June 13, 2011

Bacalar and the Lagoon of the Seven Colors

It is one of the gems of the Caribbean coastline; a haven of artists, nestled within an area of outstanding natural beauty, where the adventurers zoom, at 125mph, across the ocean's clear, blue horizon. This is Bacalar, named a Pueblo Magico (Magic Town) by the Mexican government; the first with such a designation in the whole of Quintana Roo. It is known as the Lagoon of the Seven Colors.


The town sits just twenty minutes drive south of Chetumal; and the residents of the state's capital have found it well enough. Bacalar is where they come to kick back and relax. A tranquil outpost, where the pace of life winds down to a snail's crawl; where fun is informal and the food is rich, authentic Mexican fare. This is the Mexico that the tourists think that they are getting, up in sanitized, Americanized Cancun. This is real.

Yet external influences have made their mark here too. Bacalar lies right on the River Hondo, the deep river, which provides a natural, national border with Belize to the south. The best of Belize makes it into the town, in dishes, dances and music.

This is especially true during the first fifteen days of August, when the annual Fair of San Joaquin de Bacalar is in full swing. In those heady days of concerts, races, staged fighting, demonstrations, ballets, mercados and fiesta fuelled celebrations, there is as much Belizean as Mexican. Their neighbour is an ally and the fun is shared.


But parties can be had all over Mexico. What most people are here for is the scenery. Hemmed around with lush, jungle foliage, Bacalar boasts a wide and shallow lagoon, that changes color as it moves towards the shore.

Out in the bay, the mirror calm ocean reflects back the rays of the sun, in a twinkling array of glistening gold. This is the Caribbean, so the waters are crystal clear, allowing the underwater world to throw up its colors, in softening hues of green and blue. The white sands are seen long before it sheds the blanketing sea and envelopes the beaches.

It is not unusual to find a tourist here, losing hours in misty-eyed contemplation, at the quiet wonder of it all; nor to overhear the delighted shrieks of the newly arrived, "I feel like I've died and gone to Heaven!!" The artists know. They've been painting it for years.


The lagoon, of course, isn't merely pretty. The waters, stretching out as far as the eye can see, are never deeper than 20ft (6 meters). That makes it perfect for adventure sports, like kayaking. There are places throughout the town, where sail-boats can be hired or trips arranged on a speed-boat. Scuba diving, snorkelling, swimming and every water activity under the sun can be indulged in Bacalar.

This includes cenote diving, swimming and exploring. Cenote Azul, a vast sinkhole, lies right at the entrance to the town. It is the gateway to a sprawling network of underground rivers, caverns and passageways, some of which are yet to be fully discovered. That is the preserve of the experts, but many are mapped for tourist treks. Meanwhile, the cenote itself is one of the most popular attractions in the area, drawing people from miles around to enjoy its refreshing waters and cool, beautiful rockface.

Competitive races are held here too. The biggest is the Rio Hondo-Bacalar Nautical Marathon, which draws crowds in early August. They naturally stick around for the town's large fair.


There is history to explore in the town too. The Fort of San Felipe Bacalar was originally built, in 1725, to protect the town from pirates and illegal loggers. But its importance grew towards the end of that century, when hostilities erupted between the British, in Belize, and the Spanish, in Mexico. With soldiers lined up on either side of the Rio Hondo, the nearby fort became a base of operations and supplies.

Again, in the 19th century, the fort held a pivotal role in the Caste War, when the local Maya rose up against those of European descent. The fort changed hands several times in that conflict; and the history is still there for visitors to see.

Today, it is difficult to imagine battles ever touching Bacalar. The less energetic lie draped on hammocks or sun-loungers; or amble around Bacalar's streets and shops. There are beach-side bars and quiet cafes, or higher class restaurants for those meaningful moments. The beautiful town goes on, in peace and relaxation, and the ever changing colors of its tranquil lagoon.


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