Last Updated: July 2017
We really wanted to visit this UNESCO World Heritage outside of Tulum, but couldn’t quite figure out exactly how to get to and tour Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve on your own. There are a few packaged group tours available in Tulum but those are fairly expensive and we often find it more fun to go on your own.
Doing it yourself or working directly with a local tends to not only be more economical on your budget, but can be more adventurous, intimate, and flexible to your tastes. But it’s not for everyone, as it does come at the expense of the sheer convenience and the certainties that come with an organized tour.
Trying to figure out how to visit Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve on our own, we researched on the web and asked locals but got nowhere. Guidebooks only referenced the package tours. I asked our hotel staff… nothing. I talked to a few different guys working at various hostels in town, thinking surely they would know, but they hadn’t a clue. I almost broke down and paid for the packaged tour but then I slowly started finding clues on the web that I pieced together like a puzzle, so we then gave it a shot on our own.
Through a bit of trial and error, we were successful and had a great time. So now that we’ve pieced it all together, here is my effort to give back to the travel community, since we were not able to find any detailed info on a DIY tour of Sian Ka’an. So here’s the scoop!
How To Get to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve from Tulum
First you need to understand that Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is a massive area, some 5,200+ square kilometers. Being so large, there are multiple access points to the reserve. The two most common access points for tours from Tulum are Punta Allen (“B” on map below) and Muyil (C).
Sian Ka’an: Visiting Muyil or Punta Allen
Although you can access Sian Ka’an Biosphere reserve from both Punta Allen and Muyil, each of these two access points provides for two completely different experiences and contains two very different ecosystems.
Punta Allen: If you want to see ocean lagoons, beaches, dolphins, turtles, fish, etc., then the Punta Allen route to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve may be for you. It seems like an absolutely lovely trip but if using public transport you’ll need to allow for multiple days and it’s unadvised to drive there under current road conditions. There are some great small group day tours that will take you all over the Punta Allen side of Sian Ka’an, but travelers on a budget may find them to be a little pricey. Rates for tours of this ocean side of Sian Ka’an start at $99 and we’ve listed a few of those tours in the section below.
Muyil: If you you want to see the inland jungle, Mayan ruins, wetlands, fresh water lagoon, mangrove forests, Mayan-carved canals, and float down them – head to Muyil. Logistically it’s easier to get to on your own and more cost-effective. Visiting Sian Ka’an from Muyil is a very doable DIY trip that can be done in a half day. This Muyil trip is exactly what we did, which this article goes into great detail about how to get to Sian Ka’an via Muyil on your own.
But first, here is some quick information should you desire to go the Punta Allen route.
Visiting Coastal Sian Ka’an Via Punta Allen
You can get to Punta Allen by rental car or from a colectivo that leaves Tulum Pueblo on the corner of Centauro Norte and Avenida Tulum daily at 2:00 pm. I understand that the road is currently in awful condition, ridden with horrible potholes & sand and is not advised to drive down. The colectivo making the daily journey takes about four hours to complete the 34 mile ride, arriving to Punta Allen around 6:00 pm. And if you take the colectivo, plan to spend at least two nights there, because the return colectivo back to Tulum only departs from Punta Allen at the ungodly hour of 5:00 am daily.
Once in Punta Allen, it’s fairly easy to hire a boat to take you out to see Sian Ka’an’s marine side, but we cannot confirm costs of this firsthand. Be sure to factor in lodging costs too, if planning to stay overnight which is necessary if using the colectivo. There are a few fishing lodges in Punta Allen and prices vary. At time of writing, pre-setup tents on the beach start at $20 per night, while hotel rooms start at $70. To see up-to-date selection and pricing, search Punta Allen on Booking.com which currently has the most complete selection of accommodation in Punta Allen, with seven listings.
Alternatively, if you do not have three days to dedicate to public transport getting down to Punta Allen and back, you have two other options: (1) rent a 4×4 and attempt the poor driving conditions, or (2) join one of the small group day-excursions. They are somewhat pricey, but include hotel pick-up, lunch, and drinks. Plus the small size keeps things intimate. If you’re considering pursueing one of these tours to see the lagoons and ocean side of Sian Ka’an, here are a few good options that you can check pricing and availability to book online:
- This Sian Ka’an ocean boating & snorkeling adventure sounds amazing. Instead of dealing with the bad road for hours all the way to Punta Allen, you’re instead driven about halfway, to Boca Paila Lagoon, where you’re transferred to a small boat (5-6 people) for the remainder of the coastal voyage. Stops for manatee spotting and bird watching ensue as you cruise towards Punta Allen. You’ll then go snorkeling in the crystal clear waters at a coral reef before the included seafood lunch. Keep an eye out for dolphins and turtles too during the entire 9-hour excursion which currently has departures every day of the week, and is good value for the money for everything that they pack in.
