Sian Ka’an Ancient Canals  – ‘Where the sky is born’

It’s not everyday you wake up with the realization that you can spend the morning floating down ancient maritime canals, hand-dredged by Mayans nearly 1200 years ago. Unless you’re in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, of course.

The ancient Mayan canal system is located in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, just a few moments away from the popular shabby-chic destination of Tulum. It’s the largest protected area in Mexico’s Caribbean, and has been a World Heritage Site since 1987. The biosphere has 23 known archeological sites, shelters hundreds of species of birds and mammals (including two species of endangered turtles), and boasts remains that are nearly 2,300 years old.


Sian Ka'an National Park - A Journey Down Ancient Mayan Canals

Sian Ka'an National Park - A Journey Down Ancient Mayan Canals


The 20-kilometer canal system is presumed to be an ancient trade route between Tulum and Muyil, effectively linking Muyil (a village with a land-locked lake) to the Caribbean Sea. It’s absolutely astonishing to think about the human labor that must have been required to dig out the freshwater canal that runs through four different ecosystems.


Sian Ka'an National Park - Mayan Temple on the Ancient Canals

 Sian Ka'an National Park - A Journey Down Ancient Mayan Canals


We had the incredible opportunity to experience the canals first-hand with Sian Ka’an Community Tours. The morning began with a boating tour through mangroves and lagoons, where we were introduced to various local birds and plants. We were then dropped off at the start of the canal system. We donned our life vests like diapers to create a comfortable floating device, and then gingerly stepped into the water.


Sian Ka'an National Park - A Cruising Couple takes an adventure down ancient Mayan canals

The gentle current of the canal produces a ‘lazy river’ effect. We had only to relax in our floats and enjoy the 30-minute ride! During our drift, our guide entertained us with fascinating stories about ancient Maya civilization. For example, the Mayans used to send a basket of meat down the current before their canoes to divert any hungry crocodiles waiting for their next meal! Apparently there aren’t any crocodiles in the canal today, but we were still a bit hesitant to let our feet touch the ground…

One of the best parts of the area is that it is completely pristine; it’s not difficult to imagine the Mayans gently rowing their canoes down the canal, past the mangroves and out to sea.

What’s even better than imagining the canal though is watching it for yourself! Dan put together this quick travel video so you could get a feel for what it’s like to take a ride on the Sian Ka’an Ancient Canals!



There are a few different ways you can experience the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. We went with Community Tours Sian Ka’an, and we would gladly recommend them to anyone else traveling in the area. Community Tours Sian Ka’an is a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the reserve. All of their tours are community based, low impact activities. Community Tours employs primarily Mayans, and seeks to improve the local quality of life through job creation and the selling of local products created in the surrounding communities. Any money spent with Community Tours goes straight back to the local Mayans in the area, an underprivileged group that truly benefits from it.  Community Tours is also committed to safeguarding the reserve for future generations. Not only are they educating tourists, they are also going into local Mayan schools to teach environmental conservation classes.

We’ve recently had the pleasure to work with a variety of small businesses that are committed to preserving the environment and Mayan culture within the Yucatan Peninsula. This is so, so important for an area where a lot of the tourist dollars are not going to the locals but rather international hotels and chains.  Community Tours Sian Ka’an is one of these businesses making a positive difference in the local communities.


Before arriving in the Yucatan Peninsula for our quick trip around Cancun and the Riviera Maya, I can quite confidently admit that I knew very little about Mayan culture. I had never heard of a cenote. I was only familiar with the Mayan ruin Chichen Itza. And I had certainly never heard of ancient maritime canals. But that’s the beauty of travel—getting to learn and experience new things each and every day.


What did you think of the video clip? Does this look like an activity that would appeal to you? Have you learned anything new about Mayan culture, either through our recent blog posts or your own travels and experiences?


A massive thank you to the Cancun Tourism Board for hosting our visit to Isla Holbox. As always, all thoughts and opinions are our own.