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Exploring the Sian Ka’an Biosphere in the Riviera Maya

Exploring the Sian Ka’an Biosphere in the Riviera Maya


Visitors flock to the Mayan Riviera each year to enjoy their gorgeous beaches and decadent all inclusive resorts. Unfortunately, many people don’t ever leave their resort to explore the many cultural and natural sites within the Riviera Maya. This March, my family and I decided to visit the Riviera Maya and Cozumel and get out of the resort to see what all we’ve been missing. Stay tuned over the next few week as I write about some of our favorite experiences.

First up is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. Never heard of it? Me either! Which is why I NEED to tell you about it. Sian Ka’an became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. The reserve has an area of 5,280 km² though only a fraction of that is accessible to visitors and there are 23 archaeological sites from the Mayan civilization.

While the site can be accessed without a tour guide, visiting with a tour is the best. We participated in the Muyil Forest and Float Tour through Community Tours which is a 100% Mayan community company. Since Sian Ka’an is situated in an area where most inhabitants are Mayan, this is a big deal. Mayan locals get trained in languages, history of the park and more and then they have long term employment giving tours.

Learning about the Mayan way of life at Sian Ka'an

Our guide, Alberto, is Mayan and he shared information with us about the ruins at Muyil as well as the many species of animals and plants present in the park. Did you know that some trees here are actually poisonous? Yep. Alberto told us not to lean on any trees because one certain type has sap that burns human skin. Eeep.

Ficus Tree in the Jungle

Thankfully most of the trees are completely harmless though they are very cool. It is a bit hard to see in this picture, but the trees in the Mayan Riviera jungles often have roots that go from their branches to the ground. This is because the soil is very shallow due to the limestone present just below the surface. Trees have roots that spread far and wide to give them more stability and to find nutrients to help them grow. The crazy roots make the trees in Sian Ka’an more interesting than the average tree for sure.

Mayan Ruins at Sian Ka'an

The bad side of these crazy tree roots? Well, roots in their search for water and nutrients have decimated many of the Mayan temples and palaces in the Mayan Riviera. Thankfully some still stand and the ones at Sian Ka’an are breathtaking. Most archaeological structures from the Mayan civilization are temples, palaces, etc. Homes were made of wood with thatched roofs which disintegrated years ago. Archeologists continue to study the structures throughout the Mayan Riviera to uncover what the structures were used for and their age. Even if you aren’t a history buff, it is really interesting to hear how advanced the Mayans were years before the Europeans.

Exploring the Jungle

Once you are hot and tired from looking at the Mayan ruins, you enter the jungle to head for the fresh water lagoons within the parks. While you walk, keep your eyes open for birds and animals in the jungle around you.

 Our guide Alberto at Sian Ka'an

Once you arrive at the edge of the lagoon, you will board a boat. The two lagoons you cross are naturally occurring and full of fresh water though the vibrant blues and greens of the water are colors that you expect to see only in the ocean. Connecting the two lagoons are  canals that are thought to have been dug by the Mayans.

Floating Along

Once you reach the start of the floating portion of the tour you don your life jacket and hit the water in the canal. The water is crystal clear and the canal is lined mangroves and air plants. The waters from the lagoons travel through the canal towards the ocean so you are swept along without expending any effort. Crystal clear water, beautiful scenery and the odd fish makes for a relaxing afternoon.

Sian Ka'an

In the map above, you can see where you enter the park at Muyil. This is where the Mayan ruins are. Then you will cross the two lagoons on the map and then the float is in the blue square.

Google Image of Sian Ka'an float

This shows the route you will float. The green line on top is the canal and the white line below is the boardwalk that you have to walk on to get back to the boat. It’s a very flat and easy walk. Plus there are tons of birds and fish to look at along the way.

Chicken Pibil

After you are full of Mayan knowledge and thoroughly relaxed from your float, the tour is completed by a delicious Mayan lunch. I chose to have the chicken pibil. Served with handmade corn tortillas, it was the most delicious Mayan food that I had on our trip.

Who is this tour great for?

Pretty much anyone as long as they have the ability to walk for at least an hour on uneven (though easy) terrain. This tour is not a good fit for those who have mobility challenges as the terrain can be very uneven.

Family Friendliness?

Very family friendly. Though Evan got a bit bored during some of the archealogical explantations, there were plenty of plants/rocks/birds/etc for him to look at to keep him entertained. He loved, loved, loved the float portion of the day. We will do this tour again next time we return to Mexico with the older kids.

What to Bring?

Wear your bathing suit under your clothes. There are bathrooms at the restaurant but not a ton of places to change. I also highly recommend water shoes because you won’t lose them on your float and it makes things easier (I will be buying them before our next trip). You will also need water to drink while you walk and a towel. Please note that only biodegradable sunscreen can be used in Sian Ka’an.

Our Overall Rating?


Contact Info:

Community Tours has many different tours available for all kinds of travellers.

Sian Ka’an Community Tours
+52 (984) 871 22 02
+52 (984) 114 07 50

I visited Sian Ka’an as part of a tour hosted by the Mayan Riviera Tourism board. As always, all opinions are my own.

Tulum Knows

Monday 10th of September 2018

A very nice place to visit in vacations! Amazing pictures and article. Thanks!


Monday 29th of June 2015

Floating through the canal would be my fave! Love those pics!

Kyla@Mommy's Weird

Monday 6th of April 2015

We are seriously in talks of doing this for spring break 2016!


Tuesday 31st of March 2015

The Mayan Ruins!?! That unbelievable lagoon!?? OMG I would absolutely LOVE to see all of that. What an incredible way to take in the culture - you tried it all! Thank you for sharing - I never even thought to take a trip there with the family. I think they would absolutely love it too.


Tuesday 31st of March 2015

Oh my goodness - how cool! I love how clear the water is. What an amazing experience!