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Imagine a bay so clear and blue that it looks like heaven itself sprang from the waters. That is what you’ll find at Sian Ka’an, but so much more. In front of the bay sits Muyil, the oldest Mayan site on the Yucatan. A ½ mile long nature trail/boardwalk winds through the mangroves to reach the turquoise water of Laguna de Muyil, the first bay of Sian Ka’an. From there, you board a small boat that takes you through thousand-year-old Mayan canals to the second bay –Laguna Chunyaxché. There you can enter the crystal-clear water for a 30-minute drift down the canals. Extended tours take you to the brackish bays were the freshwater meets the ocean where you’ll find dolphins and maybe the elusive manatee. Ancient Mayan canals connect all the bays making Muyil an actually a port city. We took a guided tour with Agua Clara Dive Center from Tulum to experience unspoiled nature in the Yucatan Peninsula that left us refreshed and recharged.

Lagoon river channel Sian Kaan Biosphere
Sun temple Muyil Archaeological Site

Guided of Sian Ka’an Tour with Agua Clara Dive Center

We met our guide, Jose, at the Agua Clara Dive Center shop, which is located just north on Tulum on Avenida Coba, which is on the way to the beach road. A hippy feel-good traveler vibe saturated the area. Vendors sold fresh cut wheat grass out of Airstream trailers, and numerous pods of gap-year kids rode their rented beach cruisers down the bike path to the beach. This was the Tulum Instagram had promised us.

The shop was small but well maintained and very friendly. They offered us a cup of coffee and, before too long, we were in Jose’s truck heading up the road to Sian Ka’an Biosphere. Along the way, he pointed out an active Mayan church just off the main street in Tulum. You’d never guess it was a church, with its simple thatched roof and no signs anywhere. Already we had learned something from our guide that we never heard about in our research. We wondered what other secrets we would learn, as Jose parked the truck at the Muyil Ruins, just south of Tulum.

Agua Clara Signage and Tulum Bike Trail

Exploring the Muyil Ruins

Muyil is a smallish set of ruins, with only three main buildings restored: The King’s Castle, the Priest’s Temple, and a public market. Muyil was a trading city that controlled the port of Sian Ka’an. Jose said the city dated back to 300 BCE. I scoffed in my head because I thought he had the dates wrong. I have never heard of a Mayan city that old. When I fact-checked on the internet, I found out that not only was this the oldest settlement on the Yucatan but also one of the last occupied. That speaks to the importance of this port.

Mayan culture originates from the rich, volcanic mountains of Central America where semi-precious gems like jade are found in abundance. For religious and cultural reasons, the elite coveted these artifacts that the limestone bedrock of the Yucatan would never yield. Jose showed us the goods they traded in return. Jose led us to a hive of stingless melipona bees whose honey is used as a medicinal balm today. He had us rub our finger on some dried sap weeping from a copal tree. When we smelled our finger, we knew why the Mayan’s used this for incense. He pointed out cut marks on a gum tree, where chicleros would gather the sap to make natural gum, which was also used for construction. We would have missed all of these hidden clues to Mayan culture without Jose.

Entrance to Muyil Archaeological Site
Jose describing introducing the Sian Kaan Biosphere
High Priest Temple Muyil Archaeological Site (this is built over a cave with a sacrificial alter in the foreground)

Secrets of Modern Mayans

Muyil has perfunctory placards in front of each temple that drone in academic discourse about the architectural similarities between Muyil and sites in Guatemala. Jose’s storytelling made the city come alive. We stood between three small mounds of rocks looking out into the jungle. He told us where to look to see the remains of a sacbe, a Mayan road made from crushed limestone. It was like a magic eye puzzle. Once we could see the pattern, our minds could process it; removing the trees, and restoring the scene to three custom houses along the road into a market place. The transformation was magical compared to the formality of the placards.

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Jose showed us the tiny stone houses in the ruins of the market and guess what they were for. We didn’t have a clue. It turns out they were Alux houses. Aluxes are mischievous Mayan elves whose favor could be bought with offerings. Modern Mayans still make offerings to Aluxes when they build their home just like the spiritualists in Thailand do. He blew our minds when he showed us a concealed path leading away from the temples that modern Mayans were still using.

Jose reminded us of that church he pointed out driving through town. He said this trail at Muyil leads through the jungles all the way back to the church in Tulum. Walking this path is part of the modern Mayan New Year’s pilgrimage ritual. I felt Jose knew more secrets about the Neo-Mayan religion then he was willing to say, but I didn’t want to pry. Sometimes a guest needs to respect the boundaries of their host.

Sun temple Muyil Archaeological Site
Jose's story telling was so much better than these signs
Civic center Muyil Archaeological Site (if you look closely you can see the Alux house)

The Path to Laguna Muyil

A European family with young kids approached us as we were standing beside the King’s Temple. The kids were getting munched by mosquitoes, and we gave them some bug repellent. Pro-tip – Muyil is in the jungle surrounded by swamps. Bring your bug spray. Jose brought some for us if we would have forgotten. The father asked Jose where the trail to the lake was, and he pointed to a nondescript path leading into the jungle. It wasn’t hidden like the pilgrimage trail, but it wasn’t exactly well marked either. After our time at the King’s Temple, we headed down the same path.

We traveled about 200′ and came to a second ticket counter. Beyond the booth was a 1/2-mile-long wooden boardwalk that took us across the swamps to the boat launch at the edge of the lake. Jose kept us entertained by calling for howler monkeys and embellishing on the extremely terse interpretive signs along the trail. I am sure that the European family got nothing out of the signage.

