The name Sian Ka’an means “where the sky is born” in Maya and its vast expanses of water rimmed with emerald green vegetation do seem to vanish into the distance and the heavens. A wild wonderland of jungle, wetlands, beaches and coral reefs, this biosphere reserve is home to a host of species of birds, mammals and marine life, many of them endangered. This is one adventure that nature lovers should not miss. Several different day trips are available, some taking you through the jungle and wetlands, others giving you the chance to meet some of the inhabitants of the area.
One of Mexico’s largest reserves
Located in northern and central Quintana Roo, Sian Ka’an is one of the largest reserves in Mexico, protecting 1.3 million acres of jungle, mangroves, seasonally flooded grasslands, Caribbean beaches and a 110-kilometer-stretch of pristine coral reef.
Protected by Mexican government decree since 1986, and declared a UNESCO World Heritage in 1987, Sian Ka’an is rich in biodiversity. It is home to 103 different mammals including the jaguar, peccary, tapir, howler and spider monkeys, and the West Indian manatee. It has one of Mexico’s largest crocodile populations and is an important nesting area for sea turtles. Over 330 resident and migratory species of bird have also been registered here and it is birds that visitors are most likely to see during a day here.
Sixteen varieties of heron nest in the mangroves along with cormorants, frigate birds and pelicans. Flamingos are occasional visitors in the winter, feeding in the coastal lagoons. Toucans, parrots, motmots, ocellated turkey, chachalaca, great curassow and hummingbirds are some of the forest dwellers. The reserve also has a large breeding population of ospreys and protects a tiny colony of the rare jabiru stork, the largest bird in the Americas.
On the trail of the ancient Maya in Muyil
Many visitors start their Sian Ka’an adventures in Muyil, an archaeological site in the jungle that is a short walk from Muyil or Chunyaxche Lagoon. The largest of 23 archaeological sites in the reserve, it was once an ancient inland port, the gateway to the wetlands with a trade route to the Caribbean coast.
As you walk through the forest past the crumbling temples you may see woodpeckers, hawks and trogons. Look out for hummingbirds busy among the flowers in a clearing near one of the wooden observation towers en route to the lagoon. You may also occasionally catch a glimpse of shy mammals such as coatimundi, agouti and brocket deer, and crocodiles in the reed beds around the lagoon.
Lagoon side, northern jacanas step daintily through the shallows and herons stand motionless on the wooden dock as you prepare to board your boat for the next stage of your journey. Many more herons, including the green, tiger and agami heron, ibis, roseate spoonbills and wood storks take to the wing during an exciting boat trip through the wetlands.
Once you cross Muyil Lagoon you enter a channel through the mangroves that was widened and dredged by the Maya in ancient times and used as a trade route between the Caribbean and inland cities. A small temple guards the waterway and after you have visited it your tour guide gives the signal for everyone to jump into the channel. The water is clear, shallow and you are wearing a life jacket. It’s time to lean back, forget your cares and drift with the gentle current.
Many tours take you as far as Boca Paila, a white sand beach where the channel meets the turquoise sea. If you book your boat trip directly from the Muyil cooperative it may be possible to arrange extra time to venture deeper into the chain of lagoons running parallel to the coast. Manatees are sometimes spotted surfacing in deeper stretches of water and there is an island inhabited by the elusive kuka or boat-billed heron.
Maya Ka’an, More ways of Exploring Sian Ka’an & the Maya Heartland
The Maya Ka’an community tour network offers several trips to Sian Ka’an as part of its collection. Visit Muyil and see how the villagers scale chicozapote trees to slash the bark and harvest the white sap. The sap is boiled and used to make chicle, the natural gum that is the base for chewing gum.
Alternatively, choose one of the Maya Ka’an trips offered by the inhabitants of Punta Allen. On the shores of Asuncion Bay, the fishing village of Punta Allen is the largest community in the Sian Ka’an Reserve. The inhabitants earn their livelihood from the sustainable capture of lobster and from taking visitors on boat trips for birding, fishing and diving. Community tour operators are also now offering nature walks through the mangroves, kayaking, bike trips, wildlife watching and fly fishing.
Visiting Sian Ka’an
Ask your Concierge to help you arrange your Sian Ka’an adventure, Maya Ka’an community visits or visits to Rio Lagartos, Contoy and other reserves in the area, bird watching and more.