The area is home to more than 300 species of birds. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Tent cabins range from $75 to $100. Agents are paid 10 percent commission for booking rooms, and $18 for booking tours (which start at $78 per person).
I didn’t expect to sleep well when I crawled into bed in my tent at Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve south of Tulum, Mexico. Restless, I got up, walked outside and slung my body into a tightly woven Yucatecan hammock. Swinging above a wood platform on stilts, catching ocean breezes, I drifted into sound sleep. Hours later, hints of sunrise woke me, and I walked to a hill above the beach to watch an amazing palette of blue, orange, gold and white lighten the sky. I’ve spent many a night on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, but none quite like this.
Even as the Riviera Maya becomes Mexico’s busiest resort destination, a 1.3 million acre swath of mangroves, canals, lagoons and coral reef south of Tulum remains virtually undeveloped and untrammeled. The Mexican government declared this region along the Punta Allen Peninsula a protected reserve in 1986. The following year, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over subsequent decades, government and conservation agencies have devoted considerable effort and money into protecting the reserve, which is home to more than 300 species of birds plus countless mammals and indigenous flora. But travelers have few opportunities to experience Sian Ka’an in depth. Thus, after years of driving through the reserve and occasionally joining a boat tour, I decided to spend a night in the tropical forest.
I booked one night in a tent cabin at the Centro Ecologico Sian Ka’an, also called Cesiak, and drove my rental car past the hotels along Tulum’s beach, through a limestone arch into Sian Ka’an. Traffic disappeared along the graded dirt road, and I saw more iguanas than potholes or ruts. In less than an hour, I spotted the Cesiak sign; a few minutes later, I followed a guide to my tent perched on a covered wood platform above low jungle growth. Inside I found a bed and a mattress, shelves, screened windows, towels, purified water and hurricane lamps. A short trail led to clean, fresh-smelling communal showers and compost toilets.
A few tent cabins on a hill above the beach had sea views and constant cooling breezes. I envied the inhabitants, until the wind picked up and sand blew everywhere. It turned out that my jungle perch was far more comfortable. Meals were served in the main lodge, a tall building topped with a deck perfect for sunset views. I headed for my tent before complete darkness settled and listened to the silence. As expected, I did have to walk the dark trail to the facilities, large flashlight in hand, but after just a few steps, the night watchman came along with his flashlight and led the way.
The next morning, I joined tourists arriving on a shuttle for a boat tour of the reserve’s lagoons and canals, which were built by the Maya people about 1,200 years ago. We stopped at a small temple, then jumped into the chilly water and floated with the currents past orchids and bromeliads. The silence and scenery were both glorious. Watching the puffy, white clouds billowing in the blue sky, it was easy to imagine how Sian Ka’an, “The Place Where the Sky was Born” in Mayan, got its name.
In less than 24 hours, I had experienced a side of Mexico few people see. I had eaten some great meals and chatted with travelers from Canada, Holland, England, Mexico and the U.S. I slept beneath the stars and woke to a dream-like sunrise. My quest for the natural side of the Mexican Caribbean had been realized.