IN CANCUN’S BACKYARD: Discovering Maya Ka’an (Part I)

Text & Photos: Andreea Lotak · 7 min read

The coast of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Quintana Roo, Mexico

The coast of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Quintana Roo, Mexico


Quintana Roo, with Cancun and the Mayan Riviera, receive over 15 million visitors annually. For somebody looking for authentic experiences, away from the crowds, and with a sense of adventure and taste for nature exploration, this part of Mexico doesn’t seem to have much to offer despite its incredible scuba diving opportunities. Cancun and the surrounding areas are the land of massive resorts, while Tulum at the southern end is a bustling vacation town with boutique hotels and restaurants. But starting on the coast, in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and going inland into the heart of the jungle, an incredible example of how the power of sustainable tourism can be harnessed for conservation and community development has been created. This is the Maya Ka’an destination and it can serve as a case study to be replicated in many parts of the world.


The slogan for Maya Ka’an as a destination goes along the lines of “where you can feel the earth’s heartbeat”. “Ka’an” stands for birthplace or origin in the mayan language, coming from a feathered snake deity, creator of humanity. Similarly, the name of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve included in the Maya Ka’an experience means “origin of the sky”. The old villages and towns and the people that inhabit this region seem to indeed be more connected with the earth’s heartbeats. Green jungles or selvas cover most of the region, while huts made from local, organic materials harbor ancient traditions in the quiet, charming villages. Hidden among the dense trees and brushes there are sinkholes, cenotes, guarding bodies of fresh, deep blue water which the Maya viewed as portals to different worlds. This whole territory of Quintana Roo has a magic vibe and, beyond romanticizing it, it’s a place of living history and culture where the mayan communities sought ways to preserve their language and identities. And this is all a few hours away from the crowded, overbuilt coast of the Riviera.  

A day after landing in Cancun we made our way to the main office of the Amigos de Sian Ka’an (Friends of the Sian Ka’an) organization, where Gonzalo Merediz Alonso, the Executive Director, had agreed to meet us. We were here to learn more about conservation in the state of Quintana Roo, where the tourism industry is bringing annually ten times more visitors than there are residents. Amigos de Sian Ka’an was created in 1986, a few months after the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve was declared south of Tulum. “We appeared with the mission to be stewards of the protection of this reserve,” began Mr. Merediz Alonso. “As the years passed we started diversifying the work done by the organization and have developed projects throughout the state of Quintana Roo. We have succeeded in creating many protected areas; fourteen of the state’s protected areas in fact have been created at our initiative. Our focus is on conservation and sustainable development. We see the two as strongly interconnected. We can’t have one without the other.” The organization is also the one who initiated and is promoting the Maya Ka’an brand as a new tourist destination in the Yucatán peninsula and the state of Quintana Roo. The importance of the Maya Ka’an is that both Amigos de Sian Ka’an and the tourism cooperatives based in the area see this as a way of creating economic opportunities while protecting the nature and cultural identities of the mayan villages laying among the untouched swaths of jungle. 

Beside the Maya Ka’an destination, Amigos de Sian Ka’an have led numerous initiatives to conserve and protect the natural and cultural heritage of the region: “Part of our work is to understand the geology of Quintana Roo and the particularities of its underground water system with the ‘cenotes’ [sinkholes within the limestone bedrock which expose bodies of groundwater]. We are currently conducting investigations. With the knowledge that we produce we want to trigger public policies that take into account the importance of protecting the aquifer while making plans for economic development. It’s one of the reasons why we want to create another reserve north of the Sian Ka’an. A lot of the fresh water is captured there, which provides drinking water to the Riviera Maya. We’re working with hotels as well to help them reduce their ecological footprint and the pollution of the aquifer, with a focus on treatment of sewage water. As far as marine protections go, we have spent over two decades studying the corral reefs, which has helped declare some of the protected areas now present.” 


The coast of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, the main conservation area within the Maya Ka'an experience. Located just south of Tulum, this place is easily accessible and full of beauty.


Mangroves in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, where crocodiles and manatees can be seen.


“As for the Maya Ka’an, it represents a different way of protecting a biological corridor while offering opportunities to the communities living there.” The jungles or selvas in this territory are immense and relatively untouched, crossed by systems of roads and highways with little traffic and dotted with charming villages and small towns. Within the selvas, an impressive biodiversity finds its home: “Here we have fives species of cats including the jaguar, we have the tapir, the peccaries, the jabirú [wood stork], 500 species of birds of which 200 are migratory and some endemic, mammals, Mexican crocodiles, and then on the coast lots of fishes and over 60 species of corrals”, described Mr. Merediz Alonso. 

Interested in the impact of large-scale tourism on the coast of Quintana Roo, we drive the conversation towards this subject: “The impact is obviously present since we’re talking of a capacity of some 90,000 hotel rooms with some 15 million annual visitors. Then we have 1.5 million permanent residents in the region. My main concern in regards to the aquifer contamination is higher with residents than with hotels. The cities are the ones whose treatment plants are insufficient or not functioning well, while some households aren’t connected to the sewage system,” comes the answer from Mr. Merediz Alonso. “In the Sian Ka’an reserve we see about 100,000 visitors annually, but many are coming to Muyil from Tulum. The destinations off the beaten path in the reserve are further south, but they are remote and harder to reach.” We then talked briefly about what visitors can do according to him in order to limit impacts and shine a light on conservation: “They can ask their hotels about the ways in which the management is trying to improve their environmental practices and the efforts to reduce their impact, so that the hotels feel motivated by the tourists’ interest in these issues. This is aside from small gestures like using organic suntan lotion or caring to not damage the corals while scuba diving or snorkeling”. And for the visitors to Quintana Roo with an appetite for adventure and conscious tourism, Mr. Merediz Alonso added: “They should head to Maya Ka’an if they want to be off the beaten path and help conservation efforts, while getting in contact with the Mayan communities. The destination as a whole was created three years ago. Visitation is slowly growing. It’s not a destination that can support very large numbers and that should develop for the masses, but currently there is more room for growth.” With that in mind we said our goodbyes and thanked Mr. Merediz Alonso for his time. The next day we were going to start our exploration of the Maya Ka’an. 

Head to Part II of the story, where we describe our experience visiting the Maya Ka'an here. To learn more about trips in Maya Ka'an and plan your vacation go here.