To visitors, TULUM can mean several things. First, it’s one of the most picturesque of all the ancient Maya sites, poised on 15m-high cliffs above the impossibly turquoise Caribbean. Tulum also refers to a stretch of broad, white beach, dotted with lodging options that range from bare-bones to ultra-swank; many of them, as well as many ultra-casual beach bars, still show their backpacker-friendly roots in style, if not in price. Finally, it’s a booming town (often called Tulum Pueblo to distinguish it from the beach) that has evolved from roadside waystation to real population centre, where visitors can arrange tours into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, among other things.
Sian Ka’an means “the place where the sky is born” in Maya, which seems appropriate when you experience the sunrise in this beautiful part of the peninsula. Created by presidential decree in 1986 and made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, the biosphere reserve is a sparsely populated region sprawling along the coast south of Tulum. One of the largest protected areas in Mexico, it covers 1.3 million acres. Most of the thousand or so permanent residents are fishermen and subsistence farmers gathered in the village of Punta Allen. Most visitors enter at the north border, from Tulum, on day-trips; only a few hardier travellers press on to Punta Allen and stay for a stretch.
The reserve contains all three of the principal ecosystems found in the Yucatán Peninsula and the Caribbean: the area is approximately one-third tropical forest, one-third fresh- and saltwater marshes and mangroves and one-third marine environment, including a section of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. All five species of Mexican wild cat, including jaguars, live in the forest, along with spider and howler monkeys, tapir and deer. More than three hundred species of birds have been recorded. The Caribbean beaches provide nesting grounds for four endangered marine turtle species, while extremely rare West Indian manatees have been seen in the inlets. Morelet’s and mangrove crocodiles lurk in the lagoons.
The area north and west of Tulum has one of the largest concentrations of cenotes on the peninsula, including Ox Bel Ha, which at almost 170km is the longest water-filled cave system in the world. Many of these freshwater sinkholes are accessible from Hwy-307 or off the road to Cobá. Some, like Hidden Worlds, have been developed as adventure centres, and the guides and marked trails at these places can help put first-time visitors at ease in dark water and tight spaces. But it’s also worth visiting one of the less developed alternatives, such as Gran Cenote, 4km up the road to Cobá from Tulum, where the only service is snorkel-gear rental. Either way, you can float above stalagmites and other rock formations – all the fun of cave exploration, with none of the scrabbling around. Zacil-Há, 4km further, is a local hangout and a great beginner pool, as you can see the sandy bottom.
Divers must have open-water certification for cavern diving (in which you explore within the reach of daylight), but cave diving (in which you venture into closed passageways and halls) requires rigorous training. One of the best cave-diving specialists in the area is Aquatech Divers at Villas de Rosa (984 875 9020) at Aventuras beach.
Local development may threaten cenotes in the long run, but clumsy visitors can do more damage in the short term. All the same rules for reef preservation apply here; and be very careful climbing in and out of the water – use the paths and ladders provided.