Bacalar - Uniquely Unfettered
Updated: Apr 28, 2020
About a year ago I read an article in the New York Times that asked the question, "Is Bacalar The Next Tulum?" In that very second, I paused, it was a horrifying thought and to a degree, I knew there might be some truth in the statement. The very core of my soul couldn't handle that truth (there was mock regurgitation on my part), but that possibility certainly does exist.
Let me put things in perspective, my travel mate, who is also my wife, well we have a habit of wanting to see everything, it's a bad habit, which I love. It almost left us stranded in St. Croix (see St. Croix, Curious Little Island). She'll point to a place on a map and unwittingly I'll go ahead and agree. I just might be fearlessly stupid that way. For the record we haven't been kidnapped, robbed, tortured or worse, so yes, looks like it's all working out so far. An imperfect genius. Bacalar was one of those finds. Our original destination for that particular Mexico trip was Mahahual, in the Costa Maya region. Online, in pictures and in reviews, it was supposed to be must see. Problem? It is a specifically a cruise port, meaning that if there is not a big a** ship in port, there is no town to speak of.
Let me further explain, the town is there, however the people that operate the stores, shops and restaurants are not. They know better. "No touristas, no dinero". When we arrived, after a little over 4 hours of driving from the Cancun Airport, we literally wondered what bleak tropical moonscape we had landed on. Not only was the town void of people, it was abandoned and disheveled. The "malecon", which most people would refer to as a walkway or boardwalk, looked beat down, like a Mike Tyson opponent in his prime beat down. There were empty lounge chairs scattered on the beach where guests should have been, makeshift stands here and there with nothing to sell, even the ocean that lapped at the shore missed the revelers that would normally be in its surf and wake. It was a desolate nothingness in every sense...at least for now.
It was during our stay, in search of anything to do (which included almost being arrested by the Policia Federales for trespassing while we were checking our vacant beach lots that were apparently for sale), we discovered Bacalar. We figured we'd take a day trip to Bacalar to put an end to the stupefying boredom of a ghostly Mahahual.
Both Bacalar and Mahaual are located in Mexico's Costa Maya region, well south of the Riviera Maya hot spots like Cancun, Playa Del Carmen and Tulum. Only knowing it from what we read online, "hey look, there's a lake there", we drove the 45 minutes to Bacalar. Well, well, well weren't we surprised. Bacalar is an oasis in this part of the Yucatan Peninsula. Small, comfortable, unhurried, nonchalant and absolutely supreme in its unfettered beauty. It is everything the rest of the Riviera Maya isn't, humble. Nice people, no bigness of things, no grandiosity or pretentiousness. You feel like you exist in slow motion here, because nothing is rushed. Bacalar is a slow, slow burn like your favorite incense or a well rolled spliff. Sunrises seem to last longer, the taste of a meal lingers in your mouth, your beer tastes subtly colder. This is Bacalar.
For our current visit we planned a stay of six days (the Coronavirus cut that back to four, damn you Covid) and we would be right on the water. Our stay would be at the Private Bungalow at Bacalar. We couldn't have sought out a better location, it was rustically beautiful with decorative Mayan features. The rooms, constructed in stone, were small but beautiful, the grounds well kept, lush and green, and the property cozied right up to the Lake of Seven Colors, Laguna Bacalar. It also included a pier that had pods of decking for couples, each with an over the water hammock and lounge chairs. We were literally "walking on the water", very much Jesus like, if only there was someone turning water to wine. Many a day would pass by as we cocooned in our lounge chairs, occasionally breaking the glorious monotony by going for a swim. There was no need to be "extra", the ordinary, regular old you was being spoiled and transformed.
Bacalar the town is centered around a square, which is also adjacent to Fort San Felipe, both walkable and worthy visits. Walking around the town is almost going back in time to a slower Mexico. There are shops (more now than before) and also additional restaurants, but it doesn't have a fabricated, disingenuous feel. Locals and tourists freely mingle, each doing their own thing and in the honest and down to earth moments, they collide with each other and trading experiences. Bacalar is a shared experience, it has not been converted to purely a tourist destination, there are no Starbucks, no chain stores, it maintains its Mexican heritage and authenticity. At night the town is lively, colorfully lit in soft glows, you hear the sound of children playing, there is easy unforced laughter and a "mindful" freedom. It might be what you have been missing from your Mexico visit.
Along the road closest to the lake, Avenida 1 ( it's a simple matter of walking east from the town square), there are plenty of restaurants to sit, chill and take in a meal. It is here the slow burn continues, as most of the restaurants here feature piers that extend out from the dining areas into the lake, offering water views that seemed designed to calm and restore one's soul. See the food reviews here - Bacalar Food Reviews. If there is a place designed to find one's self through reflection or the simple ease of being carefree in a beautiful place, Bacalar is that place. Is it the next Tulum? I pray that it isn't. Tulum is Tulum, Bacalar is something different.
PS - Quick trip idea. If you are staying in Bacalar, be sure to check out the Chacchoben Ruins, about a 30 minute drive from Bacalar. A guided tour on average last 1.5-2 hours, it's tranquil and historical. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOT7cC1CHP8