How One Lagoon Is Becoming a Hub for Sustainable Tourism in Mexico

Three new boutique hotels are serving as templates for turning the town of Bacalar—and its iconic lake—into Mexico’s most responsible tourism destination.

Turquoise waters of Laguna Bacalar, in Mexico
Paddling out on Lake Bacalar. Photo: Michael Malorny/Getty Images

Standing on a dock overlooking Lake Bacalar—nicknamed the Lagoon of Seven Colors—I finally understood why other travelers had told me this was the most beautiful place in Mexico. As I slipped into the crystalline fresh water, I noticed how it appeared to change from dark blue to lavender, depending on the depth of its limestone floor and the position of the sun.

Located in the state of Quintana Roo, just north of the Belize border, Bacalar hasn't yet drawn the attention (or overdevelopment) of popular destinations farther north in the state, such as Cancún, Playa del Carmen, or Tulum. But interest in the area is rising, thanks to the town's laid-back vibe—and the extraordinary colors of the 26-mile-long lagoon.

And while many in this community of about 40,000 people see the benefits of inviting more visitors, they're also fiercely protective of Bacalar's natural wonders. In addition to the lake, these include seven cenotes, the water-filled sinkholes for which the Yucatán is famous, and stromatolites, living fossils thought to be among the first forms of life on earth. Scientists say maintaining the lagoon's ecological balance is crucial to the organisms' continued existence.

Among those working to navigate these competing priorities are the eco-conscious hoteliers behind three new boutique properties. Mindful of the toll mass-market success has taken on other parts of Mexico, these hospitality pros are sourcing materials as locally as possible, employing staff from the region, and promoting soft-adventure activities that allow sustainability-minded travelers to connect with nature while minimizing their impact. This past September, I ventured to Bacalar from Mexico City to preview what's in store.

A woman walking past a pool at hotel Casa Hormiga, in Mexico
A swimming pool at the hotel Casa Hormiga. Courtesy of Casa Hormiga

The Intimate Oasis

Stepping through the carved wooden doors of Casa Hormiga felt like stumbling into a temple garden. Operated by Sofia Lynch and José Maria Padilla, an Argentine-Mexican couple who moved to the area in 2009, the 18-room hotel hides a clutch of thatched-roof concrete buildings and two swimming pools among enormous palms and other endemic plants, like lush birds of paradise. At Casa Ritual, the hotel's on-site spa, therapies often incorporate regional customs and medicinal practices. My 2½-hour treatment began with a ceremonial cacao drink—a common tradition in the Yucatán—and ended with a rejuvenating herbal soak in water infused with basil, rosemary, lemongrass, and slices of grapefruit. The next day I bagged a spot at La Playita, a club on the lagoon that partners with Casa Hormiga. After my swim, the shaded restaurant patio was an ideal place to enjoy a plate of fish tacos and take in the spectacular view. Doubles from $396.

Two photos show an interior of Casa Hormiga hotel, with mirrors shaped like eyes, and an avocado, rice, and vegetable dish at La Playita beach club
From left: The lunge area at Casa Hormiga; rice with vegetables and avocado at La Playita, a beach club and restaurant on Lake Bacalar. From left: Courtesy of Casa Hormiga; Courtesy of La Playita

The Modern Retreat

On arrival at Habitas Bacalar, I was ushered into the open-air reception area for a short intention-setting meditation session. From there I followed a long gravel path lined with native gumbo-limbo trees to find the hotel's 35 A-frame cabins. While some face the lagoon and others the jungle, all of the accommodations have been built using the growing brand's signature low-impact modular construction to avoid any major modifications to the land. Siete, the on-site restaurant, features a mostly vegetarian menu with seasonal ingredients sourced from vendors in the Yucatán, while the wellness center specializes in Mayan-influenced treatments. It can also arrange activities including paddleboard yoga and aerial cross-training. Doubles from $400.

A guest room at Habitas Bacalar, with views of Lake Bacalar
A waterfront guest room at Habitas Bacalar. Katherine Burton/Courtesy of Habitas Bacalar

The High-Design Haven

Mexican starchitect Frida Escobedo has consistently garnered praise for using natural materials to create striking architectural projects, and her latest endeavor—the 22-room Boca de Agua, slated to open in October 2022—is already creating a buzz. Every detail of the hotel's design, including sapodilla wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and limestone sourced from only 31 miles away, has been chosen for its minimal environmental impact. And, as Mexico City–based cofounder Rodrigo Juárez told me, the hotel is also partnering with global nonprofit Saira Hospitality to offer professional hospitality training to the surrounding community to provide long-term, sustainable work opportunities. Rates not available at press time.

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