare birdlife with such noisy engines. If you're not a completionist or especially if you'll be visiting Rio Lagartos or Rio Celestun during your trip skip this boat trip altogether. I wasn't impressed on the whole and I would classify this natural WHS as a worthy biosphere reserve but with no evident OUV.


Frederik Dawson Netherlands 04.12.14

Sian Ka'an by Frederik Dawson

Despite the enchanting name Sian Ka’an, the origin of the sky, in Mayan Language, I really had no interest to visit this mangrove forest, but thanks to Els’review I found the way to visit this site easily and turned out to have an enjoyable time. On my first day in Tulum, I decided to see the infamous road of northern entrance to Sian Ka’an. The road is indeed incredibly bad, and I had to turn back after tried for less than 500 metres! Another annoying was the park authority built long canvas wall along both sides of the road blocking the view of beach and lake, so I could not see anything at all except the bumpy road.

The next day I tried the road that Els mentioned next to the archaeological site of Muyil. The road here was in better state compared to yesterday road. At the end of road I found a small area that used as car park, a small hut that possibly an office for ranger, and a sign that I was in Sian Ka’an World Heritage Site. There was no guide or boat at all when I was there, except a group of American photographers who came here for just relaxed and enjoyed the lakeshore. They invited me to join their photographing knowledge sharing talk after they saw my DSL camera. It was a great time to talk and try new technique of photography.

Sian Ka’an is more interesting when I read the UNESCO decision, since it is inscribed in the early state of World Heritage Site program, 1987, the time that still no concept of mix site and cultural landscape. It is a great surprise that IUCN itself asked Mexico to include Tulum ancient temple, a cultural site, to be part of Sian Ka’an as well as many pre-hispanic hydraulic structures in the swamp should be recognized for cultural merit. So if in early ’90 Mexico pursue the idea of cultural landscape or mix site likes Uluru in Australia and Tongariro in New Zealand, Sian Ka’an could be one of the first cultural landscape or mix site in Latin America, but nothing happen and today it is still only a natural site.


Marcia, Mexico 17.10.11

I own Mayan Beach Garden Inn, the closest hotel to the Southern entrance to the Sian Ka'an and I love it there, finding every excuse to visit. When we built our Inn here, I had no idea such a remote and wonderful place existed. The beaches are amazing and you can experience the opportunity to be truly alone on the beaches. Many comments above have spoken to the tragedy of the plastic on the beaches. The Southern part of the Yucatan peninsula suffers from an extraordinary amount of garbage coming up from Central and South America. By the time the currents make it to Cancun, much of it has been raked up by caretakers along the way, leaving the Sian Ka'an to fend for itself. While we can read the labels on the bottles and see that the garbage is coming from the likes of Columbia (50%), Venezuela and Honduras (25%) and the remainder from boats (including cruise ships), it is a world wide problem solved only by minimizing single use plastic. Just this week, some large ship dumped an exorbitant amount of plastic forks, lids, plastic cups and shredded pieces of styrofoam. The small pieces mixed in with the sea grass, making it all but impossible to clean up. I don't mean to be on a soap box - but the exquisite beaches in the Sian Ka'an deserve to be clean. The sea deserves to be clean and only by using less plastic can it happen. Every visit should include a plastic bag to take some of the garbage away from the beach. It won't even make a dent, but maybe that is a bit less plastic in the stomachs of the thousands of species that find themselves living in the Sian Ka'an. By the way, the roads in the South entrance are better than the road to Punta Allen, if only because there is less traffic and the road was graded April of 2011 and don't miss Boogie Board beach or the Shipwreck. Pick up "napkin" maps at Mayan Beach Garden Inn.


Harold J. Tanguay, U.S. 10.03.11

South bound to Punta Allen in March 10 of last year (2010) I want to go back is the best thing I can say about the place. No crowds! Endless beaches! Animals scurrying about and dodging your vehicle as you drive the pothole road south! ONE BIG ISSUE! The beaches have an accumulation of plastic and that was about the only thing that disappointed me. It would be great if folks could get together down there and form up cleaning squads to comb the beach and clean up the plastic. If you are a college student that wants to get something going this is a job of gargantuan possibilities! We met some awesome students from South Carolina who were down there for Spring break working and having fun too. Fantastic group of young people who cared about what there Spring break could do. The material combed off the beach could be sent to a recycling facility or just destroyed. The beaches would look so much better. We stayed at CESIAK and enjoyed ourselves immensely. The staff were so kind and they were very helpful to us "gringos". We spent several days driving down the peninsula and pulling off onto side roads that led to hidden sections of beach. Gazing north and south for as far as you can see along the beach-no people! Wow what a deal. I would fish from the beach and my wife would relax on the beach and read. We launched a kite and pitched the line in the sand and watched it float over the beach. We snacked on cheese/crackers and ice cold beer. The days were filled with endless hours of doing whatever you wanted. Spent some time in Punta Allen and enjoyed the little village. We are probably going to spend more time in Punta Allen next time. Kind of place that grows on you very fast. Just walk around town and get to now folks as the place is very small. Hang out in the small town square at night and talk to locals about what is going on. We are planning our next trip! Gotta go. Joe


Piero, Italy 10.12.09

We went to the Sian Ka'an from the south entrance and there is only a beautiful beaches and Mangroves.

