Visiting the Sian Ka'an Biosphere on Mexico's Riviera Maya with Kids

A wonderful day trip from Cancun, the Si'an Ka'an Biosphere Reserve is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site just south of Tulum. Travel time from Cancun is approximately 90 minutes.

The Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve encompasses 1.3 million acres, including tropical forests, mangroves, savanna grasslands and coral reef, and is home to many conservation projects. Hundreds of bird species live at Sian Ka'an, as are many types of mammals including jaguars and pumas.

But the reserve is best known as home to 23 archaeological sites and some of the most pristine and untouched beaches on the Riviera Maya.

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Sian Ka'an Biosphere: Tours

Si'an Ka'an Excursion. Photo © Teresa Plowright.
Photo © Teresa Plowright.

Most families visit Sian Ka'an on a guided tour. All-day tours are offered by CESiaK (the Centro Ecologico Sian Ka’an) and Sian Ka'an Tours and other enterprises.

Tours typically begin with a two-hour boat ride across an expanse of water to reach canals that were once an important part of the Mayan trade routes. All of the boats have shade but be sure to pack sunscreen. Keep an eye out for dolphins and sea turtles during your boat tour.

Note: You can also visit the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve on your own, but be aware that facilities are scant. There is one small restaurant in the reserve, but be sure bring in what you’ll need for your family for the day, including a picnic, snacks, and water for your day exploring the reserve. 

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Sian Ka'an: Canal Float

Sian Ka'an: float along a canal. Photo © Teresa Plowright.
Photo © Teresa Plowright.

Typically the tours that take visitors into the Sian Ka'an Biosphere focus on the unique ecology of the area and its Mayan history.

A fun part of the day is the opportunity to enjoy a half-hour relaxing float down one of the canals used by the Mayan traders long ago. You will be given life vests if you choose this option. The canal is like a mangrove-lined lazy river, only about three or four feet deep and crystal clear, so you can see everything in the water below. (Tip: Don't forget to wear your bathing suits under your clothes.)

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Sian Ka'an Excursion: Guided Tour

Mayan trading depot, at Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. Photo © Teresa Plowright.
Photo © Teresa Plowright.

The Riviera Maya is a terrific place for kids to learn about the history of the ancient Mayans. For example, at Tulum, very near the Sian Ka'an Biosphere, you will find dozens of ancient buildings by the sea.

Sian Ka'an has its own fascinating Mayan history. One of the entrances to the reserve is at the ancient city of Muyil (also known as Chunyaxché), which was one of the earliest inhabited Maya sites on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Artifacts found here date back from as early as 350 BCE. to 1200-1500 CE. Muyil was an important trading post, which the Mayans reached using canoes on a natural canal that led to the sea, and also via an 18-mile manmade canal that was hollowed out with manual labor.

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Sian Ka'an: Mayan Ruins

Mayan ruins, Si'an Ka'an Excursion. Photo © Teresa Plowright.
Photo © Teresa Plowright.

Our excursion to Sian Ka'an included a hike through the jungle to beautiful Mayan ruins, accompanied by our knowledgeable guide. There's no better way for kids to learn about history than to take a walk through time with an enthusiastic guide eager to answer any questions.

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Sian Ka'an Biosphere: Visit a Local Family

Day trip from Cancun - Visit to a local Mayan home. Photo © Teresa Plowright.
Photo © Teresa Plowright.

On our day-trip excursion from Cancun to Sian Ka'an, after we finished our tour in the biosphere reserve, our tour bus stopped in the laid-back town of Tulum where we had a delicious lunch at a restaurant on a beautiful beach. Later, on the drive back to Cancun, we made a stop to visit a present-day Mayan home, where tortilla-making is part of daily life.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.

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