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Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve



If Cancún is a place for the hedonist with its loud, late-night bars, American fast food, and over-developed coastline, then the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, two hours to the south, is the antidote. It is a place for the nature-lover, the adventurer, the hopeless romantic, and also where you can still catch a glimpse of traditional Mexico.


Here, you can stretch out on isolated silvery beaches, get close to dazzling wildlife, mix with laid-back locals, and at the end of a long day, kick back with a cold cocktail or two.


Sian Ka’an means “where the sky is born” in Mayan. It’s reached by a five-km dustbowl road south of Tulum. Biospheres were developed in the 1970s by UNESCO to protect natural areas and wildlife, combining scientific research with sustainable development for locals.


Sian Ka’an consists of 1.3 million acres, with 62 miles of coast protected forever in its pristine condition, including the second longest reef in the world, beaches, a lagoon, savannah and rare wildlife. There are no large hotels, no swimming pools or malls. A visit to Sian Ka’an is all about the pleasures of nature, simplicity and absolute relaxation.


Boca Paila Camps is a small-scale eco-lodge run by the Centro Ecológico de Sian Ka’an, a group involved in research and education programs. They offer two tours: either by kayak along the coast or by boat around the mangroves. The money generated by the tours goes to fund the group’s programs.


Rooms consist of a tent-cabin, raised on stilts and reached by sandy lanes winding through the palm forest. The rooms are generously sized and isolated: you retire by way of a jungle path that is washed with moonlight and dotted with flickering candles exhaling incense. The rooms were just made for lovers—a giant bed of billowing sheets and the only sound is the ocean. There is no electricity; instead, there are just two lanterns for light and you won’t find many creature comforts. But that’s part of the experience.


The eco-lodge’s restaurant serves Xikilpaac, a traditional Mayan recipe. It’s a thick, brown paste, consisting of pumpkin seeds, boiled-down tomatoes, oil and coriander, served in an old-stone pot, eaten with tortillas. Its flavours are intense and wholesome. Time in Sian Ka’an can be spent wildlife spotting, kayaking, fishing, mountain-biking, diving at the nearby Chinchorro Reef, beachcombing or swimming, or remaining horizontal at Copal’s spa.


The highly knowledgeable David Reynoso is the resident naturalist guide. He runs several tours, one of which takes you out into the mangroves to spot baby crocodiles, learn about the flora and fauna and visit an unexcavated Mayan temple. David will explain that the Maya traded honey, green and blue jade, ceramics, quetzal feathers, tobacco, onyx, sea snails and shells (for dyes), shark teeth, sharp black obsidian, red cinnabar dust, turtle carapaces, and the most prized object, jaguar pelts.


The channels cut into the mangroves were Mayan trade routes 800 years ago, linking the three-pyramid city of Muyil with the sea. Today, it’s peaceful and lined with bromeliads, orchids and red mangrove.


The boat stops at an island that has a 1,000 year old Mayan temple. A carving of a crocodile is prominent. The Maya feared crocodiles. The Maya believed that when they died, they entered the Underworld, where there were different gods. One of these gods is the God L, who appears seated on a jaguar-skin throne, wearing a Moan bird hat and smoking a large cigar.


Nowadays, the crocodiles have fled to the main lagoon, so you are encouraged to throw your life-jacket into the water and float on currents along the channels. This is really fun to do and allows you to observe the giant mangrove roots and brown pelicans dive-bombing for fish. The jaguar, puma, margay and jaguarundi, as well as tapir and 300 species of birds are present in the savannah. The beaches are visited by loggerhead and leatherback turtles, and rare but placid West Indian manatees may be seen offshore.


As a travel journalist, I have visited many destinations around the world. Of all the destinations visited, the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve comes closest to being a genuine, modern-day, earthly paradise, offering an unforgettable holiday.

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