Mexico: Muyil and the Sian Ka’an

Between tacos in Tulum, we had our first opportunity to really explore the beautiful Yucatan peninsula.  Just a few miles south of the beachside town lies the Sian Ka’an Nature Reserve.

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Floating through a canal carved by the Mayans to facilitate trade between the coast and the inland settlements.  Who said learning couldn’t be relaxing?

Designated a world heritage site in 1987, the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve hugs the gorgeous Caribbean coastline on the Yucatan’s east coast.  We didn’t have time to fully explore the Reserve, but we were able to do small trip into some of the lagoons and float through a canal carved by the Mayans.  I’ll explain below..

But before we got to the Sian Ka’an, we had the opportunity to explore the Muyil archaeological zone, just off highway 307, south of Tulum.

Muyil

Muyil was much more laid back than the Tulum ruins.  We were 3 of only about 10 people at the site, which allowed us to really explore the area without any interruption.

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In hindsight, I’ve grouped the ruins in the Yucatan into two distinct groups.  There’s the popular, well-groomed sites, like Tulum and Chichen Itza.  Then there’s the sites that fall just a bit off the the radar of tour operators:  Muyil, Coba, and Ek Balam.

I bet you can guess which I liked best…

The Muyil site is located about 30 minutes south of Tulum on highway 307.  There’s a small parking lot and a ticket counter, and the first main structure can’t be more than 50 meters behind that.  You’ll find yourself walking under jungle trees and amongst butterflies to move between the ruins.  Each pile of stones is unique, and the peaceful walks between them really make the site enjoyable.

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Muyil is thought to have been founded by 300 BC, making it one of the oldest sites on the Yucatan.  Primarily a seaport, the city was linked to the Caribbean coast by way of the canal system we’d float down later that morning.  This canal enabled trade with the entire Eastern Central American coast.  Muyil’s “El Castillo” (yes, every Mayan ruins site seems to have an El Castillo) is one of the tallest Mayan structures on the Caribbean coastline, sitting at 17 meters tall (almost 56 feet).  You’ll find 5 other main structures at the site, and plenty of paths to wander down.

The Sian Ka’an

If you’re already at Muyil, a quick trip into the Sian Ka’an is a must.  Check this out for a full breakdown.  The folks over there wrote a super helpful post for the Sian Ka’an:  do it yourself edition.  I’ll try to summarize a bit of what we did on our trip too.

After walking through the Muyil ruins, simply keep walking.  That’s it.  You’ll find a little stand along the path that will charge you 50 pesos per person (less than $3 US) for entrance into the boardwalk portion of the adventure.  We walked through the gate no problem between 9 and 10AM, nobody was at the stand.  On the way back, around noon, the stand was occupied and he charged us to get back into Muyil.

You’ll walk about 15 minutes through the swamp and jungle, while surrounded by bird calls.  The butterflies from the archaeological zone seemed to follow us on our journey to the water.  Along the path, about halfway through, you’ll find a small observation tower on your right.

Climb it.  I know the wood looks a bit rickety, and the steps are narrow, but looking out at the jungle and the lagoons from above the tree canopy is a beautiful view.  It’s worth the climb, trust me.

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Laguna Muyil and the ocean beyond from the observation tower.  If you look long enough, you might even be able to hear the birds singing in the trees all around us…

There’s a small building to one side, some basic restrooms, and a few boats along the dock.  If you’re lucky, there won’t be any large vans with tour groups at the site while you’re there.  When we arrived around 10AM, there were only a few other folks looking to take the boat ride.

I sauntered up to one of the dock hands, and in my best Spanish, asked how much it would be for the three of us.  He answered in US dollars.  I can’t remember how much exactly, but suffice to say the price in pesos (600 pesos/person) was much cheaper at current exchange rates.  You’ll notice while travelling that the US dollar is very useful in many scenarios, but you’ll almost always get a cheaper price paying in local currency.  I travel armed with a chunk of local cash nestled right next to a few credit cards with no foreign transaction fees.  The new Schwab Investor Checking debit card helps too – no foreign transaction fees and ATM rebates worldwide.  Despite my best pleading/haggling, I couldn’t get the guy to come down on the price for the kiddo.

We hopped in the boat, opened a bag of Doritos (funny story, I’ll tell you later), and motored through the first small lagoon.  A short canal connects the first lagoon to the larger Laguna Muyil.  Continue by boat to the northeast corner of the Laguna Muyil, and the boat offloads at a small dock.  Check out the small temple there, then trade your backpacks for lifejackets, and experience the natural lazy river!

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A small structure by the dock before floating down the canal.

The canal has a soft current leading out to the ocean, gently pulling you from the Laguna Muyil eastward out to the Caribbean Sea.  Floating through the mangroves and reeds, I was surprised how deep and clear the water was in some areas.  There weren’t many fish either, but we did see some birds overhead and hiding in the branches along the shore.  The ride is peaceful and full of nature, and you’ll arrive at a second dock long before you see the horizon of the ocean.

At about $31 US per person, the boat trip and canal float was definitely worth it!  We got to see the Laguna Muyil by boat, and then float along the Mayan carved canal.  All in, the tour was probably an hour and a half, enjoying the canal float itself for at least half an hour.  Including the Muyil and Sian Ka’an entrance fees of 50 pesos per person, the price for 3 of us came to about $112 US, or just over $37 per person.  If you’re doing both, pack sunscreen (biodegradable of course), and a lunch, or at least some snacks.  I couldn’t convince my travel companions to climb back up that observation tower to have lunch, but there are some picnic tables at the boat landing.  After we got back, we sat and had lunch before walking back through the jungle boardwalk to Muyil, and hopping in the rental car.

If you want to skip the Muyil portion of this trip, simply keep driving along highway 307 for about 5 more minutes.  You’ll see a turn on your left, drive down the smooth dirt road and you’ll be at the same boat landing that we followed the boardwalk from Muyil to.

You also have the option of booking a more extensive Sian Ka’an experience through one of the many tour operators along the Riviera Maya.  They’ll usually include food and transportation from your hotel, and have a few different tour options.  If you like the do it yourself version, opt for a trip similar to mine, or rent a capable offroad vehicle and drive a few hours down the Caribbean coast on highway 15 to Punta Allen, and explore the Sian Ka’an area from there.

Muyil and the Sian Ka’an were a great way to spend a sunny day away from Tulum.  The whole journey brought us to about 2PM, when we drove back to town and settled into our AirBnB to relax for a bit.  We took advantage of the remaining daylight wandering Tulum, doing a bit of shopping, and stopping for dinner at Antojitos la Chiapenaca (highly recommended).

By the time we fell asleep, our feet hurt, our appetites were satisfied, and we were just a touch sunburned…

Just how a day on the Riviera Maya should be.

 

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