Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is renowned for its awe-worthy Mayan ruins, with visitors coming from around the world to experience what remains of wonders like Chichen Itza and Coba. But what many travelers don’t realize is that just minutes away from the shabby-chic yoga and beach destination of Tulum lies Mexico’s largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean (also a World Heritage Site and Mayan history treasure-trove): the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve boasts 23 known archeological sites, shelters hundreds of species of birds and mammals (including two species of endangered turtles), and has remains that are nearly 2,300 years old. But perhaps what makes the Sian Ka’an biosphere most unique is the 20-kilometer canal system presumed to be an ancient trade route between Tulum and Muyil. Built long before tools and equipment made digging easy, it is astonishing to think of the human labor that must have been required to dig out the freshwater canal.
Today, travelers to the region can experience the diverse ecosystem and wildlife of the area by floating down the ancient canals. Due to a light current that drifts out to the ocean, the Sian Ka’an Canal is like a natural lazy river; you need only don a life vest, jump in the water, and then allow the gentle current to take you on a tour of the reserve. The journey takes about 30-minutes, during which time you can spot birds and animals while also learning about Mayan culture from a local tour guide.
How To Visit The Canals
The best way to visit the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is via Community Tours Sian Ka’an. A non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the reserve, all of their tours are community based, low-impact activities. Employees are primarily Mayans, and the non-profit seeks to improve the local quality of life through job creation and the selling of local products created in the surrounding communities. You can rest assured that any money you spend with Community Tours Sian Ka’an goes straight back to the local Mayans in the area—something I think we all can get on board with!
The Canals are an easy day trip from Tulum, Playa del Carmen, or even Cancun. If only doing the floating canals, the entire experience will take a few hours. I recommend pairing a visit with a side-trip to Akumal, where you can snorkel with giant sea turtles just off the beach! For the truly adventurous, journey down the pot-holed road all the way to Punta Allen within the Biosphere Reserve for pristine white sand beaches.
Alternatively, some tours of the Biosphere last the entire day and include boating, dolphin spotting, a lagoon stop, jungle trekking, kayaking and fishing. The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve provides more information on the other activities available.
Want an inside look on what floating down ancient maritime canals is actually like? This video on YouTube takes you from start to finish.
Have you visited the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve? What was your experience like?