Why Bacalar, Mexico has the allure of Tulum and, so far, none of the crowds


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My first impression when hovering over a Hobie Cat is how Bacalar, Mexico resembles the Caribbean. This 50 km lagoon near the Belize border is known for its many shades of aquamarine. Travelers like me come expressly for these glowing waters, which have none of the crowds of Tulum and Cancun.

But more and more visitors (200,000 in 2019) are venturing into this region of tangled mangroves and dense jungle, and a handful of thoughtful, design-oriented hotels have opened to serve them. -tent-style rooms last month. Yet those who make Bacalar a destination have seen the consequences of overtourism in Mexico, including Tulum, about two hours north, and are determined to prevent the same from happening here. “The ecosystem in the Tulum region has been severely damaged, and it is a vivid example of what to avoid and reverse if economic interests once again take precedence over ecological needs,” says Sofia Lynch, co-owner of the boutique. Casa Hormiga hotel, another novelty.

Quiet balconies at the Casa Hormiga hotel in Bacalar, Mexico

Casa Hormiga Bacalar

The entrance to the hotel

Casa Hormiga Bacalar

Stromatolites, spongy microorganisms several million years old, hide under the shallow waters of the lagoon, giving them their color and stabilizing this ecosystem. But these fragile reef-like formations are easily destroyed and will take millennia to grow back. The area follows a low impact development policy that limits the number of hotel rooms allowed per square foot and prohibits large construction on the shore. Signs warn visitors not to touch the stromatolites and the use of boats is severely restricted.

It is even more urgent to limit the number of visitors, suggests Lynch, to ensure that business owners properly educate their customers on how to interact with the environment. She and her husband moved to Bacalar in 2009, when there were only a few businesses and foreigners in town, and opened a small cafe that turned into a beach club before becoming Casa Hormiga the last year. By working with tour operators, such as Bacalar Sailing, who share best green practices, and encourage guests to be aware of how they use air conditioning and water, the couple hope to create a more responsible environment. The same goes for Habitas. “Educating guests about the importance and fragility of stromatolites is crucial for their preservation,” said co-founder and CEO Oliver Ripley. As part of its conservation strategy, the hotel collaborated with the local NGO Agua Clara to support the monitoring of the lagoon, as well as with the community Ejido Noh-Bec and One Tree Planted to set up a reforestation program. local. At Macario Bacalar, a restaurant set in an open courtyard, chef Ricardo Méndez (formerly de Pujol in Mexico City) serves spicy nopal tostadas. Méndez is working to launch a sustainable food festival to raise awareness and support the city.

On the Hobie Cat, we cruise along milky blue water for three hours, passing gnarled mangroves, sucking lychees, marveling at stromatolites and stopping for a dip where we sink our toes into the squelchy white limestone soil , with no other tourists in sight. It’s beautiful, but back on shore, the water is temporarily brown from sediment washed away by recent flooding. It is a reminder of the fragility of the lagoon. But also that we, as travelers, have the chance to protect it.

This article appeared in the September / October 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.


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