Mexico: Trail of the unexpected

Rich in history and teeming with astonishing wildlife, the vast Mexican wilderness reserve of Sian Ka'an makes the ideal antidote to the man-made excesses of nearby Cancún, discovers Mick Webb

It wasn't the most elegant way of getting close to Mexican nature, but boy, was it relaxing. With my legs through the arm holes of a lifejacket, making it into passable imitation of an armchair, I was being propelled by a gentle current down a canal that had been dug by the Mayans a millennium earlier. The water was the temperature of a pleasant bath and clear enough to see shoals of small fish. On either side, mangrove trees – robot-like with their arching tubular roots – were decorated with brightly-coloured and very vocal birds. Zopilotes, a kind of vulture, cruised overhead, but the crocodiles (the only local beasts worth worrying about) were a good few kilometres away, on the coast. And, in any case, when the 45 minutes of floating was over, there was a motorboat waiting to speed me and other members of my tour group back across two turquoise, freshwater lakes to terra firma.

We were in the middle of a huge protected area: the Biosphere Reserve of Sian Ka'an, just below Mexico's Riviera Maya on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatá* Peninsula. A mere 200km to the north is the mega resort of Cancún, which is as close as you can get to Las Vegas-on-Sea in this part of the world. The journey from there to the almost shocking contrast of this wilderness entails a drive down the coastal road (the N307), passing hotel developments, the mushrooming resort of Playa del Carmen and a clutch of Disney-like water parks. Finally, beyond the low-key town of Tulum, with its spectacular cliff-top Mayan ruins, you reach Sian Ka'an. In the language of the original Mayan people, this means: "Where the sky is born" or, even more appropriately: "Where Heaven begins".

The reserve, 120km long and 50km wide, is a Noah's Ark of southern Mexico's flora and fauna, for which it has been recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Its mix of tropical savannah grasslands, tropical forest and lagoons shelters the region's five big cats – jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay and jaguarondi – as well as howler and spider monkeys, four kinds of turtle, crocodiles and manatees. Not that we had got up early enough to see most of those. I'm afraid the only four-legged animal we'd spotted was a scrawny black cat, which nevertheless was eagerly snapped by most members of our expedition. We'd been luckier with birds: Eduardo our guide, a biologist with a particular interest in migratory animals, had pointed out egrets, an ibis, yellow king birds and a very noisy brown jay. But this is just scratching the surface of the bird-life in Sian Ka'an: around 350 species have been spotted here, including the gorgeous, rainbow-hued mot-mot and the massive but very rare, jabiru stork.

The tour had started at Muyil, a right turn off the N307, 15km south of Tulum. This is one of the five entry points to the park and the one that is generally least used. The forest is higher than in most of the Yucatán, where scrubby bush is the norm, but even here the soil is very shallow, supporting a relatively small number of varieties, such as palms, fig and acacia. We passed a Zapote or Sapodilla tree, the resin of which was once used to manufacture chewing-gum (the trunk still bore the scars left by resin-collectors). Another tree, the chechen or black poisonwood, was recognisable from its shiny, curvaceous leaves, but should never, however, be touched. Its sap causes an irritating skin rash. The greatest

threat to visitors, according to Eduardo, is posed not by poisonous trees, nor by one of the four species of venomous snake that are found in the reserve, but by falling trees and branches. A huge crash from the forest nearby, as a tree gave up the struggle to stay upright, underlined his point. Like much of the Yucatán, the forest was at one point inhabited by large numbers of Mayans and Muyil has a number of reminders of their once all-powerful civilisation, including a stretch of one of the raised, paved roads or sacbes which, a thousand years ago, linked the major Mayan settlements. The tallest and most striking building is the 20m-high castle, El Castillo, although the so-called "Pink Palace" is interesting for its vestiges of the coloured stucco that originally covered all the Mayan buildings.

The descendants of these people, whose civilisation had already collapsed before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century, still eke out an existence in the vicinity of the ruins. About 600 Maya are reckoned to live within the boundaries of the reserve. The regional government encourages them to supplement subsistence farming and fishing by engaging in the tourist economy, just as the vast majority of their compatriots on the Riviera Maya do. The motorboats that whizzed us across the lagoons, for instance, were owned by a co-operative from the local village of Chunyaxché and a recent project to teach some of the younger men English by bringing in several blonde, female English teachers had achieved, perhaps unsurprisingly, a good degree of success.

In the next two years, expect plenty more attention on this part of the world. Not so much because British Airways is stepping up its flights from Gatwick, more that the end of the world is nigh – at least according to an unholy alliance of New Agers and Hollywood producers. The film 2012 is based on the premise that the Mayan calendar predicts a cataclysm taking place two years from now, on 21 December. In fact, this merely marks the start of a new round in one of the remarkably sophisticated calendars that have endured for centuries. So, if you plan a trip starting two years today, go ahead – the massive hotels of Cancú* will still be standing, along with El Castillo.

Travel essentials



Getting there

Companies offering flights and all-inclusive packages to the Yucatán, include British Airways (0844 493 0787; Ba.com), Thomson (0871 231 469; Thomson.co.uk) and Thomas Cook (0870 758 0205; Thomascook.com). Most trips use flights from Gatwick to Cancún.



Visiting there

You could visit Sian Ka'an under your own steam (the entrance fee is only 40 pesos/£2) and then book a boat trip when you're there for around 300 pesos (£15). But given the vastness of the area and the lack of detailed maps, most foreign visitors join one of the many bilingual, guided tours available. An all-day trip including lunch and transport from Tulum with the company Sian Ka'an Tours (00 52 984 871 22 02; Siankaantours.org), for instance, costs US$99 (£66).



When to go

The weather is warm all year round, becoming extremely hot during the wet season (from May to November), which is characterised by short, heavy showers. This is when hotel prices are at their lowest. High season starts around mid-December and lasts till spring. Hurricanes can occur between June and November.



More information

Mexican Tourist Board: 020-7488 9392; Visitmexico.com. Check the latest Foreign Office advice at Fco.gov.uk/travel

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100(More than you think)
Arts and Entertainment
John Hurt will voice Prince Bolkonsky in Radio 4's War and Peace
radioRadio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
news

Lincoln MP Karl McCartney 'denied all knowledge' of the Twitter activity

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
filmDirector said film would 'never have been financed' with ethnic minority actors in key roles
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
The author PD James, who died on 27 November 2014
people

Detective novelist who wrote Death comes to Pemberley passed away peacefully at her home, aged 94

Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
arts + ents
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Manager - Holiday Homes - £100,000 OTE

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + £100,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: Birmingham, Derby, L...

    Investigo: Finance Manager - Global Leisure Business

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in their fiel...

    Investigo: Senior Finance Analyst - Global Leisure Business

    £45000 - £52000 per annum + bonus+bens : Investigo: My client, a global leader...

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Day In a Page

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?