Bacalar is one of the most tourist-friendly towns on Mexico's Caribbean coast. Our first visit to Bacalar, Quintana Roo, ended up being one of the most enjoyable trips we have ever taken as a family. Read on, and I’ll tell you all about it!
Bacalar Lagoon is a gorgeous freshwater lake and the largest body of water in Quintana Roo, Mexico, only 35 miles from Chetumal, the capital of the state. It’s sometimes called the “Lake of Seven Colors” due to its intense colors, which vary depending on the time of day and how it reflects sunlight. The lake is surrounded by a large natural jungle and is the perfect getaway for anyone vacationing in this region. Lake Bacalar is an excellent place for swimming, snorkeling, and boating, especially when adding stunning scenery and fresh water.
We flew into Chetumal on AeroMexico. We’ve had problems with this airline before, but unfortunately, there were only two choices of airlines that flew direct into Chetumal from our origination city, so we picked AeroMexico over Volaris, mainly because we could use our airline miles that we had accrued on our Amex card. After applying our points, the flight was almost free, and we only paid about $150 plus luggage fees for all 5 of us.
As we flew over Chetumal Bay, we saw numerous little islands. The whole area of southern Quintana Roo is lush with greenery and blue water.
The Chetumal airport is smaller than the airport in Cancun, but it seemed clean and well-organized. After landing at the small airport, we picked up our luggage, which only took about 10 minutes. Once on the ground, you can either rent a car in Bacalar or use the local bus system or a taxi to get around. You can hire a taxi for 300 MXN (about $15-20 USD) each way from the airport to Bacalar. We could have taken public transportation, but with all of our luggage, and the kids, we decided to rent a car.
We chose Enterprise/National Car Rentals, which was suggested to us by our American Express travel rep (thanks again, Amex card!). We’d had bad luck with car rentals through Hertz in Cancun, so we decided to try National this time. The customer service representative was pleasant and gave us a good price. We ended up choosing an economy car and the full insurance just in case. This ended up being a good idea because the roads had potholes because of a recent heavy rain (apparently it had rained for seven days straight the week before we arrived).
The customer service rep at the National car rental kiosk was very polite and helpful (not pushy at all, unlike the Hertz counter reps in Cancun). He discussed the different types of insurance with us, answering all our questions, but did not use any “hard sell” tactics. The car issued to us was a small Kia sedan, a little cramped for all five of us, but it did the job, and the trunk was large enough for our luggage.
Tip: When travelling with kids, try to avoid taking large pieces of luggage. We only took 2 medium-size, soft-sided luggage and two medium duffel bags. Everything fit into the trunk of our rental car easily. Each of our children carried their own backpack, which included a complete change of clothes, their Kindles, and a jacket or heavy sweater. The kids ended up needing their jackets on the plane, both for our incoming and outgoing flights, because the temperature inside the airplane cabin was uncomfortably cold.
When we landed, it was a balmy 78 degrees outside. Now, originally didn’t even plan to go to Bacalar. Our original plan was to visit Mahahual. Mahahual is a small fishing village on Mexico's Caribbean Coast. Well, Mahahual was a bust! Remember I mentioned that there had been several days of rain?
Mahahual, Being Eaten Alive by Mosquitos
Mahahual is surrounded by large tracts of swampland. After the recent rain, a lot of mud and plant vegetation had been run off into the sea. Although the sand was white and powdery, the water was dark brown with sargasso and mud run off from the heavy rains. All of the puddles surrounding the city were filled with mosquitoes. Mosquitoes flew everywhere, swarms of them trying to bite us as soon as we left the car. We had never seen this many mosquitoes in Quintana Roo, in any of the cities that we had visited before.
Unfortunately, we’d already made our reservation for two days at a beachfront Airbnb. it was too late to cancel, so we headed down to our rental house. We spent 45 minutes trying to find the place, because many of the streets in Mahahual are not named. At the rental house, the host gave us a tour, all while we were being constantly attacked by mosquitos. The house was hacienda-style, so the kitchen and the bedrooms were separated and open to the air.
That night, the bugs got even worse. All the windows had screens, but the bugs found nooks and crannies in the roof and the walls and still managed to get in, somehow. We spent the evening killing mosquitoes, biting ants, and other bugs. I counted at least 20 lizards on the walls of our bedroom. Although harmless, even the lizards got to be annoying. I even squashed a few cockroaches hiding under our luggage. Every time we stepped out on the balcony; we were instantly attacked by mosquitoes. At one point, I remember killing 4 at the same time on my son’s calf. It was impossible to be outside even for a few minutes.
We were all miserable, and the water was too dirty to swim in, so the following morning, we left Mahahual. My wife and I agreed that Mahahual wasn't worth visiting again and we wouldn't go back again. We discussed driving all the way to Tulum, but we had visited Tulum before, and the whole point of our trip was to explore the southern part of Quintana Roo, which was all new territory to us.
My wife started hunting for things to do on her cellphone and discovered the cenotes. The cenotes are star attractions in Bacalar. These natural sinkholes are spectacularly beautiful and fill with water from underground rivers. The most famous cenotes in the Bacalar region are Cenote Azul (Blue Cenote), Cenote Cocalitos, Cenote Esmeralda, and Cenote de La Bruja, ‘the Witch’s Cenote’; but there are many more worth seeing.
“Why don’t we go see what they’re like, and try to find an early brunch?” she asked.
Restaurante Cenote Azul in Bacalar
I agreed, gladly. We drove about 30 minutes and saw a sign on the side of the freeway for the Cenote Azul. We exited the freeway and turned almost immediately into a parking lot (there was plenty of free parking, and an attendant watching the cars, which is always nice). We tipped the attendant a few pesos and he directed us to the cenote’s entrance. There is a small charge to get in, even to the restaurant and shops that were right there on the water, which seemed kind of odd, but the worker told us that the fee goes to the upkeep of the cenote.
We were seated by a hostess at a booth overlooking the water in the Restaurante Cenote Azul, which is the main restaurant overlooking the cenote. The restaurant was undergoing some renovations when we visited, but the kitchen and dining areas were mostly open. They had live music with a traditional Mexican banda.
The cenote itself is gorgeous, a dark blue sinkhole with a small swimming area. There were about 20 people swimming in the cenote when we arrived, most of them looked like European tourists. Although I couldn’t understand the language they were speaking, it sounded like Romanian and/or French, and perhaps another Eastern European language.
Note: The reviews on TripAdvisor for Restaurante Cenote Azul are somewhat negative. I’m glad we didn’t check TripAdvisor before visiting this place, because it may have dissuaded us from visiting. We personally had a good experience here. My wife and I ordered several dishes to try, mostly seafood, but we also had some great guacamole as an appetizer. My main course was an octopus dish which was superb. The beers and drinks were reasonable prices. Our kids ordered burgers and pasta, which they all seemed to enjoy. I don’t think that you should miss this cenote, and if you do visit the restaurant, I suggest ordering the seafood, which I thought was great.
We finished our meal, which ended up being about 600 pesos ($30 USD) and left the cenote. Although we had our gear with us, we were anxious to drop off our luggage and see our new Airbnb in Bacalar, which we had booked just a few hours earlier. My wife made the reservation, asking the host pertinent questions before we booked. This time, we confirmed that the rental was a modern townhome (not hacienda-style) just in case Bacalar had a similar problem with bugs.
