Bacalar, Mexico, Is the Yucatan Peninsula’s Hidden Gem
A short two-hour flight separates the coast of South Florida from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. With Mayan ruins, gorgeous Caribbean beaches, lively coral reefs, raucous nightlife and some of the best food in the world, the region deserves all the hype that it gets.
But sometimes, you want to land somewhere and not hear English everywhere or have to worry about rowdy drunk tourists. Cancun and Tulum may be too popular now to offer such an experience, but there are plenty of other places in the Mexican Caribbean that have yet to be overrun by travelers.
Perhaps none are as magical as Bacalar.
The Grand Costa Maya: An Alternative to Touristy Cancun
Most international tourists head to the Riviera Maya, the northern part of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. The area has popular destinations like Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. We love all of these places and enjoy the millions of things to do when visiting them. But there is no denying that they've fallen victim to overtourism and overdevelopment.
We miss Tulum the way it was 10 years ago (yes, we're one of those people), but since those days will never come back, we're looking south to the Grand Costa Maya for a small-town experience. Chetumal and Mahahual are worthy destinations, but in a recent conversation with several members of the Quintana Roo Tourism Board, one place kept coming up: Bacalar.
They say for the best travel experiences, you should go where the locals go. According to the Quintana Roo Tourism Board, 74 percent of tourists in Bacalar are Mexican nationals. Only three percent are American. In this town with fewer than 42,000 people, you'll likely be sharing a hotel with Mexicans rather than other international tourists.
A Literally Magical Town
So what makes Bacalar so special? Like most of the Yucatan Peninsula, its unique culture is still strongly Mayan, with the language being widely spoken.
Of course, you can also see the mark of colonization, which is most visible in the Fort of San Felipe, or Fuerte de San Felipe. Once used for defense against pirates, the structure now houses museums where people can learn about the region's history while enjoying sweeping views.
It's also a town of diverse nature, built along an impressive lagoon of changing blues. Its preserved colonial history, strong Mayan culture and biodiversity have earned Bacalar a coveted spot as a Mexican Pueblo Magico, or Magical Town.
The Best Thing to Do in Bacalar: Lagoon of Seven Colors
Also known as the Lagoon of Seven Colors, the Bacalar Lagoon, or Lake Bacalar, is the beating heart of the town. Not only does it provide water for the people and the animals that live here, but it also provides breathtaking vistas and seemingly endless possibilities for activities.
The lagoon is about 31 miles long and is perfect for kayaking, paddle boarding, snorkeling and boating. Its crystal-clear waters change hue depending on depth, being powdery blue where it is shallow and deep ocean blue where it is deep. The color changes drastically in a few feet, so you'll be treated to one of the most splendid fluvial sceneries on the planet.
A particularly spectacular place to visit within the lagoon is the Rapids of Bacalar. Here, you'll be able to float over living stromatolites, single-celled organisms that exist in very few places on Earth. (Fun fact: You can see fossilized stromatolites in Utah's Capitol Reef National Park.)
Bird watchers should also make time to visit Bird Island, a small part of the lagoon where thousands of birds fly once the sun sets. Even if you're not into birding, this is a phenomenon worth seeing with your own eyes.
Finally, there are the cenotes. You may have seen them, or even swam in them, in the Riviera Maya. But these are not the sinkholes you're used to.
Bacalar’s Unique Cenotes
In the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula, cenotes are underground caves or sinkholes that often have small openings. You may have to go underground to swim in them or have to go down a precarious staircase to reach them.
But cenotes in Bacalar are distinctive for their openness and impressive width. Some of these cenotes are so large that they resemble small lagoons of their own.
Bacalar Lagoon has two popular cenotes that we highly recommend you visit: Cenote Cocalitos and Emerald Cenote. The former is perfect for seeing stromatolites, and the latter provides a perfect contrast to the turquoise water of the lagoon. It is also a great spot for snorkeling and diving.
Other visit-worthy cenotes are Cenote Azul — one of the area's deepest — and Cenote Negro, or Black Cenote. This name refers to the very dark hue of its water.
Mayan Ruins Near Bacalar
You can't go to the Yucatan Peninsula and not see Mayan ruins. Once a stronghold of the empire, the region is filled with ruins that go way beyond Chichen Itza and Tulum (though those are definitely places you have to see).
Bacalar is a great starting point for visiting lesser-known ruins like Kohunlich, where you'll see a pyramid whose stairs are lined with stone masks, Dzibanché and Oxtankah. Some of these sites are so obscure to international tourists, that you have the chance of being alone in parts of them.
Nearest Beach to Baclalar
Although water shapes life in Bacalar, the town doesn't have access to the sea. If this is something that you simply can't do without, then take a day trip to Mahahual.
Once a sleepy fishing village, Mahahual is quickly becoming a favored spot for tourists. But it'll be years before it goes the way of Playa del Carmen. Only an hour and 20 minutes away from Bacalar, you can easily spend the day at the beach here.
How to Get to Bacalar
It is certainly possible to fly into Cancun and drive, hire a car or take a bus to Bacalar. But it's much more convenient to simply book a flight to the lesser-known Chetumal International Airport.
Bacalar is a mere 40 minutes away, so you'll spend less time in a car and more time in the lagoon.
Where to Stay in Bacalar
You won't yet find large hotel chains in Bacalar. For now, accommodations are mostly locally owned bed and breakfasts, hostels, campgrounds and boutique hotels.
For a luxurious escapade, stay in MiaBacalar, a high-end hotel right on the lagoon and surrounded by nature. Besides direct access to the water, the hotel has a spa where you can partake in Mayan ceremonies like a temazcal sweat lodge.
Hotel Aires Bacalar is a more affordable alternative. Designed with a minimalist and organic style, you'll find wooden elements throughout and will enjoy rooms furnished and decorated with locally made products.