In this guide, we’ll explore this wonderful lagoon-side town, including 7 of the very best things to see and do in Bacalar. I’ll also cover where to stay, interesting things to know as well as some extra tips to make your trip here more memorable.
Interesting things to know about Bacalar
Although Bacalar only landed on the travel radar within the last few decades, the history here goes way back.
First founded during the pre-Hispanic times, Bacalar was known as “the birthplace of heaven” due to the otherworldly variety of colors found on the lake here.
In 1543 the town was colonized by the Spanish and became a popular trading hub given its proximity to Honduras and other Central American countries.
In fact, it was so notorious, that it often became a target for incoming pirates looking to make a quick loot!
Whilst Bacalar is most famous for its lagoon, the surrounding region is also home to many epic sites that are worth visiting.
These include the Mayan ruins of Kohunlich, which are steeped in history and hidden well within the jungle.
There are also many incredible cenotes to see here. These naturally-formed caverns come in all shapes and sizes, and the cenotes of Bacalar are much different from those found in other destinations such as Valladolid and Tulum.
Here we can swim in open blue waters, and also get up and close with stromatolites. These living organisms date back a pretty impressive 3.5 billion years, and are the oldest evidence of all life on earth!
Where to Stay in Bacalar
Bacalar is a pretty small and safe town, so pretty much anywhere is good for a stay. Having said that though, the areas near the lagoon and around the main plaza are the very best.
If you’re traveling on a budget, then I highly recommend staying at Hotelito Kuyche. They have inexpensive (yet comfortable) private rooms, where you’ll also have an on-site garden to relax in. Here you’ll be just a couple of blocks’ walk from the lagoon and is definitely a better option for those who want a more quiet and relaxed vibe.
Those who want a more luxurious experience will want to stay at the Hotel Sur Bacalar. Here you’ll be staying in a deluxe room within a 4-star hotel, located just a block from both the main plaza and lagoon. You’ll also have an on-site swimming pool and an American breakfast to enjoy each day during your stay.
Top 7 Things to do in Bacalar
Now let’s take a look at the very best things you can do when in Bacalar.
1. Walk around the San Felipe Fort
Naturally, you’ll be heading to Bacalar to chill out and enjoy the natural sceneries, however, there are still many architectural gems worth exploring when walking around town.
The very best has to be the San Felipe Fort, which is located right in the heart of town next to the main zócalo. Constructed in 1733 by the Spanish, it primarily served as a defensive structure to alert of any incoming attacks from pirates or opposing factions that arrived from the coast.
Here you’ll be able to stand on top of the imposing, giant stone walls, which give an impressive view over both the town and lake. Walking around we can also see many of the old cannons which were once used to fend off attempted sieges.
It’s worth spending a couple of hours walking around the site, where you can learn more about the colonial history of Bacalar.
There’s also an on-site museum that contains many important artifacts, as well as numerous film screens that depict important historical events of both the fort and town.
2. Head on a Sunset Kayak Trip around Lake Bacalar
Whilst there are many hidden things to explore in and around Bacalar, there’s no hiding from the fact that the Bacalar Lagoon is the biggest highlight of all.
It’s by far one of the most picturesque lakes you can visit in the Riviera Maya, and a good contender for all of Mexico too!
Due to the varying depths of the lake, we can find as many as seven different colors here which range from emerald green and light blues to much darker blues (the best chance of seeing them all is during a clear sky).
One of the best ways to see this phenomenon is to head out on a flexible, self-guided kayak tour of the lake. Setting off on your own schedule, you’ll have plenty of time to explore the different sites as you wade between the varying colors and shades. You can pre-book your kayaks here. Another great way to see the lake is to book a tour on a sailing boat, a trip which will last about 2 hours.
I highly recommend staying out until sunset, where you’ll then get to enjoy the impressive red and orange sky as the sun falls over the horizon.
Of course, you can also find kayak rentals along the lake (Bacalar Beach Club is a good alternative), however, these tend to be more expensive, and can quickly sell out if you don’t get there before the crowds do!
3. Wind down in El Encanto
Bacalar in general is a really chill place, and you’ll feel this especially when arriving from the busier areas of the region such as Playa del Carmen and Cancún.
However, those who want to further immerse themselves in serenity and nature will want to head to El Encanto (map view). Located further south along the lagoon, this small resort area is filled with cabins and open spaces for camping.
Here we’ll find a private area of the lagoon which is best for enjoying activities like snorkeling and kayaking with much fewer people around. It’s also home to those legendary swings which you may have already seen on Instagram.
Whilst staying here for a night or two is a good idea (it’s relatively cheap to stay or camp), you can also buy a day pass where you can come and use all of the amenities as you wish. On-site we’ll also find a restaurant and bar which is ideal since El Encanto is somewhat off the beaten path.
4. Visit the Canal de los Piratas
Located on the adjacent shore facing Bacalar, the Canal de los Piratas is a narrow passageway of water that connects the lake to the surrounding region.
In ancient times it was an important point of trading between the Mayans who resided here along with various other civilizations located further south, in the region which was once called Mesoamerica (areas which are known today as Guatemala and Honduras).
It’s officially called the Salamanca Canal, however, it received its infamous nickname during colonial times as many pirates once used this route when they attempted to lay siege on various parts of Southern Mexico (such as Bacalar). This included attacks from famous pirates such as Francis Drake and Henry Morgan.
