Tulum, Mexico. The Sian Ka'an Biosphere, The Road More Or Less Traveled
Updated: Jun 18, 2019
The Riviera Maya has plenty of beautiful sights to see, but if you wanted to see all of the Riviera Maya, every nook and cranny, well then a trip to the Sian Ka'an Biosphere is a must. It is the beauty that all of the Riviera Maya once was before development; natural, pristine and teeming with life. That being stated, there are a couple of ways to get there. One by car, the other by boat. By boat, take Highway 307 and travel south from Playa del Carmen to Muyil, Mexico approximately 87 kilometers (1 hour) or from Cancun about 153 kilometers (1 1/2 hours). If you should travel to Muyil to catch a boat ride, you will also get an opportunity to experience the Muyil ruins. Consider it a win-win situation. The "other way" is to drive from Tulum and yes, that is where our story begins.
I chuckle recalling the experience as it is an adventure. So first and foremost bring snacks. Second, bring a capable vehicle (think Jeep or 4x4). Third, bring bladder control unless you're the outdoorsy type, as the mangroves and jungle offers no impediment to relieve one's self. You will be driving into the beauty of nothingness.
Since this was our first time visiting and we "sort of" anticipated that we would not make it from Tulum to Punta Allen (34 kilomteters to the biosphere, we were warned that the road was rough), we made hotel reservations just outside of Punta Allen at a small ocean side hotel called Sol Caribe. With all conditions ready for launch, we turned up the tunes, cracked a cold one and began our trek. The road starts off nice enough, meaning not paved, but semi smooth gravel (once you leave Tulum, the pavement world ends) and we were averaging just under 40 mph. The road you will find is dusty, lumpy and hot. That 40 mph we were averaging lasted just 20 minutes as the road turned semi sour, if not just outright ornery. Potholes and ruts the size of basketballs and small cars began to appear. Your body parts jiggle with the frequency of a stripper having a seizure. The leisurely drive has turned into, "how is this sane", and you're now on the hunt for non vehicle damaging passable road surface. Oh it's passable, mmm, hmmm passable. Each mile becomes painstaking as you look ahead for the next car crushing, soul sapping impediment in the roadway. Finally you resign yourself to the fact you're not gonna make up a lot of time and hunker down for the "crawl", which translates into coming to almost a complete stop, to topping out at"woo hoo" 15 miles per hour. You'll be repeating this exercise mile rutted mile. While you do encounter some traffic (car here, moped there, other Jeep Tours), you do get that, "uh, we're out here alone feeling" that makes you feel both alive and vulnerable, it's great. Glad we rented a Jeep but at this point, I am not real sure what condition it will be returned in, if returned in one piece at all. One of the nice vistas you'll come across heading to Punta Allen would be the Old Boca Palla Bridge, it's the only cement structure you will see for a bit. Once there, there are beautiful views and resident crocodiles that seem to know when you visit. They'll swim right up under the bridge waiting for whatever fixins' you might want to throw in, just don't fall in as they are known not to be vegan.
Once you surrender your soul to the road, all seems to come together as much as it possibly can. Yes, we were taking it easy at this point as the Jeep was making too many uncomfortable noises, it was not a fan of the road either. Our afternoon creepily turned into night, it began to feel as if we were walking in darkness. The jungle has a great way of being real dark. High beams please, illuminate the drive of my discontent. Sporadic GPS via our cell phones informed us we were nearing Sol Caribe, that and the odometer which had become our trusted friend as well. Did I mention navigating by the stars at this point as well? The smell of desperation, real or imagined, makes for crazy thoughts. We drove past Sol Caribe (our hotel) several times, before realizing what we were looking at in the brush laden darkness. The drive time from Tulum? Just under 3 exhausting hours. Now liking to drive, I won't say the drive was the worse thing ever, but I clearly underestimated the travel and was a bit worn out after shutting off the engine. The Jeep seconded that statement as it offered a mechanical sigh of relief. Sol Caribe Hotel is a small oasis (think boutique size), with a secluded private beach and eerily, we were the only guests.
Sol Caribe has only 5-6 rooms and since we were the only guests visiting, we felt as if the beach was ours. Be aware, much like the rest of Tulum, it is a mostly off grid experience with solar, generators and natural gas powering your experience. We unloaded our rented mule, which was still creaking after coming to a complete stop and took our remaining provisions inside to have a night cap. To be stationary with an alcoholic beverage in my hand was no less than glorious, almost life affirming. The rooms at Sol Caribe are spartan but clean, spacious and offers everything you might require being off grid. The Caribbean is at your doorstep, literally. The crashing waves will serenade you to sleep, like it or not, it's not asking for permission.
