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Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve: Tulum’s Best Kept Secret

Did you know there’s a huge protected area just 45km from Tulum? Here’s everything you need to know about the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

On the edge of Tulum lies the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, one of the largest protected areas in Mexico. It’s easy to see why Mayan people named it Sian Ka’an, meaning ‘Origin of the Sky’. When you take a boat and cruise through its lagoons and canals, you can see clearly in the distance, where the sky begins and the Earth ends.

Since moving to Mexico in 2021, we’ve explored many different parts of the Yucatan Peninsula and have found Sian Ka’an to be the wildest and most pristine corner. The massive reserve is made up of a huge array of ecosystems, ranging from tropical forests to mangroves and marshes. It serves as the habitat for a diverse array of species, including the rare black-handed spider monkey and the West Indian manatee.

Even though Sian Ka’an is just 45km (35 miles) from downtown Tulum, it’s not easy to get to as it’s so remote and hard to access. In this article, I’ll share detailed step-by-step instructions on how to get to the lagoon and coastal sides of Sian Ka’an.

sian ka'an - sian ka an - sian ka'an biosphere reserve

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve , Tulum

Sian Ka’an covers an extensive area of approximately 5,280 square kilometers (2,040 square miles), extending from the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula to the Caribbean Sea. The reserve features a mosaic of ecosystems, including coastal dunes, mangroves, and marshes. The interconnectedness of these ecosystems is crucial for the overall health of the region.

In 1987, Sian Ka’an was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was recognized for its outstanding universal value and its critical role in conserving biodiversity and preserving a significant portion of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. Despite its protected status, Sian Ka’an faces several challenges, including habitat destruction due to illegal activities, climate change impacts, and tourism development

Most parts of Sian Ka’an are closed to the public, only these two areas are open for visits: 

  • coastal side – where Punta Allen is located; and involves at least 3 hours of driving or boat trip from Tulum to reach.
  • lagoon side – massive swaths of jungle, mangrove forest and ancient Mayan canals; easily reached via Muyil (a 22-minute drive from Tulum).
sian ka'an dolphin tour

What is a Biosphere Reserve?

A biosphere reserve is an area designated to conserve biodiversity and ecosystems while allowing for sustainable human activities. It typically consists of three zones: a core area where conservation is the top priority, a buffer zone that promotes sustainable land use, and a transition area that includes human settlements and seeks a balance between human needs and environmental conservation.

The goals of establishing biosphere reserves include protecting biodiversity, conducting scientific research, promoting education and awareness, and fostering sustainable livelihoods for local communities. These reserves are recognized and designated by UNESCO as part of its Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Program and play a crucial role in demonstrating how humans can coexist with and protect the natural environment.

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How to Get to Sian Ka’an

First and foremost, it’s crucial to grasp the vast expanse of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, which spans an impressive 5,280 square kilometers (2,040 square miles). To put this into perspective, Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve eclipses the size of the neighboring Cozumel Island and surpasses the entire land area of Delaware state in the US.

Most travelers use Tulum as their base to explore the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, as it’s the nearest city. Given its sheer size, the reserve can be accessed from different points. In this guide, I will give detailed directions on how to get to Sian Ka’an through two distinct routes, complete with various transportation alternatives. 

These are the two primary gateways to Sian Ka’an:

1. Muyil (lagoon side)

2. Punta Allen (coastal side)

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Which to Choose: Punta Allen vs. Muyil?

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is accessible through two distinct entry points – Punta Allen and Muyil – each offering unique experiences within divergent ecosystems. 

Punta Allen allows you to explore Sian Ka’an’s coastal side, so you’ll get to experience its marine life, coral reefs, and pristine beaches. It’s common to spot dolphins, turtles and manatees in the coastal side of Sian Ka’an. But getting there can be logistically challenging and time-consuming; it takes 4 hours to traverse the 56km (35 miles) potholed, unpaved road from Tulum to Punta Allen [read my guide to Punta Allen for details].

On the other hand, the Muyil route is much easier and accessible from Tulum. Here you’ll get to explore the reserve’s freshwater lagoons, ancient Mayan canals, and lush marshlands – but NOT dolphins or turtles on your boat ride. Logistically, Muyil can easily be seen in half a day, whether exploring independently or as part of an organized tour.

