We ranked Habitas Bacalar on the bluest of blue lagoons in southern Quintana Roo, Mexico, near the border with Belize as one of the best new hotels of 2021. Here's why.
BACALAR, Mexico – I am a self-proclaimed water baby. I have swum in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and every corner of the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. I have drifted in the currents of the Nile and floated in the freshwater lagoons of northern Brazil. I have taken to cold, lake plunges in Seattle where I live and seek every opportunity to cliff jump into a freezing river. If there is water, I am in it.
So naturally, when I saw the Bacalar Lagoon for the first time, I knew that this was my place. What I was not prepared for was the unique feeling it gave me to swim in water that is so incredibly pure and clean that it simply takes your breath away. A stunning shade of blue-green said to have seven different hues, the lagoon changes color with the passing clouds and rhythm of the water. Fed by underground, mineral-rich, freshwater rivers, the milky water has little algae, few fish, and is remarkably pristine. Unlike any freshwater I have ever encountered, a swim in the Bacalar Lagoon is like plunging into a cool bath that has been tinted with too much food coloring; you can’t help but wonder what therapeutic powers it must possess. In a word, it is ethereal.
Clarity and color aren’t the only things that make this water special. Bacalar Lagoon is also home to a huge population of stromatolites, layered sedimentary rock formations containing microorganisms dating back billions of years. Vulnerable to changes in their environment, the rare stromatolites are the main reason this area is protected, and the motivation for ensuring that future development of this area is friendly to the environment.
I came to this part of Mexico’s southern Yucatán Penninsula to check out Habitas Bacalar, the first sustainable hotel development in the area. Far from the chic retreats of Tulum and the all-inclusive resorts of Cancun, this little-known corner of southern Mexico has, for the most part, been shielded from mass tourism. Save for a handful of backpacker hotels, the village of Bacalar is home to a few restaurants and lakeside beach clubs. Visitors to the area are primarily Mexican or European; few Americans make it here, opting for the Caribbean shores of the northern Yucatán. Though it is protected by the Mexican government, Bacalar Lagoon remains incredibly vulnerable to the irresponsible development of its shores. Sadly, as hoteliers are always on the prowl for the next elusive virgin paradise (just far enough from the beaten path), it probably won’t be long before people start whispering about Bacalar. But thankfully (and hopefully), the first global hospitality group to launch a property in Bacalar is Habitas, the experience-led, sustainable hotel company. Let’s hope Habitas sets an example for competitors who will inevitably follow through their responsible development of the area and the protection of its water.
A Stunning Welcome
Arriving at Habitas Bacalar is a special treat. On the side of a buzzing highway, beyond a pair of unmarked gates, guests are greeted under a thatched palapa and welcomed with a cool drink and a Mayan ritual honoring the elements of the land. As Zen starts to set in, golf carts pull up to escort guests a half mile down a forested road to the hotel. There is no messing around at this point, because the Habitas staff knows that once guests see the lagoon peeking through the property, they will want to make a beeline to the waterfront platform. As the initial shock and awe of this special place is absorbed, guests are introduced to the rest of the property and encouraged to let relaxation sink in.
Location, Location, Location
Just across the border from Belize and just inland west of the Caribbean, Bacalar Lagoon stretches north approximately 42 kilometers from the small southern Yucatán city of Chetumal. Habitas Bacalar is located at the southern end of the lake, approximately 40 minutes from Chetumal Airport.
Habitas Bacalar is an eco oasis, a tranquil escape that encourages holistic restoration, wellness, and connection with the natural environment. The remote setting facing the magnificent, multi-hued lagoon, means that the natural, earthen structures on land take a back seat to everything else. The hotel has a timeless, relaxed style, which means that within moments of arriving you can’t help but take your shoes off. You may not put them back on until you (reluctantly have to) leave.
What’s on Site
In addition to individual guest cabanas, Habitas Bacalar has a full-service spa and yoga/meditation pavilion. It’s unfortunately located next to the bar, which can be a distraction depending on the time of day. Kayaks and stand-up paddle boards are available on the shore of the lagoon for complimentary guest use. Meals can be taken at either Siete, the main restaurant, or the lagoon bar. An additional bar is adjacent to Siete.
The hotel, built amongst mangrove and eucalyptus on the shores of the lagoon, comprises 35 individual A-frame cabanas with identical interiors. The only difference between the rooms is the view; #1 and #2 were our favorites, as they are on the edge of the property with the lagoon front and center. The cabanas were constructed offsite and strategically assembled on the property, barely displacing a blade of grass, a signature feature of Habitas Group’s admirable design and construction model. (And hooray to that.) Luxury linens and mattresses, along with zero light and noise pollution, means that it is impossible not to get a restful night’s sleep. Each cabana is fitted with a spacious en-suite bathroom with an outdoor shower, which I might add has incredible water pressure and ranks as the best outdoor shower experience of my life. Since eco-consciousness is the name of the game at Habitas, all water runoff from the cabanas is filtered and recycled. That means that you will never see any soap suds floating in the stream that meanders among the rooms.