There aren't any lodging or restaurant in the south end of Sian Ka'an, but I had found a Hotel on the site www.mahahualhotel.com directly in the city of Mahahual.

The reserve is fantastic, crystalline waters and white beaches... it's proper for the people to which it likes the adventure. I have seen many birds and a lot of iguanas.


ricardo, canada 08.05.09

sian kaan, the soul is borne here also, been down the punta allen road a dozen or more times over 7 years, always a new twist on something going on . this year the south end of 5-6 miles was freshly gravelled and packed so it was great, n th of bp bridge the washout and 2 miles was also being repaired, improvement appreciatted. lots of large dump truck traffic hailing in gravel, so use common sense. as always there is more plastic trash on the shore, progress and consumers that don't give a hoot, cruise ships and general pigs of the earth . still love the beauty and solitude of this eden. did see a 8 foot long snake on the road, it was black and extreme yellow alternating bands, finally slithered into the ditch when i got within 40 feet, looked at it briefly but no pic. be aware there are truly wild and potentially dangerous encounters ou there if you are not paying attention and aware of your surroudings, this is not the petting zoo or an amusement park, but man may be our most dangerous thing we encounter.


S. Toone, USA 19.04.08

We went to the Sian Ka'an from the south. What is cool about the south entrance is that there is nothing but beach on one side and Mangroves and lagoons on the other. There aren't any hotels in the south end of the biosphere, but we stayed at mayan beach garden - www.mayanbeachgarden.com - and they made us some maps and packed us a sack lunch. They even gave us a shovel if we got stuck. We didn't, thank goodness, but we experienced one of the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen in my life. The beaches were varied too. We also snorkeled to a sunken ship. in every case, we were the only ones around. In one way, it was kind of unnerving to be the only humans there, in other ways it was the most spiritual experience I've been through. We went after Dean and there were no entry fees. According to the owners of Mayan Beach Garden the fees used to be $20 pesos a person, but the entrance was damaged by the hurricane and hasn't been restored (march 2008). We never made it all the way to Punta Herrera because we kept stopping along the way to explore the beaches. We were told that the town of Punta Herrera is one of the most secluded and last fishing villages of its kind with one restaurant and a little tienda. we were glad for the packed lunch because our explorations took up all of the day. We did see a group of peccaries (not sure of the spelling) crossing the road - they are like javelinas.


Carol Pedraza, USA

We went to Playa del Carmen in 2001. I have always wanted to see Sian Kaan. We rented a tracker from our hotel and we took the trip all the way down to Punta Allen. The road was so full of potholes and nothing but curves. It took us alot longer than we thought it would. We were running out of gas, but still could not see any little town. We drove, curve after curve, nothing in sight. Our gas tank was getting low and we were getting nervous. But, luckily, we came upon Punta Allen. It was beautiful and a welcome site. We watched from the pier as lobster cages were put down to catch lobsters. We were able to get gas there through a hose from a local resident. We did not find an actual gas station, but there was gas as the resident sucked on the hose and then filled our tank. We stayed there to eat in a local house/restaurant with two tables. It was the best fish and lobster I ever ate in my life. I wouldn't trade that memory for anything. Sian Kaan was beautiful and even though we were a little nervous because we were getting low on the gas, it was still an adventure I will never ever forget. We stayed in Punta Allen for about an hour and then begun our trip back to Playa del Carmen. We didn't arrive back at our hotel until after 9pm at night, but we had the trip of a lifetime! I want to go back someday, I want to stay at a little hotel and spend a few weeks just soaking up the beauty. My husband and I loved every minute of this trip, even though it was a little scary at times being alone and no place in site. I would never venture that trip alone. We are finally retired now and able to spend more time traveling. We will defintely go back to Sian Kaan again.


Melissa Ausman, USA 24.07.06

We stayed at Rancho Sol Caribe last February/March (06) and it was the most beautiful place in my 5 trips to Mexico I've ever been to!! Miles and miles of deserted beautiful beaches, oh Lord, paradise truly! Michael and Diana, our hosts are gracious, friendly, fun loving people and really made our trip, we even got engaged there and hope to return for our wedding. Yes, roads are unbelieveable, major potholes, but just go slow, it is so worth the trip.... but maybe I shouldn't be telling you this. If you want wild Cancun, don't go to the biosphere, but if you want unspoiled, beautiful deserted beaches, gentle waves, oh, you won't want to leave and I can't wait to get back!! forget 5 star rating, this area gets at least 10!! LOVED IT

Melissa and Rick/ ketchikan, Alaska


T. Kane, USA 13.04.06

Just a comment about the post that mentions the trash from previous campers on the beach. This trash is not from camping, it is what washes ashore from the ocean. Its pretty mind boggling when you see it, but most of the beaches along the caribbean there are groomed, raked and cleaned every day. In the Sian Kaan, there is no one to clean the beaches and what you will see is miles and miles and miles of the most gorgeous, soft white sand beaches ever, covered with trash. Mostly plastic; soda bottles, water bottles, flipflops, buoys, gas cans etc. I've spoken with environmental folks in the area and they said they have researched the trash and they have documented over 30 different countries. Supposedly alot of this trash is from illegal cruise ship dumping. I guess the way the currents run, it sends alot of this floating debris onto these beaches. Anyway, just a note. Otherwise, the Sian Kaan is an amazing place. Go enjoy it while its there because the density of tourists and hotels are creeping down from Cancun. Someday it will be all hotels I'm sure.


