The water in the Bacalar lagoon, on the east coast of the Yucatan peninsula, is as pure as glacial ice. It contains little organic material: some of its oldest inhabitants are oligotrophic microorganisms, so called because of their minimal diet. As a result, the lagoon looks spectacular in the sunlight. It is said that its water shows seven different shades of blue, from deep-sea indigo to evening violet.
Bacalar is sometimes called the Lagoon of the Seven Colors; its original name in Maya, Siyan Ka’an Bakjalal, is approximately translated as “place surrounded by reeds where the sky is born.”
Recently, the lagoon has been affected by heavy storms and heavy rains, causing the lagoon to lose its unique colors. But the lagoon has always recovered. Sometimes it took a few weeks or occasionally a couple of months. The ecosystem was sensitive but resilient.
Quintana Roo in Mexico is the most popular destination among international tourists.
Fifty years ago, Mexico’s National Fund for Tourism Development unveiled Cancun, its first megaproject. Marketing materials described it as “the new millennial world of the Mexican Caribbean.”
Today, Cancun’s Airport receives more international flights than any other Mexican city. The project’s success soon inspired similar efforts in Playa del Carmen, Cozumel and Tulum. Cancun showed that tourism, the “chimney-free industry,” can diversify Mexico’s economy.
Now, Bacalar has become the jewel that could stretch success further south. In 2019, two hundred thousand tourists visited the lagoon; half of the city’s inhabitants now work in tourism. The expansion of the airport has begun in Chetumal, the state capital, about forty minutes to the southeast, and a planned railway, the Mayan Train, will eventually connect Bacalar with Cancun and a number of other tourist centers, archaeological sites and nature reserves.
But all of that success is already affecting the lagoon.
It is difficult to build a booming tourist economy on top of an ecological attraction without destroying it. The inhabitants of Bacalar believed that they were already being careful stewards of the ecology. A citizen patrol called the Guardians of the Lagoon watched over uninformed or rebellious visitors.
Many of the people who are against the protections insist that the changes in the lagoon are cyclical. And, at the end of January, the lagoon began to regain some color.
At the southern tip of Bacalar, water seeps from underground sources and the land is less developed; over an eight mile stretch there, the water turns clear green and then finally blue. On sunny days, a disorganized armada of sailboats and water skiers began to flee the far north, which remained murky, and plunged into the blue water.