Bacalar, and the Lagoon of Seven Colors

After spending the first half of the day at Muyil for the bioreserve, we continued on, driving down to Bacalar, a town on Laguna Bacalar. It's about 3 hours south of Tulum, very close to the Belize border. This was the longest drive of the trip, with lots of police checkpoints along the way, but fortunately we weren't stopped anywhere.

The first view of the Laguna through the trees and buildings as we rounded Cenote Azul was breathtaking. Bacalar is known as the "lake of seven colors" because there are so many different shades of blue and green in the lake. I'm not sure if we had all seven colors on our stay but at least four were clearly visible.

After stopping three times on the road up the west side of the lagoon, we finally found our hostel. For some reason, every time we "arrived at our destination" according to Google, the hostel wasn't there and if we checked google again it was still a ways down the road. This happened like three times.

From Laguna Bacalar Institute, without permission :(

The geography of Laguna Bacalar is important. It's a very long and thin freshwater lagoon that runs south/west to north/east. Bacalar is a small town about two thirds of the way down on the west side of the lagoon and does not dominate the body of water in any way - rather it's dwarfed by it. The Mexican highway 307 runs parallel to the lagoon here, which is the main road that we took down from Tulum. Past town, at the Azul Cenote, the road Costera branches off ("costal") and heads back towards town but this time very close to the water, with many opportunities to see the lagoon.

Our first view of the lagoon from Costera

Our hostel was on the west side of the lagoon along with all the other hostels, hotels, cabanas and various lodging options. We made sure to book something before arriving, not knowing what the situation was, and perhaps that was wise but this town was extremely backpacker friendly, and pretty much every single hostel was directly on the lagoon.

There's no beach on the lagoon, at least not that we ever saw, but each property tends to go downhill from Costera and simply merge into the water, often with submerged driveways for boat access. Every place seemed to have its own pier, hammocks, lawn, kayaks, stand up paddle boards, and several layers of housing on the hill with lagoon views. It's a steep little walk down from the road to the shore but the views and proximity to the water are incredible.

After checking in and some discussion to ensure we weren't paying our deposit twice, we settled into the hammocks on the shore for a few hours with cheap cerveza from a nearby bodega. Somehow, by means we never learned of, there was a constant, strong breeze coming from the south & east. It's hard to overstate this: the breeze did not stop the entire time we were in Bacalar, about 48 hours. Not once. The breeze was strong, I'm guessing 15 mph, but I have no experience in judging these things. When gusting it was more than enough to blow over half full water bottles, but most of the time it was simply more than enough to help keep us cool in this town. I wonder if this is a usual feature in Bacalar or if we were just there for some odd weather.

This is also hard to overstate: the views from this hostel were incredible.

Looking straight out from the upper hostel porch

Another view from the hostel porch where we spent a lot of time relaxing. I think at four or five colors are visible from here.

The pier of the hostel next door in the background, our hostel's covered porch below

Looking up the lagoon from the hostel, north and east

The hostel had beach cruiser bikes for use (included in the price), so for dinner we biked into town and checked out the highly recommended La Playita. Our host and several online resources mentioned this place, and while it's one of the more expensive meals we've had in Mexico, it's definitely not the priciest and is probably the premier restaurant in Bacalar.

You get kind of spoiled for views in Bacalar, and La Playita played its part in that. It's a third "indoors" and two thirds outdoors in a garden with giant papaya trees for shade, a long pier on restaurant property you can walk down, cozy outdoor tables and at least three hammocks available for use. All of this right on the lagoon, we must have eaten 15 feet from the water.

The view from our table

The dining area under a giant papaya tree, looking back from the pier at La Playita

Since we barely got to dinner before dusk and don't have good low-light cameras we don't have amazing pictures from here, so you'll have to take our word for it that it's an amazing location with great views and really good food. I got the chili rubbed octopus, Melissa the shrimp tacos, both really good. They had a special dessert of coconut ice cream and a chocolate lava cake that takes 30 minutes to make (xoco y coco?), that we didn't order until we were done eating. That worked out fine because it gave us half an hour to enjoy their hammocks and a drink while it was prepared. For the overall experience this was definitely a notable meal on our trip so far.

