The Ultimate Travel Guide to Bacalar, Mexico
Over the last few years, we’ve been able to explore so many destinations in Mexico. From the colourful hillsides of Guanajuato to the quaint beach towns along the coast of Oaxaca, we’re amazed each and every time we visit. But among the hidden gems sprinkled throughout the country’s versatile landscapes, Bacalar stands out as one of our favourite places to date. In this travel guide, we’re sharing the top things to do and how to make the most of your time in Bacalar, Mexico.
Bacalar, Mexico Travel Guide
The town of Bacalar is tucked away in the south of Mexico, less than an hour north of the Belize border. It’s a popular destination among locals who flock to the state of Quintana Roo for their holidays but still relatively unknown to Mexico’s international visitors. Bacalar is fairly small (the last census reported fewer than 12,000 people) and the town became one of Mexico’s pueblo magicos in 2006. Bacalar is one of the quieter places to visit in the Yucatan peninsula and part of the charm is in its size. You’re far enough away from the Walmarts and McDonalds of more touristy cities but will still find everything you need in town for a comfortable stay.
Protecting the Maldives of Mexico
Commonly referred to as the Maldives of Mexico, most visitors are drawn to Bacalar because of its popular lagoon. The Lagoon of 7 Colours (or Laguna de Siete Colores in Spanish) is a fitting name for the town’s main attraction. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and the lagoons striking shades of blue were the main reason for our visit too. Long wooden docks stretch out into the shallow turquoise waters around the lagoon, similar to the overwater bungalows in the Maldives.
While the blue hues are impressive, what’s even more unique about the lagoon is its high concentration of stromatolites: rare rock formations that are among the earliest life forms on earth. Bacalar’s recent growth in tourism poses a real threat to both the lagoon and these stromatolites so we hope you’ll make sustainable choices while visiting. Use only organic sunscreen when swimming, avoid single-use plastics as much as possible and opt for sailing and kayaking in lieu of motorboats. As they say, “take only pictures, leave only footprints.”
To learn more about the current state of the lagoon, consider watching this video (W/ English subtitles) filmed by Mexican travel couple, Viajefest
Getting to Bacalar, Mexico
BY PLANE: Bacalar is about 40 minutes away from the city of Chetumal and this is where you’ll find your nearest airport. While there are fun things to do in Chetumal, the capital city of Quintana Roo, it’s more likely you’ll be arriving to Bacalar lagoon via Cancun which is 4 hours away by car.
BY BUS: The bus system in Mexico is an incredibly convenient way to travel throughout the country. You can reach Bacalar via ADO bus from destinations like Chetumal, Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Cancun. These routes are well-serviced with several departures to Bacalar everyday. The bus ‘station’ in Bacalar is not much of a station at all. I was hesitant when the driver announced our stop because it looked like he was pulling over at the side of the highway for us to get off. And that’s because he was. The ticket office for buses in Bacalar is on the east side of the highway and, if you’re travelling southbound from Cancun, the bus will stop on the west side since there is no physical station or parking lot to pull into. At least not at the time of writing (2018). From the ‘station’, it’s a 15 minute walk into town or an affordable taxi ride.
Most ADO buses are very comfortable with A/C, washrooms, movie screen and (sometimes) wifi. Second class buses in Mexico are not as efficient but will get you to where you’re going at a fraction of the price. Buses serviced to Bacalar by Mayab have fewer amenities and are not as popular of a choice with tourists. We’ve literally crossed the country (from Cabo to Cancun) almost entirely by bus and would recommend it if you want to make the most of your time in Mexico.
BY CAR: We don’t have personal experience driving in Mexico but have been told that the Yucatan Peninsula is among the safest regions in the country for tourists exploring by car. From Cancun, the drive is roughly 4 hours and pretty direct following highway 307 south. Roughly halfway between Cancun and Bacalar is Tulum and you’ll want to make sure to fill up on gas here before continuing. As with any road trip, avoid driving at night, follow the rules of the road, hide your valuables, make sure you have a spare tire and watch out for topes (speed bumps in Mexico are often bigger than necessary). If you’re on the fence about driving in Mexico, Laura’s guide for first time drivers is a great resource.
Best Things to do in Bacalar, Mexico
Get in the Water: One of the many reasons to love the Lagoon of 7 Colours is it’s shallow, clear waters. Since this is a freshwater lagoon, you might find swimming here more enjoyable than in the salty waves of the ocean.
Go Sailing with Veleando Ando: The highlight of our trip was the afternoon spent sailing on Bacalar Lagoon. Learn about the lagoon from passionate guides and reduce your carbon footprint during a leisurely afternoon.
Join a Kayak Tour (or DIY Your Own!): Rent a kayak in town and DIY your own tour of the lagoon or join a guided excursion like the ones offered by Active Nature.
