Finding Enlightenment (and having fun) at Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
There was a time when Tulum was little more than an archeological site, with a handful of humble lodgings and local eateries in the vicinity for the occasional visitor to munch a codzito or papadzul before catching the second-class bus on the highway to somewhere else. And this time was not so long ago, as even we can recall clambering up the stone steps of El Castillo and exploring the Mayan paintings inside the chamber at the structure’s summit overlooking the Caribbean Sea, accompanied only by a local teen offering to tell us tales of the Mayas for two bits. No roped off areas, no throngs greased in sunblock, no digital media. Today, the Mayan archeological site remains fascinating, the beaches gorgeous and the breeze in the palms as enchanting as ever. But Tulum now is more likely to conjure images of upscale spas, international chefs and fashion designers barking into their iPhones in Italian. So when the madcap mix of yoga on the beach, honey-clay facials and house music hits a fever pitch, where can a regular Joe go to dial it back a bit?
Actually, just a couple kilometers down the road from Tulum, where a simple stone arch signals the entrance to the magnificently beautiful – and peaceful – Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Considering the boom in popularity of Tulum in recent years, it is remarkable that the nearby reserve has maintained its Lost Continent atmosphere. This may be due in part to the molar-jarring unpaved road through the reserve, but it most likely a result of the joint efforts of government, NGOs and conservationists to recover and preserve this unique ecosystem.
Sian Ka’an, or “Where the sky is born” in the area’s native Maya language, covers 1.3 million acres along the Caribbean coast of the state of Quintana Roo, in the southeastern corner of Mexico. The reserve, approximately 75 miles long and 20 miles across at its widest point, was established as a protected area in 1986 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. A significant portion of the area is covered by wetlands such as mangrove swamps, savannas and lagoons, which share the reserve with miles of white sand beaches, tropical forests, dunes and 68 miles of the world’s second largest barrier reef. The area is also home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles and crustaceans and over 1,000 species of flora, as well as 23 known Mayan archeological sites, some of which have yielded artifacts dating back 2,300 years. Descendants of the ancient Mayas still live within the confines of the park.
As an early adopter of the now popular “eco-tourism” concept, a prime objective of the Sian Ka’an project has been to incorporate human activity into the area to provide employment for the indigenous communities in a way that is sustainable and in harmony with the natural environment. This effort has resulted in two particularly noteworthy projects: CESiaK and Community Tours. The Centro Ecológico Sian Ka’an (CESiaK) operates a restaurant and provides tourism services such as beach bungalows, boat and kayak tours and fishing. The proceeds from the tourism operations are used to finance a wide range of pro-environmental activities including biological research, education, community outreach, dune restoration, native plant nurseries and revegetation of disturbed lands, among others. At the CESiaK Visitors Center, located approximately four miles from the entrance to the reserve at the south end of Tulum, visitors can arrange tours, rent rustic bungalows on the beach, lounge under beachfront palapas and swim in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, followed by a delicious Yucatecan style lunch or dinner at the center’s restaurant. The crowning jewel of the center, however, has to be the multi-level terrace atop the building, which in addition to a full bar boasts the singular attraction of offering sweeping views of both the Caribbean Sea to the east and the shimmering lagoon to the west. It’s no wonder that guests at the center congregate for cocktails on the terrace in late afternoon to enjoy one of the world’s most spectacular sunset experiences.
Alternatively to CESiaK, visitors to the area can arrange activities with another locally-run enterprise, Community Tours Sian Ka’an. Organized in 1988 as a means for incorporating members of the local Maya community into the conservation and education efforts in the reserve, Community Tours offers guided tours of the area’s archeological sites as well as activities such as bird watching, sport fishing, kayaking, hiking and snorkeling. On a recent visit to Sian Ka’an with Community Tours, guide Manuel Galindo mesmerized us with intriguing detail about the endless varieties of trees, flowers and insects all around us as we threaded our way through the forest before coming upon the thousand year old temple of Chunyaxché. But the moment of sublime relaxation was yet to come: floating weightlessly along the cool, clear waters of an ancient Mayan trading canal through the dense mangrove wetlands alongside the Muyil lagoon. Almost enough to make you want to stay and skip the lunch of Yucatecan tamales, salbutes and empanadas that followed. Almost.
Aaaahhh…that lunch… Anyway. So if you’re searching for inner peace on a budget and the $200 moon papaya therapy up the road in Tulum isn’t getting the job done, try sipping a margarita at sunset on the terrace at CESiaK. Now that’s enlightenment.