If you have the time and budget available, we highly recommend exploring both parts of Sian Ka’an on separate days. We’ve been to both and can safely say they each offer contrasting experiences, making it worthwhile to dedicate one day to the oceanic side (Punta Allen) and another to the freshwater environment (Muyil) within Sian Ka’an.

sian ka'an tour

Option 1: Muyil

How to Get to Muyil

The lagoon side of Sian Ka’an is a lot more accessible from Tulum and it’s also cheaper than Punta Allen. You can see the Sian Ka’an Lagoon via Muyil in half a day, including a stop at the Muyil archaeological site. I’ll share with you step-by-step instructions on how to explore Sian Ka’an via Muyil on your own.

See also  10 Best Beaches in Oaxaca
By Car

To reach Muyil from Tulum, simply head south on Highway 307. The Muyil archaeological site is around a 20-minute drive away from town. It’s a straightforward drive on a well-maintained, flat, and paved highway. It’ll be on your left, just before reaching kilometer marker 205. Muyil offers a small parking lot with consistently available spaces.

By Bus

To catch a bus to Muyil, make your way to Tulum’s ADO bus station, located on Avenida Tulum between Alfa and Jupiter streets. Buses departing from Tulum to Muyil leave regularly, typically every 30 to 60 minutes. A one-way ticket costs 28 MXN (US$1.4). Note that your ticket may display the destination as Chunyaxché, which is an alternative name for Muyil. 

sian ka'an muyil boardwalk

Visiting the Muyil Ruins

Once you’ve reached the Muyil ruins, a boatman will wait at the ruins entrance to ask if you want to take a boat into the ancient Mayan canals. The standard price for a boat trip in the Sian Ka’an Lagoon is 1000 MXN (US$50) per person. This pricing is non-negotiable, and there are no group discounts offered. Prices are high as the Sian Ka’an is run by indigenous Mayan communities and these fees sustain their livelihoods. It’s highly worth your while though – floating through the canals is an absolutely surreal experience. 

Once you’ve paid for your boat trip, proceed into the Muyil ruins and spend some time exploring them. The Muyil Ruins, also known as Chunyaxché, are smaller than the famous Tulum ruins but they are worth a visit as you’ll hardly find any tourist here. 

The Muyil archaeological site dates back to the Preclassic period (around 300 BC to 250 AD) and was inhabited by the ancient Mayans for centuries. The site includes various structures, plazas, and ceremonial platforms, showcasing Mayan architectural and cultural elements.

Highlights of the Muyil Ruins:

  • Pyramid El Castillo: This prominent structure stands as the tallest at the site and it’s the most well-preserved one.
  • Casa de los Pájaros (House of the Birds): This building exhibits intricate stone carvings depicting birds and other animals, reflecting the Mayan reverence for nature.
  • Sacbe (White Road): Muyil boasts a well-preserved sacbe, a raised limestone causeway that once connected various Mayan cities and settlements.
  • Observation Tower: There’s an observation tower near the ruins, providing an excellent vantage point to appreciate the lush landscape and nearby lagoons.
sian ka'an - muyil ruins

From Muyil to Sian Ka’an

It’s easy to identify El Castillo (the Castle) in Muyil since it is the largest pyramid structure on the site. It’s important to locate this particular ruin because it is behind El Castillo where you find the boardwalk to Sian Ka’an Biosphere.

First you’ll come across a white plaque on the ground with an explanation of what a Sacbe is: a pathway constructed by the Mayans. After the short stroll down the sacbe, you’ll eventually reach a sign about the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

Behind that Sian Ka’an sign (pictured), you’ll see a palapa ticket booth. This is where you pay a Sian Ka’an entrance fee of 50 MXN (US$2.5) per person, to enter the boardwalk, known as “El Sendero Canan-Ha,” or “the Canan-Ha trail.”