- Here is another boating & snorkeling Sian Ka’an excursion, that follows a similar track as listed above, but this one departs from Playa del Carmen, not Tulum as the others do. The 13-hour trip departs from Playa on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
Visiting Sian Ka’an from Muyil on Your Own
Given the logistics of attempting a Punta Allen trip on your own and the added costs associated with taking an excursion to this coastal side of Sian Ka’an, you may instead decide to explore the more inland, Muyil side of Sian Ka’an. This is doable in a half-day and can be done on your own. The remainder of this post provides complete directions and instructions on how you can take such a trip on you own.
If you have a car:
Simply take Highway 307 south to the ruins of Muyil, which you’ll be able to easily recognize and will be on the left side of the road, just before km 205. It’s roughly a 15-20 minute drive south of Tulum town (22.5 km).
If you don’t have a car: instructions on how to take the bus from Tulum to Muyil:
The buses come frequently, about every 30-60 minutes, so you can go at virtually anytime and there is no need to reserve a ticket in advance, as there are usually many seats available. Simply head to the main ADO bus station in Tulum (on Avenida Tulum between Alfa and Jupiter). Buy a ticket from the ticket counter (not on the bus) and ask for a ticket to Muyil. The cost for the one-way ticket from Tulum to Muyil is $24 pesos.
Important note: The destination listed on your ticket will NOT read Muyil, but do not fret that the ticket agent misunderstood you. Your ticket will instead list the destination as Chunyaxché, which is an alternate name for Muyil.
The bus ride is only a quick 15-20 minute straight shot from Tulum to Muyil. The Muyil bus stop is actually a few hundred meters past the Muyil ruins entrance. But if you ask the bus driver nicely to get off at the Muyil ruins, he should allow it and that way you won’t have to backtrack a bit.
But if not, just be sure to get off at the Muyil bus stop, which looks like this (below). If you get off here, you have to backtrack a few minutes to get to the ruins. But don’t worry. It’s only about a two-minute walk.
Once at Muyil, You Have Two Options:
- (1) Visit the Muyil ruins, then walk along a boardwalk in a jungle marsh, climb up an observation tower, and continue along the boardwalk to the boat docks. This takes approximately 1 hour (maybe 2 hours, if you take it really slow). We recommend this option if you have the time to explore.
- (2) Get directly to a boat to explore Sian Ka’an.
Directions Directly to the Boat Dock
If you opt to bypass the ruins and go directly to the boats, then drive or walk south on HWY 307 just past both the Muyil ruins entrance and bus station until you get to a dirt road on your left (East side of the road) at mile-marker 205. It’s about a five minute walk (or 1 minute drive) down this dirt road, which ends at the boat docks.
But we instead recommend Option 1 (visiting the ruins and boardwalk), detailed in the section below.
Directions to the Boat Dock via Muyil Ruins and Nature Boardwalk
Entrance Fees to Muyil and Boardwalk:
Budget $88 pesos per person to tour the ruins on your own and for the marsh boardwalk. That breaks down to $38 pesos to see the ruins and another $50 pesos to access the boardwalk & observation tower. (Note: initially the fee for Muyil was $50 pesos but has since been reduced based upon reader feedback.) The organized packaged tours to Muyil go to both Muyil and the boardwalk with observation tower, so if you’re trying to mimic such tours, be sure to take in these sites. We found neither sites to be particularly awe-inspiring, but we thought they were both well worth what amounts to about $5 USD (just our two-cents).
Directions from Muyil to Sacbe & Boardwalk:
After entering the ruins, take a look around the place. It’s actually quite bigger than we had anticipated. And while it may not be quite as impressive as the famed Tulum ruins nearby, you’ll likely have these Muyil ruins all to yourself since it’s not nearly as popular. Having no crowds makes the visit a quite pleasant experience.
Anyhow, once you’ve gotten your fill of ruins, head to the large pyramid ruin, known as Castillo (Castle), which looks like this (pictured below).
On the backside of the Castillo, you’ll find a sign that explains what a Sacbe is (it’s a roadway the Mayans built) and just beyond that, you’ll see the actual Sacbe itself.
Go on and walk down that trail. After about a five-minute walk down the Sacbe, you’ll reach a sign about the Sian Ka’an Reserve. Behind that sign, you’ll see a palapa ticket booth. This is where you’ll be charged $50 pesos per person to enter.
From this point onward you’ll be on a boardwalk. It’s a scenic slow 10-15 minute walk through the jungle marsh.
Observation Tower: A few minutes before exiting you’ll come across an observation tower, which is definitely worth the steep climb to take in the nice view before continuing further down the boardwalk.
