Bacalar, Mexico

Written by Don Murray

Mexico’s Caribbean Coast on the Yucatan Peninsula, and its famed Riviera Maya, have become the most popular vacation spots in the entire Caribbean basin. Boasting the well-known destinations of Cancun, Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Akumal, and Tulum, this area is a vacationer’s paradise (serving over 5 million visitors per year) and home to an increasing number of expats. But if the crowds associated with a huge resort area are not your cup of tea, the small village of Bacalar, two-plus hours south of Tulum, may be the quiet, lakefront retreat you’ve been looking for.

Primarily patronized by Mexican locals, the lakeside village of Bacalar is in the process of being discovered as a destination without the glitz, without the traffic, and without the high-rise resorts and the all-inclusive hustle that has become synonymous with the Riviera Maya. Bacalar’s vibe is decidedly different.

Sitting on the shore of Laguna Bacalar (Lake Bacalar), the village exudes an authentic charm with its small, town square surrounded by family-owned businesses. Spend a little time there and you might find yourself imagining you’re in the Mexican version of Mayberry from the old television series.

Bacalar is a small, totally Mexican village where English is rarely spoken or heard and the U.S. dollar is not accepted. The area oozes charm, supported by a wonderful ice cream store just off the town square. The lakeside resorts remind me of the summer camps of my youth, where kids paddled canoes in sparkling freshwater lakes. Traffic is minimal and crowds are, for now, non-existent (holidays are exceptions). But small and authentically Mexican does not mean totally isolated. In less than 40 minutes, you can be in Chetumal, the sparkling-clean state capital of Quintana Roo with ample shopping, direct access to the Caribbean via the Bay of Chetumal, and good medical care.

Bacalar and the entire Caribbean coast are located on the Yucatan Peninsula. This concentrated region of ample resources, excellent medical care, reliable infrastructure, and plentiful entertainment easily supports a full and economical lifestyle for the many expats who live there. Surrounded on three sides by salt water, (the Caribbean Sea on the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the north and west) this region may be best known for the Riviera Maya and the numerous Maya ruins and cenotes (fresh water sinkholes) throughout the interior.

Travel down the Caribbean Coast (along highway 307) two-and-a-half hours south of Tulum, to find the tiny village of Bacalar, resting on the calm shores of the beautiful lake of the same name. Take the well-marked turn from the main highway and in less than 10 minutes, you will catch your first glimpse of this famous lake.

Laguna Bacalar is one of the country’s most prominent lakes and has long been a favorite of Mexican nationals. Bacalar is about 12 miles inland from the Caribbean Coast and for those not knowing what to expect, Laguna Bacalar (The Lake of Seven Colors) is a doppelganger for the Caribbean Sea. This freshwater lake exactly mimics its spectacular shades of greens and blues. With the exception of several extremely deep sinkholes, which feed fresh water into the lake from an exhaustive underground river system, the rest of the lake is only about four to six feet deep making it possible to wade far into the center of the lake. Watch out for boats, however.

The village of Bacalar is small with a population of some 12,000. Founded in pre-Columbian times by the Mayas, Bacalar was an important coastal trading center for the area. Bacalar fell to Spain’s conquistadors, back in 1543. The Spanish built a fort in the center of town to defend against the frequent pirate attacks. It wasn’t until 1902 that Mexico succeeded in reclaiming this area. The still-standing remnants of the old Spanish fort remain, in remarkably good condition. The fort is open to visitors, and holds a museum within.

Retire in Bacalar

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Mexico has a couple of simple, straightforward visas for retirees; the first is a Temporary Resident Visa and the second is a Permanent Resident Visa. Both permit full-time residency in Mexico but there are some significant differences such as income requirements, employment legalities, and automobile importation.

Visitors spending less than 180 days in Mexico need only possess a valid passport. No visa required. That allows all those snowbirds to make repeat, annual visits without worrying about a visa, as long as they do not exceed the 180-day limit. If you wish to remain longer than 180 days, you must apply for a visa.

Begin your visa quest at the Mexican Consulate in your home state or any Mexican Consulate in the States. There, the consulate officer will review your completed application, verify your income based on the documents you provide, review a nominal number of other documents, and your completed application. After a short interview, if approved, you’ll likely depart with your residency visa affixed to the inside of your passport.

You will complete your residency requirements, once you enter Mexico, by making an appointment with the immigration service and obtaining your residency card.

All legal residents over the age of 60 qualify for a discount card from INAPAM (Instituto Nacional para las Personas Adultas Mayores) facilitating discounts on a wide variety of goods and services.