The scenic hike on the boardwalk takes approximately 1 to 2 hours, if you go leisurely. Halfway through the 500-meter boardwalk stands an observation tower. This somewhat precarious tower offers a bird’s eye view above the jungle canopy, but please be cautious when climbing it. Continuing on the trail, you’ll eventually reach the docks when you can catch the boat into the Sian Ka’an canals.

sian ka'an biosphere reserve entrance

Taking the Boat in the Sian Ka’an Lagoon 

The boat tour through the Sian Ka’an Lagoon is a highlight for many people who venture here and it’s undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Tulum. The boat journey navigates through two picturesque lagoons and ventures into a narrow canal, where the gentle current allows you to float along crystal-clear and stunning turquoise waters.

Your voyage will first lead you to a small Mayan ruin that served as a hub for commerce centuries ago. You’ll then be dropped off to drift along an ancient Mayan canal, flanked by flourishing mangroves, and graced with remarkably clear waters. This experience is relaxing and refreshing, especially after a brief yet perspiration-inducing trek through the hot and humid jungle.

Please note that this boat excursion through Sian Ka’an is not a guided tour, don’t expect the boatman to talk to you about the sites along the way. You can of course ask questions and they’re usually to answer them. We highly recommend bringing your own mask and snorkel to see the fish and crabs living among the mangroves.

sian ka'an boat
sian ka'an tour - boat trip

Sian Ka’an Tours via Muyil

If you don’t want to worry about the logistics, then it’s certainly worth booking a day tour to Sian Ka’an from Tulum. Small group tours include the convenience of hotel pickup, meals, drinks, entrance fees, etc. This all can help to justify the higher price.

I recommend booking through trusted sites like Viator and GetYourGuide. They are always reliable, have an up-to-date calendar, verified reviews, good prices, and generous cancelation policies. I recommend this Sian Ka’an & Muyil Tour with great reviews. It’s the best-priced Sian Ka’an tour I’ve found online. 

sian ka'an canal

Option 2: Punta Allen

How to Get to Punta Allen

For those interested in experiencing the oceanic side of Sian Ka’an and spotting wild dolphins and manatees, the Punta Allen route is more tedious and time-consuming. But it also allows you to delve deeper into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, experience rustic island life, and to completely disconnect with no phone signal (and sometimes electricity). 

Punta Allen is a mere 45 km (35 miles) south of Tulum’s hotel zone, but the only road there is a potholed, unpaved road that is notoriously known as “Mexico’s worst road.” Even though Google Maps shows it as a 2-hour journey, it takes over 4 hours to cover the potholed path.

See also  How to Get to Isla Holbox, Mexico 2024

After driving the road ourselves, we can only confirm that the rumor is true – because the road is filled with so many potholes which can get muddy and slippery during rainy season, it can take up to 4 hours to cover the 35-mile distance from Tulum! Most people warn against driving this road on a normal sedan and strongly encourage using a 4×4.

That said, there is an alternative route to take to Punta Allen from Tulum, one that sidesteps the road’s perils. It’s particularly suitable for those who don’t drive and prefer someone to handle all the logistics. Or you can simply book a day tour from Tulum, and that will cover all your transport, logistics and food.

Here are the three options:

A. Brave the bumpy 4-hour drive along what Mexico’s most pockmarked road.

B. Book a transfer with an agency which includes van transport and boat.

C. Book a day tour to bring you here and back to Tulum.

sian ka'an  - punta allen old bridge

A. Driving to Punta Allen

First and foremost, it is highly recommended to drive what is one of Mexico’s most pockmarked roads on an SUV, 4X4 or on a motorcycle. It’s no joke – the potholes come one after another; you hardly get any break between the bumps. Opting for an SUV will provide a slower yet less vehicle-damaging experience along the often rugged and bumpy road.

After speaking to friends who drove the road in a normal sedan, we decided to be stubborn and drive our Volkswagen Beetle to Punta Allen. Our car made it the whole way, but did we regret bringing our car? Yes we did!

It was an exhausting 4-hour drive of non-stop bumping, grinding and cursing – plus our car (with a very low bottom) has been giving us a lot of problems since the trip. We have had to fix the entire bottom and switch out the tyre flaps and front bumper, in part because of this treacherous journey!

