Riding down the bumpy dirt road in between a small forest of palm trees, thick enough to allow just small glimpses of the Caribbean Sea, I knew I was about to see something truly special. Cell service was long gone and although we passed the occasional house, there was no sign of modern life. I had definitely reached the end of the road.
Despite previous research, I had no real idea what to expect on my Sian Ka'an tour other than I'd be getting to see some wildlife and snorkelling was on the agenda.
If you’re looking for info on what to expect in this less-visited part of Mexico, then read on to see what my experience in Sian Ka’an was like.
What is Sian Ka’an?
Sian Kaan means "place where the sky is born” in Mayan. Spend a day out there and you’re sure to see why.
Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve is the third largest protected area in Mexico, covering 5280 km² or 1.3 million acres. The National Park was established in 1986 and as well as being one of the most beautiful places in the Yucatan Peninsula, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In a region that's known for nightlife and big theme parks, Sian Kaan is like the antidote for those looking to experience the natural side of the Riviera Maya.
Sian Ka’an fast facts
Sian Ka'an makes up 10% of the State of Quintana Roo
Over 380 species of bird have been identified in the park
The reserve is also home to 115 mammals species, 47 dragonflies species and 318 species of butterflies
The following animals call Sian Ka’an home: manatees, howler and spider monkeys, crocodiles, Jabiru stork, ocelots, pumas, jaguars, pink flamingos, toucans and tapirs
Sian Ka'an has a variety of inlets, marshes, mangroves and coastal and in-land lagoons
The climate is tropical with summer rains and usually wettest in September
Where is Sian Ka’an
Sian Ka’an is found on the Caribbean Coast, about an hour south of Tulum and two hours from Playa del Carmen.
Who should visit Sian Ka'an?
Bird watchers, in particular, will love this tour
Nature and animal lovers in general
Anyone looking to get away from it all
This area is all about relaxing, taking in the scenery and getting the chance to see wildlife in their natural habitat.
What to expect on Kay Tours’ Sian Kaan Tours
Wildlife observation - birds, dolphins, crocodiles, sea turtles and manatees (if you’re lucky)
Guided snorkelling tour at the coral reef
Refreshments, fruit and snacks in the van
Lunch and free time at the fishermen village of Punta Allen
Free pictures of your day
Tour duration is approximately 10 hours
Playa is not exactly an early morning destination and visitors to this little city are often surprised not to be able to find breakfast before 8 in the morning.
Nevertheless, expect an early wakeup because one of the benefits of a trip with Kay Tours is you’ll be the first boat out and the first one to get to all the sights (unless you’re a boatload of bloggers who take way too many photos and make the tour run an hour late. Oops.)
The little touches are all taken care of, however. Even though my day started early, I was pleasantly surprised to find fruit, breakfast bars and coffee on the van to snack on.
Once everyone was picked up, which doesn’t take too long since tours run with a maximum of ten people, we got a briefing of how the day would look from our friendly tour guide, Juan.
This is when we learned about Kay Tours’ brilliant use of aluminum water bottles to eliminate the need for plastic bottles. Each bottle already had our names marked, ready to be refilled throughout the tour.
We had ten hours ahead of us but the van was very comfortable and some took the opportunity to have a quick snooze. If you stay awake, though you’ll get some great views of Tulum and the coast.
Entering Sian Ka'an
Once you get to the entrance of the National Park, you’re sure to know, whether asleep or not. The bumpy road to our starting point of Paso Lagartos makes sure you're aware you’re not in Kansas anymore. This is what we came for - pure, unadulterated nature and Mexico at its best.
Along the way, we made a quick pit stop to stretch our legs and get our first glimpse of the clear waters of the lagoon. We took the opportunity to have a chat with the local fishermen trying their luck out at a conveniently placed bridge and they were kind enough to point out one of the largest crocodiles I’ve ever seen. And I’ve lived in Australia, the land of Crocodile Dundee!
Next stop was to our boat pick-up point at Paso Lagartos where a yummy sandwich awaited us. I certainly wasn’t about to go hungry on this tour. While the boat was packed, we got the chance to explore the coast on one side and the lagoon on the other.
