How To Enjoy Bacalar
Editor’s Note: Those of us in the expatriate community of Merida are enjoying a growing set of attractions and entertainment that is becoming richer all the time. Restaurants, music, B&B’s, small hotels, large hotels, shops… Merida today is not the Merida that the Working Gringos “discovered” in 2001. But we are not basically city people, and Merida is most definitely a city, with all that entails. On a regular basis, we like to get out of the city and breathe a bit. We have been hearing more and more about Bacalar, a beautiful lake and growing community that is just four hours away. In fact, we’ve published other articles about the paddle marathon at Bacalar and about Bacalar history. So here is our final story, an inside look at Bacalar, from resident Scott Wallace, who offers some tips to help our readers enjoy their next visit to Bacalar.
Laguna Bacalar, Beautiful Freshwater
Laguna Bacalar is one of the most beautiful freshwater bodies on the planet. Bacalar also happens to be a comfortable gateway to the fascinating history of Quintana Roo and southern Campeche. Fortunately for Merida residents planning a visit, the same maturing of the business community to meet broader tourist and resident expectations occurring in Merida is also happening in Bacalar. Still, Bacalar is not a major city nor a capital city. Visitors to Bacalar will find an interesting, small pueblo on a spectacularly colorful lake in an area rich with unspoiled nature and complicated history.
The lake and pueblo offer a history, beauty, and engagement of the senses that is every bit as intense as Merida, but definitely not urban and decidedly Quintanaroensis. Forget about the recent alignment with Eastern Time. Somewhere quite early in the four hour drive from Merida to Bacalar, visitors will find themselves squarely in tiempo mexicano.
Visits to Bacalar usually focus on the lake, the town, the history nearby, and the remarkable nature that surrounds it all. Laguna Bacalar has been a vacation destination for nationals for generations and established hotels and restaurants have been serving locals and vacationers for many years. But you still won’t find a spicy tuna hand roll, an extensive wine list, or a Ritz Carlton-level wait staff. What you will find in and around Bacalar is open and genuine hospitality, a stunningly beautiful lake, incredible history and archaeology, and a wide array of options for staying, eating, and enjoying the town and the area.
Start With The Lake
Laguna Bacalar, the hands-down winner on the beauty, activity, and nature front, is not a budget-buster. In fact, it’s free! Six public access points and several public balnearios (public swimming establishments) make hanging out on the beautiful shore or swimming in the clear-blue, soft water simple and easy. Chose from more than a dozen lakefront restaurants and hotels that serve up the spectacular colors of the lake all day long. And there are dozens of other pleasant restaurants and hotels to explore. Around Bacalar, as in many places on the Yucatan Peninsula, being flexible and opportunistic navigating the day can gain one much. But even more so in Bacalar, the pace is slow and easy.
Laguna Bacalar is 55 kilometers long and relatively narrow, running more or less north-south with a dogleg on the way. This deliciously-fresh laguna (lake) is Mexico’s second largest sweet-water lake. The east side of the laguna is mangrove shore and low jungle with no houses or development. The west side has development, but also long stretches that remain jungle shore. The north end of the lake is fed by several jungle streams and runoff from seasonal flats. The south end of the lake is fed by a number of cenotes. The lake drains nearly all of this flow out the Pirate Cut and down to the Rio Hondo. Bacalar Pueblo lies on the west side of the laguna about three-quarters of the way south down the lake, directly across from the Pirate Cut. One of the best ways to appreciate both the layout and the beauty of the lake’s remarkable coloration is to check it out on Google Earth.
