Discovering Laguna Bacalar by Boat

by Mari Pintkowski (May 2013)

After an enlightening tour of the lagoon at Bacalar by pontoon boat, Marisol mentioned that our captain, Jeovany, should learn to speak English. I disagreed and let her know how different this area of the Yucatan Peninsula is from our home in Tulum and her experiences with the more international tourist towns of Playa del Carmen and Cancun.

Bacalar's tourist base is predominantly Mexican or at least native Spanish speakers. It looks like Lou and I once again are in the minority, Marisol being from Mexico City. When we hired a shared boat for a three-to-four-hour tour on Mexico's second largest lake (42 miles long), we did not think to ask for an English-speaking captain; after all, we have lived in Mexico for over eight years. The other couple who shared our boat was from Canada and spoke limited Spanish like ourselves.

We had no idea that we would be getting an historical tour in addition to the opportunity to soak in the beauty of the "Lake of Seven Colors." Marisol acted as our interpreter, and as Jeovany spoke, his words opened our eyes to the rich past that centered on the lake. This tour was turning out to be a history buff's dream. With the air of a storyteller, Jeovany began to unravel the past as we cruised along, shaded from the rays of the mid-day sun. I sat behind him trying to focus on the Spanish words that rolled off his tongue.

In 1528 the Spaniards arrived in Bacalar and two years later left, tired and discouraged. Why? Why? The fort was built with two distinct structures, one was tall and called Alto or something, and the short one was called JesusMary??? In 1974, this was a forgotten land. What does this have to do with the Spaniards and Maya in the 14th century? ... I am so confused.

Soon, I found myself straining to hear Marisol's translation and realized just how much of the story I was missing with my mediocre Spanish skills.

When the Spanish departed after being unable to conquer the indigenous people in 1530, the Maya began to settle down and live a life of peace and contentment. Twelve years later the Spanish took them by surprise and created much devastation and sorrow for these peaceful people. Gaspar Pacheco, the leader of the conquistadors, named this newly conquered land Salamanca de Bacalar. It was the first city in the region to be captured by the Spanish.

In the early 1700s, the pirates began to invade the territory and the Spanish built a strong fortification whose remnants still stand today. The Catholic religion dominated this new culture and the saint's names like Santa Ana and San Antonio began to replace the ones created by the original inhabitants.

As we meandered along the lake, we were treated to an even more interesting story about Mother Nature's role in creating this lagoon with shades of blue that ranged from turquoise to sapphire.

Because I am familiar with the trees and plant growth of the area, I shifted my focus back to Jeovany's words that once again left missing links in my comprehension. I understood how the length of the lagoon could be 60 kilometers or 36 miles from one end to the other and 70 kilometers if you maneuvered along the coastline the way Marisol and I did in the kayak early this morning.

I had read on the Internet about the oldest living organisms on earth, stromatolites, which were discovered in the rocks that border or formed island chains from Rancho Encantado, the hotel where we departed, for six and a half miles or 10 kilometers to the rapids near the south end of the lake. The stromatolites are formed in shallow water by trapping, binding and solidifying the sedimentary particles. The historical perspective of being in the presence of living formations over three-and half-million-years old was beyond comprehension. Jeovany also mentioned that there are 15 other places in the world where stromatolites exist. I lost him again as he explained the significance of these organisms, so I switched my focus back to Marisol's explanation in English. Now I was really confused!

I gazed at the waves that lapped the shore and took in the breathtaking view while I thought about what Jeovany was telling us about one of the locals who still allowed camping on his property that is bordered by these treasured rocks. With a hint of sadness, he told us that 80% of the local population does not know the lagoon because they don't have access by boat, and don't protect its unique properties.

As we passed the San Felipe Fort, built in the shape of a four- point star, with each point being named after a different Catholic saint, Jeovany told us that the fort is situated directly across the lagoon from the pirate's canal. For further protection from the pirates, a four meter or 12-foot-deep moat was built around the stone structure. Today the fort houses a museum with plaques in both English and Spanish and is open to the public. If you plan to visit, check the Bacalar website for exact hours of operation. They do close for afternoon siesta, putting perspective on the traditional mode of operation this town follows vs. what you will find in other tourist towns on the Peninsula. The fort was later used in 1848, during the Caste War, as a point of defense against the Maya who left the fort in ruins and eventually drove the Spaniards out. The town and lake remained in the hands of the Maya until much later in the 1900s.

The focus of the tour switched again from historical information to what we were seeing in front of our eyes. Bacalar (Bak' halal) in the Mayan language means "place surrounded by reeds." As our boat motored closer to the shore, it was easy to see that unless you have a first-hand experience of being at the waters' edge, you may not realize where the name originates from. Like the mangroves close to the Caribbean, the grass or reeds along the edge of the lagoon acts as a filter to keep the water clean. Jeovany asked if we knew the four things that helped to give the lagoon its splendor. We could name a few, such as depth and sunlight, but weren't sure what the other two were. One, calcium carbonate was not a surprise with all the limestone covering the surface of the Peninsula, but the last one was a complete surprise to all of us: snails.