Visit the Pirates Channel: Nearly all tours in Bacalar include a stop at the ‘Canal de los Piratas’ and with good reason. The water is only waist-deep at some parts so you can even pack a cooler, drop the anchor and relax. There’s also an abandoned structure near the channel that many were jumping from.
Make the Most of Bacalar’s Free Public Docks: The town has recently renovated three free access points to the lagoon with docks that you can lounge and suntan at if your accommodations are not along the water. Look for signs reading balnearios located on Avenida 1 (the Costera) and Calle 14, Calle 16, and Calle 18.
Dive in at Xul-Ha: Only 15 minutes south of the town of Bacalar is where you’ll find the even smaller village of Xul-Ha. At Balneario Lago Azul, there’s a dock for swimming and a diving platform for the brave!
Float down the Rapids of Bacalar: There is a narrow channel roughly halfway between Bacalar and Xul-Ha known as the rapids or ‘Los Rapidos.’ Kayaks are available for rent or you can simply let the current take you as you swim down. Entrance is 50 pesos.
Take in Panoramic Views from the Fort of San Felipe: The 18th century ‘Fuerte San Felipe’ is a small but important site in Bacalar with great views of the lagoon and surroundings. Admission has gone up to 100 pesos recently so it may only be worthwhile if you’re particularly interested in the history of Bacalar. Closed on Mondays.
Go Zip-Lining at Kan K’in Bacalar: This adventure park is only 15 minutes north of Bacalar and offers zip-lining tours in the jungle. There are 5 short zip-lines in total and the last one even overlooks the impressive turqouise waters. It’s not a cheap excursion but definitely one of the more unique things to do in Bacalar.
Restaurants in Bacalar
La Pina: Enjoy big portions at an affordable price in a cute backyard setting under the trees. Their wholesome dishes are made with fresh ingredients and we really enjoyed the smoothies, pizzas and huaraches. If you like it as much as we did, you’ll find yourself coming back here more than once during your stay! La Pina is open daily for breakfast and lunch with a menu change for dinner. Vegan-friendly and takeout service available.
Enamora Bacalar: This unassuming cafe and bakery is great choice for breakfast or lunch and knows how to make a good coffee (french press!). Between the service and attention to detail, you can tell that everything here is made with love. The play on words at Enamora Bacalar is that mora means blackberry in Spanish and enamora means to fall in love with. And you’ll likely fall for their signature cinnamon rolls. Open daily from 8am to 3pm and offering yoga Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6pm.
Not sure what to order in Mexico? Our (giant) guide to authentic Mexican food will help with that!
Cocina Orizaba: No frills, just really local dishes at unbeatable prices.
Mango y Chile: A very popular plant-based restaurant near the lagoon.
Pues Si: A small, central spot right at the main square with good pizza.
El Manati: An eco-friendly shop and art space with a restaurant in the back garden.
La Playita: This lakeside beach bar and restaurant offers fusion style menu items in a trendy setting with plenty of seating. For the price, we were a little disappointed with the appetizers and service, especially given how well-recommended this place is. Nonetheless, the music, atmosphere and dock access at La Playita make it a great spot for afternoon or pre-dinner drinks, views of the lake and a little hammock siesta.
Local Transportation in Bacalar
The town itself is small and easily walkable. Depending on where you’re staying, you’ll likely be able to walk everywhere and there are taxis readily available for travelling longer distances. The main taxi stand is in the town square near the ‘Bacalar’ letters. If you have a hard time finding a cab, you can ask your hotel or restaurant to call one for you or, worst case, walk toward the highway where you’ll be able to hail one easily. Bikes are also a great way to explore the surroundings and rentals are available throughout town. Some accommodations include the use of bikes or kayaks in the room rate so that’s something to consider while looking for a place to stay.
Where to Stay in Bacalar, Mexico
Like many of our favourite destinations in Mexico, Bacalar has accommodations for every type of traveler. From basic camping to budget hostels to luxury villas, there are so many different ways to experience the town and lagoon. We often use Airbnb, Expedia or Booking to make reservations but I noticed that many of the lodgings I was seeing on Google Maps didn’t show up on any of our usual sites. That might change as the town grows in popularity but, if you’re struggling to find something you like, I’d suggest zooming in to your maps and looking at the accommodations that show up in town or along the lagoon.
In the end, we opted to stay in town at Hotel Szapot, a small and central hotel with basic but clean rooms under $40/night. It is worth looking for a place with A/C since it can get quite hot in Bacalar. The Yak Lakehouse is a popular hostel with dorms and private rooms right on the lake. Toto Blue is a boutique hotel in town with comfortable suites and all the amenities.