Medical Care in Bacalar

Bacalar has three small hospitals to include Centro de Salud in the center of town. This small center is for minor to moderate medical needs but has no surgery capabilities or imaging equipment. The Community Hospital and Hospital Integral both offer more services however for major medical needs, there are several larger hospitals in Chetumal about 40 minutes away. Most local pharmacies are open 24/7 and, like all pharmacies in Mexico, do not require prescriptions for most medications. Costs for care will run about one-third the cost of care north of the border with even greater savings available on medications.

Lifestyle in Bacalar

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Life in Bacalar is a quiet life. There are 10 or 12 good restaurants, including an Italian place in the central area, operated by an Italian family. You can have your breakfast served, café style, on the sidewalk of the town square or enjoy a lakeside experience at several options along the shore. For more excitement, make the short drive to Chetumal where your authentic Mexican experience will continue.

If I lived in Bacalar, I would want to own a small boat. The stunning colors of the lake and the calm waters are simply too much to resist. And if I wanted to experience the salty, warm water of the Caribbean, Chetumal is close and the Bay of Chetumal is a fisherman’s dream. Village life is not for everyone. As I happen to live in a tiny Maya village, I know the key is to be close enough to larger towns and cities to facilitate shopping, dining, and medical care. Bacalar meets the criteria; small, quiet, charming, and beautiful while also being close to all the other stuff available in large cities.

Cost of Living in Bacalar

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The economy of Bacalar is geared toward small-scale tourism. Compared to the nearby Caribbean, the costs are far less. And the cost of living is a fraction of what it takes to live anywhere in North America making retirement in Bacalar, and all of Mexico, an attractive option.

For now, finding long-term rentals can take some time, as most rentals are set up for short-term vacation stays and/or winter snowbird visitors. The short-term rentals may not have kitchens or only tiny kitchens. Like most places in Mexico, finding a place to live is a boots-on-the ground endeavor. You must be there and make contact with the people in the area to find what is available. A proven strategy is to take a small, short-term place for a month or two until you can familiarize yourself with the area and the market.

Properties listed for sale may be available for long-term lease but you have to ask. Vacation rentals, offered for short term, may be receptive to a long-term lease. The one thing to keep in mind is that most available properties, aside from Airbnb rentals, will not be listed on the internet. That said, here is an estimate of costs for a couple.

The restaurants are very reasonable, where a $25 dinner for two with a drink is standard. A $5 Mexican dish is very easily obtained just about everywhere.

Here is a sample monthly budget for a couple living in Bacalar:

Expenses Cost $USD
Rent (two-bedroom) $450 to $650
Utilities $60
Groceries $325
Entertainment $250
Housekeeping $100
Medical $150
Transportation (car, gas, insurance) $100
Transportation (public) $45
Total $1,480 to $1,680

Things to Do in Bacalar

By Bel Woodhouse

©iStock/LUNAMARINA

A less-visited paradise, Bacalar is most famous for its Lago de Siete Colores–Lake of Seven Colors. Located in southeastern Mexico near the Belize border, the city is a little slice of heaven that has managed to escape the stampede of thousands of tourists that flock to the Mexican Caribbean every year.

But it’s one of those places that is so beautiful you wonder how it’s not flooded with tourists. Plus, you know you’ve hit a great destination when nearly all of the tourists you do see are Mexican. One of those coveted places that locals treasure, hardly any travelers get to see it so it feels like undiscovered magic.

Full of stunningly beautiful nature, healing waters, and amazing food, it is one place you should add to your ‘must-see’ list. Whether it be to relax and recharge your batteries in a lakeside villa or something a little more exciting like rafting down rapids, Bacalar is the oasis for you.

Here are 10 great things to do while you’re there:

1. Sail the Lake of Seven Colors, Laguna de Bacalar

I’ve traveled all over Central America and nowhere have I seen such pristine, clear water in every shade of blue. You guessed it, the Lake of Seven Colors gets its name from the stunning blue hues created by its varying depths. The water ranges from almost white and sky blue through to the deepest sapphire and cobalt as you sail into freshwater cenotes in the lakebed. It’s a feast for your eyes.

Sailing is the perfect way to experience this wonder. You can rent a catamaran and go exploring, or, if you’ve never sailed before, most hotels have a favored boat captain that will take you on a tour.

Feeling the wind on your face and the sun warming your back as you glide along makes for the perfect day. There are power boats on the lake, but sailing is preferable as it keeps the water calmer, there’s no pollution, and you can truly immerse yourself in nature with birds singing in your ear instead of a motor.

2. Learn the Maya Way

With its own vegetable and medicinal herb gardens, Akal Ki is a transformative and interactive experience. The Maya of the area created a holistic retreat alongside their romantic lakeside villas. Nothing says relaxation like your own private villa sitting out over the water.

