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Find 'The Little Maldives' In Mexico

Posted by Emily Henkel on 5/19/23 8:00 AM

ILP Mexico

Spend a few days hanging on the turquoise water in bungalows without ever leaving Mexico. Welcome to Lake Bacalar. 

When I first saw pictures of this place, I could not believe it was in Mexico. The whole experience feels like you're hanging out in some ultra luxurious island chain like the Maldives, but you just took a short flight over (or bus ride, if you're already living in Mexico as an ILP volunteer!).

This place is unreal, the stuff magazines and Instagrams posts are all about. Think baby-blue water, fringed with beachy bungalows and rows of swaying palm trees. After an afternoon in actual paradise, you’ll wonder why any other spot in Mexico is weirdly more famous? Not sure why this gem isn’t the face of all things Mexico because it’s pretty much perfect. Oh, and isn’t quite yet flooded with tourists.  Love, love, love.

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A few pictures of this place and you can see why it’s somewhere you absolutely have to visit. The beyond blue lagoon is fringed with lakeside cabins, paddleboarding tours early enough to catch the golden sunrise over the Caribbean-esque water, and more …. this lake is our newest item on our “I love Mexico” list. And to make your trip here a breeze, we’ve planned in all out for you.

ILP Adventure in Mexico

Wait, This Place Is A Lake? 

Yep, despite what these pictures tell you, Lake Bacalar isn’t a gorgeous stretch of beach hiding in the Caribbean or in the South Pacific, but a freshwater lake. True story. Lake Bacalar is long and narrow, sandwiched on the eastern side of the Yucatan peninsula, bordering Belize. The water is that stunning blue color thanks to a white limestone bottom — the color varies all over the 24 mile lake, with pockets of deep blue and strips of that Caribbean-esque blue. 

This lake is sometimes nicknamed the "Lagoon of Seven Colors" thanks to the varying shades of blue you can see in the water. It's also named "the Little Maldives" because the vibes of the water are so similar to that set of dreamy islands.

There are sections shallow enough to just hang out in that unbelievably clear (and stunning shades of baby blue) as well as deeper sections ideal for taking a catamaran out.

ILP Mexico


ILP Mexico

Things To Do + Around Lake Bacalar 

*As a quick heads up, the lagoon is technically closed on Wednesdays to help preserve the environment, so you will see some tour operations and other resources closed once a week for this purpose. The restaurants around the lake are also closed, so staying in an Airbnb that has a kitchen so you can do some shopping the day before and make your own meals on Wednesday might be a good idea. 

Go For A Boat Tour 

Apart from going for a swim, this is one of the most popular things to do here. There are sailing adventures you can hire out for the day to help you explore more of the lagoon than you could see from the shore. Most boat tours take you to the channels used by pirates years ago, and the chance to see the mangroves up close (and jump in for a swim). 

Keep an eye out for companies who will take you out to Canal de Los Pirates, a narrow strip of the lake that has the most electric blue water. There’s a big abandoned boat on the shores which supposedly was almost renovated for a restaurant, but was reassigned due to some environmental concerns. Instead, it turned into a local art project, with artists coming to redecorate the structure with a nautical theme. You can climb all over the boat, or hang out in the shallow water. 

Cenote la Bruja (Witch’s Cenote) and Isla de los Pajaros (Bird Island) are two other stops to maybe look out for when booking a boat tour. 

Bacalar Boat Tours is a popular option for cruising the lake via boat. Find their office at Calle 14 8, Centro, 77930 Bacalar, Q.R., Mexico. They have a 2.5 hour tour for about 250 pesos where you’ll visit different sections of the lake and some swimming.

The Gaia Experience is another tour to check out: they have sailing excursion but also offer things like tubing or wakeboarding. 

ILP groups in the past have gone out with Day Tour for an afternoon on the catamaran (though their website has lots of other tour options).

ILP Mexico

ILP Mexico

Rent Kayaks 

No shame if all you want to do is paddle out to the lake for a peaceful float or take snooze on the lakeside docks. Lake Bacalar is all about relaxation. But if you’re up for a bit of fun, there are lots of water sports on the lake and kayaking is one of the top choices. 

You’ll find quite a few tour options depending on what takes your fancy. We’ve talked about our favorite place to stay which has kayak rentals for free, which is a huge perk. That same place also has a paddle boarding tour, or you can book with someone else, like Paddle Bacalar.

This Sunrise SUP Adventure 

So we’ll get to the details of this place when we talk about places to stay, but we’re huge fans of the Yak Lake House. They do a 6:30 AM stand up paddle board tour which is dreamy. Think about waking up early as you paddle out in time to see the golden sun crest over the calm waters. The tour also has you visiting a nearby cenote in the lake, and a paddle over to the Pirate’s Lagoon for some swimming. Talk about the most ideal way to start your morning. 

Their activities do change week to week (see their schedule here) but other options are just as lovely — they’ve been known to host sunset kayak trips, bonfires and burgers out on the beach, cooking lessons, and some day trips to different sections of the lake.

ILP Mexico

Swim In Cenotes

There are a few highlights on the lake itself, mainly a couple of cenotes which are water-filled swimming holes typically found in the jungle. Some of our favorite cenotes are in nearby Tulum by the way. But on Lake Bacalar, there are some sinkholes that are a part of the lake, making for deep blue pools under that turquoise water.

There are several around the lagoon, with Cenote Azule as the most popular. It's deep, plunging down some 300+ feet! The effect is quite the scene, creating a deep royal blue hole compared with the shallow, aqua water surrounding the lake (this is actually a bit of a misnamed cenote, as Azule is more like a stand-alone lake than a cenote, but it's still a popular activity with visitors!). 

