Any fool would love Tulum, right? Powdery white beaches, turquoise blue waters etc. etc. For me it wasn’t love at first or second or third sight, so I ended up trading the salt-swept beaches of Tulum for the shores of Lake Bacalar.
I have a confession. I didn’t like Tulum. I’m sure I was supposed to like Tulum…but I really didn’t. Maybe that makes me some kind of tasteless, terrible person or maybe, just maybe, it’s become way overhyped.
The internet is awash with articles extolling the virtues of Tulum, if you want to read about why it’s so great. I’m afraid that my take is a little different and this corner of the Yucatán was not for me.
The Tulum of old
My friend Diane, who has lived in Mexico for 40 years, regaled me with the story of her visit to the town back in the 1970s (when hippies from the US were the only foreign visitors). There was nothing there, she told me, just jungle and beach. She and two girlfriends had got word of an old lighthouse where they could stay for a pittance. They arrived to Tulum with the vague notion of finding this rumoured place and not much else in the way of a plan.
They found the lighthouse, but a sly local vendor also conned them into buying some natural sun protection, which ended up staining their skin chalk-white.
Diane’s version of Tulum sounded a world away from the place I landed upon in 2018, with it’s boutique shops, yoga studios and raw vegan restaurants. I wanted the version with the run-down old lighthouse and the fake sun-protection, the version that no longer exists.
What’s the problem?
So what are my objections to the oh-so popular Tulum? For a start it was overrun with tourists, far more tourists than local people, and the locals didn’t seem overly happy about that. And when locals don’t seem too thrilled about visitors invading their town it doesn’t make for the most comfortable experience. True, I was there in peak season, but nonetheless, tourists seem to have taken over.
The famous powdery white beaches were (perhaps still are?) experiencing a little seaweed issue during my visit and as a result, remained cloaked in a curtain of dark green. That’s no-one’s fault, but wading through a stretch of seaweed to get to the water isn’t the most pleasant experience.
If you want to see the ruins and not share the experience with hundreds of others then you have no choice but to arrive by 8am sharp (ie. opening time). The location is the thing here: ruins on a clifftop, surrounded by water so alluring you want to dive straight in. The ruins themselves though are nothing to write home about. Tulum paled in comparison to the other ruins I visited in Mexico, like Calakmul.
The real deal-breaker for me though, was being quoted $20 a night for a dorm bed in the town (not even at the beach, which is a good few kms away). I didn’t end up staying in said hostel, I found one slightly cheaper next door, but needless to say: Tulum was not for me.
Trading up and moving on to Bacalar
So after two days I jumped on a bus to Bacalar. Fingers and toes crossed for a better experience.
When the bus stopped at the side of a dusty highway it wasn’t exactly what I was imagining. No view of the famous lagoon, in fact, no view of much at all.
Once I’d crossed the main road and headed towards the lake I started to settle into the rhythm of the place. Shabby wooden bungalows line the small streets. There is nothing high rise or glossy here. I liked the atmosphere of this rough-around-the-edges town and the locals definitely outnumbered the tourists.
It was hot, way too hot to be turtling around with my heavy bags, but I wandered most of the small town trying to find a place to stay that suited my modest budget.
A lot of the hostels here have seen an opportunity to make a heap more cash and have tents dotted on their grounds for low-budget people like me. Inevitably, I ended up at the cheapest place in town, located at the end of a half-dug up road.
120 pesos got a me a private tent for the night and little else. But with the “oh my God it’s so bloody-blue!” fresh-water lake shimmering below, I didn’t much mind.
Bacalar’s fifty shades of blue
The lake is seriously breathtaking. I’ve never seen so many different shades of blue in one body of water and I couldn’t wait to take a swim.
There are beach clubs and paid entry spots a few kilometres to the south of the town, but there’s also a free public-access boardwalk. I ended up reading and swimming on repeat in this spot for a couple of days.
There isn’t a massive amount to do in Bacalar, but that’s kind of the point. You could go on a boat trip, or kayaking or cycling. Or you could, not.
You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your hostel-mates
The only downside to Bacalar was my hostel. This was the first place on my Mexico trip where I encountered a group I ended up christening the beach wankers.
What exactly are beach wankers I hear you ask? The beach wanker is a special breed of traveller who comes to Mexico with the main aim of sourcing marijuana or other mind altering drugs. They stay in sleepy towns like Bacalar for weeks or months. They never eat out at restaurants, always cooking in the hostel kitchen and sometimes exchange a free stay for painting a mural or something like that.
Beach wankers often have a penchant for fire dancing, casually mentioning how they’ve recently finished a stint trimming up in California (apparently it pays much less now that it’s legal) or have been hanging out with some Mexican circus performers.
Beach wankers aside, I’d happily swim in Bacalar’s dreamy blue waters any day of the week.
The practical bits:
Getting from Tulum to Bacalar (or vice versa) is easy; you can either get the first class ADO bus (bookable in advance and faster) or one of the second class buses, like Mayab (not bookable in advance).
The bus stops on the main highway that runs through Bacalar, and you can either take a taxi into the main town, or take a 20 minute walk.
The public access boardwalk is located here, they won’t let you take any plastic bottles or food in, but you can leave things with the guard and come back out when you need to drink/eat.
If your next destination is Chetumal, colectivo taxis leave from the main road where the bus will have dropped you off when you arrived (I paid 50 pesos in March 2018).