Bacalar Pueblo covers about ten square kilometers with 13,000 or so inhabitants. The older part of the pueblo with the main square, most hotels, restaurants, and shops is east toward the lake. The newer and mostly residential development is to the west. Merida travelers are likely to enter Bacalar Pueblo coming south on Highway #307. As you approach town, just after the fort-shaped tourism center and just before the Pemex station (both on the left), turn left toward the lake. In 200 meters at the “T”, turn right onto 7th Avenue and continue straight into town for eight blocks. On your right you will see the Iglesia de San Jaoquin. Continue one block more and turn left. At the stop sign (you cannot turn right!), you will see the town square. There is plenty of parking around the square, and ATM kiosks ahead and just to the left. Diagonally across the square is the Fuerte de San Felipe (the old fort) and the Tourism Bureau. Along the square are a small collection of restaurants and shops.
The 18th century fort (in 2015 it celebrates 32 years as a museum) is a definite vale la pena (it’s worth it!). From atop Fuerte de San Felipe the view of the lake and the Pirate Cut is very, very photogenic, as is the fort itself. And the museum includes many family-friendly exhibits with considerable information on Bacalar’s and the region’s history. The remaining local attractions — the Iglesia de San Jaoquin, the Casa de Cultura, and the Casa de Escritor — are more low key and may merit a visit while you are in town. Unlike the fort, they would probably not warrant making a stop in Bacalar just for them.
Get Outside in Bacalar
If you have a passion that involves nature, you will find friends in Bacalar to help you enjoy birding, paddling, sailing, swimming, hiking, biking and boarding.
Birding in Bacalar
This past January, a group of birding clubs from around the Yucatan converged for a two-day birding jamboree. January and February are great birding months in Bacalar, as some trees lose their leaves making it easier to see birds. Nesting season makes for lots of activity, and many northern species are down for the winter, nearly doubling the population compared to summer months. The Bacalar area is well-known for its avian diversity; over 240 species live in the jungle surrounding the Laguna. This event, hosted by Green Jay Mayan Birding (a non-profit in Cancun), was attended by passionate birders from ten clubs.
Over 65 attendees came from Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo. They specifically came to see a number of endemic species (Yucatan Jay, Yucatan Fly Catcher, Rose Throated Tanager) that were of particular interest. Day One started in the jungle and proceeded along the shore of Laguna Bacalar, a meandering walking tour of companions sharing a common passion. Day Two saw the gathering split into many groups. Some explored quiet roadways and agricultural selva (jungle) nearby. Others, returning north toward home in Cancun, went east to explore salt water species an hour away on the Costa Maya shores near Mahajual or went a bit further down the Xcalak Peninsula toward the Xcalak National Park. Campeche-based birders headed south and west to the Rio Bec area to explore Calakmul, Becan, Kohunlich and other jungle ruins readily accessed by car. Merida-based birders toured Chacchoben ruins and nearby jungle on their way home. A number of birders took advantage of fair weather for a full-day, guided kayak tour of the remote backwaters.
Water Sports in Bacalar
While the backwaters definitely require the knowledge of a guide, it is easy to explore the shores of the town-side of the lake if one has fair weather. The waters are typically calm with some chop during normal seasonal afternoon wind. And Laguna Bacalar’s breezes are reliable enough and often brisk enough to make for very happy sailing. In February, the Quintana Roo state Olympic team qualification races were held over two days for prams, lasers, and wind surfers. Competitors, principally from Playa del Carmen and north, traversed a course in fair weather and fine wind. On almost any sunny, breezy day in Bacalar, it is common to see a half-dozen or more sailboats scooting along the water. A variety of places on Laguna Bacalar shores offer smaller day sailboat tours and rentals by the hour or the day.
Visitors will find it easy to get on the lake with kayaks, canoes and SUPs (stand up paddleboards) from several adventure outfits as well as hotels and hostels on Laguna Bacalar shores. Waters on the town side of the lake are shallow and clear. Within minutes of most rental locations, you will find wonderful flat water paddling or swimming, a pleasant shoreline, a deep-water cenote or two, a mangrove waterfront, and, for those with lucky, fair winds or in very good physical condition, islands with larger nesting water birds. A little farther afield, there is a “hidden” jungle cenote with turquoise-clear waters, and still further on, the stromatolite rapids. Guided kayak and canoe tours (1/2 day to three days) into the lake’s very extensive, shallow backwaters and watershed can be arranged in advance for seekers of the ultimate in solitude or extreme birding.
