Bacalar, Mexico, Is the Yucatan Peninsula’s Hidden Gem
A 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 it gets.
But sometimes, you want to land somewhere and not hear English or worry about rowdy drunk tourists. Cancun and Tulum may be too popular now to offer such an experience, but travelers have yet to overrun many other places in the Mexican Caribbean.
Perhaps none are as magical as Bacalar.
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The Grand Costa Maya: An Alternative to Touristy Cancun
Most international tourists going to Yucatan 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 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, look south to the Grand Costa Maya for a small-town experience. Chetumal and Mahahual are worthy destinations, but in a recent conversation with several Quintana Roo Tourism Board members, one place kept coming up: Bacalar.
They say for the best travel experience you should go where the locals go. According to the Quintana Roo Tourism Board, 74 percent of tourists in Bacalar are Mexican nationals. Here, you'll hear Spanish more often than English — and that's reason enough to plan a trip.
A Magical Town
What makes Bacalar so special? Like most of the Yucatan Peninsula, its culture is still strongly Maya, with the language being widely spoken.
Of course, you can also see the mark of colonization, 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. A 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 town's beating heart. Not only does it provide water for the people and the animals that live here, but it also offers breathtaking vistas and endless possibilities for activities.
Expanding about 31 miles, the lagoon is perfect for kayaking, paddle boarding, snorkeling and boating. Its crystal-clear waters drastically change hue depending on depth, being powdery blue in shallow places and dark blue where it is deep. You'll be treated to one of the most splendid fluvial environments on the planet.
The Rapids of Bacalar is a particularly spectacular place to visit within the lagoon. 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 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.
Bacalar’s Unique Cenotes
In the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula, cenotes are underground caves or sinkholes that often have small openings. You usually have to go underground or down a precarious staircase to reach them.
But cenotes in Bacalar are distinctive for their openness and impressive width. Some of them are so large that they resemble small lagoons.
Bacalar Lagoon has two famous 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 an excellent 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 Maya ruins. Once a stronghold of the empire, the region is filled with archaeological zones that go way beyond Chichen Itza and Tulum (though those are definitely places you must 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. Other note-worthy ones are Dzibanché and Oxtankah. Some of these sites are so obscure to international tourists that you can be alone in parts of them.
Nearest Beach to Bacalar
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.