Scattered throughout Mexico are the "Pueblo Magicos" (magic towns). These are small towns that have a magical element to them - beauty, history, unique architectural features...The purpose of designating these towns as a Pueblo Magico is to draw attention to the places that a person might not think to visit if they didn't know much about Mexico. Basically, it's the board of tourism's attempt to point out that there is much more to this country than just the beaches. Although it's true that the beaches are really lovely, you certainly miss a lot of what makes Mexico such a special place if you don't go further inland than Cancun (really, don't go to Cancun ever. It's awful).
We found the Pueblo Magico of Bacalar on accident, sort of. This town is about two hours South of Tulum, and we would never have driven through it except that we needed to do a visa-run to Belize to renew the TIP (temporary import permit) on the Subaru. When you drive down from the US there are a lot of regulations around taking your car into Mexico. One of these is that you're issued a 6-month TIP. So if you want to keep your car here past the TIP expiration date, you'll need to renew it by leaving the country, and re-entering (therefore, getting a new TIP).
Since we're just three hours from the Belize border, and we were almost six months into our trip (we're now past the six-month mark, which feels surreal and I don't want to think about that too much), we took the opportunity to renew the TIP. We both assumed that this would just be a write-off day, a day to run this boring errand and that would be it. But the day before we took off, our landlord recommended that we stop at La Playita restaurant in Bacalar on our trip back. So we made a mental note of that as we set out early the next morning.
We were lucky to breeze through the paperwork at the border and had an entire day left to explore. So we headed over to Bacalar to find breakfast. When we arrived my first though was that this town really was magical. It's small, and beautiful, and there's a very cool Spanish fort (with a moat!) in the center of town. Not to diminish the fact that any non-Mayan ancient structures are clearly a sign of invasion, but still, it's cool to see history in all of it's forms. The town is set on an inlet, with waters that are the incredible aqua color that you'll see in Tulum, and just as warm. It's small, and charming, and quiet - so quiet! There were a few people walking around, but hardly any traffic. I realize now, when people speak of the old Tulum in a nostalgic way, before it was "discovered" (and gosh, I hate that phrase "discovered" because of all the travel-snobery it implies, but it seems to fit in this situation), this is what they might have been looking at. This is really rad, tiny town on a perfect body of water with a set of ruins and a bunch of excellent little cafes. Bacalar seemed too good to have never heard of it. I know that in five years this place will probably resemble the bustle of Tulum. But it was nice to spend a day in the tranquility of this pueblo magico.