Story and photos by John Lamkin
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Swaying in my hammock, the cool tropical breeze kissing my toes as I gaze across the azure waters of Laguna Bacalar, I sample a banana from the grove nearby. These have no relation to bland, pithy, supermarket bananas. This banana is creamy and tastes slightly of custard with a hint of lime, while others have been small and very sweet, with an apple flavor, or large with a hint of cinnamon. But trying to keep these tasty bananas, the whispering breezes and the luxury of languor on this beautiful Caribbean-colored lagoon from distracting me from my writing is a challenge. When compared to the bustle and clang of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, three or so hours north, the village of Bacalar’s tranquility is a breath of relief, so I deal with the distraction.
The lagoon, which is a fresh water lake—the second largest in the country, is lined with coconut palms that are dripping with orchids. The area abounds with orchards of orange, lime and exotic hardwood trees and is home to more than 150 species of multihued tropical birds. Laguna Bacalar is just being discovered by tourism. It has always been known for the spectacular colors, much as the waters of the Caribbean, with its range of hues from emerald greens to azure blues.
Bacalar is a Magic Town. Pueblo Magico (Magic Town) is an honor bestowed on a few small towns by the Mexican government. Situated on the shore of Laguna Bacalar, the town is a small, quiet 16th century village which is inhabited by leisurely people and where tourists can experience some atypical adventures. On the streets, one sees Mennonites in 19th century dress, clip-clopping along in a horse and buggy, and selling ripe tomatoes fresh from their fields. There is the old Spanish fort of San Felipe, which houses a small museum offering enlightening stories and murals about the ancient Mayan civilization, the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, and the European pirates (both male and female) who raided the area in the 18th century, thus making it necessary to build this fort. Depictions of the caste wars, during which the Maya rose up against their conquerors/slave owners, added more insights into the rich, exciting history of this place. The fort was built by Mayan Indian labor when the Spanish first landed in the late 1500’s. Like the charming zocolo, or central plaza, the fort has undergone extensive restoration in the past few years making it a major attraction. The village of Bacalar has retained its feeling of authenticity where “real” people carry on their everyday lives. Many of the Mayan women can be seen in their traditional colorfully embroidered huipiles, especially on market day.
Lately a new attraction has been added—scientists have discovered that Laguna Bacalar is one of the few places in the world that stromatolites can be found. The Laguna’s living giant microbialites are the some of the largest in the world at over 16 miles long and taller than 10 feet. Their formation supports many acres of mangroves and vegetative growth in the southern end of the Laguna. The southern Rio Chaac, or “Rapids” as it is known locally, offers an opportunity for people to view (float, snorkel, or dive) the enormous undercuts of the giant stromatolites.
Activities around the village include Mayan language classes, mountain bike rental and tours, jungle walks, zip-lining, sailing and boat tours. At the far end of the village is the lovely Cenote Azul, located on the edge of a beautiful, palm-fringed cenote, whose depth is seemingly bottomless. The large, semi-outdoor restaurant is housed in a spacious palapa and serves primarily fresh seafood from the area as well as venison when available.
The area provides a doorway into the lives of the Maya where one can share in the indigenous culture in a meaningful way. The ancient Mayan cities, as well as the thatched huts of the living, contemporary Maya, offer intimate, yet contrasting, views of this millennia-old culture. Nearby are the ancient Mayan cities of Dzibanché, Kohunlich, Oxtankah, Chacchoben, the recently discovered Ichcabal (not yet open to the public) and the contemporary Mayan villages such as Chacchoben and 20 de Septiembre. In one village I visited I entered the jungle after being blessed by Mayan shamans, where “chicileros” scampered up tall trees to gather the chicle that chewing gum is made from. I was also be treated to savory “comida tipica,” the staple food of the Maya, and to typical folk dances and witnessed how artisans have plied their crafts to sustain their way of life.
The Caribbean beaches Mahahual and Xcalak are one hour and one and a half hours from Bacalar. Mahahual has a cruise ship dock that receives many of the major cruise lines. Xcalak has great diving and deep-sea fishing. You can charter a boat from there for world-class diving and snorkeling at Chinchorro Reef. Farther up the coast is the famed biosphere reserve of Sian Ka’an.
About an hour south of Bacalar is the capital of the state of Quintana Roo, Chetumal, located on the bay leading out to the Caribbean ocean. Long a major water route for the Maya, it was also used by the marauding pirates active in the area during their heyday. Now a beautiful, tropical city with a broad boulevard along the Bahia, it is home to the Museum of Mayan Culture, providing a superb introduction to this ancient civilization. This museum has stunning reproductions of ancient Mayan sites in the area as well as a complete representation of the Mayan “Tree of Life” extending three levels from the underworld to the topmost branches reaching toward the heavens. Just across from the Museum is the Mercado, selling everything from fresh fruits and vegetables, to souvenirs, to modern electronic equipment. Also available throughout the city are numerous Internet access as well as dentists, doctors and hospitals. The restaurants along the “Bahia” provide cool outdoor dining. Chetumal also has the only national airport in the area with flights to Mexico City and other parts of the country.
Chetumal is near the border with Belize, Central America, which provides Las Vegas-style casinos and tax-free shopping in the Free Zone, connecting the two countries. The English speaking country of Belize, with its various cultures and diversity of terrain is often included in vacation plans for this area of the Yucatan Peninsula.
One of the resorts, typical to the trend of eco-tourism developing around Bacalar is Rancho Encantado (which means, “Enchanted Ranch”). It is a small eco-resort and spa set on the shores of the Laguna that was a sacred place for the ancient Maya who called it Xbalamkin (meaning, “Where the sun is born”). They launched their dugout canoes from where the resort now stands to travel up the coast to Tulum, and as far down as Honduras, where merchants traded goods and priests performed sacred ceremonies. Tours of the Laguna and of the Maya sites can be arranged through Rancho Encantado.
Even with all the “distractions” I was able to finish my writing while still enjoying this bit of paradise.
IF YOU GO
Mexico Tourism http://www.visitmexico.com/en/
Adventure in Quintana Roo http://visitmexico.com/en_us/VisitMexico30/Adventure_In_Quintana_Roo
Mexican Caribbean http://www.mexicancaribbean.com/
Magic Towns http://www.visitmexico.com/en/magictown
Stromatolites in Laguna Bacalar http://www.lagunabacalarinstitute.com/stromatolite.html
Rancho Encantado http://www.encantado.com/en-us/