Imagine floating in the clear water of an ancient Mayan canal. You can do just that during a boat tour of Sian Ka’an near Tulum, Mexico.
Touring the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
Just a short distance south of hippie-chic Tulum, the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve preserves about 1.3 million acres of water, wetlands, and jungle. This UNESCO World Heritage site allows visitors to see the coast as it looked when the Maya ruled this part of Mexico.
The section of Sian Ka’an near Tulum has a few hiking trails (mostly boardwalks), but the best way to see it is from the water. Boat tours take visitors from the beach through freshwater lakes and a couple of ancient Mayan canals. Along the way, visitors may see wildlife, including manatees and a variety of birds. However, the highlight of these trips is generally the chance to float in one of the canals.
Those with more time can travel farther into the reserve to explore the coastal waters off Punta Allen. Some of the finest snorkeling anywhere is available there, as the reserve protects part of the Mesoamerican reef. However, this area is quite remote and a long way from Tulum.
Lacking time (and the proper vehicle) to tackle the drive to Punta Allen, we booked a half-day day trip to see the Mayan ruins of Muyil and tour a bit of Sian Ka’an’s marshes, lagoons, and ancient canals near Tulum.
Remains of an ancient Mayan trade route
The route into this freshwater lagoon follows along the wall of an old Mayan settlement of Muyil. As we drive, Mayan faces peer out from the jungle as if watching us pass by.
Today this is a quiet, undeveloped jungle. However, it was once an active trade center for the Maya.
The road here connected the Mayan town of Muyil to the rest of the Mayan world. But it was also a link to the world beyond, as the watery path we are about to follow connected this town to the sea. Canals cut through the limestone and an ancient customs house along the way provide evidence that the Maya regularly used this route to move people and goods.
Exploring Sian Ka’an by boat, float, and foot
Even from land, it’s easy to see why the Maya called this Sian Ka’an — where the sky was born.
On the water
Although a handful of boats of various sizes are pulled up along the shore, the beach is quiet when our little group (Lane and I, a British couple, and our guide Alejandro) arrive.
I am expecting larger boats. However, we board a fairly small boat with a large outboard motor. And, guided by a local captain, we are soon flying across the lake.
On the far side of the lake we unexpectedly turn almost directly into a patch of reeds. As we begin our turn, I realize an opening in the vegetation marks the location of an ancient canal cut from the soft limestone by the Maya.
As it did when first opened hundreds of years ago, the canal connects this small lagoon (a freshwater lake) to the much larger Chunyaxché Lagoon.
It ends in a vast wetland along the shallow edges of this large freshwater lagoon.
We thread our way through wetlands until we reach open water again.
And, again, we fly across the water.
This is a large lake, but we are only traveling a small portion of it, and soon mangroves come into view.
Deep in the world of the Maya
The mangroves mark the entrance to a second canal.
Like the first, the Maya cut this passageway out of the limestone many generations ago.
In places the mangroves create an archway over the canal. In other areas, they intermingle with reeds and grasses to form a watery prairie that stretches in all directions around us.
After a short distance, we tie up at a small modern dock. Boardwalks leading away from the dock provide access to the surrounding wetlands and a small building.
Known as Xhlapak, this building has been here for a thousand years or more. Although often referred to as a temple, it seems more likely that it was the Mayan equivalent of a customs house.
The Maya had a vast trade network within and beyond their own territory. Xhlapak would have provided a secure place to review the people and goods moving into and out of that territory. In addition, its isolation would have allowed the Maya to quarantine people or goods here, protecting the village from unwelcome visitors and items of all sorts.
But today it is an empty shell. After a quick look, we head back to the dock.
It’s time for our float!
Floating through a Mayan canal
On the dock, we are each given a life jacket. Rather than wearing it as a vest, we are advised to put our legs through the arm holes and wear it like a giant orange diaper.
We look ridiculous.
However, once in the water, the upside-down life jackets become buoyant chairs that allow us to effortlessly sit upright as we drift along with the current.
The water itself is warm and clear, with a sandy white bottom that reflects the trees and sky above. A gentle current carries us through a mix of mangroves and grasses. Just above eye level, orchids and bromeliads recline on branches or reach out to us from chunks of limestone. Below, the occasional fish glides by, sometimes alone, sometimes in small schools. Birds chatter in the trees and puffy white clouds drift overhead.
It is as peaceful as any place I have ever been.