Once the boardwalk ends, the path opens up and you’ll clearly see the lagoon. Here, you’ll find the boat dock and a few guides hanging around. If you’re a penny-pincher and just want to check Sian Ka’an off of your UNESCO World Heritage bucket list, you can do that, and turn back. But there’s really not too much to see from shore and we would instead highly recommend taking in the full experience of a boat ride through the area, which includes a swim and float down a mangrove canal!
So from here, it’s time to go have a chat with the boat guides.
Cost of Boat Tour and Guide Around Sian Ka’an
The price of the boat ride appears to be firmly in place at a fixed rate of $600 pesos (~$33 USD) per person. There seems to be little or no discount given for groups of two or more. So if there are two people, expect to pay a total of $1,200 pesos and three people will pay $1,800 pesos, etc. Also, strangely enough for Mexico, there seems to be no room for negotiation in this fixed price.
Update July 2017: We continue to receive several comments and emails confirming the $600 peso price is still firmly in place.
Update regarding children: While the adult price is firmly fixed at $600 pesos per adult, many readers have reported the rate for children to be negotiable. $300 pesos seems to be the going rate for children, while infants and toddlers can likely join for free.
For what it’s worth, below is an account from our experience in attempting to negotiate a fair price with a boatsman at the Muyil boat docks:
At the docks we expected to be approached by the guides (as is annoyingly common throughout Mexico), but this one time when we were actually hoping to be approached, they did not. They’re a peaceful and non-aggressive bunch. We hung around for a while took pictures of the lagoon and were really surprised no one had come up to us offering their services. I finally approached them and asked in Spanish “Cuánto por una excursión en bote para dos personas?” (Translation: How much for a boat tour for two people?) A Mayan who spoke good English explained to us that the price was $1,200 pesos ($33 USD per person). That seemed high, so I figured this was very negotiable and tried to work him down, but he was not budging and insisted, “The price is the price.” Seeing that the boats appear to fit six people or so, I asked if we came back with our friends if the price for the boat would still be $1,200 pesos and whether we could share that cost six ways. He insisted that it would still be $600 ($33 USD) per person even with more people and that the trip is charged per person not boatload.”
We found the boat trip itself to be amazing and well worth what was seemingly a steep price by Mexico standards. We definitely highly recommend this Sian Ka’an boat trip. We were very glad we went. The boat trip is nearly 2 hours long and is highlighted by a magical swim/float through a mangrove-lined canal!
You can read about our full experience on the boat at Muyil and Sian Ka’an here.
Returning to Tulum from Sian Ka’an
Upon completing the nearly 2-hour boat tour and float, you can either exit the reverse way you came in; or for a more direct route (recommended), simply walk down the dirt road back to Highway 307 where you’ll find the bus station for the return to Tulum. You can purchase a ticket directly from the bus driver this time, which costs $36 pesos per person.
What to Pack on Your Day Trip to Sian Ka’an & Muyil
Here are some things to consider packing when visiting Sian Ka’an:
- Bathing suit: Be sure to wear or pack a bathing suit so that you can float through the canal during the boat ride. The canal float is a must-do!
- Towel: You’ll probably want to dry off after that canal float. We love these lightweight microfiber travel towels.
- Sun protection: Bring sunglasses, a hat, and most definitely apply some sunscreen!
- Mosquito Repellent: In the area from the Muyil ruins to the boat docks, it can be pretty thick with mosquitos and other annoying bugs. Be careful not to use repellent with DEET since it is found to be highly toxic to fish. The repellent will wash off when you do your canal float, harming the fish in the biosphere reserve. Instead consider a natural insect repellent to keep those pesky mosquitos away.
- Camera: You’ll probably want to take a few pictures to capture this experience, so consider bringing your camera and be sure to charge it the night before. Or at least bring a phone to snap a few selfies.
- Underwater Camera: Bring a waterproof camera if you want to take it with you while floating in the canal. GoPros are fantastic but the $400+ price tag is not. Did you know that you can find knockoff GoPros on Amazon for only $50! We’re currently using this DBPOWER EX5000 for our underwater video and photos and we’ve found it to be even better than our old (way more expensive) GoPro. Without an underwater camera, be sure that you’ll be comfortable leaving your camera with the boatman while you’re floating. (Note: The boat guides seem completely trustworthy).
- Waterproofing: There’s not too much splashing during the boat ride, but it would be awful if there was a slip-up that caused your camera or phone to get wet. We highly recommend:
- A good waterproof case for your cell phone is worth every penny of its $10 price to give you the peace of mind of not ruining your new iPhone. It will also allow you to use your phone in the water during your canal float. (Really!)
- Also consider bringing a dry bag to keep all of your belongings safe and dry during the boat ride.
