The town of Bacalar and Laguna Bacalar itself are popular amongst budget travelers and backpackers but due to its remote location and importantly, the distance from Cancun Airport, it’s one of the least touristy places you can visit this close to the Caribbean Coast of Mexico.
Gaspar Pacheco founded the town in 1545 as Salamanca de Bacalar, derived from the Mayan words ‘Bak Halal’, meaning ‘place surrounded by reeds.'
I visited Bacalar on a two week trip with my family with a goal to show them what I love about Mexico away from the margaritas and novelty sombreros of the Mexican Riviera, and the extremely cultural but sometimes chaotic neighbourhoods of Mexico City. Although there’s nothing wrong with those things, I really wanted to show them another side of Mexico.
After a three hour drive from Tulum to Bacalar, we arrived in Bacalar and were immediately greeted by the sight if the lagoon. Laguna Bacalar is called the Lagoon of 7 Colours because of the distinct blue colours that are visible throughout the lake. The water clarity is also very impressive partly due to its white limestone bottom.
The lagoon measures 43 km long and 2 km at its widest point. It is also the second largest body of freshwater in Mexico, after Lago de Chapala in Jalisco and Michoacán.
There are several restaurants and bars located on the lakefront where you can have a meal or just a drink and sit lakeside or relax on the adjacent docks. There is one public dock that is free to access and is actually a lot of fun as well.
The lake is quite shallow at the shore except where there are cenotes. This makes it great for smaller children to get in and snorkel. Just be careful when jumping in!
You can rent a variety of equipment to get out into the water, including kayaks and sailboats but the best activity is a half day tour that gets you to all the different sites on the lagoon.
There are a few tour operators in town, some private and some that work as part of a cooperative. As you explore the town you will see signs everywhere advertising lake tours so you will have your pick of operators.
Lake tours are available next to the public dock that last for two hours and cost about $280 pesos.
After doing some research and because I was with my parents, I really wanted the best day out possible so we decided to go with the more expensive tour offered by Amir AdvenTours. The tour is in English and Spanish, goes for 3.5 hours and costs $526 pesos.
After meeting the guide and boat we crossed the Channel of the Pirates to take in the coastline from the water. From here you can see the Fort and all get a better sense of the 7 colours you can see throughout the lake.
We stopped in the channel for an explanation of the history of the lagoon and a quick swim in the warm waters. Amir then took the group for a walk through the sulfur infused muddy shallows for a full body mud mask followed by a fun race through the mud that really hugged your feet and if you were’t careful you could end up face first in the muddy water.
While we scrubbed the mud off Amir prepared a feast of tropical fruits including banana, watermelon, mango and the sweetest pineapple I’ve ever had.
After the snack stop we visited the “Black Cenote” which is an open cenote with a depth of about 85 meters where we got to snorkel. For the brave, Amir showed us how to do a dive after climbing the branches of a tree.
Then we visited the “Cenote Esmeralda” with a depth of 45 meters and finally the “Cenote Cocalitos” where you can see stromatolites that are known as living stones and are considered as the oldest form of life in the planet.
Finally, we visited the Island of Birds for one more swim and snorkel.
The tour includes snorkeling equipment, life jackets, fruit, snacks and drinks. There was a good balance of information and fun water activities and by the end of the tour we were pretty exhausted. I highly recommend this tour!
The Fort of San Felipe
The Fort of San Felipe Bacalar is another major attraction in this area, because in its walls, pillars and ramparts there are still traces of past battles. The fort was built in 1729 with the main purpose of preventing the attacks suffered by the population from the pirates. Interestingly the fort was also used to monitor and repell traffickers of dyewood, a highly valued precious wood back then.
During the Caste War, the Fort was used by the Spanish as a point of defense against Maya who fought to win back the village, won the war but left the fort in ruins.
Today, the Fort of San Felipe Bacalar has become a local history museum. The collection in the museum includes pieces of pre-Hispanic history, Colonial history, drawings, historic plans, beautiful murals, multimedia devices and even the skeleton of a genuine pirate of the Caribbean.
Getting in and out
Bacalar is a great stopover in between the Yucatan and Belize. If you’re coming from Cancun it is a five hour drive or three hours from Tulum. There are regular ADO bus services if you’re not driving.
With it’s clear, warm waters and tranquil town, Bacalar is a great place to visit if you want to relax while taking in the stunning views the lagoon. These never got old and while relaxing on a dock with a good book, you could really waste a day or three away.