These land snails find a solid surface at the water's edge to deposit their eggs. During the maturation process, a yellow "bee-hive looking" formation appears. This later hardens to form a shell. As the snails grow older, they fall from the trees, dirt and rocks and proliferate from July to January. They eventually drop their outgrown shells along the shore. The snails have become an endangered species, but are NOT PROTECTED. People collect bagfuls and sell them in Cancun and Merida to be used in making ceviche. If the snails disappear, the lake will lose its luster.

Jeovany's next topic was four of the nine cenotes that are located within the perimeter of the lagoon. One that we found interesting was Cenote Negra or Cenote de la Bruja. It is located below the state teachers' college. Our captain told us that in order to build the school, they had to "kick the witch out" and, with that move, she cast a spell that there would be deaths. Jeovany and the other locals believe that there are remains of bones, watches, jewelry and other objects lying at the bottom, but would not attempt the dive for superstitious reason.

As our boat entered into the dark patch with a depth of 200 to 600 feet, we could see where the limestone shelf dropped off. I took a deep breath and was tempted to dive in, but am a chicken when it comes to cold water, A N D no one else had an inclination to explore the black surface, much less the depths. He took us close to the shore where the water was entering the lagoon from a hole in the rocks. This, he poetically explained, is "where the lake is born." He let us know that most of the water flowing from this spring is natural and travels through the underground river system from as far away as Chiapas.

We motored on to Cenote Bacalar which is a gorgeous turquoise color, and then a little farther on to the smaller Cenote Coquitos. We were not able to see the better-known and largest one of all, Cenote Azul, because of vegetation growth. This one is 300 feet deep and 600 feet in diameter and is believed to be the clearest of all. You can access this tourist site, that has a lovely restaurant, from the main highway.

Pirates always seemed fascinating to me because of the boisterous, fun-loving characters that were portrayed in movies, but these British pirates by the name of Wallace and Abraham were most certainly not the jolly type—in fact after attacking the town and brutally taking and torturing its women, the Spanish decided to build the San Felipe Fort in 1729 for protection. The pirates would park their ships in the Chetumal harbor and row in boats with 20 to 30 men through a manmade canal that was also fortified with two sets of large, wooden gates. Jeovany also informed us that the pirates and traders from the neighboring state of Campeche were seeking precious wood that was abundant in the area.

Because we did not arrange for the four-hour tour, we did not have the option to go farther down toward the rapids. Jeovany explained that he did not have enough gasoline, but would extend our tour a bit in another manner.

We turned around and headed north along the other side of the lagoon. We passed a bird nesting island and saw long-legged birds feeding on the organisms in the rocks. The water had a pinkish hue in this shallow area. The sulfur smell attacked our senses as we passed a low-lying area where dead vegetation was exposed to the air, causing decaying organisms. We asked about hurricane destruction along the lagoon and Jeovany said the wind does cause damage, but the lake rarely overflows as it is nine meters or 28 feet above sea level.

From a distance we spotted an ugly boat structure creeping out of the lagoon. As we got closer, we saw that it was not a ship, but the remains of a bar and restaurant that was never finished at the entrance of the pirates' canal.

The channel was about five meters wide and less than a kilometer long. During the era of pirate invasions, the Spaniards constructed two sets of wooden gates about 30 feet apart. The remains of the foundation can still be seen below the clear water as we slowly maneuvered through to the shallow Crystaline Lagoon and then through a manmade canal that ended in the Mariscal Lagoon. The pirates had to row against the tide and pass through the gates and then across the lagoon to the fort in order to enter the city. On the return trip they had the current in their favor but had the wind in their faces. When we asked if we could swim in the lagoon, Jeovany smiled broadly and told us that crocodiles have been spotted here, so he did not recommend it—but soon we would get the option to swim. An interesting sidenote is that a local rancher constructed the last section of the canal as a shortcut to the mainland. Jeovany said he has explored many of the smaller tributaries leading off from the main lake, but there are many others that he would like to investigate someday.

We turned around in the Mariscal Lagoon and headed back against the current with the help of the blast of wind and stopped beside the ruins of the pirate ship restaurant. Jeovany gave us the opportunity to climb down the ladder and sink our feet into the white sand before floating off to swim on our own. When he mentioned that the sand was good for your skin, the three women dug down to the bottom and covered our bodies with the sand, without a thought of its unpleasant sulfur smell.

After a rejuvenating experience, we climbed back in the boat and motored across the lagoon to Hotel Rancho Encantado and our home away from home, Casa Estrella.

It is said that there is a high level of educated persons in the town of Bacalar due to the location of the State Teachers College built on the shores of the lake. This, along with the distinction of being awarded one of Mexico's Magic Towns (Pueblo Mágico) and the financial resources that come with the title, will enable them to preserve not only the historical town of Bacalar, but the stunning lagoon of seven colors as well.

Yes, Laguna Bacalar is one of the Yucatan's best-kept secrets, but my hope in sharing this story is to introduce it to more international travelers, so that it will make others, including the local children, aware of just what a precious gem this turquoise ribbon that weaves through the jungle at their back door really is.
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