I wonder if the Maya – who worked so hard to create and maintain these canals – ever tied up their boats and drifted along like this. Did they take pleasure in what they created here, or was this just another transportation route?
I want to float here for the rest of the day, but a boardwalk at the water’s edge demands that we leave this tranquil paradise.
A walk through the wetlands
The boardwalk leads us through a vast grassy wetland and back to the dock.
Along the way it provides close-up views of the different types of vegetation found here.
The return trip flies by as we zip through canals and skim across lakes on our way back to the beach where we began.
Plan your trip to Sian Ka’an’s Mayan canals
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve covers a huge area in the southern Yucatán, much of which is remote and difficult to reach. However, the area where the Mayan canals are located is only a half-hour south of Tulum. That makes it an easy day trip from any of the beach resorts in Tulum, or even more distant communities like Playa del Carmen.
On a tour
Most people seem to visit Sian Ka’an as part of a tour. Visitors to Tulum will find many tours that include the Mayan canal float available for a range of prices.
We booked our tour through MexiDivers Tulum, which runs a variety of water-based tours along with its diving program. They provided transportation to and from Muyil, entrance to the Muyil ruins and biosphere reserve, transportation to the boat dock, a boat and captain, and our excellent guide Alejandro.
On your own
If you want to visit this part of Sian Ka’an on your own, it is an easy drive or bus ride from Tulum.
If driving, take the main highway, rather than the coastal road. (When we visited late in 2014, the coastal road led to a locked gate.) From the highway, you’ll have the option of entering at the ruins or near the beach. Although mostly deserted when we visited, apparently boats and captains are usually available at the beach.
At the Muyil section of Sian Ka’an
The Muyil area of Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is only a small portion of the entire park. However, it provides visitors with a variety of options for exploring the world of the Maya or just enjoying the water.
There is a small fee to enter the reserve.
Most people come to this part of Sian Ka’an to float in one of the Mayan canals linking the park’s lagoons to the sea. These canals were carved hundreds or even a thousand years ago by the Maya. They were used for generations before being abandoned after the arrival of the Spanish. Today a number of these once over-grown canals are maintained to allow the passage of small boats and float tours.
Allow at least a couple hours roundtrip for a canal tour, as the canal where visitors are allowed to float is quite distant from the visitor center. The float portion of the tour takes about a half-hour, depending on the speed of the current.
Visitor Center, boardwalks, and fire tower
This portion of Sian Ka’an has a visitor center that provides information on the park.
There are also toilets and changing rooms available for park visitors.
A series of boardwalks through jungle wetlands connect the Visitor Center to the Muyil ruins. These provide an up-close look at various types of wetlands as well as a pleasantly shady walking path.
A fire tower (during the dry season fires can be a problem here) is open to visitors who want an overview of the area. It’s a bit of a climb, but provides a good view of the lake and wetlands.
The water in the lagoon is warm and clear, making this a pleasant beach. While deserted when we visited, it’s apparently a popular destination for picnics.
While not actually part of the biosphere reserve, boardwalks connect Sian Ka’an to the ruins of the Mayan city of Muyil. This was one of the earliest settlements along Mexico’s Caribbean coast and was occupied until the region came under Spanish control.
To date, only a small part of the site has been excavated. This gives it a magical, otherworldly feel.
There is a separate fee to visit the archeological site.
There are other Mayan ruins within Sian Ka’an itself, but they are scattered, small, and often difficult to access.
Tips for an enjoyable day
Go early for a peaceful trip
We booked the earliest trip available. The goal was to visit the Muyil ruins while it was still cool, but this also made it possible to enjoy the canal float in almost utter peace. I say almost because near the end of our float we could hear another boat arrive at the dock. The shouting began almost immediately and continued for the rest of our time in the water. I don’t know why so many people seem to think they need to scream all the time, but that’s the way it is. Go early if you want a tranquil visit. Go later if you want a loud floating party.
Bring a hat and sun protection
Our boat was uncovered, but even the “covered” boats expose visitors to a lot of sun during the hours you are on the water. Cover up or use sunscreen. Just make sure sunscreens are reef safe to protect the creatures that live in the water – it’s required in Mexico’s Caribbean parks and reserves.
Tours usually provide water (some provide a whole picnic), but bring your own anyway. There really isn’t any place to buy any once you are in the reserve and you will be in the sun for a few hours.
This is a natural area and some visitors want to be able to enjoy the solitude and hear the birds sing. Save loud partying for the pool at your hotel.
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