To look at the shore from the lake, a boat tour is the lazy man’s way and, unless you care to paddle for half a day and the wind cooperates, the only way. A dozen or more motor launches offer lake tours that typically take 90 minutes and cost $200 pesos per person ($3000 pesos for a four hour private tour). The town has a cooperative of tour boats and many of the boats and pilots belong. Most tours leave from one of the three balnearios not far from the town square. Typically, these are ponga-style boats with sun covers and life vests. Pilots sometimes seem a bit more interested in hastening back to the dock for the next customers than in showing the lake at its best, but it is still a nice way to see the lake. Several hotels offer comfortable, shaded pontoon boats with snacks, beverages, and swimming stops and more flexible routes and trip duration.
Bacalar Pueblo has a short bike path leading onto town streets from highway #307 at the North end of 7th Avenue. Generally, the pueblo’s streets are in good condition with slow traffic and most make for good-enough cycling. There are definite exceptions and no streets in town are truly 100% kid-ready. The town square is a comfortable, open area just one block from the lake edge. The Costera, which runs along the lakefront, is a very pleasant walk or bike but there is enough traffic to make biking not safe for kids by themselves. The portion north of the main square and the Fuerte de San Felipe (a must see with a surprisingly good small museum) has been recently paved and has smooth sidewalks.
The Costera south of the square is in poorer condition. This route makes for quite decent daytime walking and biking that offers several really nice views of the lake, public access points, and a variety of options for drinks, snacks, or meals. Cenote Azul, a large, deep cenote, is set only meters away from Laguna Bacalar at the opposite end of the Costera from the Fort and makes a nice destination. Four slightly-rolling kilometers from the town square, the cenote has fine swimming, pleasant shady hangouts, and a moderately-priced, large restaurant with a bar. Cenote Azul is unusually beautiful with clear water, vertical-walled 90 meter depths, and a jungle-lined perimeter.
Bacalar hosts an annual five and ten kilometer footrace starting and ending in the town center and running along the Costera with a midpoint of Cenote Azul. Later in the year are a half-triathlon and a full-triathlon centered on the town and the lake, with running and biking segments nearby. Want to get out on the lake for some serious paddling? In the first week of May, Bacalar hosts the second Paddle Marathon and Festival. The weekend includes a Saturday and Sunday 47 kilometer race, open to any class of paddle watercraft: canoe, kayak, SUP, outrigger canoe or the like. It also includes two days of Adventure Exposition on the lake, two nights of a kayak film festival, a variety of paddle-related workshops and demonstrations, and cultural/musical events for the whole family.
One of Bacalar’s most popular water events is Aguas Abiertas, the open water swim competition that is held each June. In 2014, there were 1200 racers and more than 500 spectators. In 2015, the tenth year of the event, as many as 2000 swimmers are expected. Scheduled for the 19th, 20th and 21st of June 2015, the event includes 5000, 2500, and 1250 meter heats. The swim course finishes at the balneario and large park just two blocks from the main square, making viewing the event simple. The sight of so many swimmers crossing the lake is impressive. In prior years, entrants have come from across Mexico and abroad and the winning times have been extremely competitive.
And There Are Archaeological Zones Too
Within two hours of Bacalar there are various wonderful and infrequently-visited INAH archaeological wonders. It is quite common to find oneself alone in an entire old Maya city or a section of a site. Just north and east of Bacalar lies Chacchoben, a nicely maintained and easily toured site with a collection of restored monuments and buildings. In the southern arc of Quintana Roo and Campeche lie a string of archeological sites that were once cities of varying size or city-states. Kohunlich, Dzibanche, Kinichna, Becan, Hormiguerro, Chicanna, El Ramonal, Xpujil are all in the Rio Bec region and each is an easy day trip from Bacalar. Add in the sites in southern Campeche and there are more than two dozen options!
