Location: (Near) Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Visited: January 3-7 2011
Background and Opinion:
In a few words, Sian Ka’an is the Amazon of North America. No amount of praise can do justice to the beauty that is Sian Ka’an. This Biosphere Reserve is on the Yucatan Peninsula and is home to so many species of animals, including mammals like pumas, jaguars, dolphins, and manatees. In addition, development within this area is strictly regulated making for a pristine and truly natural environment. If nature isn’t enough, on the western side, there are some fairly untouched Mayan ruins, so go fulfill your need to act the part of Indiana Jones just this once.
Sian Ka’an is a fairly large reserve, so it was not possible to explore all of it. I took the east most route into the reserve, which is a very thin peninsula that goes from Tulum to Punta Allen, 50 km inside Sian Ka’an. The drive has thus far, been the single most memorable one in my life, surpassing the route between the Angkor Temples, along Pacific Coast Highway, or along the Okinawan coast in Japan.
Imagine this: You are driving along a single dirt road. You don’t see people or cars for the next two hours after entering the ‘Arco’ (Gateway). Then suddenly you hear noises in the dense forest next to you. When you stop to investigate, you see some large eyes and what looks like a monkey. He scurries away. As you try to find it again, you see it and about five of its family members cross the single dirt road. Or, imagine that you finally reach a small town deep inside a forest, and the first person you talk to asks “want to go see some dolphins?” Final scenario: You reach the ‘welcome center’ 10 km inside of Sian Ka’an, and are told there is an observation deck up some stairs. While you are up there, you look in all directions and see nothing but palm trees, a huge lagoon, and the Caribbean Sea as far as the eye can see, without a human in sight. If all three of these excite you, Sian Ka’an is for you.
The beaches directly south of Tulum have been called some of the best in the world. The flora and fauna are as dense here as they are in Sumatra, Kota Kinabalu, or the Amazon Rain Forest. The archaeological Mayan sites are as mysterious and preserved as they come. When people think of a place to call paradise, they are unknowingly thinking of Sian Ka’an.
1) Completeness / Preservation (8/15): The Mexican government does a good overall job to protect this site from harm. However, the ocean section is in trouble. The Belizian Coral Reef, which is the second biggest in the world, extends all the way to Sian Ka’an. However, climate change and past negligence has made the Mexican section become bleached. You can’t really see this unless you are a snorkeler like me, but it was still quite sad to witness. Despite this, the forest area of Sian Ka’an is amazing.
2) Extensiveness of the Site (14/15): While I did a full day of about 12 hours, this was definitely not enough. The western part, which is accessed through Tulum (modern town) would definitely take another 2 full days.
3) Natural Significance (20/25): Very beautiful place with lots of wildlife. Mexico’s forests are top 5 in the world in terms of wildlife.
4) Personal Impact (14/15): On my drive out, some monkey looking animals followed us with their huge eyes. Amazing.
5) Logistics (7/10): Public transportation is non-existent into the Biosphere, besides expensive taxis. The only real options are to rent a car, or a scooter (I did the latter). This poses a problem for people (like me) who are hesitant to drive in a foreign country. It is definitely worth going through all the effort, but come prepared!
6) Uniqueness (16/20): Rain forests are bound to look a bit similar. However, the 50 km drive to Punta Allen from Tulum is like nothing I have ever experienced before, on par with driving along PCH on the west coast.
Combined Score: 79/100
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