Monday, October 29, 2018

Southern Yucatan Peninsula: Lago de Bacalar and the town that bears its name

A long pier extends into Lake Bacalar with palm-roofed palapas at its end. One of our priorities during our adventure to the Southern Yucatan Peninsula was to visit Lago de Bacalar, famous for its crystal-clear water. The lake has been important to people living in the area since pre-hispanic times. Today, it is a popular attraction for young, back-packer types, as well as older folks like us. In this posting, I'll give you a peek at the lake and the small town on its western shore that bears the same name. In later postings, I'll provide some history about the area, including pirate raids and bloody Maya revolts.


Lago de Bacalar winds snake-like through the low, coastal jungle. At several points, it bulges like a python that has swallowed a pig. Mostly, however, the lake is quite narrow along its 42 km (26 mi) length. At its widest, it is only about 2 km (1.24 mi) across. The lake extends from the southwest to the northeast, roughly parallel to the shore of Bahia de Chetumal. The lake's southernmost point is only a few kilometers from Rio Hondo, a river that flows eastward from the interior of the Peninsula to the Bay. This geography meant that Lake Bacalar was an ideal route for ancient traders, since it was always easier to paddle a canoe full of trade goods than carry them on your back. Traders traveling from north to south could portage their goods to Rio Hondo and then paddle into the interior or out to Chetumal Bay and the Caribbean coast.


Another pier, with two palapas, extends out from a lakeside hotel. Lago de Bacalar is famous for the clarity of its deep blue water, enhanced by the white limestone bottom. The freshwater lake is fed by underground rivers that emerge into open pools called cenotes (limestone sinkholes). Because of the porosity of the Peninsula's limestone base, it has almost no lakes or rivers. Lake Bacalar is by far the biggest body of surface water. Its source is the world's largest subterranean cave system, with 450 km (280 mi) of natural tunnels


Map of the town of Bacalar. Route 307 curves through the center from south (left) to north (right). While the town extends west of the highway, most of it lies to the east, between the highway and the lakeshore. As of the 2010 census, Bacalar had 11,084 residents, making it the second largest city in the southern part of the state of Quintana Roo. Only Chetumal is larger. When the Spanish arrived in 1543, Bacalar was already a city. The Maya called it B'ak Halal, which means "surrounded by reeds". It was the first place the Spanish conquered in the area and, when they did, the Maya name was transformed into "Bacalar".


A kiosco stands in the middle of a well-maintained plaza. Surrounding the plaza are various restaurants and tourist facilities. While most of the town is made up of modern 20th and 21st century buildings, a few colonial structures have survived. The most impressive of these is an 18th century Spanish fort called Fuerte de San Felipe.


A cannon points out toward the lake from a bastion at Fuerte San Felipe. The fort was constructed in 1729 to guard against the pirate attacks that, for centuries, plagued Spain's colonial possessions in the New World. The old colonial city of Campeche, on the Yucatan Peninsula's Gulf Coast, is still surrounded by fortifications similar to the ones at Fuerte San Felipe. Along the shoreline below the fort, you can see some of the town's many hotels and restaurants.


The fort's thick exterior walls are surrounded by a deep moat. Part of the moat can be seen above, just beyond the wall in the foreground. The walls were built with limestone, which is readily available in the area. The crenellations (slotted sections) along the top of the wall would have been used by soldiers to shelter themselves while they pointed their muskets through the openings. After Bacalar was sacked by pirates in the 17th century, the Spanish Crown finally provided the resources to built the fort. In a future posting, I will show more of Fuerte San Felipe's fortifications, as well as relics of the piracy that plagued the area.


The palapas at the end of the piers are relatively simple structures. Set on rough pilings driven into the lakebed and roofed by thatched palm fronds, the structures offer shade from the intense sun of the warmer months. Since the structure is completely surrounded by water, it remains fairly cool, even on a hot day. If an occupant gets over-warm, s/he has only to hop into the water for a refreshing dip. In the cooler months of winter, when we visited, it can get pretty windy in the Peninsula's coastal areas. In that case, the palapa's walls offer some protection.


Lily pads along the lakeshore. Lake Bacalar is home to a wide variety of plant and animal life. It also contains a large quantity of stromatolites, which are sheet-like sedimentary rocks that have the appearance of cauliflower. They were formed by single-cell photosynthesizing microbes called cyanobacteria, the oldest life form on earth. Such fossilized formations are very rare in the world.


Tourists frolic in the lake's sparkling water while a sailboat cruises in the distance. The folks in sailboats were probably thrilled by the wind, even if it did kick up the water a bit. Despite the water's choppiness that day, it didn't seem to deter tourists from enjoying a swim.

View of Fuerte San Felipe from the end of one of the piers. The Spanish built the fort so it would dominate approaches to the town from the water. Quite a number of boats were available for tours of the lake and we thought about hiring a launch. However, with the water so rough, we decided to spend our limited time exploring the fort's excellent museum and strolling the shoreline.


There are quite a number of lakefront restaurants. There are many places to dine and they kind of blend into one another. We decided to just wander around until someplace caught our fancy.


Entrance to the restaurant we picked for lunch. Unfortunately, I didn't note the name of the place, but it is on the southern end of the town's lakefront and easy to find. You have a choice of the covered patio, the garden, or a table right on the water. As you can see, there is enough seating that you really don't need a reservation. The menu choices are primarily Mexican dishes, with a good selection of seafood.


Tables by the water offer grand views of the lake. However, the wind was pretty strong at this point, so we picked a more sheltered spot in the restaurant's garden. Because we wanted to visit the Maya ruins of Chacchoben, a few miles north of the lake, we didn't spend more than a few hours at Bacalar. The town would be worth a return visit, perhaps even for an overnight stay. Bacalar is an easy drive from Chetumal and you pass through some lovely country along the way.

This completes my first posting on Bacalar and its beautiful lake. In the next one, I'll tell you a bit about the area's dramatic history. If you'd like to ask a question or leave a comment, please use the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, please provide your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

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