A mid-December holiday beckoned us to sun and fun. Wanting to explore the Yucatan Peninsula, a friend from Mexico said, “Let’s go to Bacalar!”
Relatively quick and cheap flights from the southern U.S. to Cancun make travel easy. Leaving the Cancun International Airport, it’s about an hour and a half drive to Tulum barring delays due to construction or accidents. New to us were roads having a lane and a half going each way. Luckily, our friend was driving, but you quickly learn how to drive and pass by watching the other cars navigate.
Larger and busier than expected, Tulum still offers pleasurable walking. Bicycle paths through much of the city provide a great way to avoid the traffic and to see life passing by at a slower pace.
An early morning start to see the Tulum Ruins pays off in avoiding the crowds that arrive by mid-morning. Spectacularly located overlooking the rolling, blue ocean, paths lead you around different ruins that you view from a distance. We stumbled (almost literally) over several iguanas here. They are masters of camouflage!
As part of the fee to the ruins, you can also buy entrances to the cave tour and cenote at Aktun Chen. To find this nature park, you drive a dirt road through a jungle for about 20 minutes.The guided cave tour is an easy, dry walk with an underground lake as its grand finale.
Another short drive leads to the cenote. Upon arrival, locker rooms, showers and life jackets await. Step down a few stairs and, voila, you enter a pristine lake nestled within a cave. For some, it takes a bit to get used to the cool water, but once you do, exploring the two large caverns is exhilarating! Visits are not time limited. We spent over an hour with just our group and one other couple. Another small group joined us just before we left. (TRAVEL TIP: Bring a small dry bag for your camera. It will make taking pictures more enjoyable.)
Nearby, Los Primos in Chemuyil delivers a welcoming atmosphere and excellent ceviche and tacos for a late lunch.
A recommendation by our waiter, the tranquility of Akumal beach creates a perfect setting for a memorable sunset walk.
Vibrant nighttime streets in Tulum buzz with street food vendors, fruit stands, restaurants and shops. We bought glazed clay bowls for guacamole and small musical instruments for patio fiestas at home. The Argentinian restaurant, El Sudaca, charms with a breezy vibe to go along with its tasty chimichurri!
On the drive south, the Muyil Mayan Ruins let you feel like Indiana Jones discovering lost civilizations.
Also at Muyil, book a boat to take you into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. This saves time for those who don’t want to drive to the bioreserve’s main location in Punta Allen. A twenty minute jungle walk on a boardwalk takes you to the embarkation point on Laguna Chunyaxché. Once on the boat, the captain smoothly navigates across the lagoon and into the mangrove canals. Ultimately, you can jump into the canal and let a slow current take you and your life jacket for a 30 minute ride through the mangroves where the Captain meets you at the end. (Although a small crocodile was spotted along the way, the Captain gave assurances that “most” don’t come out until nighttime!)
Driving another couple of hours south takes you to the town of Bacalar, about 50 kilometers north of the Belize border. For our stay with a group of six, our rented house also included a guest house and a private dock with kayaks. Only a ten minute drive to the plaza made for a convenient location.
The town of Bacalar welcomes with a large central plaza for strolling and admiring the blue-green lagoon. Busy restaurants and cafes line the streets. We didn’t venture far while taking nighttime strolls but were able to find everything in close vicinity to the plaza.
In the mornings, stop at Mercado Municipal de Bacalar to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, homemade tortillas and fresh fish from Pescaderia del Guero. (They also have a second larger store that is not in the center of town.) What a treat to cook and eat fresh fish!
We packed ceviche, guacamole and maduros from El Taco Loco for our boat outing on Laguna Bacalar, known as the Lagoon of the Seven Colors, The boat picked us up at our dock for two and a half hours that included swimming at three locations and visiting three cenotes. Unlike the boat trip at the protected biosphere reserve, this lagoon had several boats and jet skis although not overwhelmingly so. If you visit Bacalar, you’ll definitely want to reserve a boat excursion!
Walking through the forests at the Mayan Ruins of Kohunlich rewards the visitor with canopies of large, vibrant tropical foliage. Amazingly, we experienced these ruins practically by ourselves with only a handful of other guests in the whole area. Walking through these timeworn structures inspires awe. We almost missed the Temple of the Masks when we were trying to outrun the mosquitos Glad we didn’t!
To access the ruins at Dzibanche, it’s necessary to pay locals for use of the road. The government still maintains the ruins and its nearby roads, but the outer road between the main highway and the park road is not maintained and makes for slow driving. But, it is more than worth it!! Again, we found ourselves as adventurers stumbling upon undiscovered treasures…crossing paths with practically no one at the whole site.
Closeby at Kinichna stands the tallest pyramid in the area, the House of the Sun. It’s built in four levels which means you climb for a while then have a grassy terrace then more steps to climb up to the next level. Standing on top of this towering, hallowed pyramid, with the vista of the jungle encircling you, is one of those moments you breathe slowly and try to capture the image to last a lifetime.
Stops Along the Way:
Yes to Puerto Moreles! A 30 minute drive from the airport, this cute and lively town invites you to spend more time. We stopped by both times that we passed by it. Check out the restaurant El Merkadito Seafood and Beach Club. Hope to return to Puerto Moreles on future trips!
No to Mahahual! What probably used to be a quaint seaport now welcomes cruise ships and its throngs. While we were there, four ships were docked. The walkway with a beach view is comfortable, but the constant contact with vendors selling souvenirs, massages or places to sit is not relaxing. From here, our friends hired a boat for an incredible snorkeling trip to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world. Find a less touristy location to depart for snorkeling and avoid this stop if you can.
Unplanned, joyous moments always pop up during travels. To wait out a downpour before visiting the Mayan Ruins Kohunlich, we backtracked to the only sign of civilization we had passed. Luckily, The Explorean Kohunlich welcomed us to watch the FIFA WorldCup finals with guests, coffee and croissants.