This is when I got my first glimpse of the local wildlife, a sunbathing iguana. I love these guys, especially after my encounter at the Green Iguana Conservation Project in San Ignacio, Belize.
The boat tour begins…
Once we jumped on board and got settled, we got another briefing in more detail of what we could expect to see for the day.
First stop - dolphins! Who doesn’t love dolphins? And while I’ve been fortunate enough to see these adorable creatures around the world, this time, I got to spend time with what I thought was an adorable baby frolicking with who I imagined was his mum and dad.
Mmmmmm. Turns out he was a frisky teenager and all that frolicking was his idea of flirting. Kind of PG 13+ but that’s nature for you.
Another high point for me was Isla de Pajaros (Bird Island). This was a mangrove island covered with chatty birds of all kind. I spotted some pelicans, boobies (of the bird variety) and frigates along with lots of babies, thanks to the season.
Due to being a protected area, swimming with the wildlife is against the park rules and not permitted. If you’re keen to get into the water, however, no need to worry. There are spots on the coral reef where snorkelling is allowed and our boat captain took us out there so we could don our gear and head underwater.
While I wouldn’t be heading back to Sian Ka’an to snorkel in a hurry (Cozumel holds the crown for the best snorkelling in the area), I was super impressed by how uncrowded the reef was. No getting bonked in the head by a rogue flipper here. You’re free to explore the reef at your own pace and not feel like you’re in the water equivalent of a Contiki tour.
Juan was quick to point out any interesting under-water critters and managed to spot a little shark hiding out underneath a rock. Get your best pose ready because tour guides are also equipped with a GoPro for underwater pics.
Once we were done snorkelling, we headed out to find some more wildlife. Overall on the trip, we got to see tons of birds, dolphins, sea turtles, spotted eagle rays, crocodiles, starfish and sharks.
One of my favourite things while travelling is getting to see small towns around the world, a real example of what life is like for a lot of people around the country.
Our stop in Punta Allen gave me a chance to explore the town, chat to some friendly locals and of course, feed that growing hunger that accumulated after all that swimming.
Lunch was all local food, set up buffet style right by the water. There was a ton of veggie options, including fresh salad.
Once we’d had our fill, it was time to head back to the boat and sadly make our way back home. Our trip back was made a little bit more exciting, though, as we were trying to race an incoming storm. Our timing was impeccable as we got back to the van just before the rains hit.
What you should know about Kay Tours
One of my favourite things about Kay Tours is that while they do an amazing job at private tours, they also provide the opportunity to join small group tours. If you’re travelling solo or can’t make up enough for a full tour, they will help you match up with other travellers.
My second favourite thing: Free pictures! With Kay Tours, you don’t need to spend your day trying to get that perfect shot. Just sit back, relax and take it all in while your tour guide has you covered with pics taken from a professional camera.
Kay Tours makes a real effort to be as environmentally conscious as possible. From the use of an aluminum water bottle for the day to serving your morning coffee in cute little mugs, they’re not just paying lip service to being “eco”.
The tour guides are genuinely awesome. Kay seems to have handpicked his guides from the pool of the best guides in Mexico. Claire’s done a handful of tours with Kay tours now and has said that every single one has been first class.
Juan, our tour guide was attentive and considerate showing a level of professionalism that I don't see often. An example was when he warned us that we had a bumpy ride coming up and made sure those who get motion sick sat upfront before they started to feel ill.
If you’re spending a while in the Riviera Maya, Kay Tours also have tours to some of the popular tourist attractions including Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba and even to swim with the whale sharks near Isla Mujeres.
Looking for somewhere off the beaten track? Kay Tours also visit Las Colorodas, the stunning pink lakes in the north of the region and Muyil, located deep in the jungle.
Budget travellers should make sure to check their website because they often have promos. There’s currently 20% off on offer for the Sian Kaan tour.
Outside Mexico: +52 19 84 1 43 23 47
Inside Mexico: 0 44 98 41 43 23 47