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Visit to Mexico's Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve

Mayan Community Tours Are a Responsible Tourism Alternative

Natural waterways allow views of acquatic and bird life.
Natural waterways allow visitors to get up close to aquatic and bird life in the lagoons and canals. Photo by Alison Gardner.

While staying at Akumal on the Quintanaroo Coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, I journeyed to “Where the Sky is Born,” to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve to experience this magical Caribbean mangrove-laced wetland interpreted through indigenous Mayan eyes. Since many of the 2,000 people living around this blue and turquoise water wonderland have deep Mayan roots, it seemed entirely appropriate to hear their family stories and learn from local guides about the wildlife and delicate ecosystems of this 1.3 million-acre protected area.

Selected in 1986/87 as a protected biosphere and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sian Ka’an spans almost one-third of the Caribbean coastline of Mexico. There are only 213 designated natural World Heritage Sites on the planet, and this is one of them!

Within Sian Ka’an is a unique geography, 23 known archaeological sites with artifacts dating back two thousand years, 103 mammal species, 340 bird species, 444 species of butterflies, nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles, and natural lagoons, canals and estuaries around which entire vacations may be created. Snorkeling is also popular, where the top end of the world’s second-largest coastal reef, the Mesoamerican, abuts Sian Ka’an. Access to all areas is understandably controlled, with only one percent of the land within this vast reserve being privately owned. With at least two millennia of documented presence, clearly, Mayan residents see themselves as guardians of Sian Ka’an.

Endangered sea turtle species in Sian Ka'an.
Sian Ka’an is an important nesting ground for two endangered sea turtle species.
Photo courtesy of Community Tours Sian Ka’an.

Tourism as a Primary Source of Income for the Local Population

Tourism is the primary source of income for 80% of the local population. With a lot of international encouragement, financial support, and business coaching, Community Tours Sian Ka’an has become a significant player in the Biosphere’s tourism delivery. This local tourism alliance between several Mayan cooperatives is still underway. Still, I deliberately selected it to explore this largest marine-protected area in Mexico because of the wealth of local knowledge it offers with each tour, its passion for sustainability and conservation, and its commitment to cultural exchanges between visitors and Mayan residents. I wanted to do my small part to encourage such intimate shared experiences to flourish on the eastern Yucatan Peninsula, too often associated with mass tourism development and exclusive mega-resorts.

Spending time with naturalist guide Alberto Cen Camal and Manuel Quezada Ix, Marketing and Sales Coordinator for CTSK, I quickly discovered that neither of them thinks like employees of a tourism company. Whether sharing tour time with Americans and Canadians (60% of foreign visitors) or Europeans (40%), they are excited about the process and the bottom line. Many clients book several tours on different days or request private tours to suit their timetable and special interests, such as birding or butterflies.

While the Muyil Archaeological Tour (listed among their tours), remains the single most popular option in the CTSK tour portfolio, Mayaking, is playfully reminding clients that Mayan kayaking is a great way to actively discover both the natural assets of Sian Ka’an and its Mayan heritage in the Biosphere’s lagoons and estuaries. Another new option catering to the less active nature lover is the Sunset Wine and Cheese Boat Tour of mangrove areas, which is especially magical as hundreds of large birds come in to roost at dusk.

Mayan Muyil Pyramid in Sian Ka'an, Mexico.
This Mayan Muyil Pyramid is one of 23 known archaeological sites in the Biosphere, some dating back more than two thousand years.
Photo courtesy of Community Tours Sian Ka’an.

Expand the Quintana Roo Experience

Stay in the area: Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is 165 km (102 miles) by good road south of Cancun Airport, 75 km from Akumal, and 50 km from Tulum. Part of the reserve is on land, and part is in the Caribbean Sea, including a section of the MesoAmerican Barrier Reef, the second-largest coastal reef in the world. South of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, visitors quickly leave behind the mass tourism resort atmosphere and drop into a smaller-scale, slower-paced, more distinctively Mexican world. Since a round trip visit to Sian Ka’an takes the better part of a day no matter how you sample it, why not cut the transport time from the resort cities by staying in the area and exploring lesser-known archaeological and natural areas at leisure?

Accommodations: From personal experience, I can recommend staying outside Akumal at the self-catering Las Villas Akumal, which offers quiet studio, one, two and 3-bedroom vacation rentals in 2-storey whitewashed buildings surrounded by beautiful gardens; or outside Tulum at Azulik Eco Tulum, (higher-end furnishing made of all local materials, cliff/ocean view spectacular).

Villas Akumal overlooks Jade Beach, a seasonal nesting area for sea turtles if you pick the suitable months to visit. The Tulum accommodations are more adventurous, designed to blend into the natural surroundings with no electricity around the cabins or pathways at night and an abundance of fluttering candles casting shadows in each cabin on a breezy evening with virtually no light pollution. Carry a flashlight, and leave the hair dryer and electric razor tucked away.

Each of these three accommodations at Akumal and Tulum hosts an excellent open-air restaurant, serving three meals daily. They feature some of the finest local dishes at a moderate price to be found anywhere on the Quintanaroo Coast.

Tulum by day and night: On a previous visit, I had toured the 11th Century Mayan walled city of Tulum by day, the third most visited archaeological site in Mexico and the only Mayan city built as a sea coast port of trade. However, any daytime visit has to take second place for me to the new “Vistas Nocturnas” sound and light guided walking tour, which is about 1 hour long.

Each guest is outfitted with an audio headset in their language choice, and the guide leads the small group around the site for an hour, activating the headset text and colorful light show that spotlights selected structures. With stars twinkling overhead in an otherwise ink-black sky, it is also the guide’s job to ensure guests don’t take a wrong turn among the stone temples and palaces or walk over a cliff edge. This is the world’s first physically active sound and light show, and the concept is brilliant for engaging visitors in the pre-Columbian history and cultural experience of the Mayans who built this impressive city.

Alison Gardner, Senior Travel Editor of Transitions Abroad, is also publisher of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, a richly illustrated resource for senior travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide. See her bio for many more articles she has written for Transitions Abroad.

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