The next morning we left for Punta Allen to be in the waters of the Biosphere and having ONLY 8 kilometers to drive seemed like a breeze and relief from the previous days relentless awakening.
The drive at this portion of the road is much more scenic and tranquil. Punta Allen lies just ahead. Suspend your ideas of what Punta Allen might be. It is that fishing, tourism village you kept hearing that Tulum, Playa Del Carmen and Akumal once were. Dirt roads mark off an 6-8 block grid of lean-to housing, brick housing, trailers, a bodega (convenience store) and various other forms of construction. Rustic might be an understatement, but it's livable, the people are nice and the standing water made for hungry mosquitoes. Stray dogs, not uncommon sight through out Mexico, are here as well. My spouse always brings along dog food to feed the strays we encounter. Winding thru the town, there are makeshift restaurants scattered beach side with the fishing and boating tours residing on the southern edge of Punta Allen. There is also the biggest formal restaurant at the same location, the Fisherman Fly Lodge.
It was at the lodge, that we secured our boat ride out into the waters of the biosphere. En route to our swim / snorkel location, we encountered turtles and dolphins gliding along, in and out of the warm turquoise waters. Some were playful at our game of follow, others were clearly annoyed, offering a mammalian hiss that seem to say"wtf?!?!?!, I'm swimming over here!". "Hey turtle man, I get it bro, I get it". We raced along with the marine life for a while before finding our spot to disembark and dive into the Caribbean. The ocean here was about 5 ft deep and a warm 80 something degrees. Perfect for a swim, the ocean seem to span out forever, wide and flat all the way to the shoreline mangroves. Felt like we were floating in a dream.
The Sian Ka'an Biosphere is a beautiful place to visit and if you truly like the outdoors, it offers a truly "authentic" experience to immerse one's self in natures bounty.
I can't end this blog without describing the ride home. If getting in was "rough", getting out reminded me of trying to outrun a volcanic lava flow of tropical temperament. We returned to Sol Caribe after our Biosphere visit, relaxed on the beach and took some time out of life. The evening was serene, but trouble of a tropical flavor was brewing. We awoke the next morning to rain. Remembering the drive in, I thought it best we pack up and head out, like now. We felt bad as there was a hotel staff of two that would catch a ride to Sol Caribe from Punta Allen (they prepared the meals, performed the housekeeping) and during our stay we were their soul means of additional income. It was decided we would forgo breakfast (my executive decision), staff be damned and yes, for the record, I felt bad as I know what the additional money meant to them (we tipped well while we were there).
The staff showed up looking like drenched cats just as we were pulling out, we pensively waved goodbye. To say it was merely raining would have been an understatement. I wondered how we missed a tropical storm warning. My thoughts were that if we stayed, the road (Road 15 Carretera de Punta Allen) might be impassable given what it looked like when we drove in to Sol Caribe. Gassed up, packed up, we headed out. The storm that was increasing in strength, just smiled at that idea. Turning north on to Road 15 to Tulum, standing water was already visible everywhere. I thought to myself, well maybe the saving grace might be at least the potholes will have some buoyancy since they were filling with water, they did. We might have crept in at a slow crawl, but leaving in a torrential downpour, we picked up the pace and averaged 35 mph all the way out, even if it felt like we were surfing and wind blown the majority of the drive. The puddles we drove through would vomit the muddy puddled earth on to the windshield and side windows repeatedly. I just kept working the gears and throttle as best I could. I thought to myself, "just keep it straight, keep it moving, "muy rapido mi amigo". At times it was a white-knuckled, hydroplaning, is that tree gonna fall kind of affair. Amazingly, in the downpour, we would pass locals on their bikes and mopeds commuting to work in ponchos. I tried not to splash them going by at my courage infused, fear induced velocity. What took almost 3 hours to drive in was 1 1/2 hours driving out. The arch that welcomes you to the biosphere never looked so good. Should I mention at this point that I'm afraid the rental car people are not gonna be happy with me? I mean there is nothing hanging off the vehicle, no fenders missing, no shattered glass but this Jeep sure moans a lot now. I think it enjoyed the vacation as well.