Where in the world is Campeche and why should you go there?

By | Category: Travel destinations

Irene travels to Campeche, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that flies underneath the radar, in the Southeast Gulf of Mexico

Virtually toothless, much shorter than I and seemingly even older than my World War II veteran father, he flung his machete, clearing the jungle faster than any power mower could do. With his white shirt, red paisley bandanna and brown, creased face, he looked stereotypically Mexican. The machete flashed in the bright sun and he smiled broadly, thrilled that a foreigner was interested in his work – but hey, I had never seen a REAL machete in action! Here I was, taking a tour of an ancient henequen plantation now operating as an uberluxurious guest hacienda – running into a living, breathing vestige of the past, along with all of the inanimate arches and oxidised walls.

The next day, I went out for a stroll. Just next to my hotel, to my amazement, I found two zebras, a camel and several llamas munching on grass in an empty lot next to the traveling circus to which they belonged. With no one supervising the open area, I decided this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and went to pet the animals. Only in a place like Campeche, I thought, could such a thing occur. Still somewhat of another era, still remote, THIS is the reason most of us travel – to experience a whole ‘nother world.

City of Campeche, Image©Robin Nowacki

When I told others of my impending trip to Campeche, everyone said, “now WHERE is that?” That’s exactly why I chose to go there – because no one knows where it is and I wouldn’t be bombarded by gringos and hucksters. The state of Campeche, one of 32 in the United States of Mexico (yes, that’s the official name) is in southeastern Mexico, bordered by Guatemala, Chiapas, Tabasco, Yucatan, Belize and Quintana Roo. Campeche hosts some of the most important Mayan archeological sites in Middle America and is home to 17 ethnic groups of pure Mayans. Sparsely populated, the state has only 650,000 inhabitants, with about 300,000 in the capital city of Campeche.

Campeche City, founded in 1540, is an architectural gem, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of only two walled cities in North America (the other being Quebec.) Not only has the city kept its original shape from the 16th century, it has lovingly cared for its colonial architecture. With much of the original enormous stone walls and all seven bastions (originally constructed to ward off pirate attacks) as well as outstanding military forts, truly exquisite museums and over a thousand historical buildings in fine repair, Campeche is a delight for artists and photographers, archeology and history buffs and those of us just content to enter that whole ‘nother world.

Campeche Ruins, Image © Robin Nowacki

Campeche’s homes and buildings, with stuccoed facades and painted with enchanting shades of terracotta, sky blue, moss green and ochre, are trimmed with bright white and sport intricate wrought iron balconies. Just about every angle offers a postcard-perfect shot, as I saw when I developed my own photos. The juxtaposition of ancient, sea-bashed stone walls next to the freshly painted colonial homes is not only beautiful, but mesmerizing. One of the richest cultures in Mexico is here, combining the mystery and magic of the Mayans along with the colonial past of the Spaniards and mariners from other European nations. Campeche’s cuisine is distinctive – heavy on the seafood, and delicious, its native costumes are unique and its people – the Campechanos – are noted throughout Mexico for their warmth and openness. Indeed, as a woman spending a day alone in the Plaza Principal (town square) strolling through the picturesque lanes, I felt completely safe, comfortable and welcome.

There’s a reason why this city is so untouristy – location. While it directly fronts the Gulf of Mexico, the closest nice swim beaches are about a half-hour away. Campeche is not a resort – it’s a REAL city which is a perfect base for exploring abundant fascinating, uncrowded, unspoiled Mayan ruins. It offers every type of accommodation, from luxury boutique hotel to hostel, as well as every level of cuisine. It’s quiet, peaceful, friendly and romantic. Spend three or four days there, with a few day trips to archeological sites thrown in, and you’ll have a unique Mexican, no, make that CAMPECHANO, experience. Then, return home and breezily toss off, “oh, we were just in Campeche,” to those poor geographically challenged friends of yours. Only tell the nicest ones, just where it is!

Campeche Ruins, Image©Robin Nowacki

What to do

Tour buses: two companies run tram ride tours, both leaving from the Parque Principal (Main Plaza.) The tours are inexpensive and give a good introduction to Campeche’s sites – as well as easy access to the following.

Fort of San Miguel: a panoramic view of the city awaits those who venture up to this well-preserved fort, one of two still standing in Campeche. The Fort of San Miguel still has a moat, drawbridge, vantage points and cannons. Inside it houses a marvelous collection of prehispanic pieces, including the fabulous jade death masks found in the tombs of the Calakmul archeological site.

Doors and Bastions: two of the four original 300-year-old doors to the city are still standing. The Puerta de Tierra (Earth Door) features a light and sound show on certain nights which features representations of old pirate battles and scenes of colonial history. The Puerta del Mar (Sea Gate) leads into a broad plaza with cannons and other colonial relics. All seven bastions (baluartes) remain as the massive frame to the original Campeche. The La Soledad bastion is the Museum of Maya steles (rectangular blocks of engraved stone,) San Carlos is the Graphics Museum, while Santiago encompasses a botanical garden with regional flora. San Pedro is the permanent crafts show center and Santa Rosa is home to a tourist information center.

Edzna: about 45 minutes from Campeche, the ‘House of the Itzaes’ was the Mayan regional capital of the west between 400 and 1000 AD. Edzna’s buildings depict a very high level of architecture and engineering with its waterways and dams for accumulating and distributing water. This site is blessedly free of peddlers and crowds. On a recent weekday, with the hawks soaring overhead and the stillness of the surrounding jungle, not another group in sight, I had a strong sense of going back in time.

Calakmul: the second most important biosphere in the world, this reserve is probably the largest archeological site in Mesoamerica and is only partially restored. Its great pyramid is the largest Mayan building in existence, with a five-acre base. A good four hours from Campeche, this incredible site is worth the trip, and offers a lovely ecolodge for accommodations (Puerta Calakmul.) Close to the Guatemalan border, set in lush rainforest, Calakmul has about 7,000 identified structures as well as 120 extraordinary steles. The site is the second of Campeche’s UNESCO world heritage sites.

Boutique hotel, images ©Robin Nowacki

Where to eat

Cenaduria Portales
Located in the ancient San Francisco plaza, under the original open-air archways, is this very traditional Campechano restaurant which serves dinners only. A lively spot frequented by locals and families, Los Portales is very reasonably-priced and is THE place to try local specialties such as jamon claveteado, panuchos, tamales torteados and horchata de coco.

La Pigua
This rather chic seafood spot, just northeast of the bastions, is also very popular with locals for lunch and dinner. You can try local specialies, such as arroz con pulpo (rice with octopus) and pan de cazon (loosely, shark tortilla casserole) here.

Helados La Brocha
Campechanos are known for unusual ice cream flavors. La Brocha’s two locations are the place to sample such exotic concoctions as shrimp, celery, rose, and tequila, to name just a few. For those more cowardly souls, such as myself, you can feast on every kind of tropical fruit flavor imaginable, as well as the usual classics like vanilla and chocolate. This is a wonderful place to visit on a balmy evening – soak in the ambiance and feel like a local.

Where to shop
Casa de Artesanias Tukulna offers a wide variety of quality local handicrafts. (Calle 10, No. 333, Monday 9am-8pm).


For more information aabout Campeche, click here

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