A day in the Sian

By Laura Ann Klein

One of the benefits of returning year after year to Puerto Morelos Mexico is a chance to fully explore the Mayan Riviera. This year was our eighth trip to little PM--our heart's home--and we managed to uncover and explore yet another paradise along the Caribbean coast: Sian Ka'an biosphere.  I'm not a back-to-nature girl; camping means a key rather than a key card; I'm afraid of slithering reptiles, mammals bigger than me; and I don't like to be too far from indoor plumbing.  But I do appreciate a day exploring the wild places of this magnificent world. Sian Ka'an is one of those wild places.

Many outfitters and tour companies offer trips to Sian Ka'an with a full menu of experiences. You can even find guys with jeeps in Tulum who will take you down the road for a "jungle" trip. But I don't think this experience matches using someone who has lived on the Yucatan Peninsula for almost 30 years, has a deep and abiding respect and love for the place. That's why it was a no-brainer to approach Eric with Ecab Explorers  to host me on a trip through just the northern most part of the biosphere and down to Punta Allen.

We've been on two other trips with Eric and each one of them was a vastly different but rewarding and fun tour. Imaginative and informative, he offers information and background about the sites and places toured and he has a knack for seeing to everyone's comfort and always has a full compliment of refreshments.  A day with Eric is a little bit of adventure sprinkled in with cultural and archeological insights into the Mayan people, their heritage, and their history.  Our day in Sian Ka'an was no different.

Eric has designed a thorough itinerary for this trip that offers a glimpse into the three different environments that make Sian Ka'an an important lesson in how mangrove and jungle are vitally important to the health of the second largest reef on the planet.  Winding through the jungle, floating in the mangrove, and snorkeling the reef really brought this home to me and I learned a new appreciation for what is at stake along this coastline as developers threaten to fill marshland to make way for huge trade facilities (The Dragon Mart) and more mega resorts.

Our day started in Puerto Morelos as the sun was coming up and we joined 9 others for our tour. Eric pays close attention to detail and one of the things I really like is his itineraries are packed with things to do and see but you never feel rushed and it doesn't feel like a forced march. He also offers information about history, culture, and archeology as we drive to our destinations but it doesn't feel like canned patter. This isn't just a job for Eric, the Mayan culture and the peninsula are a passion for him.  We learned a little bit of back-story about the development of the Mayan Rivera, how Sian Ka'an came to be protected and the unique features of each environment we would explore.

Sian Ka'an was created 1n 1986 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is devoted to studying environmental conservation, sustainability and protection strategies.  People do live within the biosphere and there are campgrounds and simple bungalow/hotel stays but there are strict rules and only solar power is utilized. I’m fascinated by people willing to live in such a sustainable fashion. I’m not sure I could do it.

The trip from Puerto Morelos to the biosphere is a little over 100 km but it went quickly with the improvements made on federal highway 307 so in about an hour we were making a pit stop before turning off the highway and heading east towards Tulum where the road ends and the biosphere begins.

To describe the road closest to the coast as rough is an understatement.  It was most definitely a two-trek road and you wouldn't want to drive it unless you were experienced with backcountry driving. Lucky for us, Eric's driver has been making the trip for twenty years and was an expert at navigating the ruts and holes as we made our way through the jungle. It really felt like this was the place in Mexico where North America meets Central America because the jungles were taller and more dense than the Chicle forests outside Cancun. I kept my eyes peeled for the shy toucans or monkeys as we bumped along to our final destination, Punta Allen; a tiny town in the middle of the biosphere. Our tour didn't include stopping and walking into the jungle but was more focused on the mangrove and the reef. I'm a water baby so this fit my interests perfectly. We did stop at the visitor's center and Eric gave us a great overview of the biosphere and what to expect.

Despite the spine jarring ride, the views towards the sea and a beach littered with dunes and vines, rather than sunbathers was breathtaking.   I wanted to stop the tour and just spend the rest of the day walking the wild beach. But what sights I would have missed outside Punta Allen.

Punta Allen --Javier Rojo Gómez--is at the tip of the Boca Paila peninsula and is home to just under 500 people. Eric compared it to the Puerto Morelos he settled in two decades ago. I could completely see this, too. There are just a few streets, scattered mini marts for food and necessities, and a couple of churches. The only gringos were tourists stopping off and waiting for fishing trips or boat tours in the mangrove and on the reef.

Our tour started in the lagoons where mangrove meets ocean and we treated with watching a pod of dolphins feeding and then (I swear) showing off for us.  The guides in each boat carry a radio and when one sees something the tourists would be interested in seeing, they speed over to that particular area. The guides are all native to the area and I was impressed with their abilities to navigate through a maze of inlets, lagoons and waterways to show us egrets, heron, pelicans in the trees and in the air and then turtles, dolphin, rays, and a nurse shark (a little rare).  I was disappointed we didn't see manatee and only slightly disappointed we didn't see any crocodiles; although the shark almost kept me out of the water. This was the first time I had taken a trip into a mangrove and it was interesting to slowly travel through the intertwined trees that have taken root on the sea's floor creating a special and delicate ecosystem which hosts birds, small mammals, and reptiles.

Another thing I really appreciate about touring with Eric is his flexibility.  Before we left Puerto Morelos we took a vote and decided to snorkel. This isn't usually part of the tour but Eric worked time for fish peeping into our itinerary and our guides took us for a short swim where we saw loads of parrotfish, conch and beautiful purple coral heads.  I didn't last very long in the water, the current was extremely strong and at one point I thought I was going to end up in Belize.  We rewarded for our swim with a relaxing swim at a beach cum sandbar only accessible by boat called "The Pool".  Frankly, I could spend the entire day in this pool swimming and lounging on the beach.  It was how I picture Heaven and is now one of my "happy places". After our boat trip, lunch at Vigia Grande was a welcome break before we crept back down the road through Sian Ka'an to make our way home to Puerto Morelos.

Ecab Explorer offers a full compliment of tours and they vary in activity level. This was the most active tour we've taken with him. If you aren't terribly fit it's still a great tour, a couple of our fellow tourists didn't snorkel or swim but they still enjoyed the wildlife watching and exploring Punta Allen.  Eric offers six different tours as well as an option to set "expressos" itineraries of the archeological sites. Frankly, a full day trip with Eric is worth sacrificing beach time.  It's great to see the archeological sites and the soaring pyramids but it's even better to spend a day immersed in the rich culture and environs of the Maya and the Yucatan people.

As a courtesy to my growing travel writing business, I was given complimentary tour of Sian Ka'an but the opinions expressed are my own. A huge thanks to Ecab Explorers for a tremendous and unforgettable day. February 14, 2013 is forever marked one of my favorite days ever.