Today it’s unlikely we’ll cross paths with any marauding raiders, however, we can instead appreciate this beautiful, thin stretch of river which has a variety of contrasting blues and greens.
5. Explore Cenotes
The Riviera Maya region of Mexico is well-known for its abundance of cenotes. These are essentially limestone caves that are filled with turquoise waters and are a great place to go snorkeling and enjoy the more ancient, prehistoric atmospheres.
Many such as Ik Kil and Gran Cenote tend to steal all the thunder, however, those around Bacalar are also worth a visit.
Cenote Cocalitos is an open cenote located right on the lagoon, which is known for its colorful waters and stromatolites (more on these later). There are also plenty of amenities on site such as a restaurant and snorkeling gear hire, meaning you can easily spend the day here.
Cenote Negro is by far one of the most surreal, which has a dark blue color that sticks out from the bright hues of the Bacalar Lagoon. It can vary in depth anywhere from 2 to 90 meters, which also makes it ideal for snorkeling and diving.
6. Get up and close with the ancient Stromatolites
I’ll be honest in saying that I also had no idea what these were when I first arrived in Bacalar and regretfully missed out on seeing them.
A stromatolite is an ancient rock-looking structure, however, is actually alive and well given its layers are slowly being formed from the cyanobacteria which are found within.
They are the oldest-known living organisms on earth, with the earliest fossils dating back over 3 billion years (which is almost 70% of the entire history of our planet!).
Stromatolites look like small rocky mounds that are found within the Bacalar Lagoon, and there are various places where you can get up and close to them. The most popular place is Cenote Cocalitos, however, you can also find many of them along the area known as Los Rápidos, which is a natural lazy river.
As with any natural and delicate structure, please don’t touch them as they can easily be irreversibly damaged.
7. Enjoy an Early Morning Paddleboarding Experience
Bacalar Lagoon is a pretty special place to visit, and even more so as it hasn’t yet been overdeveloped by tourism (another good reason to come sooner rather than later!).
The early sunrise around the lake is one of the most memorable experiences you can have in Bacalar, and I highly recommend waking up at least once during your visit to witness it.
Whilst you can easily sit on one of the many boardwalks that jut out into the lake, you can also do one better by joining this paddleboarding tour.
Setting off in the early morning, your guide will take you to the very best spots of the lake to watch the sunrise, as well as visit other must-see areas such as Bird Islands and Cenote de la Bruja. You’ll also have breakfast included in the experience.
Best Day Trips from Bacalar
Now let’s take a look at some of the very best day trips that you can take from Bacalar.
The Riviera Maya region is known for its world-class beaches, however, these often get overcrowded quickly and can feel pretty touristy at the best of times.
Mahahual on the other hand is a remote Caribbean town located much further south (close to the Belizean border) and maintains its charm and authenticity. It’s situated roughly 105 km east of Bacalar (which is around a 2-hour drive), making it a perfect day trip for hitting the beach.
Here you can enjoy the waters of Maya Chan, which is the perfect place to go snorkeling where you can see a variety of different sea turtle species pretty much all times of the year.
Mahahual is also the perfect place to go swimming with various dolphin species (such as the Bottlenose Dolphin), which is possible at the Dolphins Discovery Centre.
The vibe in this coastal town is similar to Bacalar, so you’ll still be able to enjoy some much-needed peace and quiet whilst walking along the beach. Along your stroll, you’ll also find many low-key palapas and local restaurants to enjoy.
Whilst here I highly recommend trying the more authentic regional dishes (Nohoch Kay is a must for seafood lovers).
You can head on this day trip to Mahahual from Bacalar, which includes all transport, access to an exclusive beach resort, and a visit to a unique Mayan town along the way.
If you’re looking to change things up during your time in Bacalar, then a trip to these sprawling ruins is an absolute must.
Located deep within the Mayan Jungle (roughly 68 km south of Bacalar), we can explore this highly underrated archaeological site, which is often overshadowed by the more commonly visited ruins such as those of Chichén Itzá and Coba.
Dating back as far as 200 B.C., it’s one of the older sites to have first been settled in Southern Mexico, home to many unique structures not found anywhere else in the country.
These include the Temple of the Masks which has several faces carved into the walls of the stone complex, as well as the Temple of the 27 Steps which is covered in green moss and gives some nice views over the rest of the site.
However, the best thing of all is that you’ll be surrounded by wild nature in Kohunlich, given you’ll be deep within the jungle. Keep an eye out for colorful birds (such as the Tropical Mockingbird), and walking around you’ll also occasionally hear the loud shrieks of the local Howler Monkey residents.
Bacalar Travel Tips
The very best time to visit Bacalar is during the dry season, which runs from December until April.
Rainfall is very low, ranging from just 1-2 inches per month which is great for outdoor exploring. Average temperatures during this period range from 74-82°F, with hot (but not uncomfortable) highs of 89°F as well as evening lows of 67°F.
This makes this time of year perfect for lounging by the lake, as well as exploring the region without getting drenched or overly hot.
Another top tip I recommend for travelers heading to Bacalar is to make the very most of the surrounding region.
Most who head here only stick to the town and lagoon, which of course is still great for relaxing in its own right.
However, there are many awesome destinations worth heading out to explore. Kohunlich is a really impressive sight which is unlike other ruins in the Riviera Maya region, whilst you’ll also be able to enjoy many of the lesser-known gems such as Cenote Esmerelda.
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