THEY SAY THERE ARE SEVEN SHADES OF BLUE in the water of the Laguna Bacalar – that’s why its Spanish name is Laguna de los Siete Colores. My guess is that there are probably more than seven colours, ranging from a pale, cool white in the crystal clear water close to the shore to a rich, deep black where the bottom of the lake drops down into one of the cenotes, or sinkholes, that cover the whole of the Yucatan peninsula.
Laguna Bacalar is near the bottom end of Federal Highway 307, the long road from Cancun to Chetumal at either end of the province of Quintana Roo. Everybody knows about Cancun and Cozumel, but the town of Bacalar, with its blue lagoon and stone fortress built to protect it from pirates, is being called the next big tourist destination on the Caribbean coast of Mexico.
The drive from the airport at Cancun is a long one, and it takes our group most of a day to get to our first stop in Chetumal, the capital of the Quintana Roo province, just near the border with Belize. It’s dark when we arrive so it’s not until after breakfast that I get a look at the town – a busy but not particularly lovely provincial centre with a surprisingly picturesque harbour where the Caribbean curves inland to meet the Rio Hondo.
We head back up the 307 to Hotel Laguna Bacalar, a charming hotel, built in the early ’70s though it seems much older. It’s one of a number of properties – hotels and private homes and homes-turned-hotels – that hug this part of the shore of Laguna Bacalar, giving it the feel of a tropical Lake Como. I’m particularly taken with the ceiling of the restaurant in the hotel, which is inlaid with sea shells and amplifies the quaint, “lost in time” feel of the place. I’m left with a fantasy of spending a week there with a stack of books.
A hired boat takes us out on to the lake, where we get our first glimpse of the seven (or more) colours under a constantly changing sky. There are lots of these boats – flat-hulled so that they can take passengers in close to shallow bathing areas clustered near the shore and by little islands in the lake, where you can float in the warm water or walk on the soft bottom of Laguna Bacalar, a gray-white clay that smells faintly of sulphur.
Ecotourism is a big deal in this part of Mexico, so our next stop is further down the shore at Akal Ki Centro Holistico, a hotel and spa complex that offers its guests a formula for escape. Hugging the shore of Laguna Bacalar by a long stretch of mangroves, it features thatch-roofed guest suites built on piers over the water and a carefully guarded population of stromatolites – coral-like formations created by single-celled bacteria that are probably the oldest form of life on the planet.
The rooms are lovely, both on and near the water, but the lack of wifi or charging outlets anywhere but in the common areas is sold as part of the experience – a physical and mental detox for guests who can use the spa, take part in wellness activities like yoga, or simply enjoy the sun, the spectacular views and the excellent restaurant, with its healthy takes on Mexican classics.
After a brief rainstorm that arrives with a front of dense gray clouds moving in from the Caribbean, we head back north to Bacalar, the town that shares its name with the lake. The big tourist feature here is Fort San Felipe, built to fight the pirates who ran their own empire in the region, and now a museum.
Once the capital of the region, Bacalar is a classic colonial town, built around a square that’s surrounded by restaurants and a very useful and well-used cash machine. There are hotels and hostels all over this very walkable town, so you might want to make it your base of operations if you don’t need a beach outside (or beneath) your room.
A few of us decide to kill an hour by strolling the streets. We quickly reach the edge of town and make a circuit around the edge of Bacalar. There are the things you’re used to seeing in Mexican towns and cities – lots of stray dogs, some very friendly, most preoccupied with their own doggy business – and murals on the walls outside homes, a few of which are remarkably accomplished.
The road leads us back to the lake, past a few hotels and the homes of the luckier residents of Bacalar, where lakeside real estate means long piers jutting out into the lake, where everyone seems to be on this warm autumn evening as the sun slowly sets. It’s one of those charming towns whose size – less than 12,000 people – gives it a welcoming scale. Let’s hope that its charm survives the deserved popularity that’s on its way.
Rick McGinnis was hosted by Visit Mexico, which has not approved or reviewed this story.
Photos and story © 2019 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved