Campeche: Still Gorgeous After All These Years
Unlike Playa del Carmen, dominated by an international crowd, and Los Cabos, which many Americans consider their personal playground, Campeche City attracts mainly Mexicans interested in their own heritage and culture. The state's seafood recipes are admired throughout the country. Businesspeople come for conferences and families arrive on holiday. Despite a long-standing rivalry between Yucatan and Campeche states, people from Merida regularly make the three-hour trip.
And why not? Campeche's cheerful 9x5-block historical center is one of the most striking in Mexico. Its historic one- and two-story buildings are well-maintained and painted an array of dignified yet striking colors like Venetian red, mint green, cocoa brown, and sapphire blue trimmed in white. Wrought iron lamps light the scene at night. Campeche's historic district is hands down the most walking- and breathing-¬friendly of any capital city in Mexico. And since no buses are allowed inside the old walls (or what’s left of them), it's both quiet and nearly pollution-free.
It took 15 years for the Spanish to conquer the important Maya city of Can Pech; they did so in 1540 and renamed the city San Francisco de Campeche. In contrast the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan (today’s Mexico City) was in ruins just two years after the Spanish landed on the continent near today’s Veracruz, in 1519.
Watchtowers and Thick Walls
Bastions and walls were built to keep out the pirates who continually sacked and pillaged the city before the barrier was completed. But they were of no help to the ships that anchored offshore heavy with commercial goods. Cargo being shipped to the Old World were primarily natural products like dyewood, salt, chicle, henequen and mahogany. Merchant ships returned with Chinese silks and European furnishings. Campeche's cargo ships remained vulnerable until two forts were finally constructed at either end of the city in the mid-19th century.
Today, both forts are museums. Fuerte San Miguel has the intriguing Museum of Maya Culture, with ancient stelae, pottery, and jewelry as well as the contents of several royal tombs discovered at the ancient city of Calakmul. At the other end of town, el Fuerte San Jose el Alto houses the Museum of Boats and Arms---that’s armaments, not human appendages---of interest mainly to those impressed by old-fashioned weapons and nautical equipment.
Unfortunately, most of the 10-foot-thick defensive wall that once surrounded the city center has fallen or been taken down. Seven of the eight original bastions (baluartes) that connected the octagonal wall remain, however, and most house attractions for visitors. Starting on the northwest side of the city, el Baluarte de San Pedro has all the accouterments for defensive warfare, including rooftop gunnery slits and watchtowers. An escape-proof area was built to broil prisoners in the sun.
Nearby, the recently renovated Pedro Sainz de Baranda Municipal Market is one of the most orderly and clean I’ve seen in recent years. There's a parking structure on the roof and an elevator down to the ground floor, where you’ll find some good bargains in clothing in addition to scalded pigs’ heads and mounds of vegetables. Hopefully this municipal treasure will continue to prosper in the 21st century as it competes with the city's pride and joy, the new Sam's Club.
Heading counter-clockwise from St. Peter's bulwark, Baluarte de Santiago now protects only the plants housed in its unassuming X'much Haltún Botanical Garden. Closer to the city's main plaza, Baluarte de la Soledad contains a collection of Maya stelae. The 1,000-year-¬old stelae are impressive, although the presentation is unsophisticated and few details about the stone monoliths are given. Next door, the sea gate, or puerta de mar, was built to admit skiffs from ships anchored offshore. Today it's the main entrance to the historic district from the malecon.
The malecon is a miles-long walkway with the sea on one side and the city’s main thoroughfare on the other. The cement path is punctuated with statues, fountains, and exercise equipment. It’s busy in the early morning with joggers and walkers; in the evening teens and older couples snuggle on the built-in benches, while families and friends enjoy a stroll and each others' company during the cooler hours of the day.
Continuing counter-clockwise from the sea gate, el Baluarte de San Carlos has a small museum of historical memorabilia. Between Baluarte San Juan and la puerta de tierra, or land gate, is the only intact section of the old wall. You can walk along the top of the fortification here between one citadel and the other and imagine what the city must have looked like long ago. Because of ongoing maintenance and strict civil codes, the historic downtown---a UNESCO historical site---looks quite a bit as it did 400 years ago. That’s a very good thing, and truly picturesque.
As welcoming and walkable as is historic Campeche City, the countryside is equally compelling. Campeche state has more Maya ruins than either Quintana Roo or Yucatan states. Its two-lane highways are decently signed and maintained; even the long road penetrating once-remote Calakmul Biosphere Reserve has been paved. So outside this welcoming city, Campeche state is equally wonderful to explore.