Calakmul, the largest and most influential of the city-states in southeastern Mexico, lies three-plus hours away near the southern border with Belize. This area along Belize and Guatemalan is a transition zone between low-jungle vegetation of the Yucatan Peninsula and the rainforest jungle of the Peten. Further south in northern Guatemala lies El Mirador and another set of difficult-to-explore Maya sites.
Kohunlich and Dzibanche are the Rio Bec sites closest to Bacalar (more or less an hour by car) and they are also two of the more interesting ruins. They are quite different in their scale and ambience, but each offers the visitor a ready portal into the Mayan past. Both these sites, and the whole area to the west toward Escarcega, are an easy drive. Head south on #307 then west on #186, which are both good roadways. At about Kilometer 215 on Highway #186, you will see the large, overhead sign pointing left to Kohunlich. You will see it shortly after you pass under a similar sign to Dzibanche and Morocoy, pointing you to the right.
Kohunlich was a Mayan center from approximately 300 BC until about 1200 AD, with its peak 600 AD to 900 AD. To get to Kohunlich (an Anglicized name referring to the cahoon palms that abound in the site), turn left just after the large, overhead Kohunlich sign. Travel nine kilometers down the single-lane road into the parking lot. Restrooms are at the guard/payment desk on the right. Parking farthest away (along the forest near the pathway into the site) will ensure your car stays in the shade for the longest time. As with most INAH sites, there is a sparse map showing the monuments and pathways. You might want to snap a quick photo of the map for use along the way.
Entry to the site is through a short pathway surrounded by high jungle and into a large “acropolis” with residential and ceremonial ruins overlooking it. Birds and occasionally small mammals are seen here. Make sure to check the tree canopies for monkeys! At the far end of the acropolis and up a hill is the Templo de Mascarones (Temple of Masks). Originally eight painted, highly-unusual stucco masks, each perhaps two meters tall, decorated this temple. Color and detail can still be seen on several of the roof-protected remaining masks by climbing up the steep staircase.
One can exit the acropolis by passing around and to the rear of the Templo de Mascarones, where a trail leads to the right. This continues downhill until it joins another trail. Head left to Los 27 Escalones (the 27 Steps), a residential complex providing great visibility and breezes from the top. From there, you can get a great view of the ten-square mile site. Returning from Los 27 Escalones brings you back to the acropolis near the ball court, which is not that far from the parking lot.
The Dzibanche site was named for the Maya word for “carved in wood”, referring to carvings on the original temple lintels, which have since been replaced. This very large site covers nearly thirty square miles, including the sister site Kinichna, and was occupied from 600 BC until the Spanish invasion. Hieroglyphs tell of a powerful city or city-state that was successful at war and trade. Dzibanche population peaked between 400 AD and 700 AD. The site has several main areas (again take a picture of that entry map), most with tall forest and large areas of grass or dirt with jungle surrounding.
To get to Dzibanche, head west on Highway 186 and turn right at the signs for Morocoy and Dzibanche. Continue past the pueblo of Morocoy. Not long after, at a storage shed, you will see the one and only one sign pointing to the right to Dzibanche. Take that turn. In another eight kilometers or so, you will reach the Dzibanche parking area. Before you get there, you will see the park station on the right with parking and remarkably clean restrooms. Pay your fee here and then follow signs to the Dzibanche site. The slow drive there is quite picturesque on the single-lane road (caution!), with flowers and trees on both road sides trimmed neatly by passing vehicles.
The path from the parking area into the site is a bit rocky but settles down soon. An early day visit (before 9:00 or 10:00 AM) will almost surely mean you have great portions of the site to yourself. There are lots of birds and several families of howler monkeys live on the site and nearby. One or more of the troops often can be seen in the canopy or, later in the afternoon, heard from afar. You might inquire of the park guard if he has seen one that morning.
