Bacalar and the Lagoon of Seven Colors
Travel brochures and websites often talk about a “best-kept secret,” which comes across as a load of PR bull. This unlikely phrase does seem to apply, however, to Laguna de Bacalar, a vast and beautiful waterway near Mexico’s southern border. With clear, shallow, and wave-free water, it’s like a giant bathtub, only cleaner. On the lagoon’s western shore, the unassuming town of the same name has sandy, almost traffic-free streets and a super simple vibe.
Bacalar has been a vacation destination for years, but mainly for people from Quintana Roo’s state capital, Chetumal, and a smattering of fans from farther away. They arrive on weekends and holidays with kids and grandparents in tow, staying at vacation homes and inexpensive beachfront hotels. Most of the lodgings are basic but have their own small beach and/or dock along with kayaks, canoes, or paddleboats to rent.
On the first morning of our visit, my BF and I couldn’t find brewed coffee to save our lives. Locals who we asked drew a blank, and seemed hard pressed even for a restaurant recommendation. We finally went to Restaurant Orizaba, with a big palapa roof and plastic tables and chairs, where we ordered pancakes and eggs to go with the instant coffee in hot milk.
One of the highlights of our visit was Cenote Azul: an enormous, sweet-smelling limestone pond at the south edge of town. Swimming here was pure heaven. Because it’s super deep, your feet don’t touch any clingy weeds, mud, or other creepy stuff sometimes found in freshwater lakes. We hung out for a few hours at the restaurant where we listened to itinerant mariachi bands and a ranchero guitarist while alternating snacking and swimming. (And no, Mother, we didn’t get cramps and drown.) There’s no admission charge, and it’s open daily until six (later during vacations and holidays). You can float, swim, or snorkel (there’s not much to see) in the sinkhole, or explore it in your canoe or kayak.
Cenote Azul is one of a half dozen sinkholes that feed 55-km-long Bacalar Lagoon. In the middle of the freshwater lagoon, Cenote Negro can be visited on a boat tour through local operators. Most visits last one to 1.5 hours and cost 100 to 150 pesos per person. There are a few places in town to rent bicycles, but the main attraction here is the placid lagoon, whose crystalline blue water laps languidly at the shore.
A number of super inexpensive beach clubs offer shaded picnic tables, restrooms, snack shops, and rental of kayaks and beach toys. Club de Velas has no entrance fee, charging only for food and drinks. Nearby Ejido Bacalar charges just a few pesos for entrance and has nice installations. Balneario Ecológico is the place to go if you want to bring your own food and drinks. You pay a small fee to enter and to park a car; but you have to cross the street and ask at the restaurant there to use the bathroom.
Apart from the lagoon there are few tourist attractions. In the center of town is the main plaza, where locals gather in the cool of the evening and in August to celebrate the feast day of Saint Joachim (patron saint of fathers, grandfathers, and cabinet makers), with boat races, processions, and religious festivities. The colonial church is from the 18th century; it and the 19th century Casa de la Cultura, offering classes and exhibitions, have been restored.
On the south side of the plaza, el Fuerte San Felipe Bacalar was built in the early 18th century to dissuade English pirates and privateers. Its defensive moat is now a garden, and there’s a small museum showing colonial firearms, maps, and exhibits of local history. The fort figured in various battles during the War of the Castes, when the Maya briefly rose up against their Spanish oppressors before inevitable and bloody reprisals.
Conquered by the Spanish in 1544, Bacalar was founded a thousand years before that by the Maya as a mercantile center and the capital of the Uaymil region. Its name was Siyan Ka’an (“Where the Sky Is Born”) Bakjalal (“Surrounded by Reeds”). Bacalar is the Spanish adaptation of the original name.
Today’s visitors should expect simple meals and mainly motel-like lodgings, although there are a few relatively upscale inns with spa treatments. The community was named a Pueblo Mágico in 2006. This designation by the Mexican government gives moral support and federal funds to encourage the development of tourism infrastructure. Someday soon this town of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants is sure to offer lattés and cappuccino, boutique hotels and pricey sushi restaurants. But for now we embrace the concept of instant coffee and simple lodgings facing the gorgeous Lagoon of Seven Colors. It’s one of the last unsophisticated spots on the Quintana Roo coast, which translates to fewer international visitors and lower prices.
BACALAR LOCAL LISTINGS