Don’t come to Habitas Bacalar if you expect to lay in bed and watch TV – there are no televisions or phones in the rooms, though Wi-Fi is available. In-room amenities are minimal, in line with the brand’s ethos, which means no takeaway shampoo or plastic water bottles: The bathroom is outfitted with refillable bottles of everything a guest might need (shampoo, conditioner, soap). In addition to a safe (though this isn’t the place to bring or wear anything valuable), each cabin has a mini-fridge containing a few snacks, local beverages (including a local brand of blue beer – clever marketing, making the beer that matches the water), and large, refillable carafes of filtered water.
Food and Drink
The menu at Habitas Bacalar is outstanding. The chef and bartenders work in tandem to create dishes and cocktails that use locally sourced ingredients and reflect the palate of the region. As a side, but very important note, there is no plastic on site, which means that water is bottled in glass and nothing comes wrapped in plastic. (Hooray again.) All meals can be taken at Siete, the main restaurant with an open kitchen and wood-fired oven or by the lagoon at the bar. After morning yoga, I loved having breakfast by the lagoon. Everything on the menu is exceptional, but motuleño toast, a tostada piled high with fried farm eggs, beans, green peas, plantains, radishes and cilantro, is pretty out of this world. For lunch, the catch-of-the-day ceviche and the green mango salad are hands-down the best things on the menu. Okay, the fish tacos are also simple and delicious. Dinner at Siete is more formal than eating by the water, i.e. diners eat by candlelight and wear more than bathing suits and flip-flops. The majority of the dishes on the menu are cooked in the wood-fired oven, the most delectable being wood-fired Yucatán pork, cooked for twelve hours in the oven and combined with an emulsion of pineapple, habanero, red onion, and cilantro. Start dinner with smoked beets and shrimp aguachile and finish off the evening with tapioca crème brûlée, the most unbelievable marriage of tapioca pearls and coconut, cardamom, lemon, ginger, and mango.
Well, Well, Wellness
A big part of staying at Habitas Bacalar involves participating in the extensive — and complimentary — wellness program. The hotel posts a board announcing the day’s offerings, including yoga, meditation, and body consciousness. For an additional charge, guests can participate in a temezcal ceremony, mezcal tasting, or a sunrise stand-up paddle (not to be missed). For those whose idea of wellness means spending the day at the spa, you’re in for a treat. A short stroll past the guest cabanas and into the forest leads to a cluster of treatment cabins modeled after a small Mayan village. All therapies are designed using ingredients, practices, and traditions of the local Mayan culture, with a focus on medicinal herbs such as cacao, coconut, and honey. Don’t check out without experiencing a massage from Marisol. She heals with her hands!
This Place Is Perfect For
Couples and groups of friends who want to relax and appreciate the peace and quiet of the stunning landscape. Loud voices are not welcome here.
But Not So Perfect For
Tourists seeking a raucous nightlife (lights are out around 9 p.m.) and children (this environment is not suitable for kids, which may be why they are not even allowed).
None, as far as I’m concerned.
The service was exceptional (within 24 hours it felt like everyone knew our names) and thoughtful: When my friend and I were on our second round of margaritas, the server asked how long we were staying and suggested that bottle service was more economical. He was right!
What to Do Nearby
If time permits, venture ten minutes north to the village Bacalar. On the way, stop for a swim at Cenote Azul, one of the area’s deep, landlocked swimming holes. A small fee gets you access to the restaurant and facilities and a swim in the magical, dark, refreshing water. Bacalar is home to a few good little restaurants, such as Nixtamal, Enamora Bacalar, Costera 28, and Picaflor Bacalar. Beach clubs and restaurants line the Main Street that fronts the lake. While it may be tempting to check them out, this is a gentle reminder that the best place to eat and swim is back at Habitas.
Good to Know
If you like Tulum, you will not like Bacalar. Bacalar is tranquil and isolated; you have to seek it out. Sadly, influencers will come because the sheer beauty of this place is now combined with luxe accommodations. But hopefully eco conscious development will slow the influx of mainline tourism.
There is no swimming pool, and there really is no need for one when you have the lagoon outside your door. Also, in this part of southern Mexico, the sky will open up and the rain will pour. But rest assured it is momentary, and each room is equipped with an umbrella.
How to Get Here
The most direct way to reach this part of the southern Yucatán is to fly into Chetumal, 40 minutes from the hotel. Until recently, access to this part of Mexico was limited to one flight a day from Mexico City. But American Airlines recently began servicing Chetumal with a daily, two-hour flight from Miami. Alternatively, Bacalar is a 4-5 hour drive from Cancun International Airport. You don’t have to rent a car unless you are planning to venture further afield. Taxis are available and can be arranged by the hotel.