Kay, Canada

I spent three months living deep in the Jungles of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve; it is an incredible place full of wildlife, birds and varying ecosystems. For the nature lover travelling in Mexico, it is an absolute must.

Sure the road to Punta Allen is a bit less traveled than the Trans-Canada or the I-5, but with a little spirit of adventure, a trusty scooter will take you all the way from Tulum in a gentle three hours. If driving at night, watch out for giant blue crabs on the road - they scream and snatch their claws if you get to close. Keep your balance in check if you are two and getting through the sand bars may require a short walk. Driving a scooter through the biosphere reserve was not only a great way to get intimate with nature, but is ecologically and economically friendly.

There are several companies that offer tours to the Biosphere, Ecocolors is a good choice, Cesiak, Sian Ka'an Tours, Community Tours in Tulum, and others if you look around. Maps are few and far between, but don't worry, the road doesn't branch the whole way from Tulum to Punta Allen, just go south on the coast road and stop along the way as you are surrounded by beauty. Being a small penninsula, you will see beautiful lagoons on one side and the warm Caribbean Sea on the other the entire way. Don't forget to visit the Visitors Center (9Km from the entrance)where you can climb the tower above the jungle and there will soon be a museum to offer more ecological information to visitors.

There are other entrances to the reserve as well, but I only made it to the Tulum entrance. Covering over 1 million hectares , I believe the reserve has something to offer everyone.


John, US

Traveled to Sian Kaan last December 26th (2002). Made it down the road but it was a very difficult trip and I don't want to think about what could have happened had I broken down. Spent a couple of days with the native Mayans and some "continentals) from the US. Fishing was spectacular, and the reefs are enourmous, although I did not have time to snorkel, and the wind was rather bad. I went alone so it was somewhat of a "bummer" but would definately go back if I found someone else who had this type of adventure in their blood.

There are places to eat seafood in Punta Allan and places to stay at reasonable prices. Don't expect Cancun, you have to have adventure in your blood to like this type of experience.


Femke Rutten, Holland

I have been to Sian kaan on a tour with EcoColors. This was an excellent tour! We crossed two lakes by boat and went through one canal made by the Mayas and one natural canal. We stopped at a small ruin. The guide explained that this ruin was either a post of commerce or a resting point. Then we jumped out of the boat and floated on our lifevests in the natural canal. This was a very nice and relaxing experience! We have done a small hike through the reserve and did some bird watching. We have also seen some more ruins. The park is very pretty and the boat ride was incredible! The company has also a tour of more days to Santa Teresa, the research station and I am thinking of joining the tour soon.


Tracy Wooldridge, USA

I visited Sian Kaan with a tour group from Alltournative in a jeep in 8/01. It was really a fun trip although it had rained extensively the day before and parts of the road were almost totally flooded out. Luckily no-one in our group got stuck in the mud! Punta Allen was beautiful and we had lunch there and then snorkeling. Fantastic! We also explored some of the mangroves by boat. I highly recommend this trip.


Horace M. Hudgins, United States

10/30/2002

Visited the area on that date by trying to drive south from Tulum to Punta Allen. The road increasing deteriorated to the point where we had to turn around after traveling only about 5 or 6 kilometers past the entrance into the reserve. I was afraid of the wear and tear on my rental mini-van. It is very densely overgrown and although we were probably no more than 100 meters, at the most, from the Caribbean on our left the water was not visible at all. At our turn around point we had reached what appeared to be an area adequate for camping as there were many signs that campers had used the area. It was a very pleasant sandy area shaded by coconut palms and extended down to the beach. Walking in the area was a tremendous disappointment as the remnants of past camping experiences was littered throughout the area. Trash was evident wherever you looked and although we were prepared to do some swimming were discouraged from doing so because of the filthy condition of the beach. Although we had registered our visit at the entrance no information or map was available except for a large map on a roadside sign. Would like to have gone further and will probably do so sometime in the future but will try to be better prepared with some sort of 4 wheel drive vehicle. We had tried to get information about the area in Cancun but were unable to find anyone who had personally been there and there didn't seem to be any sort of tour available. available.


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Site Info

Full name: Sian Ka'an

Unesco ID: 410

Inscribed: 1987

Type: Natural

Criteria: 7   10  

Link: By Name By ID

Site History

  • 1987 - Inscribed 

Locations

The site has 1 locations.

  • Sian Ka'an