Quintana Roo, Mexico
What makes Bacalar so special? It is the Lake of Seven Colours and it is indeed an array of pale blue through turquoise to deep indigo. And there are other reasons to love this rustic destination.
Seven colours? I think they’re selling themselves a bit short there. There are certainly more than seven colours in the lake. You have to catch the lake in the sunshine, though, to get the full spectrum. The lake water is fresh. Most of the lake is crystal clear and the high limestone content of the water is such that the sun reflects the sky, causing the lake to take on several different shades of aqua blue.
The town itself is charming too. The town of Bacalar is a hippie gem. It is a popular getaway for us all who live in Riviera Maya; you can swim, relax, paddle board, kayak, fish, eat, drink and be merry. It is located about 4 hours from Playa del Carmen or 3 hours from the other popular Yucatán hippie mecca of Tulum. Time stops here and you truly relax here, if you want it or not.
I came here several times. First time with my friend Eva in 2016 and then subsequently every year, in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The place has become so popular that the price for accommodation virtually doubled between my first and last visits. I mention it because I think choosing the right place to stay is crucial here. Basically, you want a room with a view (of the lake). If the budget allows it, it is best to stay on the lakeside, so you can sit on the jetty in the evening (hotels usually have their own jetties).
Laguna Bacalar is the second largest freshwater lake in Mexico. The title of Pueblo Magico (Magic Town) was given to Bacalar in 2006 and if you continue reading you will find out why.
As soon as you enter the little town you will discover lots of little houses and unpaved streets, vendors, taco restaurants and little hotels on the lagoon. Laid-back, no huge crowds. Tourists on bikes. Turquoise water everywhere you look. The fortress with cannon. Locals sitting on the benches in the zócalo (main square) chatting and eating icecream. On Sunday night, there may be music and dancing in the square. There is basically a village feel here (the town has about 5,000 inhabitants). As for the lake shore, most of it is privatised for the use of the hotels but there is a public jetty just under the fortress where you can have a swim and rent a lancha (a small motor boat) and another public jetty at the north end of the village, enjoyed mostly by the locals.
The modern history of Bacalar is full of English, Dutch and French pirates, privateers and buccaneers, and Spanish who had to defend the village. The ancient history belongs to the Maya, of course. The village has been inhabited by the Maya for centuries. Bacalar means 'surrounded by reeds' (the Mayan name was b'ak halal) or Wuk halal (lagoon of seven colours). It would have been a fishing village and a trading port (using canoes for transporting goods). In more modern times a colonial settlement was built in 1545 by Spaniard Gaspar Pacheco and was called San Felipe de Bacalar (still the official name but reduced to Bacalar for practical reasons). The city was invaded and destroyed by pirates in 1642 and rebuilt in 1726.
After the pirate attack the Fortress de San Felipe Bacalar was built and was completed in 1733. The visit to the fortress is a must; it is small but very informative. Here you can learn about Diego the Mulatto, a pirate of Cuban origin (second in command to the Dutchman Cornelio Jol, better known as 'Pegleg'). He attacked and pillaged the town of Bacalar on several occasions. The fortress also served as an important outpost for the Spanish in the Caste War of Yucatán: in 1859 it was seized by Maya rebels, who held the fort until Quintana Roo was finally conquered by Mexican troops in 1901. Then the building was abandoned. Read more about those interesting times in my post Bacalar San Felipe Fort.
The colours of the lake are a real wonder. The lake bottom is limestone, truly white, and the water colour depends on the depth of the water, which varies a lot. In places it goes 100m deep due to many sinkholes that feed the lake with underground rivers. Bacalar lake has apparently nine cenotes located within the perimeter of the lagoon. The sinkholes result from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. Here in Yucatán they are called cenotes (se-no-tayz). This is what the conquering Spaniards called them when they heard the Maya word dzonot. They were sacred places for the Maya because they represented the entrance to the underworld and they placed their offerings to the God Rain Chac, who dwelt in the cenote caves. Also they used the cenotes for water irrigation and as a source of drinking water.
The best way to see all the colours of the lake and the cenotes is to rent a kayak, paddle board or take a boat trip. There are plenty on offer (the brokers tout them everywhere you go). The price depends on the length of the trip and the number of people. The standard trip is two hours. After all, the lake is large (55km from tip to tip and 2km wide) so two hours are a must. If you take a boat trip, you will feel like being in an ocean rather than a lake. Besides the colour, what makes it special is that all the waters are surrounded by totally pristine jungle. Small tour boats take people all through the lake system, where birds and all sorts of wildlife and jungle flora are found. The water is generally too fresh for salt water fish, and too salty for fresh water fish, but good tour guides know the areas where there is still some marine life. You are most likely to spot toucans, parrots and raptors.
The boat trip usually takes you to the Cenote de la Bruja (Witch Cenote) where witches and shamans in the past performed their rituals It is also referred to as Cenote Negro (Black cenote). Our captain told us that when they were building a school in that bay, they had to kick the witch out and in revenge she cast a spell there. You can still see her magic - bubbles of water coming to the surface in one spot.