The rest of the time in Bacalar proceeded along the same lines: lots of time relaxing in the strong breeze at the hostel, catching up on blog posts and trying to upload cenote videos. Occasional trips to town for a meal, and more relaxing at the hostel. It was really nice to be able to stay there, be right on the water (first time we've stayed on the water this trip) and not have to deal with sand and figuring out exactly how much stuff to bring on an excursion from our rooms.

We managed to explore the small town a bit on our second day, got a cheap meal based on fried corn, and an excellent pineapple popsicle. We didn't check out one of the notable cafes there in time: Mango y Chile, unfortunately. It's definitely not a big enough deal to be a destination, but the combination of its incredible location and view of the lagoon, great big-city coffee shop vibe and surprisingly sophisticated (if small) menu of smoothies, cold brew coffee and vegetarian sandwiches and entrees makes it stand out in this town. We've since talked to a Hollander in Merida who spent time in Bacalar, the two places he asked us if we visited were La Playita and Mango y Chile. And this guy is clearly a budget traveler who made an exception for these places: his shirt read "broke but happy."

The view from Mango y Chile's dining balcony

I keep posting this because I love the Dia de los Muertos art.
Motorcycle and bike helmet parking at Mango y Chile.

In the end, Bacalar was some great relaxing downtime between lots of jungle and ruin trips, and one of our favorite places so far. It's easy for us to say that we don't need to stay in high end places like the hotel zone in Cancun or all-inclusive resorts in Jamaica, but the mental work of figuring out exactly what to bring when we do venture to the beaches there, what our security situation will be like, whether we need separate bags for wet and dry articles, etc, it adds up and takes a bit out of you over time. So I think because we were right on the water here, it ended up being a more idyllic and relaxing stay than anywhere else to date.

We did jump in the water a bit later on the second day. My goal was to swim out to the fourth color: a deep blue that probably meant the water gets much deeper. As I swam out I got some insights into why each band of color appeared as it did. The colors, radiating out from the shore were:

  1. A muddy green blue, mostly because of the shallowness and the odd plants growing on the floor. Very shallow, 1-3 feet
  2. A stunning light clear blue. In this layer the plants are gone and a white "sand" is reflecting a lot of light back. this is a bit deeper, probably 5-10 feet.
  3. A thin band of darker blue with a bit of green. Some plants reappear here, depth doesn't change much looked 5-10 feet.
  4. A large body of deep, dark blue. I didn't make it here, presumably it simply gets deep.

As someone who grew up in a swimming pool, I struggle with open water swims and water where I can't see the bottom or what's touching me. The green band with the plants in this lagoon was freaky. They were kind of like a seaweed agave plant, long leaves radiating out from a central point, and as I was swimming above them the longer leaves would occasionally reach up to brush you in the face. The fact that the water was murky here made it just a bit tougher for me too.

The light blue layer was great, although I'm getting far from shore here and it's getting a bit deeper. I didn't want to put my feet down much in the murky plant area, so I touched down here, and the floor isn't sand but rather some really weird, soft spongy bedding. Probably some of it is sand but the overall feel is really different and weird, like stepping into a soggy bowl of cereal.

Finally, when it started to get a bit deeper and darker and plants returned I had to head back. That and the chop was really bad from the constant wind, and I don't know what my endurance is for this kind of swimming anymore. If we'd stayed a week I bet I could have worked out into the deep blue and possibly swam to the island across from our hostel, but not this trip.

The lagoon is visible from much of the town

The fort at Bacalar. Was surprisingly expensive to enter and tour, and we could see a lot from the outside.

B A C A L A R. A lot of towns end up having signs like this. Near the fort and town square.

Sadly we didn't do a passport run to Belize, I was pushing it but I think it's something like a $30 fee to leave Belize for Mexico over land, and the only reason to go would be another stamp and to say we'd been to that country.

Next up is Valladolid and one of the "seven new wonders of the world".

(Written by Adam but posting as Melissa, because Blogger is difficult like that)


  1. No thanks on slimy plants reaching up at my face from below

  2. I freaked out when I sat in the hammock over the water and had to stand for a second. So gross.