While it may be hard to believe, one of Mexico’s most beautiful waterfront towns remains at least somewhat off the beaten path. Bacalar and its stunning Lagoon of Seven Colors can still be experienced without the crowds and touts of other Riviera Maya sites – but maybe not for much longer. In the following Bacalar guide, we’ll be going over how to make the most of two or three days in town.
For more information on getting to Bacalar and where to stay, be sure to check the end of the article.
Central Bacalar Guide
Bacalar, home to just about 11,000 people, has been designated a ‘Pueblo Mágico,’ or Magic Town, by the Mexican government in 2006. But if you’ve visited other Magic Towns in Mexico, Bacalar may not be quite what you expect.
The lagoon aside, Bacalar is your basic Mexican small town, and you’ll hardly find any colonial-era architecture here. One major exception, however, is the historical fort.
Known as the Fortress de San Felipe, it was completed in 1733 in response to rampant pirate attacks. Later, it also played a role in the Caste War which saw the local Mayan population rebel against those of Hispanic descent.
In fact, during the 19th century, Mayan rebels held it for 40 years before it was retaken by the Spanish in 1901.
While I usually try to visit all of the main landmarks in each city I visit, I was content with simply viewing the fortress from the outside. They charge $110 MXN for foreigners, which is a lot higher than most other fortress museums in Mexico.
The interior houses things like cannons, old uniforms and some paintings – hardly enough content to warrant such a price, in my opinion. But you can look up pictures of the interior online and decide for yourself.
Also around the center of town, you’ll find plenty of trendy cafes and restaurants. But fortunately, Bacalar retains much of its laidback, local feel (at least for now). There’s nothing that comes even close to resembling Playa del Carmen’s Fifth Avenue, and hopefully things stay that way.
While the water is Bacalar’s main attraction, the town lacks both beaches and a malecón from which to view the lagoon. To see the water, visitors must walk along one of several wooden boardwalks. Both locals and tourists like to gather at the edge, and it’s possible to swim here as well.
The best way to experience the Lagoon of Seven Colors, however, is with a boat tour.
A Bacalar Boat Tour
Bacalar’s Lagoon of Seven Colors is 60 km in total, and it gets its magnificent blue and green hues thanks to the presence of various microbe colonies living throughout it.
The lagoon shockingly lost much of its color after a storm a few years ago, but things are back to normal at the time of writing in 2022.
While there are said to be various companies offering boat tours, most of the offices seemed to be closed on the day of my arrival. And so I simply walked toward one of the boardwalks, where I encountered a small stand selling tickets for a tour the next morning.
Or, to avoid the hassle, you can also book online.
Arranging a Boat Tour
Regardless of which company you take, most Bacalar boat tours follow the same pattern.
There are two boat types: a regular boat and the more luxurious pontoon boat. Though I wasn’t asked for a preference at the time of my booking, my tour ended up being on a pontoon. The pontoon boat tours typically cost $350 MXN, while the regular boats may cost around $250-300 MXN.
You’ll pay a bit more if you book online, but you can at least rest assured you’re traveling with a top-rated company.
If you’re traveling with a group of people, you can also arrange for a boat driver to take you all on a private tour.
Tours typically depart at 10:00 am every morning and last a few hours. While afternoon tours are also an option, the lagoon looks much more colorful in the morning light.
Another thing to note is that the use of sunscreen is discouraged, as it’s said to be harmful to the lagoon’s microbes. I can guarantee, however, that you will end up sunburnt if you don’t apply any. Therefore, it’s best to buy some eco-friendly biodegradable sunscreen and apply it before the trip.
While the predominant color of Bacalar’s lagoon is emerald green, as its name suggests, you’ll encounter several different colors throughout your tour.
One of the tour’s first landmarks is the Black Cenote. Cenotes are natural sinkholes that are common throughout the Yucatán Peninsula. But this one is unique for being situated right within the lagoon.
With no barrier between the two bodies of water, you’ll observe a sudden and mysterious change of colors from green to black (or at least dark blue).
Continuing south, we passed by a number of luxury resorts. Interestingly, Bacalar’s outskirts seem to have a lot more development going on than in the town center.
Continuing south, our boat driver took us to see a natural spring emerging from some rocks near the shore.
Not long after, we arrived at another cenote – Cenote Cocalitos – where we stopped to take our first of two dips in the water for the day.
In most areas, the water was shallow enough to stand in. And while I knew we weren’t at sea, it was still strange to submerge myself in the water and not taste the slightest bit of salt.
Back in the boat, we returned northeast, where we could see La Isla de los Pájaros, or Island of the Birds. The island functions as a reserve for a wide variety of migratory birds, among which are parrots, sparrowhawks and even owls.
We could observe dozens of birds resting on the trees, with several more flying around the area. The island can only be seen from afar, as even if it weren’t a protected bird sanctuary, it would be impossible to walk on.
Further north, we reached the Canal of the Pirates. Believe it or not, it’s through this little opening that boats can travel between the Lagoon of Seven Colors and the Caribbean Sea.
Not immediately, however. On the other side of the canal is Laguna Mariscal, which then connects to a very narrow river (so narrow, in fact, that it doesn’t appear on Google Maps).
This river then eventually connects with the Hondo River, which now forms the border between Mexico and Belize. And the Hondo eventually flows out to the sea.
As the name suggests, it was through here that pirates would frequently come to invade Bacalar. But before that, it was an important point of trade between the local Mayan population and the other Mayan cities further south.
Today, the main highlight of this area is an abandoned floating restaurant. Visitors are free to walk around it, and inside you’ll find a series of interesting murals.
After a while of swimming and walking around the shallower part of the lagoon, feeling the squishy sand under your feet, it will eventually be time to head back.
