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Enjoy Untouched Nature at Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve Near Cancun, Mexico

Mexico's Sian Ka'an is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

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Enjoy Untouched Nature at Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve Near Cancun, Mexico

Dozing crocodile in Sian Ka'an, Mexico's first Biosphere Reserve near Cancun

© Lois Friedland
Floating downstream in Sian Ka'an, a Biosphere Reserve in Mexico and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I thought about the Mayans who created these waterways centuries ago. I was swimming behind a boat toward the end of a day that included kayaking among mangroves to watch birds, motoring past a dozing crocodile and photographing more than a dozen different species of birds. For more than an hour, the guide skillfully steered our boat through miles of narrow waterways in flooded savannahs and mangroves, stretching from the salty ocean to freshwater lagoons.

After a Mayan lunch, the day ended with a walk around Muyil, a partially cleared pre-Columbian ruins. After spending almost a week at a resort in the Riviera Maya, about 30 miles south of Cancun, the day exploring Sian Ka'an made me understand why UNESCO added this entirely natural setting to its World Heritage Site list.

Sian Ka'an, Mexico - A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Sian Ka'an is a Mayan phrase for "Where The Sky Is Born," and when you're in this UNESCO Heritage site you understand why this name was given to Mexico's first established Biosphere Reserve. The raw, natural beauty keeps you entranced and swiveling your head, as you explore to see what's coming up next.

Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, the third largest protected area in Mexico, encompasses 1.3 million acres of tropical ecosystems in the State of Quintana Roo. It's at the southern end of Riviera Maya, and about a two-hour drive from Cancun. The Biosphere includes a lowland forest, flooded savannas, mangroves, and a portion of the world's second largest coastal barrier reef-- the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.

Sian Ka'an is a birder's paradise - there are 350 species - crocodiles, turtles, spider and howler monkeys, and the elusive jaguars and ocelots. Within the Reserve, there are 23 different pre-Columbian archeological sites. The Reserve is divided into two main zones. No human activities are allowed in the core zones, but the buffer zones are open to fishing and certain types of tourism.

Visiting Sian Ka'an With Community Tours

Community Tours Sian Ka'an, the group I toured with, is a tourism service alliance of three local tour operators. This group includes local guides who speak English and Spanish, and are committed to ecologically sustainable tourism. The guides are based in Punta Allen and Muyil, two small communities within the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve.

Community Tours offers several itineraries designed to be fun and give small groups of tourists a chance to learn about the environment within three locations in the Reserve: Ascension Bay (Punta Allen and surroundings), Muyil Lagoon and Capechen Lagoon. Because the guides are local, they have extensive knowledge of many of the hundreds of different plants and types of birds. Point to a bird flying swiftly past and they'll give you the name and tell you about that species nesting habits. Looking for crocodiles in the middle of the day, when they are usually sleeping tucked away in the mangrove swamps? Our guide found one that we missed the first two times he pointed out because the crocodile blended into the landscape.

Booking Tours With Community Tours

The Sian Ka'an tours range from half-day to all-day, and start in Tulum. Pickups can be arranged at Riviera Maya and Cancun hotels and resorts. Space is limited on these tours, so it's best to book at least a week or more in advance.

The all-day Forest and Float tours include a boat ride through the waterways and lagoons, a Maya lunch, and a short walk to explore the pre-Columbian ruins at Muyil. During the three-hour Birding and Natural history tour, guests will probably see more than dozen species, ranging from the Yucatan woodpecker to the yellow-front parrot. The views of the biosphere as the sunset are spectacular, during the Sunset Wine and Cheese tour. Equipment is provided for catch and release during the fly fishing tour to Ascension Bay.

To learn more about Sian Ka'an, visit Community Tours Sian Ka'an.

Other Adventures in the Riviera Maya and Cancun

There's so much more for adventurous travelers in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula than sitting on a beach or playing golf. Why not go scuba diving or snorkeling in a cenote? At Hidden Worlds you can take an ATV ride through the jungle or go horseback riding on the beach. At Xplore you can swim in an underground river, ride a zip line into the water or drive an amphibious buggy through the jungle.

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