How does floating down ancient Mayan canals and boating across incredible blue-green lagoons sound? If that sounds like your kind of adventure, then you will fall in love with the stunning Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve located just south of Tulum, Mexico.
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in the state of Quintana Roo is Mexico’s second-largest biosphere. The area is enormous, covering over 528,000 hectares and as such, is a declared UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the largest protected areas in the Mexican Caribbean.
In the Mayan language, Sian Ka’an translates to “Entrance to the Sky” or “the Gate of Heaven.” So as you can imagine, Sian Ka’an offers stunning natural beauty and beckons adventure travelers and outdoor lovers to its vivid lagoons and sparkling shores.
If you are in Quintana Roo visiting Cancun, Tulum, or Bacalar, then a day trip to visit the Sian Ka’an Biosphere is a must! There is a lot to see and do inside Sian Ka’an to fill up a day with activity. In one day you can visit the archaeological ruins of Muyil, take a boat tour and speed across two lagoons, climb a watchtower for panoramic views, and more! There are several ways to experience all that Sian Ka’an has to offer so it can be overwhelming to know where to start. In this guide, I’ll let you in on the best tips and secrets for how to visit Sian Ka’an.
Here’s the ultimate guide to exploring the beautiful Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Mexico!
How to Visit Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve & Float Down an Ancient Mayan Trading Route
I visited Sian Ka’an 2-3x in the last two years and I am always in awe of its sublime beauty. There are several lagoons inside the Sian Ka’an Reserve and each has its own character. You can either visit Sian Ka’an from the Muyil side directly south of the main road out of Tulum – or, you can visit on the coastal side in between Tulum – Punta Allen.
In my opinion, the easiest and best way is to see it from the Muyil side. This way, you also get to explore the Muyil ruins and climb the observation tower. If you are on the coastal side, you have the chance to tour a free Visitor’s Center which also has a viewing tower and where boat tours can be arranged to see the third lagoon which houses manatees, crocodiles, and other wildlife. In theory, you can also take a longer boat tour from this side that reaches the Muyil lagoon. And vice versa, if you begin in Muyil, you can take a longer boat tour to cross the first two lagoons and reach the third to see the manatees.
So when you drive south of Tulum and reach Muyil, you will actually reach the Muyil Archaeological Ruins Site first. Now, you have a few options for the order in which you can visit Sian Ka’an:
- Visit the Muyil Ruins first, climb the tower second, and then walk to the shore to take a boat tour third (and walk back).
- Boat tour and river float first (drive back), Muyil ruins second, watchtower third.
To avoid the crowds and to have the lazy river float practically all to yourself, then you should do the boat tour first in the morning around 8-9 am. This also makes sense to avoid the hot sun later in the day because wearing sunscreen in the lagoon and on the river float is not allowed. In theory, it also means the Muyil Ruins area will have time to warm-up with the sun so there will be fewer mosquitoes (lol). But in our experience, despite visiting the ruins later on, around noon, there were still hoards of mosquitos biting us everywhere. So don’t forget to bring biodegradable mosquito repellent!
To save money, you can tour the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve on your own. However, even if you visit on your own, the boat tour to do the canal float still costs $1,000 pesos per person (around $50 USD). So not cheap. There are also extra fees to visit the ruins, tower, and in some cases, to park (depending on where you start).
If you arrange an eco-tour in Tulum or online, the prices will be over $100++ USD per person or more. But this price includes all the activities, snacks/drinks, transportation, plus a guide who can tell you all about Muyil and Sian Ka’an.
Here are all the costs added up (per person) if you visit Sian Ka’an on your own:
- Boat tour with canal float: $1,000 pesos (+ 10-20% tip for your guide/boat captain)
- Entrance fee to Muyil Ruins: $45 pesos
- Entrance fee to walk to the watchtower and reach the shore to take the boat: $50 pesos
- Parking fee: $50 pesos (only at second entry site to reach the boats)
Total = $1,100-$1,500 pesos ($50-75 USD)
Parking Tip: If you park at the Muyil ruins site, parking is free. But this means you will have to first walk through the Muyil ruins and beyond to reach the lagoon shore. It’s about a 20-30 minute walk to reach the boats after the ruins. If you want to do the boat tour first, you can skip the ruins and drive further down the road to another entry site. However, there will be another $50 pesos parking fee. From this parking lot, it’s only a 5-minute walk to the boats.
Getting to Sian Ka’an from Tulum
Sian Ka’an is located in Muyil about 20 minutes drive south of Tulum (3 hours drive from Cancun). It is almost impossible to miss. Just drive straight out of Tulum and you’ll see the sign for Muyil and Sian Ka’an indicated. You can also pop it into your GPS before you leave Tulum. There is little to zero phone signal once in Muyil so pre-download any offline maps if you need it.
Sian Ka’an Lagoons
Sian Ka’an has a couple of lagoons – Muyil, Chunyaxché, Nopalito, and Campechen, to name a few. It’s on the highway side south of Tulum, in lagoons Muyil and Chunyaxché where you will take the boat tour and float down the lagoon in a canal carved out by the Maya in 500 B.C.