The boat tour was everything I expected it to be and is arguably the top activity of this Bacalar guide. As you’ll get back to town by afternoon, you’ll have plenty of time to relax during the hottest part of the day.
The Rapids are a narrow stretch of the lagoon, around 300 m long by 5 m wide, where you’ll encounter an especially strong current. Located about 7 km south of central Bacalar, you can catch a taxi for around $150 MXN (be wary of drivers with an ‘Official Price List’ who will try to quote you higher).
Once there, you’ll have to pay an additional $150 MXN to access the restaurant along the water. For those traveling with a camera or other valuables, you’ll also need to pay a little bit extra to use one of their lockers.
As you’ll see, many people choose to enjoy the Rapids with a kayak, which can also be rented at the restaurant. It seems to defeat the purpose, however, as the main appeal of the Rapids is floating freely down the water.
Hopping in, I was surprised by how strong the current really is. It will take all your strength just to stay in the same place, while attempting to swim in the opposite direction is futile.
Occasionally, you’ll be able to place your feet against some rocks for stability. But it’s only a matter of time before you’ll lose your position and end up back at the mercy of the current.
While all the visitors at the time of my visit were adults, everyone was smiling as if we were kids at a water park.
During my first time in, the water quickly sent me to the other end of the restaurant, after which there was an area with nothing but mangroves. Thinking I’d not be able to get back again, I made sure to grab onto the wooden staircase leading to the upper level.
I then had another go in the water, but this time I tried going as far upstream as I could. It would be smart to wear water shoes at the Rapids. As I didn’t have any, it took me a while to walk over the slippery rocks on the side. But in the end, the effort was worth it.
Ecologically, this area is unique for being home to rare ‘living rocks’ known as stromatolites which are formed by algae growth. The microorganisms attract sand, eventually resulting in a layered sedimentary rock.
The restaurant near the Rapids opens at 10:00, and it’s best to get there as early as possible. While there were only a handful of people there upon my arrival, the place was already packed by the time I was done swimming.
Originally, I’d planned to relax there with breakfast and a coffee. But their prices were exorbitant by local standards, and the bad pop music was getting on my nerves. Luckily, upon leaving, I caught a ride to town with a driver who’d just dropped some people off.
Some label the Rapids as a tourist trap, and they’re not entirely wrong. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed it and would consider it one of the top things to do in this Bacalar guide.
As mentioned above, the Lagoon of Seven Colors encompasses various cenotes within it. There is another cenote just nearby, however, which occupies its own space, being separated from the lagoon by a thin strip of forest.
The Cenote Azul, or Blue Cenote, is a quick $50 MXN taxi ride from the center of town, while the entry fee costs $50 MXN as well.
It’s a nice option for those who want to swim but don’t want to hang around on the narrow Bacalar boardwalks. You’ll find ample grassy space along the water here, making it closer to your typical beach experience.
The only problem was that the cenote wasn’t exactly blue during my visit, but that’s probably because it was a cloudy day.
Compared with the Rapids, the restaurant here was reasonably priced, and it was a good place to pass a laidback morning in Bacalar.
But as beautiful as Bacalar is, however, I’m not sure what I would’ve done with yet another day in town!
Few who make the effort to visit Bacalar end up regretting it. But many visitors do tend to get bored after a few days.
As mentioned in the Bacalar guide above, the town has no beach (though I’ve heard there’s a beach-like area if you’re willing to kayak to the other side of the lagoon). While a big part of the appeal of coastal towns is lazing around all day with a book, you can’t really do that here, except at some of the cenotes.
For most travelers, two full days should be fine. One day for the Boat Tour (with the entire afternoon and evening free after that) and another day for the Rapids.
I spent three full days in Bacalar, with the main activity of my third day being a visit to the Blue Cenote. But this could easily have been done before or after one of the other main activities. While I’m glad I could take things slowly by staying three days, I still would’ve been happy with just two.
If you’re still planning your trip to Mexico and aren’t sure which part of the country you want to visit, but know you want to visit some beautiful beaches, the Riviera Maya isn’t the only place to see stunning turquoise water. The beaches near La Paz, Baja California Sur, for example, easily rival anything in eastern Mexico.
Most buses to or from Bacalar will pass through the nearby city of Chetumal, which happens to be the capital of Quintana Roo state. Chetumal also has an international airport which is gradually increasing its routes year by year.
In my case, I was coming from nearby Xpujil. And while I ended up hiring a private driver who took me to the ruins of Kohunlich and Dzibanché along the way, those coming from Xpujil via public transport will need to transfer in Chetumal.
Leaving Bacalar, I took a long night bus to Palenque, Chiapas. Judging by the number of other foreigners on the bus with me, this seems to be a popular route.
Bacalar’s bus station is situated on the main highway (307) to the west of the town center. While there is a small physical station, some of the buses may pick up passengers from the opposite side of the street, so be sure to confirm this with the staff.
The main bus station is run by ADO, but I noticed some smaller regional bus companies operating in the area as well.
I stayed at a place called ‘Purity of Intention,’ which was among the best-valued accommodations I could find online.
While I booked it through Booking, it was more similar to an Airbnb or even hostel experience, as it involved staying in a private room in someone’s house. The owner was out of town at the time of my visit, however.
The private room I booked had air conditioning, and while not located in central Bacalar, it was situated right by the bus station and the town’s only Oxxo. It was also just a minute from the main highway from where I could catch taxis to the Rapids and Cenote Azul. The downside was that the bathroom was shared with a few other guests, and so was the kitchen.
Originally, I’d booked at Villa Akbal but had to cancel when I wanted to change my dates and they had no availability.