To clarify, we have driven in many parts of the world with god-awful roads, such as Tanzania, South Africa, Ecuador and Costa Rica. My husband is an extremely experienced driver, and even he got tired of navigating those back-breaking bumps and trenches.

NOTE: We always book car rental on DiscoverCars.com as they’ve consistently given us the best rates and customer support. They offer the option of SUV cars in Tulum.

sian ka'an road to punta allen

B. Van & Boat Transfer

Opting for the van + boat journey to Punta Allen will relieve you of the horrible driving and offer a more comfortable, slightly faster route. If you can’t drive, then this is the ONLY way to get to Punta Allen as there is no public transport. 

This transfer is organized by a company called Fisher Natours and they run daily transfers to Punta Allen at 3 pm and leave for Tulum at 7am. The transfer costs 650 MXN (US$32.5) each way. You can book with them directly on Whatsapp (Yessi: +52 998 190 0123).

First, you’ll meet the van at Hostal Pueblo Mágico. It’s then an hour’s drive south along the Tulum beach road to the Sian Ka’an Visitor Center. After you pay your park entrance fee (104 MXN or US$5), it’s a just a short drive to a rustic resort, el Ultimo Maya. There you’ll catch your boat to Punta Allen. 

I’ve heard that it can be disorganized and there might be some waiting involved. But Yessi is helpful and she can answer any question you may have. 

sian ka'an beach

C. Book a Day Tour

Lastly, you can actually go on a day tour to Punta Allen from Tulum, where your transport, logistics and meals are all taken care of. Prices aren’t cheap but t least you won’t have to worry about anything. It’s great for those who are short on time but really want to see a pristine and untouristy part of Tulum.These small group tours will drive you on the bumpy road for 15 km to the Boca Paila Lagoon, where you’re transferred to a small boat to sail across the Sian Ka’an. You’ll stop to watch dolphins, spot manatees, and snorkel at a coral reef. Then you’ll visit a sandback before finally reaching Punta Allen for some time to relax and the included lunch. These Punta Allen boat tours are priced around US$200. Given all that’s included, these small group tours can be worth the splurge for the convenience of being able to experience this all on a day trip from Tulum. Check out this Full Day Adventure to Punta Allen that has raving reviews.

punta allen boat tour

Things to Know Before You Visit Punta Allen

Before heading to Punta Allen, it’s essential to be aware of the daily electricity schedule, which includes power interruptions from 2 to 7 pm and 2 to 7 am. If you’re not staying overnight in Punta Allen, this should not affect your visit, but it’s a detail worth keeping in mind. 

Also, for those who are driving to Punta Allen, it’s important to note that there are no gas stations en route to Punta Allen or within the town itself. So make sure that you start your journey with a full tank of fuel.

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Where to Stay in Punta Allen

As it takes awhile to get to Punta Allen, you should definitely stay overnight and experience the rustic, small fishing village vibes. There are some modest guest houses in Punta Allen, but you can also find glamping spots and higher-end fishing lodges dotted around the village.

Budget: Las Palapas de Punta Allen

Las Palapas is one of the best budget-friendly places to stay in Punta Allen. It’s a basic, simple place but the hosts are very nice people and prices are good. Check rates here.

Mid Range: Cielo y Selva

We stayed in a glamping tent at Cielo y Selva (pictured) and loved our time there! This ecolodge has a series of comfortable and photogenic bell tents and bungalows right on the beach, within a few minutes’ walk from the village. Check rates here. 

Luxury: Grand Slam Fishing Lodge Tulum 

See also  Tulum Travel Guide 2024

The most upscale option in Punta Allen is a fishing lodge with gorgeous beachfront rooms, nice lounging areas and hot tubs. It’s a short walk from the village and suits those traveling in groups. Check rates here.

sian ka'an - glamping in punta allen

Best Time to Visit Sian Ka’an 

The best time to visit Sian Ka’an is during the shoulder season: May to June and September to October, when there are fewer crowds and lower prices. While these months can be slightly warmer and more humid, they still offer enjoyable conditions for beach lovers. 

