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Blues worth pursuing to the Mayan Riviera

Looking out at the lagoon in Bacalar, Mexico, just north of the Belize border, from the San Felipe Fort, built by the Spaniards in the 18th century, and from a catamaran in the Pirate’s Channel. Looking out at the lagoon in Bacalar, Mexico, just north of the Belize border, from the San Felipe Fort, built by the Spaniards in the 18th century, and from a catamaran in the Pirate’s Channel. (Photos By David Biller for The Boston Globe)
By David Biller
Globe Correspondent / June 12, 2011

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BACALAR, Mexico — The water’s full expression of blue — from aquamarine to turquoise, indigo to azure — gently tugs at me, inviting me to venture in. This same sensation can be felt on the white sand beaches of the Caribbean or the Maldives, but something sets Mexico’s Bacalar Lagoon apart.

I can’t quite put my finger on it until I cup the water in my hands and pour it over my hair and face to cool off. The water is fresh. I can dive into it and swim with my eyes open, taking everything in.

This pristine place, colloquially known as the Lagoon of Seven Colors, is a half hour north of the Chetumal airport on the Belize border, yet scarcely known compared with other Mayan Riviera destinations closer to Cancún.

I kayak back through the Pirate’s Channel, and the sleepy town of Bacalar comes into sight, spread along the lagoon’s western shore. The 18th-century San Felipe Fort that the Spanish built to defend against pirates stands in stark contrast to the town’s peaceful vibe. Today, the fort is a well-kept museum chronicling the rich history of Mayan trade, Spanish conquest, and piracy.

There are two large Mayan ruins nearby, but the closest thing to a pirate ship I find is the catamaran at the end of the channel whose owner, Ramon, is the first person I have seen after five hours along the mangroves. With a smile peeking out from his bushy beard, he looks like a buccaneer who is quite content to never again return to the open ocean.

Indeed, this lagoon — a narrow waterway stretching 26 miles — would suffice for more than a few seamen. Much as the Mayans used the surrounding jungle’s hardwoods to make canoes, Ramon used local mahogany felled by a hurricane to build his catamaran’s deck. Upon it sit wooden chests and a table with everything you could possibly need for a morning on the water: two bird-watching guides, a jug of water, a bowl of fruit, and snorkel gear.

Ramon, clad only in skivvies, free dives into a cenote, or sinkhole, signaling to me to follow before he drops out of sight. I kick hard with my fins, going down and down, and discover the cenote’s stalactites. Cenotes deposit onto the lagoon’s bottom white calcium carbonate silt that, when struck by sunshine, reveals the resplendent blue spectrum.

I spend an afternoon staring at the blue palette from a beautiful palapa, a thatch-roofed structure by the water. In comfortable wooden furniture, I eat fish marinated in achiote (annato seeds) and cooked in a banana leaf. After dessert — mango bavarian cream with strawberry sauce — I move onto the dock, where a chair swinging out over the water is the perfect perch to finish my book, along with a few rum drinks. I cannot imagine a better place to while away the day.

One night I hear the distant, but distinct, sound of a Native American flute. It speaks of centuries past, and I follow its full and gloomy notes to a dock extending out over the lagoon. At its end stands the flautist, and I sit down beside him on the wooden planks to listen and look at the stars.

Eventually we get to talking. He came from the US Northwest a few days ago and, like me, wandered down to Bacalar on an exploratory whim. Tonight is his last night here. He has to meet his family in Cancún, but he wishes he had instead arranged for them to meet him in Bacalar.

He should kayak across the lagoon to the mangroves, I tell him, before he goes. So we make plans to meet at sunrise when the water will still be mirror-like, reflecting a celestial sky. On the far side of the Pirate’s Channel, there is no trace of modern civilization and he will see the lagoon as the Mayans did.

The sun will rise higher. Its rays will hit the silt just inches below his kayak’s hull. The water will fill up with blues of every shade, and he will feel it resonate within himself.

David Biller can be reached at david@davidbiller.com.

If You Go

Getting there
The cheapest way is to fly to Cancún and take the three-hour bus ride south to Bacalar on the ADO bus line, transferring in Playa del Carmen to the Mayab bus line. You can also fly to Mexico City, then fly to Chetumal airport on local airline Interjet ($200 round trip). A taxi from Chetumal to Bacalar is about $20.
Where to stay
Casita Carolina
17 Costera Bacalar
011-52-983-834-2334
www.casitacarolina.com
A few blocks from the central plaza, on the water with a yard and back patio. Cozy rooms and cabanas $25-$60.
Los Aluxes
Avenida Costera 69
011-52-983-152-5608
www.bacalarlagunazul.com
Elegant rooms with water views. Doubles from $100.
Where to eat
La Palapa
Avenida 5, off the central plaza
The Italian and American owners dish up thin-crust pizza, bruschetta, and pasta. Entrees $5-$13.
Gaia
Avenida 3, half a block from the San Felipe Fort
This comfortable vegetarian restaurant is a wonderful way to start your morning. Yoga classes in the upstairs studio overlooking the lagoon cost about $4.
Los Aluxes
Avenida Costera 69
011-52-983-834-2817
The hotel’s restaurant. Entrees $8-$17.
Rancho Encantado
Carretera Federal 307
877-229-2046
www.encantado.com
Traditional Yucatecan dishes. Entrees $8-$14.50.
What to do
Catamaran tour
011-52-983-120-6990
lagunakristal@hotmail.com
$135 for up to four people.
San Felipe Fort
Small but well-organized museum that tells the region’s history from Mayan times, $4.
Bird-watching tour
1-503-213-4064
This $42 motorboat tour for two lasts more than 2 hours. Each additional person $20.
Cenote de la Bruja
The nearest cenote to the town center, a short kayak ride away.
Cenote Azul
A 1.8-mile walk from town, or $2 taxi ride.