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The Mayans are one of the ancient indigenous civilizations of the Americas that have long fascinated and captured the imagination of people around the world. They are famous for their massive pyramids that dominated their impressive cities. But there was much more to the Maya than their cities - caves, for example, were considered the sacred conduits to the underworld.

The Maya were centered on the wider Yucatan region of what is today Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras. To sustain their civilization, they built canals that one can float down today. Visitors explore some of the canals they left behind and are left to wonder about times gone by.

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The Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve - One Of The World's Greatest

The Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve was established in 1986 and made a World Heritage site as early as 1987. It is much more than just a biosphere reserve. The area is also important for its historic and archeological value and for the canals that the Maya hand carved through it.

  • Listed: UNESCO Listed Since 1987
  • Size: 5,280 km2
  • Location: Just South Of Tulum
  • Ecosystems: Tropical Forest, Mangroves, Savannahs, Blue Lagoons, and Coral Reefs

The very name "Sian Ka'an" means "gate of heaven" or "a place where heaven begins." Part of the biosphere is on land and part is in the Caribbean (and includes a section of coral reef). The biosphere is considered one of the most biodiverse places in the world today and has become popular for ecotourism.

The reserve is full of cenotes and tree islands formed from the swamps.

  • Wildlife: Crocodiles, Pumas, Tapirs, Jaguars, Howler Monkeys, Spider Monkeys, Sea Turtles, Manatees, Dolphins
  • Birds: Over 330 Species

This is a place where ancient history and the natural world come together.

Related: The Complete Guide To Visiting The Most Impressive Mayan Ruins In 5 Countries

Visiting Sian Ka'an & Floating Down Ancient Maya Canals

Imagine floating down canals built by the Maya centuries ago by hand. It is a surreal experience and one enhanced by the biosphere around it. See the tall grasses and the colorful birds while hearing the haunting calls of howler monkeys.

It offers a break from the all-inclusive hotels and the tropical Caribbean beaches. The reserve is home to 23 or so known archaeological sites that hail from the Maya civilization. The oldest of the sites goes back to around 350 BC.

  • Archaeological Sites: 23 Maya Sites

The waterways were part of an important route for the Maya. Sian Ka'an was inhabited by the Maya peoples for over 1200 years until they abandoned it in the mid-1500s.

Excursions include birdwatching tours and kayaking tours. These often lead through the lagoons of the area while exploring the Maya ruins and the ancient canals (also including snorkeling on the reefs).

  • Access: An Easy Day Trip From Tulum

Typically full-service excursions to the Sian Ka'an reserve cost within the range of $85-165 per person. For those on a tighter budget, local boatmen may offer canal tours for $35-50 per person according to Lonely Planet. They are available as day trips from Tulum.

One can visit the area by oneself, but it is best done with a guide. There are not many trails, and it can be difficult to navigate the waterways by oneself.

Related: Adventure Awaits: Snorkel The Largest Reef In The Caribbean

Ancient Mayan Route & Canal Tour

One example of a Mayan Canal tour in the Sian Ka'an is the day tour that combines the natural beauty with the cultural heritage of the bio reserve. On this tour, guests will snorkel the massive Mesoamerican Reef - the second largest reef in the world after the Australian Great Barrier Reef (which is one of the world's greatest natural treasures).

During the tour, one will:

  • Float On The Mayan Canal
  • Snorkel the Mesoamerican Reef
  • See Flora and Fauna
  • Discover Sink Holes In The Lagoons
  • Visit Mayan Ruins

The tour includes a boat ride, a tour guide, snorkel equipment, drinks (water and juice), snacks, lunch, and entry fees to Sian Ka'an and the Mayan Canal.

  • Duration: 4 to 6 Hours
  • Availability: Monday to Saturday (Sunday on Request)
  • Age Restriction: 3 And Up

There are other tour operators to consider - like Community Tours Sian Ka'an and Tulum Diving and Travel. Sit back in a boat or jump in and explore the ancient channels built by the Maya long before the Europeans arrived to connect their communities.