As soon as we arrived at our townhome, we were pleasantly surprised. It was clean, private with many amenities, and it had a small, modern kitchen. The house had 3 bathrooms, 3 bedrooms, a washer/dryer on the roof, a clothesline, and wi-fi. The price was also less than half of our disastrous bug-infested rental in Mahahual. There were several small grocery stores within walking distance to pick up milk, coffee, and snacks. Our Airbnb was a superhost, very attentive. And the price was right—about USD 90 per night. We were delighted. Our advice if you are booking a short-term rental in this region:
By the time we dropped off our bags and explored the rental, it was around 2PM. Our rental was only two blocks from the Bacalar lagoon, so we decided to swim.
Cenote Cocalitos in Bacalar
We flipped a coin and ended up at Cenote Cocalitos, a nice swimming area with swings and hammocks in the water.
There is a free dirt parking lot across the street, but not attendant, so don’t bring any valuables and leave them in your car. There’s a small entrance fee to get in, about 30 pesos ($1.50 USD) per person. There are plenty of tables and chairs for guests, as well as free private bathrooms for men and women.
The small restaurant onsite offered a good limited menu, including surprisingly good French fries, excellent ceviche, plus sodas and beer. The food and drinks are reasonably priced, and they let us bring in a small fabric cooler to keep our bottled waters cold. It wasn’t that crowded, although there were about 10 other families there, as well as larger group of young German tourists.
We spent a relaxed afternoon swimming and enjoying cheap food and drinks. The water was warm and the landscape around us was beautiful. There are some stromatolites, a type of reef-like rock formations that can only be found in certain climates. There are signs posted asking tourists not to touch them, but you can take pictures.
After sunset, we went back to our rental and relaxed for a few hours before going back out to explore the main town. Bacalar is a small city, but it has a beautiful downtown area with great shopping, fantastic street food, nice restaurants, and even a little museum. The downtown is on a grid so it was easy to get around. We walked and checked out the shops. We were offered several types of lake tours, as well as options for kayaking, fishing and more. There were lots of families with kids around and we felt safe downtown.
Downtown Bacalar is a foodie’s paradise. There were so many different restaurants to choose from, but we ended up at a small place called La Pozoleria, whose featured dish was—you guessed it—pozole. They offered two different types, red and white, and we ordered both to try. We also had fantastic tacos! After dinner, which cost less than 500 pesos (about $25 USD) for all five of us for food and drinks, we went walking.
My wife wanted something sweet for desert and quickly discovered several street vendors selling “marquesitas” from carts. We chose one of the more popular carts, Marquesitas y Crepas Bacalar, which had a long line.
Marquesitas are a local specialty, a pastry-type dessert—it tastes like a waffle cone that’s cooked flat and filled with delectable fillings. There were all different kinds of filling available, including savory and sweet. We ordered two with Nutella and fresh strawberries and they were delicious! Pick one up for a tasty snack that you can eat on the go. You'll be able to eat it with your fingers. You won't be disappointed and neither will your taste buds. We ended up ordering three more that first night because the kids each wanted one of their own.
Balneario Ejidal Mágico Bacalar Waterpark
We spent the next four days exploring the lagoon and visiting different cenotes. We strongly recommend visiting the Balneario Ejidal Mágico Bacalar: This is a family water park that includes waterslides and mini-raft rides for exploring the lagoon.
The entrance fee is very affordable (less than 50 pesos per person). It is a favorite for locals to bring their families, and we ended up taking our kids here twice, and we paid the entrance fee and fed them all a simple lunch for less than $30 for the entire day. There are lots of palapas and an affordable restaurant that offers a full menu. The ceviche and tacos were great.
The water is shallow until very far out, and swimming is safe for children, except for small toddlers. Our 6-year-old wore floaties (she can doggie-paddle well enough, but we felt safer with her wearing floaties). Our 8-year-old's head and shoulders were well above the water level.
We even booked a 4-hour morning tour on the lake, which the kids loved. Here are five great activities to do in Bacalar that the whole family can enjoy!
The entire trip was entertaining for the whole family, and we are already looking forward to our next visit to Bacalar!
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Just a middle-class family with three young kids, looking to escape the rat race. This is our journey!
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