With its postcard-perfect Mayan temple perched on a clifftop overlooking the Caribbean, Tulum is one of the popular destinations in the Mexican Caribbean, but not without its share of controversy:

It may be paradise on earth for some, but there’s no denying it’s also developed a reputation for being an overly Americanized hub, and you may have a hard time relaxing if gentrified beachfronts and jungle raves are not really your scene.

As the saying goes, when a new supreme rises, the old one fades away, and lucky for you, the ‘next Tulum‘, an increasingly trendy town some 130 miles south, has smaller crowds, smaller hotels, a more laid-back atmosphere, and it’s bounded by translucent waters (except it’s not on the coast):

What Has The Next Tulum Got To Offer?

With most of the best-known tourist spots in the Mexican Caribbean concentrated in the northern half of Quintana Roo, it’s hardly surprising that the southern end often gets bypassed altogether, especially when connectivity is more limited and it takes longer to reach from Cancun.

Tourist Relaxing On A Hammock In Bacalar, The Mexican Caribbean, Mexico

That’s not to say it lacks cultural value, or that it has less to offer when it comes to natural wonders: as a matter of fact, the Tulum dupe in question is in the south, and though it does not border the Caribbean, with 12 miles separating it from the turquoise, it’s a world-class tropical destination.

You may be wondering how that may be if it’s not coastal, but the thing is, Bacalar does not need access to the sea when it is named after, and sits on the banks of the most beautiful lake in Mexico, with teal-colored waters that will make you feel as if you’re still in the Caribbean.

Pier in Bacalar

30 miles long and about a mile-and-quarter wide at its widest point, Lake Bacalar is full of swim-friendly spots.

Unless you particularly love saltwater and need powder-white sands unfolding for miles on end to feel like you’ve taken a trip to Mexico, you can have just as much fun here instead.

How Does Bacalar Compare To Tulum?

You may be wondering how Bacalar and Tulum can even be compared when one sits on the Mayan Riviera, and the other’s a lakeside town, yet both straddle turquoise waters, they’re equally considered ‘Pueblos Magicos’, the population density is similar, and their Mayan origins are evident.

Tourist In Clear Water Of Bacalar, Mexico

Lake Bacalar is not only a peaceful lake where you can go swimming but also a recreational zone. Visitors can go kayaking, book boat tours to explore the lake extensively, or sample the local cuisine at family-owned lakeside restaurants.

Bacalar doesn’t have a nightlife scene as vibrant as club-packed Tulum, but it does have a number of casual entertainment venues.

The most famous and best-frequented is Balneario Ejidal Magico Bacalar, a ‘beach’ club with an international clientele.

Woman on Dock in Bacalar

It does not offer larger-than-life resort experiences, either, but it is home to at least 11 luxury boutique hotels that provide you with some comfort, and the peaceful environment you need to escape the Tulum crowds.

One of the largest and best-equipped, the rustic Mia Bacalar Luxury Resort & Spa comes with its own outdoor pool, lush gardens, fitness center and spa, and curvilinear rooms that just exude character and seem to complement the nature around them.

Pier Stretching Out Onto Lake Bacalar, Quintana Roo, Mexico

It is also where you’ll find some of the lake’s famous wooden docks, stretching out into the crystal-clear, shallow waters, with a Maldives-style palapa hut at the tip.

It is not the cheapest hotel in the vicinity, with overnight rates starting from $381.

There are cheaper boutique homes and guesthouses available for only $138 per night, such as Casa Chukun, a relaxation haven less than a mile away from Downtown Bacalar, and the $168, adults-only Bacalari, which commands stunning lake views.

Is Bacalar Mexico’s Last Mayan Stronghold?

Aerial View Of Bacalar Town And A Spanish Era Fort, Straddling A Crystal Clear Lake Bacalar, In Southern Quintana Roo, Mexico

Similarly to Tulum, it was once inhabited by the native Mesoamerican people, who established a city on the site of modern-day Bacalar – to all you History buffs out there, this is the first Mayan settlement the Spanish settlers succeeded in taking and holding in 1543.

Tulum is famous for its vast archaeological zone, with well-preserved temples and a landmark ‘Castillo’ towering above the ancient rubbles; Bacalar does not have step pyramids or any obvious Mayan landmarks left, but it is a Mayan stronghold, as well as rich in colonial heritage.

Bacalar, Lake Bacalar, Quintana Roo, Mexico

In 1848, during the Caste War of Yucatan, a rebellious tribe reconquered the town, which would only be retaken by local forces in 1902, over five decades later: needless to say, those ties to the ancient Mayan way of life and culture run deep here.

Contrastingly, its Spanish-built San Felipe de Bacalar Fortress is evocative of European castles, and the culturally-charged town itself was awarded ‘Pueblo Magico’ status as early as 2006 when the once-coveted title wasn’t yet given out conferred at random.

Traditional Souvenir Shops In Bacalar, Quintana Roo, Mexico, Latin America

Travelers also go to Tulum to get lost in the surrounding nature, as it is well-known for being the gateway to the cenotes and jungles of the Mexican Caribbean, but Bacalar does not lag behind: besides the lake, the most obvious attraction, it sits on the edge of a UNESCO-listed reserve.

The Sian Kaʼan Biosphere Reserve translates from the Yuatec Mayan language as ‘the place where Heaven begins’, and with its 2,039 square miles of dense forestation, thriving wildlife, and ruined Mayan towns shrouded in mystery, with origins lost to time, we’re inclined to agree.

A New Train Will Link Tulum To Bacalar

Maya Train Tracks In Mexico, Latin America

Having so much to offer, and having stood in as an alternative to jam-packed Tulum it’s no wonder Bacalar leads booking trends in the south of Quintana Roo, and it will only get more popular once the Maya Train launches in the area.

While the completion date has not yet been confirmed, we know for a fact the scenic train departing from Tulum will travel down the Mayan Riviera all the way down to Bacalar, making it a lot more accessible to tourists than it is now.

Happy Traveler Walking Into A Train, Unspecified Location

Right now, the easiest way to get to Bacalar from the north (Cancun, Tulum, Playa Del Carmen) is either using local buses or booking private transfers, though prices for the latter can easily get exorbitant when you add in the long miles between them.

Alternatively, tourists can fly to Chetumal, the largest city in the south of Quintana Roo and the capital of the state, a much shorter 24-mile drive from Bacalar.

Using the Chetumal route will typically require a stopover in Mexico City, as it does not host flights from the U.S.

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