"Casita" on Laguna Bacalar, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico - photo © Susanna Starr
Just a little more than half an hour away from the city of Chetumal and its airport, and about the same distance as the border with the country of Belize, is the small town of Bacalar, nestled on the shore of the pristine waters of Laguna Bacalar, one of Mexico’s hidden treasures.
Bacalar Wildlife - photo © Susanna Starr
This area, in the southernmost part of the Yucatan Peninsula, is just at the point of developing as a tourist destination for the eco-minded traveler who seeks escape from the larger, often over-developed areas of the northern part of the Peninsula. Just an hour away from the nearest seaport of Mahahual on the Caribbean coast, a stopping point for cruise ships, the laguna is virtually undiscovered by tourism. It has always been known for its spectacular colors, much as the waters of the Caribbean, with its range of hues from emerald greens to azure blues and the famous brilliant arrays of turquoise and aqua. It is commonly referred to as “la laguna de los siete colores” (lagoon of the seven colors).
Becan Mayan Ruins - photo © Susanna Starr
Being sheltered from the ocean’s winds and salt sprays, the fresh waters of Laguna Bacalar provide a gentler, more nurturing feeling, making it ideal for swimming, kayaking, snorkeling and other water sports. Fishing, too, is more of a relaxing sport than the challenge of deep ocean water .For deep-sea fishing, the Caribbean coast is only an hour away, as is the famed nature reserve of Sian k’an.
View of Laguna Bacalar from Rancho Encantado - Photo ©Susanna Starr
In the other direction, south of Bacalar is the capitol of the state, Chetumal, which is located on the bay leading out to the Caribbean ocean. Long a major water route for the Maya, it was also used by the marauding pirates active in the area during their heyday. It wasn’t until the late 1970’s that Quintana Roo became a state, with Chetumal as its capitol. Now a beautiful, tropical city with a broad boulevard along the “bahia,” it is home to the Museum of Mayan Culture, providing a superb introduction to this ancient civilization. This museum has stunning reproductions of ancient Mayan sites in the area as well as a complete representation of the Maya “Tree of Life” extending three levels from the underworld to the topmost branches reaching toward the heavens.
Cocodrilo Dorado Balneario(Golden Aligator swimming hole) near Bacalar - Photo ©Susanna Starr
Just across from the museum is the Mercado, selling everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to modern electronic equipment. Also available throughout the city are numerous internet access as well as dentists, doctors and hospitals. The restaurants along the “Bahia” provide cool outdoor dining. There is also a zoo and the close proximity to the border with Belize now provides a new, Las Vegas style casino in the “free zone,” connecting the two countries. The country of Belize, with its various cultures and diversity of terrain is often included in vacation plans for this area of the Yucatan Peninsula.
The drive back and forth from Bacalar to Chetumal affords the opportunity to give the traveler the feeling for the small, traditional villages that dot the highway, most of which are populated by contemporary Maya. The Fort, located in the center of the village of Bacalar, was built by Mayan labor when the Spanish first landed in the late 1500’s. Like the charming “zocolo,” or central plaza, the Fort has undergone extensive restoration in the past year, making it a major attraction. The town of Bacalar has retained it’s feeling of authenticity, with no attempt toward tourist oriented activities, but rather remains a town where “real” people carry on their everyday lives. Many of the Mayan women can be seen in their traditional colorfully embroidered huipiles, especially on market day.
Julia Chay - Mayan Chef at Rancho Encantado - Photo ©Susanna Starr
At the south end of the town is the lovely Cenote Azul, located on the edge of a beautiful, palm-fringed cenote, whose depth has never been plumbed. The large, semi-outdoor restaurant is housed in a spacious palapa and serves primarily fresh seafood from the area as well as venison when available. The swimming is wonderful and many people take their bathing suits when going there for lunch. At the north end of town, lies the charming eco retreat/resort of Rancho Encantado with its extensive tropical landscaping and twelve individual casitas scattered along the shore of the Laguna. Well prepared, health-oriented food is served in their palapa restaurant on the water’s edge.
Mouth of the Dragon - Chiccana Mayan Ruins - Photo ©Susanna Starr
Because of the close proximity to some of the most major Mayan sites in the region, the capital city of Chetumal and the border with the country of Belize, the location of Bacalar on the shores of one of the jewels of Mexico, Laguna Bacalar, provides opportunities for exploration of one of the last areas in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico to develop. Its fascinating history and natural ecological beauty has accorded it the status of “pueblo magico” by the Mexican government.
Laguna Bacalar Sunrise - Photo ©Susanna Starr
Where to stay Rancho Encantado, eco-resort
Where to Eat Rancho Encantado & Cenote Azul