We visited the Muyil side in May and Punta Allen in September and it was absolutely quiet and empty both times. The weather was perfect and we definitely enjoyed having the place to ourselves.

Generally, the peak tourist season aligns with the dry winter months, from November to April. During this period, the weather is pleasant and warm and the sea remains calm, perfect for snorkeling and boat tours. 

sian ka'an - hammock in punta allen

Wifi/Internet in Sian Ka’an

As Sian Ka’an is mostly wilderness, internet connectivity is quite limited and unreliable. While some accommodations in Punta Allen offer Wi-Fi to their guests, the quality of the connection can vary significantly. Expect slow speeds and potential interruptions.

I recommend getting a SIM card with internet data to make sure you stay connected while in Tulum. Either buy an eSIM before traveling or a get SIM card at the airport upon arrival. Even then, expect to have limited 4G while in Punta Allen.

Read my guide on how to get a SIM card in Mexico.

sian ka'an punta allen village

Cost of Travel in Sian Ka’an

The cost of travel in Sian Ka’an varies depending on whether you’re visiting independently or on a tour. If you visit the Muyil side on your own like we did, expect to spend around 1400 MXN (US$70) per person including the return bus fare, entrance fees to ruins and boat fare.

We also visited Punta Allen on our own and drove there with our car. We stayed in a glamping tent at Cielo y Selva that cost us around 1600 MXN (US$80) per night for the three of us. For our weekend in Punta Allen, we spent around 3,000 MXN (US$150) per person, including 2 nights of accommodation, gasoline, food and boat trip.

Comparatively, half-day day tours to Muyil from Tulum cost around US$150 per person; while day tours to Punta Allen from Tulum cost around US$200 per person. They might be a bit pricey but they’re definitely an easy solution for those tight on time and don’t want to worry about logistics.

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Is Sian Ka’an Safe to Visit?

Overall, Sian Ka’an is a tranquil and safe destination where you go to get away from it all. Due to its remote location, Sian Ka’an has limited access to services and medical facilities. It’s advisable to ensure your vehicle is in good working condition, carry essential supplies (such as water and snacks), and have a full tank of gas before embarking on the journey. If you have specific medical needs, it’s a good idea to bring necessary medications and first-aid supplies.

As I mentioned many times, the road to Punta Allen is one of the worst roads in Mexico, and it can get flooded or dangerously muddy during the rainy season. Keep an eye on weather conditions, especially during hurricane season (June to November).  Be sure to check the conditions of the road with your hotel before driving. 

sian ka'an beach

Buy Travel Insurance for Mexico

Regardless of whether you’re traveling Mexico for a week or a year, I always recommend travelers to buy travel insurance, whether you’re traveling for a year or a week. It is particularly important to have travel insurance that covers COVID-19.

Safety Wing is the most popular travel insurance company for COVID19-coverage. I use their Nomad Insurance plan, which covers COVID-19 as any other illness as long as it was not contracted before your coverage start date. Refer to my travel insurance guide for more details.

sian ka'an tour

What to Pack for Sian Ka’an

For this trip to Sian Ka’an, you’ll be spending most of your time in the sea, so definitely pack lots of sun-proof gear. KEEN footwear or normal sandals are also really useful to walk on beaches strewn with seashells or corals.

Snorkel mask and fins will come in useful as you’ll be using them alot here. We were glad we brought our snorkel masks!

Packing List for Sian Ka’an

sian ka'an - snorkeling in the ocean

Is Sian Ka’an Worth Visiting?

Having lived in the Yucatan Peninsula for the past two years, I’ve seen my fair share of touristy beaches and commercialised zones – and Sian Ka’an is one of the very few remaining spots that have been protected immaculately and escaped mass tourism.

Despite the lack of facilities and infrastructure, the charm of Sian Ka’an lies in its remote location and well-preserved flora and fauna. If you’re looking to veer off the trodden trail and get away from it all, Sian Ka’an is the place for you.

I hope you’ve found this guide to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve useful. Feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions. For those who are planning to travel more of Mexico, check out other articles I’ve written on Mexico:

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links i.e. if you book a stay through one of my links, I get a small commission at NO EXTRA COST to you. Thank you for your support!


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