The restaurant grows its own food and here you can learn more about the Maya’s relationship with the natural world. Respectful and powerful, the people have blended into their environment harmoniously with mother nature for centuries to meet all of their needs since pre-Hispanic times.

They also believe the lake holds special healing waters, so it is the perfect place to get pampering treatments, recharge your batteries, and enjoy relaxing massages accompanied by delicious, fresh, and healthy food grown on-site as you reconnect with nature.

3. Discover One of Earth’s Oldest Life Forms

The earliest visible forms of life on planet earth, stromatolites, appeared around 3.5 billion years ago. Now there are only a few places on earth where you can see them. One of those is in the less-visited northern part of the Lake of Seven Colors.

The water is crystal clear so you can see them very clearly.

Able to breathe carbon dioxide and convert it into oxygen, these huge bacterium columns survived the first big extinction. Being such a unique part of the environment, they are protected and you can’t touch them. They are still worth a look as it’s not every day you get to see such unique and ancient organisms.

4. Food

For such a small town Bacalar is foodie heaven. Dining experiences range from eco-dining in a lush garden in the middle of an art gallery to fine dining in lakefront restaurants.

I was amazed at the range of cuisines and the deliciousness of it all. If you’re after an authentic Mexican experience and want to eat like a local, there’s great street food in the town’s Parque Central, or town square. If you’re after pizza, then Bertilla E Luciano has the best I’ve ever had in my life.

A short stroll in any direction from the town square presents a wealth of dining options. You can enjoy a lakeside art walk and discover huge masterpieces until you like the look of a hotel or restaurant.

5. Street Art

Being an art lover, I was delighted to discover that the whole town was like a rambling outdoor art gallery; there were surprises at every turn. Strolling the streets of Bacalar delighted my senses. The walk to dinner took 40 minutes instead of 10 because there was so much amazing street art to photograph.

There’s some serious talent along fences, on the side of houses, and on signs; some take up the entire side of a building. The major art collection along the waterfront is amazing. Taking a stroll there is a must so you can experience the huge murals, paintings, and stories that unfold as you wander along. A local said that they hold an art competition every couple of years where artists from all over Mexico come to create fresh masterpieces, so you won’t be disappointed.

6. Relax Lakeside in a Villa

Listening to the gentle lap of the lake against your private villa is the perfect way to spend time relaxing. All along the lake, there are hotels, romantic villas, boutique hotels, and ecolodges with access to the water. So, in between swimming, kayaking, sailing, or just floating around on a big tube talking with friends, relaxing lakeside is one of the best ways to spend time at Bacalar.

It’s as if the water heals you just by being near it. Don’t be surprised if the soothing breeze lulls you into a nap. Some places have hammocks over the water where you can roll out for a swim anytime you like. Nearly everywhere has lakeside service so you don’t have to stop reading your book or lazing in your hammock. It’s about as close to heaven as you’ll get.

7. Rejuvenate in Ancient Mud

The local Maya have been using the lake’s healing waters and mud for centuries. Slightly gritty but not sharp, it is quite comforting to spread over your skin. Drawing out toxins as well as gently exfoliating, it leaves your skin smooth as a baby’s bottom.

You can see the effects on the local Maya women. They have flawless skin and none that I met use beauty products. It’s all-natural. The mud is rejuvenating and healing not only for your skin but also for your mind and soul.

8. Explore Bacalar

Enjoy tea and a sweet treat in one of the sweetest Starbucks I’ve ever seen with Victorian sidewalk dining. Draped in vibrant magenta and cherry bougainvillea, it was the perfect place to stop on an exploratory walk.

Or sit and chat with a local as you try authentic Mexican street food in the Parque Central. The locals are very friendly and love to chat, and the town square is full of shady bench seats under large palms and flowering trees that beg you to sit down to enjoy a snack.

One of the most popular things to do is rise early and sit out on the lake to watch the sunrise. The glowing turquoise of the lake comes alive as the sun climbs. After, it’s only a five-minute walk to the heart of town to find plenty of breakfast options.

9. Play Pirate at the Fort

Pirates of the Caribbean really were a thing. Only a 20-minute sail from the Belize border, you’ll find Bacalar’s fortress, Fuerte de San Felipe de Bacalar. The fortress overlooks the lake and defended the town from pirates and marauders.

Built in 1792, this huge stone fortress comes with a moat, a museum, and a very accurate miniature replica of the town.

Totally cliché and touristy, sometimes it’s fun to play pirate at a real fort. This big kid did and no one would dream of stopping you. The locals love it, join in, and will take your picture for fun and memorabilia before you disappear to roam around the fort.

10. Rapids

Think more floating down the river than the great white rapids you see in movies where entire rafts are swallowed whole as they plunge through dangerous churning waters.

