You know those places you want to selfishly keep hidden and all to yourself? You know the ones with cerulean waters that put picture-perfect postcards to shame and overwater bungalows giving off dreamy Maldivian vibes, but with far fewer zeros in the price tag? Yep, those ones. This is Bacalar—the off-the-grid local hotspot and sleepy-town people are slowly waking up to. Word’s getting out about the “Maldives of Mexico” and this wanderlust-y destination that lives up to every bit of its name is on the brink of a boom.
Here’s the thing: Although Bacalar gives off those blissful beach town vibes, there is no actual beach. That’s right, you’ll find nary a beach here, per se. Massive as it may be, those azure waters of Bacalar are a part of a giant freshwater lagoon known as the Lagoon of Seven Colors (Laguna de los Siete Colores); its name is derived from the seven hues of blue, which you will find in the lagoon. You’ll also find manmade entrances to the lagoon and even popular “beach clubs,” just…sans the beach. Despite this fact, Bacalar remains one of Mexico’s best beach towns, and if you’re looking for a laid-back getaway minus the ultra-touristy crowds (looking at you Tulum), then make your way to Bacalar.
Which Way to Paradise?
Located in the Quintana Roo state of Mexico, Bacalar is just two-and-a-half hours due south of Tulum and, if you’re flying in from Cancún, you can expect a four-and-a-half-hour drive to this paradisiacal place. Not only does Bacalar border the beautiful Caribbean Sea, it’s also just a quick 40-minute drive from the border of Belize.
Once you arrive, you may not find idyllic stretches of beach where you can bury your toes in satiny sands while sipping sumptuous sundowners, but you can soak up some sun from the cozy comforts of a hammock or a playful swing suspended over crystal blue waters, drink in hand (optional).
What Makes Bacalar so Magical?
We’re not calling this place magical just for fluff’s sake. Bacalar is recognized by the Mexican government as a Pueblo Magico (“Magical Town”), an esteemed recognition reserved for Mexico’s most astonishing and extraordinary towns. That alone sets the precedence of what you can expect when traveling to the Lagoon of Seven Colors.
What makes Bacalar especially unique is that you generally will find very few surface-level lakes and rivers on the Yucatán Peninsula. This is because the bedrock of the peninsula is made up of porous limestone, which means water (i.e. rainfall) does not stay above ground. Instead, it carves its way through the soluble limestone, creating a labyrinth of underground rivers, caves, and sinkholes, better known as cenotes. This water eventually flows to the sea, but it also re-emerges as lakes and lagoons, making Bacalar the largest freshwater lake in the Yucatán and the second largest lake in all of Mexico.
To add to its majestic charm, Bacalar is also home to stromatolites.
Stro-mat-o-lites, also known as the world’s oldest living lifeforms, are only found in a handful of places on Earth. These living fossils date back 3.5 billion years. Just to provide context, Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years and homo sapiens have been around for 200,000 years. Therefore, stromatolites predate dinosaurs. Stromatolites predate plants. Stromatolites predate humans. Before there was any of this, there were stromatolites breathing life into what we know as the world today, providing 20% of the Earth’s oxygen.
You will see these boulder-like formations and prehistoric treasures dotting the lagoon; however, the living organisms are incredibly fragile, so you can look, but DON’T TOUCH!
The Best of Bacalar
Who needs an actual beach when your proverbial backyard is an aquatic playground and 26 miles of blissful blue waters are beckoning to be explored? Spend languid days lying out on the banks of Cocalitos, better known as the Sanctuary of Stromatolites, or hang out in one of the overwater hammocks taking in all those swoon-worthy views.
Consider renting a boat or kayak for the day, or taking a tour that allows you to venture to the most incredible corners of the lagoon. Hop off the boat and wade through the shallow, crystal-clear waters; or, in some parts, you can even hang out on the soft sandbanks in the middle of the lagoon. Don’t skip out on the Canal de los Piratas (Pirates Channel) during your boat or kayaking adventure. This channel is where pirates would enter Bacalar and pillage precious wood. You won’t find any gold or booty here, but the real treasure lies in the sulfur-rich, clay-like sand perfect for a little DYI exfoliating treatment.
Snorkel lovers, unfortunately, won’t find much marine life in the lagoon. Due to the minerals in the water, it is difficult for marine life to survive here. However, if you make your way to the nearby Cenote Azul, you can experience a unique cavern diving experience in one of the deepest cenotes in the Yucatán, measuring 90 meters (295 feet) deep, and explore its nautical underworld.
Not to be missed, is a trip to Los Rapidos (The Rapids), a narrow channel boasting crystalline waters and gentle rapids perfect for kayaking or drifting merrily downstream. You can easily spend an entire day here, alternating between refreshing dips in the channel and kicking back on the banks with a cold brew in hand.
Bacalar may not be brimming with beaches, but one thing’s for certain, it will be pretty hard to find another destination in Mexico offering up these incredible beach town vibes.