Things That Matter

Mexico’s Famous Bacalar Lagoon Is Losing Its Magical Colors Thanks To Tourism

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. There are said to be seven different shades of blue in water, from deep-sea indigo to evening violet.

In English, Bacalar is sometimes called the Lagoon of Seven Solors; its original name in Mayan, Siyan Ka’an Bakjalal, roughly translates to “place surrounded by reeds where the sky is born.” But recently, the lagoon has been affected by heavy storms and rains, causing the lagoon to lose its unique colors. However, the lagoon has always managed to recover. That is changing though and many are blaming over-tourism and industrial runoff for the lagoon’s shifting colors.

Fifty years ago, the National Fund for Tourism Development of Mexico unveiled Cancun, its first megaproject. Marketing materials described it as “the new millennial world of the Mexican Caribbean.”

Today, Cancun Airport receives more international flights than any other Mexican city. The success of the project soon inspired similar efforts in Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and Tulum. Cancun demonstrated that tourism, the industry without chimneys, “the industry without chimneys”, can diversify the economy of Mexico.

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 this 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 turned 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.

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