Ed and Jose Walking through Sian Kaan Biosphere
Jose describing a point of interest on the trial (note the terse sign in the background)

Climbing the Observation Tower – El Mirador Sian Ka’an

We came to the observation tower about halfway down the boardwalk. Jose encouraged us to go up and take a look around. The steps were steep, but the first views of the incredible blue lagoon of Sian Ka’an rewarded our efforts. We also looked out into the jungle canopy and observed an entirely different biozone than the forest floor. Our philosophy in life is that if you come upon an observation tower, you should climb it and check out the view. You never know what you’ll find along the way.

Lagoon from lookout Sian Kaan Biosphere
Lagoon from lookout Sian Kaan Biosphere
Headed to boats Lagoon Sian Kaan Biosphere
Lagoon Sian Kaan Biosphere

Crossing Laguna Muyil and Laguna Chunyaxché

The boardwalk ended at a little built-up area at the end by the water’s edge. There were clean restrooms and a gravel road which led back to the highway. Jose said a lot of tours start at the lake so shop carefully if you’re looking for a Sian Ka’an snorkel tour combined with a Muyil ruins visit. The boats left on regular intervals to travel to the snorkeling area. It wasn’t long before we were on the small motorboat heading out onto Laguna Muyil. Once we left shore, the beauty of the lake surrounded us.

Sian Ka’an means the birthplace of heaven in the Mayan language, and it’s easy to see why. The brilliant blue water looks like it could have spawned the sky. Jose said that there are some days, bonanza days, where it’s even more spectacular. Occasionally, on those calm December mornings, the water forms a perfect mirror. The only way you can tell the heavens from the lake is the trees on the shoreline. I can only imagine how beautiful this must be.

Lake Muyil is relatively small. Before long we entered a thousand-year-old hand dug Mayan canal that into Laguna Chunyaxché. This was the larger of the two blue lakes of Sian Ka’an but every bit as beautiful as Lake Muyil. The outboard motor hummed in delight while the wind blew through our hair as we crossed the tranquil turquoise water. Our captain guided us to a small dock on the far side of the lake, and it was time to start snorkeling.

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Canals Sian Kaan Biosphere
Lagoon Sian Kaan Biosphere
Boat on Lagoon Sian Kaan Biosphere

Snorkeling in Sian Ka’an

The snorkeling trail in Sian Ka’an is like a natural lazy river that flows down a second Mayan canal. The canal is several miles long and eventually reaches the outer bays, but you only snorkel the first 1500′. Jenn and Jose donned their mask and snorkel and started the float trip. I had an open cut that I didn’t want to be exposed to water, so I opted out of this part. I walked a boardwalk through the grass flats to the end of the snorkel trail and waited while the group floated down to me. As I sat on the dock, I imagined what it must have been like a thousand years ago when this canal was a significant thoroughfare into a thriving Mayan port.

About 45 minutes later, Jenn and Jose made their way back to me. Jenn said the float trip was like visiting mangrove tunnels back in Florida except the water was crystal clear. She could easily spot the little fish living amongst the tree roots. She said it wasn’t what you could see in the water that made the trip unique but the experience of floating through the canal and being one with the location.

Jenn getting ready to float river channel Sian Kaan Biosphere
Snorkeler floating down Lagoon river channel Sian Kaan Biosphere
The lonely walk to where the Sian Ka'an snorkeling route ends
Dock to Lagoon river channel Sian Kaan Biosphere

Why We Choose a Guided Tour with Agua Clara Dive Center

Returning from snorkeling make me feel grateful for our guided tour. We saw all of the same sights as our European friends we met earlier, but they lacked the storytelling. Everything went by so fast and, before we knew it, we were back at the truck. Proof again that it’s not the destination but the journey and the people you share it with along the way.

One of the things we most loved about Agua Clara is their dedication to sustainable travel. They packed our homemade lunches for us in reusable containers and brought a big cooler of water along with refillable water bottles. They encouraged reef safe sunscreen to protect the environment. We even saw Jose pick up trash at Sian Ka’an because he just didn’t like the litter. Supporting companies that take care of the Earth is one of the ways travelers can make a difference.

Alux houses Cenote Cristal
Cenote Cristal

Bonus Adventure – Finishing the Day at Cristal Cenote

Jenn’s day wasn’t done yet. Jose took us to Cristal Cenote on the way back into Tulum. I abstained again for medical reasons, but Jenn took some time to explore and play in the water. As far as cenotes go, Cristal was just ok. It wasn’t as beautiful as others we found in on our Yucatan cenote tour and didn’t compare to diving Dos Ojos. It was open to the air with a lot of biomass in the water. The diving board looks like fun, and it’s always good to play in the water. If we did this tour in July instead of January, we would have been begging to go swimming after hiking back to the car in Muyil.

We loved our Sian Ka’an experience with Agua Clara Dive Center. Jose did an excellent job guiding. The Muyil Ruins, although not as famous as the Tulum Ruins, seems to be the historic Mayan port at Tulum. The beautiful bays of Sian Ka’an justified the entire trip. It’s rare that you can find water like that, let alone get to snorkel in a natural lazy river. The Siam Ka’an tour was one of the most beautiful adventures we had on our Cancun trip and it truly showcased the nature and beauty of the Yucatan.

Disclosure: A big thank you to Agua Clara Diving Tulum for hosting us and setting up this fantastic tour! For more travel inspiration check out their Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts.

As always, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own, and we only recommend brands and destinations that we 100% stand behind.

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Dock with clear water at Sian Ka'an

Muyil Ruins and Sian Kaan

Boat on Lagoon Sian Kaan

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