Bacalar Vs Sian Kaan – Deciding Between These Two Underrated Mexican Destinations

Sian Kaan vs Bacalara in Mexico

If you are looking to get off the beaten path in Mexico, heading south away from Cancun to either Bacalar or Sian Kaan will give you an amazing and authentic Mexican getaway.

Sian Kaan (also known as Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an) is a nature preserve located 101 miles/163 km north of Bacalar.

This is a great area to go for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.

Taking a boat tour through this area will have you exploring ruins, snorkeling in the stunning waters of this reserve, and immersing yourself in nature.

Bacalar is a small town located on a large and stunning freshwater lake.

This isn’t your average lake, known to be incredibly colorful and beautiful to explore, this relaxing destination is great for travelers looking to escape the tourist path.

Below I’m diving into everything you need to know about visiting Bacalar vs Sian Kaan.

Sian Kaan Bird Island

Sian Kaan – Details For Your Visit

Sian Kaan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the largest protected area in this part of the world.

It costs $105 MXN/$5 USD to enter and you’ll need to wear a bracelet while you’re in the reserve.

Sian Ka’an translates to “the place where the sky is born” in Mayan.

There are two main areas of Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve: Muyil and Punta Allen. Each of these destinations has a lot to offer and is a completely different experience.

Bacalar Seven Color Lagoon

The Muyil Side Of Sian Kaan

Muyil, also called Chunyaxché, is a landlocked town on the west side of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere reserve. It has two lakes near it that are amazing to explore.

Laguna Chunyaxche is the largest lake in the area and has a perfect mix of land and water activities. There are Mexican Ruins, mangroves, and beaches.

This area is probably going to be way easier to explore than getting over to the Punta Allen side.

You can drive down to the Muyil Archeological Site and walk straight through it to get to Laguna de Muyil.

From there you can hire a boat to take you around the lagoon and also to the Laguna Chunyaxché.

This is where you will go through the mangroves of the Sian Kaan Biosphere and not out to the open sea.

Sian Kaan Mangroves

The Punta Allen Side Of Sian Kaan

Punta Allen is the largest town in the Biosphere Reserve located on the southernmost tip of the Boca Paila Peninsula.

This town is technically in the Tulum Municipality and is only accessible by driving  31 miles/50 km down the peninsula.

The road takes you through the Tulum Hotel Zone and become very narrow once you have passed that area.

It is a dirt road with lots of rock and dips so it is not possible to get through it very quickly. We were in a large van and still felt every bump along the two-hour ride.

I would not recommend driving a standard vehicle on this road which is why I went with a tour company.

If I were to go back on my own, we would probably rent an SUV or truck to get there.

This is a very small town with a population of under 1000 inhabitants. The town is around 6 to 7 streets wide and some are quite sandy.

Punta Allen Beach

It gets its electricity from a single generator that runs only for two periods (11 am – 2 pm and 7 pm to midnight). There are some restaurants and grocery stores

There are eco-tours that you can take through this preserve that are well worth the experience.

These tours include pickup and drop off:

  1. Sian Kaan Biosphere Tour: This tour is great for those staying in Tulum or Playa Del Carmen. You can get picked up and taken to the nature reserve for the day. The boat gives you a tour of the lagoon and bird watching (depending on the season). You will probably even spot turtles and dolphins! Snorkel (depending on weather conditions) and Lunch at a restaurant in the town of Punta Allen are also included! You’ll also get water and snacks so you don’t need to pack along anything, just enjoy your day!
  2. Try this adventure tour: If the weather is good you’ll be able to snorkel on the reef and swim in a natural pool by the shoreline. There is never a dull moment on this tour. The guides are full of knowledge and they truly care about preserving the biosphere. Explore the coastal lagoons and marine ecosystems that characterize Sian Ka’an and discover the fauna and flora that lies within it! Lunch is also included.
  3. Sian Ka’an Nature Encounter is great for everyone, especially those with children. It includes a boat ride through the mangrove canals which are home to some crocodiles and tropical birds. This is a great way to see some Mexican Ruins and even a manatee if you’re lucky.
  4. Sian Ka’an Reef Snorkel & Mayan Canal includes a 4 to 6 hour tour with up to six people from Monday to Saturday and is great for everyone. You’ll be transported by boat to one of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico. In fact, this is one of the only tours that have permission to operate in this park. This tour includes time for snorkeling on the Mesoamerican Reef, the second largest coral reef in the world.
    • You will visit the hard to get to Xhlapak Ruin and the Mayan Canal. Please keep in mind sun lotion is not allowed in this park to preserve its natural beauty. Don’t forget your camera and binoculars to make sure you don’t miss anything along the way.
Sian Kaan dolphins

The tour that I had booked included transportation from Playa del Carmen, a breakfast, and lunch.

On the tour we saw Bird Island, dolphins, a sea turtle, and while we tried to find a crocodile we were not lucky!

It was about a 3 hour boat ride that also gave us time to snorkel and get a glimpse of coral reefs and many species of fish.

We were also taken to a shallow area near the beach for some swimming in what felt like the most secluded spot in the Riviera Maya!

Sian Kaan sea turtle

What Does It Mean To Be A Biosphere?

biosphere is a term that encompasses all living things and is broken into 5 distinct types including forest, desert, aquatic biomes, tundra, and grassland.

Essentially it means everything that is living or can support life, in that area. The Sian Ka’an biosphere includes hundreds of types of birds, mammals, bees, dragonflies, butterflies

Are There Crocodiles In Sian Ka’An?

Yes, there are crocodiles in Sian Kaan. There are two types located in the area: American and Pantano.

With that being said, they can be hard to find since they’re hiding in the thick mangroves.

If you decide to take a boat tour you can ask the ship’s captain to find some and point them out to you.

