The mid-18th-century Fuerte San Felipe Bacalar (central plaza, no phone, Av. 3 at Calle 20, 9 a.m.–7 p.m. Tues.–Thurs. and Sun., 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Fri.–Sat., US$5) was built by the Spanish for protection against English pirates and Maya that regularly raided the area.
In fact, attacks proved so frequent—and successful—that the fort was captured in 1858 by Maya during the Caste War. It was not returned to Mexican officials until 1901.
Today, the star-shaped stone edifice has been restored to its former glory: drawbridge, cannons, moat, and all. The fort also houses the excellent Museo del Fuerte de San Felipe Bacalar, a modern museum with exhibits on the history of the area, including details on the pirates who regularly attacked these shores.
As good or better than Laguna Bacalar  for swimming, Cenote Azul (Hwy. 307 Km. 15) is two kilometers (1.25 miles) south of town. It is said to be the widest cenote in Mexico, measuring up to 300 meters (900 feet) across (it’s elliptical) and 150 meters (450 feet) deep, with crystalline blue water. A rope stretches clear across, so even less-conditioned swimmers can make it to the far side; there are also ladders that make getting into and out of the water easy.
The only way to access Cenote Azul, however, is through a large, breezy restaurant (tel. 983/834-2038, 7:30 a.m.–8 p.m. daily, US$6–16). As long as you order something, you’re free to swim in the cenote. Unfortunately, the food is unremarkable—stick with fries and drinks.
Gilberto Silva, an accomplished sculptor of Maya art, has a small gallery and workshop (Calle 26 btwn Calles 5 and 7, tel. 983/834-2657, hours vary) where some of his works are displayed and sold. Most are intricately carved limestone pieces, which are then cast in clay. Notably, his works have been displayed at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Every July, the town of Bacalar celebrates San Joaquín, its patron saint. For nine consecutive days, different neighborhoods host festive celebrations, each trying to outdo the other for the year’s best party. Visitors are welcome and should definitely join the fun—expect plenty of food, music, dancing, and performances of all sorts. Cockfights also are popular, and a three-day hydroplane race usually follows the festivities in early August.