Cenote Esmeralda and Cenote Negro are two cenotes found on the coast of the lake (and is a frequent stop for boat tours around the lagoon). 

Explore San Felipe Fortress 

Built in 1733, this imposing fortress has quite the history. To tell the story, we'll need to step back a few years, back when the whole area of Bacalar was invaded by the conquistadors in the 1500s. The lagoon was used as a safe haven for ships, which obviously became a target for pirates. The town was repeatedly pillaged by pirates until San Felipe commissioned for this star-shaped fortress to be built to protect against attacks. 

It now serves as a museum where you can tour the fortress and admire the still-standing cannons (and glimpses of what the space looked like when it was used as barracks). Plan on about 30-60 minutes here and plenty of opportunities to soak in the view of the lagoon below. 

ILP Mexico

Go Zip Lining 

See this gorgeous spot from above as you zip through the nearby jungle and catch glimpses of the blue lagoons. There are a handful of companies around, but most have you take a 2-3 hour experience over several towers that help you get the height you need to launch off. This is a popular tour option if you'd like to start there as a reference point to what tours are like. 

ILP Mexico

ILP Mexico

The Place You Have To Stay At

The Yak Lake House

This gem is right on the lake with a private dock, and free kayak rentals. That means you can wake up in the morning, snag a kayak and paddle through the lily-filled shallows until you reach the pristine blue water of the lagoon. Yes, please. They also sometimes have SUP tours during the day, which are also a huge hit. Need more convincing? It’s a 15 minute walk from the ADO station, and within 5 minutes of some favorite places to eat. Book here. 

Morgan House

If you can't get a stop at the Yak Lake House, Morgan House is a good second choice. Come for the rooftop hang out and the location which is right by the lagoon. There’s also free breakfast with is a big perk. They’re in a good location, about half a mile away from the city center so an easy walk to some of the fav restaurants. Another thing we love? The hostel has a mascot, a bulldog named Morgan who really likes to skateboard (no joke).  Book here. 

Blue Monkey Hostel 

Need another spot in this price range? Found right on the lagoon with a pier, Blue Monkey is more rustic, with reports of really bare-bone rooms that lack hot water on occasion and no A/C. It’s also good to know that this spot is down at the southern edge of the lake which is away from the action, but it's easy on the budget.  Book here. 

Airbnbs + Hotels

Another popular option are the Airbnbs in the area, spanning a whole range of budgets and amenities. If it's helpful, past ILP groups have stayed at this house, that had the basics included and a good location. 

Another group stayed at the Hotel America, which has A/C, is just by the lake, and is a short walk to the center of town. 

One ILP group stayed at this hotel (we love that it has a pool in case you don't get your fill of swimming in the lake during the day). 

ILP Adventure

ILP Adventure

Where To Eat 

While I’m sure you’ll want to spend every second in this pristine water just lounging around, you’ve got to visit the Bacalar town, at least to try out a few restaurants.

Mr. Taco 

Come for tacos, obviously. Supposedly the most authentic place around, you can get plates of beyond yummy tacos, quesadillas,  and burritos.  Test out options like shrimp burritos, a cream and spinach option, ceviche tostadas, and a thick and spicy mole that’s good on pretty much everything. It’s a total favorite you’ll want to eat at a few times, especially since they keep prices low.

Address: Centro, 77930 Bacalar, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Hours: No set time, but open for lunch and dinner.

El Manati

Brunch was made for days on vacation, right? You’ll find a rad, hippie vibe on this popular breakfast and brunch spot serving up dishes like top notch smoothies, good coffee and cappuccinos,  plus local favorites like fish tacos, coconut ceviche, eggs with tortillas and beans, omelets, and piles of fresh fruit options. Yum. There are also perks like free WiFi, outdoor seating in their little garden area, an art gallery, and help booking tours around the lake if you ask.

Address: Calle 22 116, Centro, 77930 Bacalar, Q.R., Mexico
Hours: 8:00 AM to 3:30 PM 

El Pejelagarto

A favorite for all the good reasons — fabulous guacamole, fresh ceviche, dishes like coconut shrimp, and lots of options for the catch of the day. The location is right by a busy road which can cause some noise but the food really is so good it kinda cancels that out.

Address: Calle 19 Libramiento 92, Luis Donaldo Colosio, 77930 Bacalar, Q.R., 
Hours: 8:00 AM to 7:00 PM

ILP Mexico

Getting To Lake Bacalar 

From Cancun 

This is a perfect trip to tack on if you're in the Cancun area. Hop on an ADO bus to Bacalar. It’s about a 4 to 5 hour drive south, and costs around $25 USD for a one-way ticket, with several departures each day. Book your tickets here.  Get more info on Cancun right here if you’ll be spending some time in this popular city.

From Chetumal 

If you’re nearby in Chetumal, it’s only a 45 minute bus ride, which can also be booked on ADO but for about $2 - $5.  Book your tickets here. Or you can split a taxi if you’re traveling with a group which is typically in the $40 or $50 range on the high end of things, which you can split. 

ILP Mexico

ILP Mexico

Come to Mexico with us! 

We're accepting applications for a semester in Mexico — come volunteer here and have weekends off plus vacation days to travel all around Mexico and Central America. 

Discover Mexico


Topics: Central America

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We are ILP, a Utah-based non-profit org that has service abroad opportunities for college-age volunteers. We love travel so we're sharing all our tips for making the most of your time living abroad + seeing the world, and how to do it all on the tiniest budget.

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