Sian Kaan Biosphere

How To Explore Sian Ka’An

There are a few different ways to explore Sian Ka An. Our favorite way is to charter a boat tour through the waterways in the mangroves.

You can even get one that includes kayaking! This is a great way to get up close and personal with the area to truly feel like you’re seeing the area for what it really is.

If you don’t like boat rides you can also drive in select areas. Most of the Sian Ka’an is not open to the public.

The drive from Tulum to Punta Allen is 33.6 miles/54 km and will take around 2 hours to drive each way.

Keep in mind that there are beaches along the drive like Reserva Tulum, Pier Sian Kan, and Faro de Punta Allen.

The trip is almost 35.5 miles/57km from Tulum to Faro de Punta Allen – one way.

If this sounds like something that interests you we’d suggest breaking this trip into a couple of days to fully experience the area.

There are places to stay the night along the way and we’d suggest you pre-book these before you head out on your journey.

Can You Visit Sian Kaan Without A Tour?

No, you cannot enter Sian Ka’an without a tour guide. If this is something you’d like to do you’ll have to get to Punta Allen and take part in a boat tour of the area.

This still requires a tour guide but is a great way to see the area. The drive to Punta Allen is beautiful with parts in a forest and others with beaches.

should you visit Sian Kaan or Bacalar

Bacalar – Details For Your Visit

Bacalar is located on the southern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula 22 miles/35km north of the Belize border and 333 km south of Cancun International Airport (CUN).

It is a small town that sits on Lake Bacalar (also known as the Lagoon of Seven Colors) which is a freshwater lake fed by underground rivers with a white limestone and sandy floor.

Bacalar has a population of around 13,000 people and was the first settlement of Spanish Conquistadors in 1543.

Here you will find many great hotels and Airbnb’s to stay at, some with a beautiful boho charm that is famed in the area.

Bacalar is a unique destination in that you will be swimming through freshwater. This beautiful small town is often referred to as the next Tulum.

How To Explore Bacalar

Most of the things to do in Bacalar are focused on the beautiful water in the Bacalar Lagoon and the cenotes that are found in the area.

  • Cenote Azul in Bacalar is one of the highest rated and most popular in the area. It’s located around 3.1 miles/5 km south of Bacalar and takes around 10 minutes to get to by car.
  • Cenote Cocalitos is one of the more exciting cenotes you can swim in. They have fossilized stromatolites which are similar to coral reefs.

There are also temple ruins in the area that are definitely worth the visit. Dzibanche and Kohunlich Ruins are around an hour from Bacalar and are able to be seen with a guided tour.

These ruins date to around 500 AD and could have been home to around 40,000 inhabitants. They are open from 9 am to 3 pm daily and cost around $70 MXN/$3.80 USD each. 

If you have experienced visiting Chichen Itza and are looking for ruins that are not visited by most, make sure to set aside time to explore these!

Be sure to check out our comparison of the ruins in Tulum and Chichen Itza for more info on the nearby Mayan archeological sites.

If you’re looking for more adventurous activities there is the ever popular ziplining in the area as well. It costs $750MXN/$100 USD per person (minimum 2 people).

There are 5 zip lines that total 1500 meters. You’ll be able to see all 7 colors of the Bacalar Lagoon from an aerial perspective.

Plan to spend around 2 ¼ hours zipping through the air in the park.

Bacalar or Sian Kaan

How Far Is It From Bacalar To Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve?

Bacalar is located 114 miles/183 km south of Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. To get to Bacalar you will drive the Mexican Highway 307 south.

If you’re wondering “is Sian Kaan worth it?” the answer is a very loud YES!

How Long Does It Take To Get From Bacalar To Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve?

It takes around 3 hours to get from Bacalar to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve so plan accordingly and bring some snacks, water, and a change of clothes.

There are a few different ways of getting to the biosphere reserve including driving, tour bus, and local bus.

How To Choose Between Visiting Bacalar Or Sian Ka’an Reserve

In our opinion, both Bacalar and Sian Ka’an offer an amazing off-the-beaten bath experience with a lower number of tourists crowding these destinations than some of the other popular areas up north.

One thing both places have in common is the natural beauty you will be presented with. They do differ in quite a dramatic way, though.

Visiting Bacalar is easy and can be done conveniently by renting a car and heading down on your own.

We did a quick Bacalar getaway with our toddler and had an amazing time exploring the town and the historic fort, eating at some very high-quality restaurants and taking advantage of a boat tour on the lagoon.

We even experienced floating down the rapids!

Fort in Bacalar

The only time we hired a tour was for the private boat on the lagoon. The rest of the time, we did everything on our own, at our own pace.

Having a rental car made it convenient for a fun family weekend.

The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve requires a bit more of an adventurous traveler. We did not feel comfortable taking our 2 year-old daughter and trying to navigate the area on our own.

We do recommend getting a tour from where you’re staying in Playa Del Carmen or Tulum, especially when traveling with small children.

Keep in mind that some tours do not allow small infants or children under 5.

Even if you want the challenge of staying in the small town of Punta Allen, you will still have to hire a tour that is allowed to take you into the reserve.

Personally, taking a day trip to Sian Kaan and having the pros deal with the drive to the area and arranging the boat ride would be the best way to visit.

When you book your next trip to Mexico, I highly recommend visiting these off-the-beaten-track Mexican destinations for a unique perspective of the area.

Whether you are looking to dive into nature in Sian Kaan or laze on the lakes at Bacalar, you are in for a truly amazing Mexican vacation.

Use our favorite travel resources to plan your trip:

Sian Kaan or Bacalar- which to visit in Mexico?

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Hi! We’re Rob and Taiss. We set off to live a life in as many places as possible. To actually live in locations around the world long enough to get to know the locals, the culture, and the food, not just a taste of it.
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