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Sian Ka’an Bioreserve with Kids

Updated: Jul 12, 2022

Ever since a friend told me about a magical boat trip they took in the Riviera Maya I knew I needed to tour Sian Ka’an for myself. So I did what any good adventure traveller would do, I did a lot of research on Sian Ka’an biosphere tours, but mostly so I could figure out how to get there without doing an organized tour of Sian Ka’an. I just wanted to go on my own so we could be flexible with the kids and save money.

Sadly my research hit a wall. But just as it seemed way too complicated to get there solo, and at the time I wasn’t sure if it was really worth the money for a guided tour said friend sent me a screen shot of where she managed to organise a boat independently which she stumbled upon by accident and it worked out great! I decided it was worth the risk of being hot and lost and potentially missing out if we couldn’t make it work, and we attempted our own adventure within an adventure.

What is the Sian Ka’an Bioreserve?

A Biosphere reserve is an ecosystem of unusual scientific and natural interest by UNESCO. This label is important as it helps to protect the site and its fragile ecosystem from things that could damage it, like fishing, pollution, over-tourism, etc.

The reason that Sian Ka’an is a Biosphere Reserve is because it is such a complex environment and a unique place of natural beauty in Mexico. Thanks to the preservation it is still home to dolphins, manatees, turtles, and a lot of birds. It makes a trip to Sian Ka’an pretty special if you are an animal lover.

Where is the Sian Ka’an Bioreserve?

Sian Ka’an, Quintana Roo, is just south of Tulum. This is why it’s often referred to as the Tulum nature reserve, but this isn’t strictly true as Sian Ka’an National Park is past Tulum.

But you do need to pass through Tulum to get there. Most of Sian Ka’an is protected land and not inhabited, so if you want to stay there you will need to visit Punta Allen which is a small town within the Biosphere.

How to get there independently

So this ain’t any old “how to get there” post. The most sensible option to access the beautiful and exciting wildlife if a private tour. When you read about accessing the biosphere boats online most people mention either having to start Punta Allen or Muyil. These will likely set you back $400 US at least and be fairly hassle free, except for getting to these tiny towns.

However, I needed to save as much money as possible and be on a flexible schedule as we rammed a lot into the only day we had reserved for this tour. Getting up at 6am to drive to Coba ruins, followed by a cenote dip, lunch and a long drive meant we didn’t know exactly when we would get there. All this meant it really just wanted to rock up and find a boat, haggle a price and arrange something that suited the time we had available without it taking too long. We figured if our crazy off the tourist trail plan didn’t work, we would just go to the beach so what the hell! So armed with a packed lunch we have it a try and it worked out spectacularly!!

We arrived from our busy day around 4pm and followed our friends instructions which I have paraphrased and expanded below. Follow this and it guarantees an adventure you won’t forget!

Arco Maya is the entrance to the reserve, it’s a big archway at the very end of the Tulum hotel beach road. My friend said she had to pay a 100 pesos fee at the arch however, when we arrived we weren’t asked for anything. There was a metal drum type barrier over the entrance, but a guard just came to remove it for us and let us through without mentioning anything!

Keep driving - the road is very bumpy and not paved but fun and jungly. I will say that it really doesn’t feel like there will be any signs of civilisation down this road at all, but I promise you it’s there!!

Eventually you’ll come across some signs quite close together. The red dot is where the sign for boat trips and the restaurant “El Ultimo Maya” is. You can plot a route on Google maps to this restaurant and it will take you straight there. There is also a sign in the photo for the cooperetiva Caap-Chen - we were probably driving for about 20 minutes past the entrance.

One of these signs is for the boat trips. There is a small, open gate and a dirt track which looks pretty sketchy, just drive down and it opens out a little into mangrove. You will find a shack and 1-3 men with boats!! The captain called Mario was sent for and we haggled a bit as we didn’t actually have any more money on us - he agreed to 2150 pesos for 2 hour trip but we thought we’d leave a bit sooner as we had to get back to Playa del Carmen and wanted to keep to the kids 7pm bedtime!

Tip: If you’re not attempting to pack this in to a day that already included long drives, ruins and far flung cenotes, I know there are some cenotes along the Tulum hotel road down closer towards the Sian Ka’an entrance but not sure what they are like. There are also the popular and touristy cenotes such as Grand Cenote to consider as well as Tulum town and beaches.

The boat trip itself

We were walked 5m or so to the boat pier and hoped on. The boat was the perfect size for 6. I bought along our push chair in case we were expected to get out but this wasn’t necessary.

The first thing we did was zoom across the lagoon in our boat to a boardwalk entrance to a local shack. Mario pointed underneath the wooden walkway and there was a giant crocodile!! Amazing! We were all completely captivated by it. We sat for around five minutes watching it laying still and silent with its head and a few tail spines just above water from about 2m away. Just as we were about to leave he got up and started to walk towards us!! We all leapt backwards and Mario zoomed off again, this time headed for a manatee grazing area.

We came to a wide open by shallow spot and dropped anchor. Within moments a huge grey mass emerged, followed quickly by another and then another!! Seriously. Watching the manatees swimming in the wild like that was just incredible. They were swimming so close and the kids squealed with delight, actually remaining silent in anticipation, scanning the surface for them popping up for air.

Then we saw a lot of birds on Bird Island and headed to a sunken Mayan ruin sticking out of the water. There used to be a lot more of it above water but as sea levels have risen over the 2,000 years since it was built and now only a little rises above the lagoon. Pretty cool.

Max then directly asked the captain if we could please try to find one more croc before we left, and he graciously obliged. He headed to a thick mangrove area, pulled right up into the trees and on the very first attempt we saw a huge 3m long monster basking in the dappled shade. We watched enthralled for five mins or so before I decided it was time to leave if we were to avoid driving back in the dark.

Really was a magical day and we had such a sense of achievement successfully getting this done independently. It was such a thrill that it worked out so well.

Final Thoughts

My final thought is if you are thinking about visiting Sian Ka’an, do it, visit Sian Ka’an. I would absolutely recommend following the instructions above to have an epic adventure resulting in the same experiences you might have paid hundreds for (but felt like a bit more personal as well!). I really hope this post has been useful to you. Please share it with others and help spread the word about this hidden gem in the Riviera Maya!

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