There are many great protected areas located throughout Mexico, and one of the largest and most diverse is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. This large protected area is located on the east side of the Yucatan Peninsula, south of Tulum along Mexico’s Riviera Maya. This nature and wildlife reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is home to thousands of flora and fauna species, including 300 different bird species, tropical jungles, mangroves and is bordered by a protected marine reef along the Caribbean coast.
The biosphere reserve protects this very important ecosystem, preserving the balance between the salt water coastal areas of the Caribbean, the freshwater mangroves of the coast and tropical jungles further inland. There are no rivers on the Yucatan peninsula; the fresh water is located underground in a network of caverns and caves, accessible via the cenotes, which form when the limestone caverns collapses exposing the ground water below. This is a delicate balance and all the animals, fish and people need this to be healthy for the region to survive.
The original Mayan inhabitants of this regions named this place Sian Ka’an, which in the Mayan language means “Origin of the Sky”. It was protected in 1986 and was named a UNESCO site one year later in 1987. There is over 5,280 square kilometers of protected area including 4,000 square kilometers of protected jungles and mangroves on the coast, and 120 km of coastline. This includes part of the Mesoamerican barrier reef system that stretches from Cancun to Honduras.
There reserve is home to 23 known Mayan Ruins, including the very impressive site of Muyil, located just south of Tulum. This site is much further off the beaten track than nearby ruins of Coba and Tulum, and the jungle is much less tamed at this smaller site. Here you can take a walk through the jungle and visit a great viewing tower and the nearby lagoon.
The jungles and mangroves are an important part of the greater ecosystem, acting as a filter between the freshwater and the ocean. Inside this reserve, there are some incredible wildlife, such as Jaguars, Pumas, Ocelots, West Indian Manatee, four types of sea turtles, many migratory birds and hundreds of fish species. Most of the park is inaccessible to humans, protected by the inhospitable nature of the landscape. There are very few local residents inside the park, with the exception of the fishing villages of Punta Allen and Punta Herrero, although the northern border of the park borders the expanding tourist destination of Tulum.
There are several ways to explore the Sian Ka’an, either visiting one of the lagoons located outside of Tulum, or taking a drive south along the coastal road to Punta Allen, where you can find many deserted beaches with incredible blue waters along the long coastline. The biosphere is quite diverse, with many wetlands, lagoons, mangroves and inland jungles to explore, as well as the highly recommended Muyil Ruins.
While reading up on the Sian Ka’an, we realized there is still so much more of this park that we need to explore. We’re always up for an adventure somewhere new, so we have begun the process of making some plans to go back sometime soon. Until that next adventure comes to fruition, here are some of our favourite pictures from inside the reserve that will hopefully inspire you to visit on your next trip to the Riviera Maya.