Exploring Mexico’s Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
This guest post is written by Michael Anderson.
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Sian Ka’an is a protected biosphere reserve located along Mexico’s Caribbean coast. The reserve spans over one thousand square miles and is home to an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve was established as a protected region in 1986 and then subsequently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 due to its remarkable biodiversity.
Today, visitors can tour the reserve and witness this extraordinary ecosystem for themselves. In addition to the biodiversity, Sian Ka’an also contains some of the bluest waters in all of the Caribbean as most of the region is composed of wetlands and mangrove forests. Now that Sian Ka’an has been added your Mexico bucket list, let’s take a closer look at touring this impressive reserve.
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Sian Ka’an Tours
The entrance to Sian Ka’an is located about two hours south of Cancun, one hour south of Playa del Carmen, and five minutes south of Tulum. The reserve basically begins where the town of Tulum ends. There are numerous tour companies that pick you up early in the morning, either from Playa del Carmen or Tulum. Then, you’ll be transported to the reserve.
If you’re looking for a recommendation for Sian Ka’an tours, I highly suggest booking with a company called Mexico Kan Tours. Aside from having fantastic reviews, they promote responsible tourism and conservation throughout all of their excursions. I went on three eco-friendly tours with this company, one of them being Sian Ka’an Mexico. All three were fantastic.
Upon arriving at the entrance to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, you’ll hear a brief introduction before boarding a small boat. This boat will act as your home for the next couple of hours. This is where the adventure begins.
Sian Ka’an Mexico: Wildlife
Almost immediately after beginning your Sian Ka’an excursion, you’ll no doubt see numerous species of birds that encompass wide swaths of the reserve. Interestingly enough, one Sian Ka’an tour website claims that a whopping 379 species of birds have been identified in the reserve as of 2015. Another website is more modest with an estimate of 326 species.
Either way, it’s more birds than I could possibly name. Out of the diverse birds that I viewed during this tour, the Magnificent Frigatebird seemed to be the most common. And yes the word magnificent is actually a part of the bird’s name. Large flocks of this bird can be seen resting on and flying around Sian Ka’an’s numerous mangroves.
Aside from birds, you may also be privy to marine wildlife such as dolphins, manatees, crocodiles, and the endangered green sea turtle, just to name a few. I also saw a boa constrictor swimming in the water at one point. Although I didn’t personally witness any land-based mammals while visiting the reserve, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any. In fact, Sian Ka’an is home to diverse mammals such as pumas, jaguars, ocelots, howler monkeys, spider monkeys, possums, and tapirs.
After boating around the reserve and searching for wildlife, you’ll have the chance to snorkel in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. It’s the second largest coral reef in the entire world. You can jump into the water and snorkel alongside colorful fish or you can just hang out in the boat and relax.
Visiting Punta Allen
At this point the tour will take you to the small fishing village of Punta Allen, which is one of the only human settlements located within the reserve. Punta Allen is actually the largest human settlement in Sian Ka’an with a population of about 500 residents. The village is so small that it receives electricity from a single generator from 11AM to 2PM and from 7PM to 12AM every day.
Upon arriving in Punta Allen, you’ll be treated to a delicious meal of your choosing at a local restaurant (vegan options are available). After lunch, you can walk around the village’s sandy streets. Witness the laid-back Caribbean lifestyle that the locals are accustomed to. You may see children playing basketball at the local park or adults riding a bike across the village. Our group stopped at a small outdoor stand and ordered coffee from a foreigner. The proprietor relocated to Punta Allen some years back. She fell in love with the scenery and relaxed lifestyle after visiting the village for the first time. Maybe the tour will inspire you to move to Punta Allen, too!
After our leisurely afternoon in Punta Allen, we boarded the boat and began our return journey back to Tulum. On the way back, we reminisced about the tour and the diverse wildlife that we witnessed firsthand. In hindsight, touring Sian Ka’an was an incredibly unique and eye-opening experience. Aside from observing the incredible biodiversity within the reserve, we also learned a lot about sustainable tourism.
Conservation Issues Affecting Mexico’s Caribbean Coast
From Cancun down to the Belizean border, Mexico’s Caribbean coast has undergone rapid development in the last couple of decades. What was previously a region of unspoiled beaches and undisturbed forests is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in the entire world. And while we can all appreciate the ability to flock to beautiful locations such as this, we must also be mindful of the environmental impacts that this level of tourism can bring upon any given region.
In Mexico’s example, the most notable conservation issue being amplified by overtourism is the pollution of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. This problem is known as coral bleaching and it can be attributed to both climate change and overtourism. Dramatic increases in tourism have led to an increase in untreated waste and agricultural runoff that can seep into and contaminate Mexico’s barrier reef.
Another example of this pollution comes from improper use of sunscreen. Mexico Kan Tours, the eco-friendly tour company mentioned earlier, explicitly stated that you should wait upwards of thirty minutes after applying sunscreen before entering the ocean. The reason for this is that it takes sunscreen about thirty minutes to absorb into your skin. By ignoring this advice, the chemicals in your sunscreen may enter the water and pollute the second largest barrier reef in the world. While this may not seem like a big deal at an individual level, imagine millions of tourists making this same mistake every single year. You can also choose a coral reef friendly sunscreen that works just as effectively, but won’t damage our underwater ecosystems.
How to Visit Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
So, the underlying question is, can you visit the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve while still respecting the environment? The answer is yes. However, it’s important to be aware of your actions and to implement sustainable practices throughout your trip. This means booking Sian Ka’an excursions that are eco-friendly, reducing your levels of waste, and appreciating the diverse ecosystems that are so dependent on our collective conservation efforts.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael is the founder of Passport Explored, a blog that focuses on culture and adventure travel. His goal is to inspire people to step outside of their comfort zone and live without regrets. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.
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