It would be easy to think that the only thing to do in Tulum is party and drink cocktails on the beach. But you absolutely cannot leave Quintana Roo without seeing the second longest barrier reef in the world, at 1,200 kilometers, in the Sian Ka’an bioreserve.

It comprises 652,000 acres, or a full 10 percent of Quintana Roo. So you would think you would sort of…run into it. But if you don’t seek it out, you will absolutely miss it.

Established in 1986, Sian Ka’an was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Sian Ka’an means “Origin of the Sky” in the native Mayan language. And no wonder, it’s a visually stunning home to a ridiculous amount of wildlife: 100 documented mammals, including endangered species like Black-handed Spider Monkey, Yucatan Black Howler Monkey and the Central American Tapir; a  small population of vulnerable West Indian Manatee; 330 bird species; 40 recorded species of amphibians and reptiles, including the vulnerable American Crocodile and four of the six turtle species found along the Mexican coast; and more than 400 species of fish.

Unfortunately, Sian Ka’an faces grave threats from the pollution, waste, and development that have cropped up as Tulum has become an “it” destination. Tulum receives over 2 million tourists a year, and their sewage and garbage are both irresponsibly dumped wherever is convenient and out of sight.

Because Tulum is on top of limestone, there is a huge underground freshwater river system. These rivers feed the beautiful cenotes, or turquoise swimming holes that dot the region. They’ve led to special species that are endemic and unique to these cenotes. But it also means that all that pollution contaminates those cenotes and then flows right out to the barrier reef. (Read more about Tulum’s pollution problems.)

Tulum’s fragile ecosystem is groaning under the weight of these tourists. But if you are visiting this beautiful region, you can do it a solid by directing your dollars toward a sustainable tour company run by locals, which will take you far away from the party-party beach, to the ancient Mayan canals, white sand beaches, and a bird-filled paradise of mangroves.

How to Choose the Right Tour Company

The first time we went to Tulum, we had heard about Sian Ka’an and wanted to visit. So we rode our bikes to the end of the beach road, to the arched entrance. That is not the way to do it, it turns out. There are villas that way, but no tours. The guards turned us away, and we never got to visit, which was my biggest regret from our visit to Tulum!

Instead, you need to reserve your tour ahead of time. I reserved our tour with Sian Ka’an Community Tours, through Lokal, a website that lets you find genuine experiences guided by locals, which benefit the local community and environment. With Lokal, you can be sure your dollars are going to the right place. If you are having trouble with email, you can also stop by the Sian Ka’an Community tours office in Tulum pueblo, at Calle Sol Ote. and Calle Osiris Sur, to reserve in person.

Once we had confirmed the tour*, we told them where we were staying and they came to pick us up in a small van. Our guide, Pepe, is a Mexican certified dive instructor, who speaks fluent English and had a great sense of humor. They drove us and the 10 other tourists out to the Mayan Community Center, where we were told to use the bathroom (“You will be in a boat for four hours!”). We got back in the van, and when we arrived to a small dock, we were split into two boats, six people each, and off we went.

A small crocodile sunbathing

First we slowly drove through an ancient Mayan canal that was dug out for canoe traders, who carted things like salt, quetzal feathers, jade, copal incense, honey, fish, and metate grinding stones up and down the coast. We were surrounded on all sides by lush sawgrass and mangroves stretching for miles. Birds of all kinds – egrets, ibis, and storks – scattered at the sound of our boat, forming loose white clouds on the horizon. We passed a group of tourists floating down the canal in their life preservers, but it was a cool, cloudy morning. We would come back later, Pepe said, when it got warmer. We were all grateful.

The skilled driver of our boat was a Mayan man, who communicated in broken Spanish with Pepe. He had a sharp eye, spying a small crocodile tanning on the shore and looping back around so we could get a better look and take pictures.

After that, we passed by a small Mayan ruin standing sentry at an island, and then pulled up short seemingly in the middle of the water, with no markers anywhere. “Manatees,” Pepe said. We focused intently on the water, and then we all sucked in our breath as we spied their snouts breaching the water again and again, taking their breaths before diving back down. Apparently, there was a cave right below us that the manatees rely on for food and shelter, and our Mayan driver knew exactly where it was.

Manatees coming up for air

We moved on, through more naturally formed canals, and pulled up at a white sand beach. Pepe opened a cooler and handed out sandwiches wrapped merely in paper towels–no plastic to be seen. Illich and I walked the empty beach, and then I noticed Pepe picking up trash and filling a trash bag he had brought along for that purpose, so I chipped in, picking up empty beer bottles that someone had left behind, and some plastic pieces.

After some time relaxing, we all piled back in the boat, and they took us to see where an underground freshwater river pours up into the saltwater, creating a glassy black form on the surface of the water unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Apparently, the Mayans could dip a bucket in and pull up fresh drinking water. (Of course, I wouldn’t recommend you do that now.)

Our last activity was to dock in the natural canal, and walk along a long boardwalk until we arrived to an old Mayan guard station. Pepe told us the history of the stone ruins, and we ducked inside to check it out. It was still a little chilly that day, which is not normal. Up in the U.S., the South was under such deep freeze that some deaths were reported. So that unnaturally cool weather had its fingers all the way down to us in the Yucatan. I would say it was probably 65 outside, though the sun had finally come out. (I know, so hard to be us.)

“Everyone says this is the best part,” Pepe admonished us when we expressed reservations about getting in the water. “Don’t be a chicken.” Well, can’t argue with that. We pulled our life preservers on like diapers and jumped into the water. After that, there was nothing to do but let the gently current carry us downstream, while Pepe pointed out termite colonies, flowers, and air plants clinging to the mangroves. It was…refreshing. But I don’t regret it!

When we got back to the Mayan community center, Eco-Sian, they had a hot, traditional Mayan lunch waiting for us. There were vegetarian options, but I got the fish cooked Mayan style, and I can say it actually was some of the best food we had in Tulum! The tour ended with Pepe showing us the butterfly house, the organic Mayan honey bee hive, and a small store selling local jam, hand-carved jewelry and crafts, and that organic honey.

A giant beetle hanging out at the entrance to the butterfly house.

Overall

Our tour was supremely relaxing, animal-filled, and educational. At $109, which included transportation, a four-hour boat ride, a snack and a lunch, we thought it was great value. I’m so glad I finally got to see the other side of Tulum, and I’m happy we went with a responsible, local tour. If you go on this tour, you show locals that it pays to protect the environment!

What to Bring

The boats aren’t covered and it’s sunny, so bring:

  • Baseball cap or another hat that will stay on your head when the boat gets going fast.
  • Bathing suit underneath your
  • Light but long-sleeved shirt and
  • Light pants
  • Water sandals (like Teva’s) that strap on.
  • Small towel for drying off after you float down the canal.
  • Water
  • Reef-safe sunscreen (Read my recommendations)
  • Cash to pay and to tip your guide.
  • Camera, with a telephoto lens if you have it, for snapping pictures of wildlife.

*I was invited to do this tour for free. However, this is my honest experience!