Depending on the route, they can also take you to Cenote Coquitos (about 2km away from the town centre) or Cenote Laguna Hotel (named after the hotel that sits on the banks of the cenote). All the cenotes feed the lake with fresh underground water and it is here where the magic of changing colours happens, depending on the depth of each cenote and the lake depth around it. The water of the lagoon is usually warm, only near the cenote it becomes colder. The catamaran may take you to La Isla de los Pájaros (The Isle of Birds) where you can also cover yourself in white mud. It has a strong sulphur smell but it is marvellous for your skin. A much more interesting way to exfoliate and re-mineralise your skin than in a beauty salon!
Snorkelling and swimming are always part of the boat trips; they will definitely take you to the Pirate Canal. In the 1700s pirates used to come from the Caribbean (Chetumal Bay) into Bacalar using a natural canal through the lagoons. They used to take wood from Bacalar to build ships, and other products (at some point they took all the Mayan women with them!). I understood from our captain that the canal is actually called Chac canal (after the God of Rain, Chac). The boat will stop at a man-made structure with graffiti (it resembles a wrecked ship), which used to be a restaurant years ago but now is in ruins and used as a jumping platform. At this point, many people get into the water, just for a swim, or they scrub their bodies with the white sand for great natural exfoliation.
If you were to continue to the end of the Pirate canal, you would come to Laguna Mariscal. After some miles it should link to the Rio Hondo but it does not. If the pirates came to Bacalar from Chetumal by the river, they would have gone against the river current, before they got to the lagoons! Also, our captain told us that in the past Laguna Mariscal was interconnected with the sea. I am not sure this is correct – why would this particular canal be dry now when all other waters are navigable? However, after some inspection I found out that the lagoons are actually interconnected all the way to Chetumal Bay, it is just not very visible on the Google map. I have drawn my own map in an attempt to understand the pirate route, see on the left.
Also notice the mangroves along the canal route. They are not very pretty but extremely useful. They are land builders and protectors from hurricanes. They are a filtration system for water, also feeding, breeding, and nursery grounds for fish, shellfish and birds. A very productive ecosystem!
If you come to Bacalar for diving, then I would recommend Cenote Azul (Blue Cenote), a deep and dark blue cenote which is separated from the lake by a few metres of land (80 or 100m). It is situated on km 5 from the centre of the village. You can rent a bike in the village and access it by road (biking in Bacalar is very popular, by the way). On the photo below it is the dark blue lake on the left. Divers can enjoy the intricate maze of roots and trunks, holes of various sizes (cave entrances) and rock formations. You would need to use expert guides here; on your own it is dangerous. On the water's edge there is a traditional Mexican restaurant.
Bacalar lake has another speciality: stromatolites. They are structures similar to coral reefs. They are basically sedimentary rocks, formed by the growth of layer upon layer of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae, primitive one-celled organisms). Stromatolites are one of the oldest ecosystems on Earth. In Mexico, they can only be found in the Cuatrociénagas Reserve in the state of Coahuila, and in Bacalar, located in the state of Quintana Roo. To experience the stromatolites, one needs to go to the Rapids (Los Rapidos). The Rapids is a narrow channel in the lake, about a 5-minute drive from the centre. Here you can find stromatolite rocks. The water flows quickly through the channel. It is like a lazy river experience but in open nature. If you bring a snorkel and mask or goggles, you can float and look at the rocks and fish as you move along. There is a ranch with chickens and a restaurant located on the site, with palms, tables and hammocks set up on the grass along the shore of the rapids; a great place to rest after your float (you can rent kayaks and the vest for floating here). The rapids are at the km 9 marker along highway 307.
How to get there:
Getting to Bacalar is quite easy and painless with daily ADO buses (first class) from Cancún, Playa del Carmen or Tulum (3 hours from here). You can also take a colectivo (minibus) from Tulum, very close to the bus terminal from the main road. Find the one heading to Felipe Carillo Puerto ($60MXN). Let the driver know that you are heading to Bacalar and he will drop you off at the right place from where you can take another colectivo into Bacalar itself ($65MXN).
By car: drive along the federal highway 307 and the exit for the town of Bacalar is on the left.
We paid $1,000 MXN for a lancha (boat) for two people (the price in 2017). For a group it would be cheaper per person. For the double kayak we were quoted $150MXN for two hours and $100MXN for one hour.
Entry fee to the fortress: nationals $30MXN, foreigners $70MXN.
There are numerous hotels and hostels along the western coast of the lake. You could try Green Monkey hostel if you are on a budget. For a larger group there are a few villas for rent. My favourite place is Los Aluxes (about USD100 per night). We had a room with a veranda and the view of the lake. There are two jetties with deck chairs and swings in the water (we loved our bed-time drink on the deck), a nice restaurant and a very decent bar with swings instead of stools. We enjoyed our meals here. If you need to step out for meal, I recommend La Playita downtown, right on the lake.
Mix & Match:
If you are looking for additional local activities, horse-back riding on trails to Lake Bacalar is available at Num Ka'an Ranch about 10 minutes drive south of Bacalar on Highway 307.
Continuing down Highway 307, on the other side of the village of Limones is the turn off to Mahahual and Xcalak, two evolving seaside towns off the beaten track.
If you travel by car and prefer to mix the Bacalar trip with some Maya history, you can visit Chacchoben ruins (45-minute drive) and even Dzibanché and Kohunlich (both over an hour from Bacalar). Also watch out for the ruins of Ichkabal (40km to the west of Bacalar): they were discovered 10 years ago and should open to the public in 2018.