- Mask & snorkel: While you can still enjoy the canal float without a mask and snorkel, we would recommend bringing a mask or goggles. The boat does not provide them for you, so if you want to see underwater, you must bring your own. The water in the canal is super clear and a mask will enable you to see fish, crabs, and other ecology living in the mangroves that line the canal. If you don’t already have a mask, we recommend this US Divers mask & snorkel which is a great mask for the price. You can also use it to snorkel at the beach reefs during your trip to the Riviera Maya.
Note: There’s no need to pack bulky fins for Sian Ka’an. It’s a leisurely float.
- Money: While the trip should total $748 pesos per person, we recommend to bring about $1,000 pesos person, just in case any pricing has changed, an emergency, or if something else comes up.
- Water: Mexico is hot. Don’t get dehydrated. We recommend packing at least a 1.5 liter bottle per person.
- (Optional) Inner tube: We didn’t find ta tube to be necessary for the float. But if you are a weak swimmer, an inner tube like this may be a good idea to bring to help keep you afloat during the canal portion of the boat trip.
- (Optional) Food: There isn’t much in the way of food out this way aside from a tiny convenience store / little restaurant across the street from Muyil. It is wise to pack a snack. Or if you are going to be making the trip to Muyil over lunch time, then be sure to pack a complete lunch.
- (For infants only) life jacket: Life jackets are required for the boat trip and are provided for adults and children. However, they do NOT currently have life jackets for infants. If you are traveling to Sian Ka’an with a small child, be sure to bring an infant life jacket.
- Travel insurance – It’s a good idea to have travel insurance, not only for a trip to Sian Ka’an, but for any trip throughout Mexico. You never know what could go wrong. You could get sick, a flight gets canceled, hurricanes (June-Nov), your phone falls in the water, your camera gets stolen, etc. Travel insurance will have you covered so you don’t incur the high cost of these unfortunate possibilities. We never roam around Mexico without it. We use and have been happy with World Nomads, which has what we’ve found to be the best price & coverage combination. Enter the dates for your trip to get a quick estimate. (Takes 1 minute.) We usually go with their regular plan, but you may want to consider upgrading to the Explorer plan if you’ll be doing lots of snorkeling and/or other adventure activities.
- What Else To Pack for Your Mexico Trip? The packing suggestions above are just a few recommendations specific to Sian Ka’an. You may want to check out our Ultimate Packing Checklist for other packing tips and to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.
DIY Muyil & Sian Ka’an Prices – Total
This DIY trip of the ruins, boardwalk, boat tour & float, and bussing to/from Tulum comes to a total of $748 pesos per person.
To recap, here’s how it all breaks down, per person:
- Bus to Muyil price: $24 pesos
- Muyil ruins entrance price: $38 pesos
- Sian Ka’an Boardwalk entrance price: $50 pesos
- Boat tour around Sian Ka’an price: $600 pesos
- Bus back to Muyil price:$36 pesos
=Total: $748 pesos
At current rate (updated July 2017), that comes out to about $42 USD per person. We do find it to be a bit high, respective to other activity prices we’ve encountered throughout many months of independent travel throughout Mexico. Yet we found it to definitely be worth it! It makes for a great half-day adventure. Plus, that $42 is a downright bargain in respect to what you would otherwise pay with a private group tour.
Do-It-Yourself vs. Group Tour of Sian Ka’an
For us, we like getting a good deal and don’t mind doing a little more work and having some uncertainty to save a few bucks. If that sounds like you too, then we recommend giving our DIY instructions a try.
But if you’re short on time, want the ease that comes with a packaged tour, or desire to have more in-depth information about Sian Ka’an, then a proper tour may be the better option. There are a few companies in Tulum that you can book Sian Ka’an tours with once you arrive. The going rate is around $2,000 pesos per person.
However, there have been some complaints with communications when trying to book tours with these local operators via phone and email. Also, they don’t run every day of the week. So if going the tour route, we recommend booking a Viator tour to Sian Ka’an. They are always reliable, you can seamlessly book online in advance, receive confirmation, and they have phone support in English if needed.
If booking one of these group tours, you’ll undoubtedly pay more than the DIY version outlined in this article, but the packaged tour does include the convenience of hotel pickup from all over the Riviera Maya, snacks, drinks, entrance fees, guide, etc. This all can really help to justify the price. But the biggest benefit to go with the tour is the added information you’ll receive. A guide will certainly provide much more info than doing-it-yourself and it’ll be much easier to just sit back and enjoy.
This convenience and knowledge does come at a higher cost, so simply weigh out what is more important to you personally.
Have You Gone to Sian Ka’an?
If you’ve ventured out to Sian Ka’an on your own, please let us know in the comments, as we’d love to hear about your experience. Also, since this post has become a resource for many venturing out to Sian Ka’an, we try to keep it up-to-date with any changes over time. So if you’ve gone and have noticed that any of this (prices, procedures, etc.) has changed, let us know and we’ll edit the post to ensure it stays up-to-date.
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Happy travels to Sian Ka’an!