Yes, there are a couple of places where the current picks up speed, especially after rain, but these rapids are family-friendly and suitable for every age and fitness level. The rapids go through some of the most stunning clear water.

Easy to get to, the rapids are just outside of town and any taxi driver will take you there for under $5.

Conclusion

The local taxi drivers were very honest, happy to wait or return for you later, and very reliable coming quickly when called. They are the perfect way to get around town if you’re not walking; most have lived there all of their lives and will include little extras like free sightseeing of less-known attractions.

Overall Bacalar is a nature lover’s paradise. The people are very friendly and it’s the kind of place you should put on your must-see list for the next time you’re in Mexico.

“Healing Mud”—and More—at Mexico’s Multicolored Lake

By Bel Woodhouse

©iStock/loeskieboom

Becoming a Mexican resident has given me the time and freedom to travel to those little-discovered destinations tourists don’t usually hear about. Forget your Cancúns or Playa del Carmens for the moment—both are beautiful places for a base—but Mexico, and especially the Riviera Maya region of the Yucatán Peninsula, offers so much more.There’s a special satisfaction in getting to know the hidden spots that the locals keep to themselves.

Bacalar, near the Belize border in south-eastern Mexico, is one of those rare gems. A small town with a laidback eco vibe overlooking its greatest treasure: La Laguna de Bacalar—the Lake of Seven Colors.

Though I’ve been to many destinations in the Riviera Maya region, the waters here are magnificent, and like nothing I’ve seen before. Nature’s color palette is awash with blue hues. The lake ranges from crystalline, almost-white sky blue to deep vibrant turquoise and aquamarines in the shallower areas. The colors transition through to deep cobalt and indigo at the deepest points, where underground freshwater cenotes feed into the lake.

Sailing the 25-mile-long lake is breathtaking and it’s well worth spending the morning or day on the water. You can hire your own catamaran or go with a local boat captain on a tour (I’ll admit it, that’s what I did) to learn about its formation and history.

Formed 3.7 billion years ago, the lake is one of only a few places on earth to form stromatolites—knobbly outcrops of rock that, at their most exuberant, are almost a type of freshwater coral. These formations are created by billions of benign bacteria, which have been converting carbon dioxide into oxygen since the first big extinction, and building these fantasy rock gardens in the process.

The pristine white sand that fringes the lake, infused with sulfur, is credited with all sorts of healing powers, although that seems to be a universal claim wherever there’s any sort of interesting mud and a captive market. I will say that slathering it on made my skin feel smooth as a baby’s. The lake is associated with the name Akal Ki—Mayan for “fountain of vital energy” and also “lake of sweet water” so there is some historic basis for the healing claims.

Bacalar is Mayan for ‘fountain of vital energy’.

Bacalar town itself is worth exploring. Like most Mexican towns, it’s built around a central square in a basic grid, so finding your way around is easy. Everything is within walking distance, only a few blocks from most shorefront accommodation.

The other way to go is taxi. For 20 pesos (about $1) they’ll take you anywhere around town. Taxi drivers are friendly and happy to show you around, and a mini tour of the town for a few dollars will help you get your bearings. The Fortress de San Félipe, built in 1729 after the town was sacked by pirates, is a fun site to visit.

Another added bonus is that accommodation is cheap. I stayed right on the lake at a boutique hotel for $50 per night, and when I say right on the waterfront, I mean it. You can walk down steps right into the lake or jump off the dock to cool off from the afternoon Mexican heat. Luxury options are available too, like your own villa built right out on the water with its own private dock. Exploring town, I enjoyed an abundance of colorful street art with a common theme: eco-friendly living. Shadowed by huge trees forming a cool canopy as you stroll along, the main shorefront avenue, Avenida Costera, is the perfect example. The walk showcases local artists’ work in large murals running the length of it.

Adding to this eco-friendly atmosphere is an abundance of garden dining options. Surrounded by huge fig trees, you can lounge lakeside, enjoying your meals with spectacular views in a number of restaurants. One of the most popular places, El Manati just off town square, offers a delicious huge organic breakfast for around $3. It had me waddling out the door and not needing to eat for the rest of the day.

Bacalar is very vegan- and vegetarian-friendly, while also offering most international cuisines. The best Italian I’ve had in years was one block from the town square. A feast of two starters, two mains, and wine cost only $40. That’s about a half to a third of what I would normally expect to pay.

If you’re after something a little more hands-on, the town square has street food stands to grab authentic Mexican cuisine for a couple of dollars. Always fresh and delicious, a meal of hot tacos on one of the benches in the square, under the shade of the huge trees, is not to be sniffed at. In fact, at the right time of a sultry Mexican evening, with a cold beer and plenty of paper towels (tacos can get messy), it’s as atmospheric as al fresco dining gets. Not bad for under $4.