Here you will see spectacular trees, with roots cascading down ruin pediments and branches reaching high into the air. Giant termite nests hover in the branches. Tree roots ooze copal sap and occasionally small, present-day Maya offerings are found on the temple steps. It is easy to spend several hours here and the site offers some of the best (still allowed!) pyramid climbing in the area. From the top, one can almost see where the network of sacbes (white roads) crossed the jungle to connect the population centers of the area. And it is not hard to imagine a visual, instant communication network across the southern Yucatan Peninsula.
Chacchoben is one of the smaller INAH archeological sites open to the public, but that does not mean it is dull or boring. Not one hour from Bacalar and right on the route to and from Merida, this is a good morning diversion for the trip back. In variable use from as early as 300 BC until the Spanish invasion, most restored areas are likely from the seventh century AD. The site meanders over nearly 100 acres, many with barely-manicured jungle and tall, lush, nut-bearing cahoon palms. The site lies in the “lakes region” (an area of plentiful groundwater and, in Maya times, canal-transport of building wood and stone building materials) and Chacchoben exhibits both the Rio Bec and Chenes architectural influences.
There is ample parking, though not much in the shade. Pay at the entry desk, where you will find restrooms, snacks, and souvenirs. Chacchoben’s paths are clearly marked and lead to sections of the ruin that have been excavated and are well tended. Very pleasant low forest surrounds the monuments of this smaller Mayan city. Parts of the site are accessible to wheelchair visitors but it is often very limited touring for those with walkers or canes. Fruits and flowers are seen in trees and on the edges of the clearings. Raucous parrots, smaller songbirds, and the (very) occasional toucan fly overhead, and leaf-eater ant trails and nests as well as arboreal termite nests are evident during much of the year. Unless you have the great misfortune to overlap with one or more tour buses, Chacchoben is likely to be an enchanting and private site to explore.
Not far to the north and east of Dzibanche — some fifteen kilometers west of Bacalar — lies the all-but-unexcavated city of Xcabal. It is reported to be larger than any other ruin in Quintana Roo and the Rio Bec area, with the exception of Calakmul. Xcabal boasts a pyramid taller than El Castillo at Chichen Itza and its size suggests a very large population at one time.
While a very exciting find and surely an attraction for future Bacalar visitors, Xcabal is not yet open to the public. This may be the one of the few outright failures of hospitality the patient visitor to Laguna Bacalar and Pueblo Bacalar will encounter. But, chances are, Xcabal will become a major attraction soon enough. And, as Bacalar becomes a more hotly promoted and popular Costa Maya destination, the area’s businesses will continue their inevitable march toward their clients’ expectations. That march, one imagines, will proceed not at breakneck pace, but at that decidedly Mexican tempo that those of us who live in Yucatan know well.
The Bacalar Mosaico website has useful information on hotels, restaurants, tours, and local Bacalar businesses as well as maps of the lake and pueblo.
Google Earth is an excellent way to understand where Laguna Bacalar lies in the Yucatan Pensinsula and to observe one moment of the Laguna Bacalar and associated water system’s remarkable coloration. Google Streetview is a resource for exploring and planning remotely. Chacchoben and Dzibanche ruins have Google Earth streetviews, as does much of the town of Bacalar and the Fuerte de San Felipe.
The INAH website has info (in Spanish) on almost all archaeological sites in Quintana Roo and Campeche, including Chacchoben, Kohunlich, Dzibanche and many more of the Rio Bec string. Information is organized by state. Scroll down to the section on Campeche and further down for Quintana Roo.
Facebook Bacalar page (in Spanish) is not very well organized or comprehensive but it is one of the few web resources for Bacalar events.
What’s a stromalite?
Photo of Aguas Abiertas: Turismo Bacalar Facebook
Photo of Sailing Competition: Turismo Bacalar Facebook
Photo of Blue-Crowned Mot-Mot by Green Jay Mayan Birding
Satellite imagery of area: Google Earth
All other photos by author