Tulum and Sian Ka’an Nature Reserve

After my recent journey to Mérida, I had the opportunity to visit Tulum for few days. Tulum is easily reached from Mérida by a four hour bus journey which also stops at Chichen Itza. Don’t expect too exciting a bus ride. The land on the Yucatán peninsula is flat, flat, flat.

I had been told by a friend of a friend that Tulum was a “bit of a dump”. That seems over harsh to me. It is true the town itself has no real merits. The principal, possibly sole, business here is tourism, as it is on nearly all the Maya Riviera. One advantage of this for the traveller is that Tulum is full of all sorts of restaurants catering for the tourist trade, a number of which have been set up by foreigners.

I ate well – a tasty huge burrito stuffed with chicken, rice and beans – at a place just off the main street called Salsita (whose owners are from California) and also in Charlie’s. The naming of a Mexican restaurant as ‘Charlie’s’ does not immediately inspire confidence but the food here was really good. As the Rough Guide says the first impression of Charlie’s is an uninspiring “tourist magnet” but the traditional Mexican food here is really well-prepared and tasty.

The main claim to fame of Tulum is its Mayan ruins, located about 2kms north east of the town center. The ruins themselves are interesting, though not particularly impressive, but what is really spectacular is the setting. These ruins are the only Mayan ruins located on the coast. If you take a bathing costume, it is possible to climb down from the cliff to a lovely small beach and swim. The sea here, like all the way along the coast, is that amazing Caribbean turquoise closer to the shore and deeper blue further out.

About 200 meters from the beach, where you can see the waves breaking, is a coral reef which stretches along the coast here and which is the second longest coral reef in the world after Queensland’s Great Barrier reef.  As I was still suffering from bronchitis I did not go snorkelling. There were plenty of people offering snorkelling tours on the beaches south of the ruins. Prices started at 250 pesos for a two hour tour but seemed negotiable.

For the two nights I was in Tullum, I stayed at the Posada Luna del Sur. This is a very comfortable, small hotel which has won all sorts of awards. It has had new owners for about 9 months and they seem to be continuing in the tradition of the previous owners. When I stayed, just before the high season, it cost 70USD per night for a double room, including a good breakfast. Of course it is possible to find cheaper hotels, but for the quality available, it represents really good value for money.

Additionally, the people who run it are super-helpful. Whilst I was there, Gareth, one of the three new owners, spent a good while telling me about local restaurants, lent me his computer for short periods when my Mac would not pick up the wi-fi signal in the hotel, and organised a kayak trip and a taxi to the Sian Ka’an nature reserve.

The highlight of my time in Tulum was definitely the kayak trip I did in the Sian Ka’an nature reserve. The entrance to the Sian Ka’an reserva de la biosfera is about 10 kms south of Tulum. I was surprised to see that all this stretch of the coast had been developed. Thankfully not in huge Cancun-style hotels but more eco-chic style hotels whose main claim to being ecological seemed to be the use of solar panels for electricity.

The Sian Ka’an reserve is important because it represents 528,147 hectares of protected land, where any kind of development is highly restricted.  CESiak (Centro Ecológico Sian Ka’an), an excellent environmental organization, has its Center in the reserve, on a narrow strip between the coast and an inland lagoon. Their website says that the Center:

“serves as a model for sustainable development in sensitive tropical ecosystems” ……and “operates using ecologically responsible technologies, including systems for wetland waste management, rainwater collection, and solar and wind energy generation.”

I took taxi from my hotel to CESiak’s center in the reserve. I had been told the fare would be 100 pesos but the driver was expecting 200 which he said was the going rate. In the end we settled for 150. I had originally planned to go on a boat trip in the reserve with CESiak, but that was full, so I opted for a kayak trip at 50USD instead. That turned out to be an excellent choice.

When I arrived at 2.30pm, it turned out I was the only client. My guide, Antonio, suggested we wait until 3.30pm when it was cooler, so I wondered around the center and along the beach for a while. It really was a lovely spot. If I wanted to spend time relatively isolated and immersed in wild nature on a tropical coastal ecosystem (not so easy in this part of Mexico), this is where I would come. The Center has accommodation available and also a good restaurant which I sampled after my kayak trip.

Antonio led me down about 200 meters to where the kayaks are on the edge of the laguna. We then spent three hours of mostly sheer bliss paddling around the large inland lagoon. Sian Ka’an in Mayan means door to the sky or place where the sky begins. After an hour or so of kayaking I really understood this. Because everywhere is so flat, and the lagoon so extensive, the water seems to merge with the vast sky.

At first, as we started paddling across the lagoon, I thought there was not much to see. Later Antonio explained that the laguna was actually teeming with life, but much of it was hidden. We made our way to islands of mangroves where, with quietness and patience it was possible to observe many different kinds of birds. I was also told there were crocodiles , which I had mixed feelings about. I wanted to see at least one but from a distance.

Antonio was an excellent guide. He was enthusiastic, knowledgeable and clearly loved kayaking on the laguna. Moreover, he seemed to know when to talk and tell me about the bird-life or the ecosystem of the laguna, and when to remain quiet.

Around 5.30pm the sun started to set. The light became golden and we had a wonderful view as the sun set behind the small mangrove islands. The last forty minutes or so were spent paddling back across the laguna as it got darker and darker and the waves become choppier. At times I thought I had lost sight of my guide but he always seemed to reappear in the increasing blackness. This small frisson of perceived risk gave an extra dimension to the trip. All in all it was a wonderful way to spend fifty dollars, and I would wholeheartedly recommend both the CESiaK Center and the kayak trip.

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