Tip: If you are on the coast side of Sian Ka’an, you can see where one of the lagoons leads out into the sea to the Sian Ka’an Coral Reef Biosphere. If you put Puenta de Madera in your GPS you can cross a small bridge to see the water on both sides. The area just before that is called Boca Paila and the Ascension Bay. Sian Ka’an continues all the way down (and beyond) the last Mayan town of Punta Allen. (I don’t recommend driving all the way to Punta Allen unless you have a 4×4 and a full tank of gas – it takes around 3 hours driving to get there!).
Floating Down Ancient Mayan Canals
Now here comes the FUN part! What’s so unique about this experience is that you get to float down an ancient trading route used by the Mayas to exchange provisions and goods. According to what our boat captain Jesús told us, the Mayas would come all the way from other Mayan cities to trade – even all the way from Guatemala and Belize!
After skirting across the first blue-green lagoon of Muyil, your boat captain will veer off into the mangroves. You might have to duck your head. It feels like you’re entering a secret passageway. You can just imagine the Mayas floating down in their canoes here over 1500+ years ago. After crossing the second lagoon you will arrive at the entrance of another canal and a small wooden dock. You will be asked to put your life jacket on through your legs like you’re wearing a diaper to prepare for the float!
Tip: You won’t be able to wear sunscreen so it’s best to bring a t-shirt, bandana, or hat if you’re worried about getting sun burnt. Also, don’t forget your snorkel mask and underwater action camera for taking cool shots down the river. Both times I’ve went I used a waterproof phone pouch with a lanyard so I could also take quick videos and pictures.
Leave your belongings in your backpack and give your shoes to one of the boat captains who will drop them off at your destination spot so you can walk back via the boardwalk after the float ride is over.
All that’s left to do is JUMP IN! The current takes you away and off you go through the shaded canal and mangroves. Once the giggling and chatting settle down, it can get really quiet. You’ll no doubt see a few birds and some nests in the mangroves. It’s a really fun experience and one that you’re not likely to forget!
P.S. If you go earlier in the morning, you will have the canal practically all to yourself. It’s about a 30-45 minute float down the canal. Once you exit, it’s another 20-25 minute walk (or so it seems) walking on a wooden boardwalk that cuts through the marshland and takes you back to the start.
Visiting the Muyil Archaeological Ruins
If you visit Sian Ka’an from Muyil, then you literally can’t miss the Muyil Ruins. Muyil is one of the oldest inhabited Mayan settlements in Q. Roo, and you can see the well-preserved structures in the forested jungle just off the highway. Unlike Tulum Ruins on the coast which are exposed to the sun, Muyil is kept secret under a forest canopy. In this way, it makes it feel much more immersive and mysterious!
Tip: All of the main ruin sites have plaques written in English, Spanish, and Mayan offering brief but detailed explanations of what you’re looking at.
Visiting the Muyil Ruins is fairly straight-forward if you just follow the paths. There are several “big” structures to visit, with the most popular being El Castillo or The Castle. You will likely see it from the front, but don’t miss out on circling it and seeing it from the back – there are two pelican-like symbols on whiteish stone slabs near the top that have been restored.
Don’t forget your biodegradable insect repellent! There WILL be blood-thirsty mosquitos.
Climbing the Panoramic Viewing Tower
Beyond the Muyil Ruins is a path and boardwalk that leads to a climbable watchtower (optional) and eventually the shore of the Muyil lagoon where you officially take the boat tour. The entrance fee to walk through here is $50 pesos per person. If you aren’t afraid of heights, I’d really recommend climbing to the top of the tower to get an awesome panoramic view of the surrounding lagoons. It’s up here that you’ll really be able to take in all the vivid blue-green hues of the lagoons and surrounding lush terrestrial and aquatic landscape.
Last Tips for Visiting Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
Visit in the morning: The Sian Ka’an and Muyil Ruins opens at 8 AM and closes at 5 PM every day. It’s best to get there in the morning, though, to beat the crowds and secure a spot on one of the boats.
Bring cash: You will directly pay the boat captain and all entry fees in cash. The tour for the canal float used to be $700-800 pesos but now it’s a fixed, non-negotiable $1,000 peso fee. You are also expected to tip your boat guide. I was able to speak in Spanish to our guide, Jesus, who told me about his job. He makes only $300 pesos a day. So any extra really helps!
Nearby cenotes: On your way back from Sian Ka’an, stop to swim at Cenotes Cristal y Escondido. These are two open-air cenotes in the jungle that are less popular yet remain epic spots to swim, snorkel, and dive (you can dive in Escondido only). Another spot to visit is the Laguna Kaan Luum.
Transportation: You can get to Muyil by car, bus, or scooter. Grab a cheap colectivo van heading to direction Felipe Carillo from Tulum Centro or hop on a Mayab bus (from the ADO station).
If you have any questions about how to visit Sian Ka’an or the Muyil Ruins, feel free to reach out or drop your thoughts in the comments below! So tell me, is floating down an ancient Mayan canal now on your travel bucket list?!