This article is from the February 2005 The Mexico File newsletter.

Campeche: The Real Deal
Story and photos by Jane Onstott

Jane Onstott is an editor, translator, and writer based in San Diego, California. She regularly contributes to Mexico guidebooks including Fodor’s Cancun, Cozumel & Yucatan and Fodor’s Mexico (Random House). Her collaboration with author and friend Maribeth Mellin, The Unofficial Guide to Mexico’s Best Beach Resorts (Wiley Publishing) is due out this summer. Jane is currently working on the second edition of her book National Geographic Traveler Mexico.

We assumed the young man and woman were pirates. The pirate crew, that is. The crew of the fantasy pirate ship that was to cruise us around the Bay of Campeche, singing “Avast Me Hearty!” songs, swinging from the rigging, landing punches. One of them might have to walk the plank. It turns out that like us, they were also clients hoping to see the ship owner or tour operator, whoever was responsible for the cancellation of our three-hour bay cruise, do some plank walking.

On another visit I drove all by my lonesome in my rental car to see the famous Xtacumbilxunaan Caves. But there was no caretaker to admit me, no guide: The place was deserted. It was late in the day and I’d seen a few fine, out-of-the-way Maya ruins, so I didn’t mind so much. But if that had been my one-and-only destination of the day, or something I was planning to write about, I might have been downright pissed.

As a tourist destination, Campeche compares to Cancun like a cenote to Sea World. The latter is man-made, engineered, expensive – lots of fun is all but guaranteed. A cenote (the English word “sinkhole” somehow doesn’t conjure the magic) is an above- or below-ground limestone pond; each of the thousands found throughout the Yucatan peninsula is unique. To continue my metaphor, your cenote experience is fluid, more spontaneous, and less predictable.

Who Goes There?

Unlike Playa del Carmen, dominated by Europeans, and Cabo San Lucas, where Americans are firmly in control, Campeche attracts – more than any other nationality – Mexicans interested in their own culture and heritage. The state’s seafood recipes are admired throughout the country, and defe os (people from Mexico City) and veracruzanos come to attend business conferences or with their families for 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 snug, 9×5-block historical center is far more beautiful than Merida’s. And since no buses are allowed, it’s both quieter and nearly pollution-free. In fact, Campeche’s historic district is hands down the most walking- and breathing-friendly of any capital city in Mexico. Like a Peter Max poster of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, its one- and two-story buildings are painted vivacious yet dignified colors (ochre yellow, Venetian red, celestial blue) trimmed in white. Wrought iron lamps light the street scene at night.

In human relationships, opposite personalities initially attract but ultimately exasperate. And so it is with Campeche – what attracts me can also annoy me. Spontaneity and naiveté, a lack of sophistication and commercialization is what Campeche’s about. But choosing a minor destination rather than a major resort means embracing, or at least accepting, a certain lack of polish and efficiency. I suppose Campeche is no more disorganized than elsewhere in Mexico, but the fact that there are relatively few tourists seems to make it difficult for campechanos to deliver tours and other services at definitive schedules.

Last month’s pirate cruise never happened, nor did a Saturday night theatrical performance at Casa Seis, a cultural center facing Campeche’s main plaza. The restored colonial-era house (whose rooms of authentic period furnishings would look more convincing without the bar-code inventory stickers) is open to visitors and supposedly has weekend performances depicting what life was like when this city was routinely sacked and ransacked by pirates.

The show never happened. We don’t know why. Luckily my friend Terry and I are stoic and seasoned travelers, so we hitched up our pants and headed out into the salt-tinged night air, straight to the nearest bar.

The night air was chilly when we arrived at a bar favored by ocean-loving types and travelers who’ve docked at the point’s small marina. We ended the evening serenaded by the sea and by a halfway inebriated man at the next table, who in lyrical colloquialisms told us he was going to pee his pants if he didn’t find the bathroom soon. So we did get a sort of a show, but without the pirates.

But Campeche is not all chaos and disappointments, far from it. Its recently updated mercado municipal has a new exhaust system to suck out the butcher-shop smells, and all stalls have new stainless steel counters. There’s a parking structure on the roof and an elevator down to the ground floor. In the clothing area, we found some exquisite dresses and blouses at very reasonable prices. Pedro Sainz de Baranda Municipal Market is orderly and clean; vendors are friendly. It’s a wonderful market. Hopefully this municipal treasure will continue to compete in the 21st century with the city’s pride and joy, the new Sam’s Club.

Bully for Bulwarks

Most of the 10-foot-thick defensive wall that once surrounded the city center has fallen or been dismantled, but seven of eight original baluartes (bastions) that connected the octagonal wall remain. Near the market on the northwest side of downtown, Baluarte de San Pedro has all the accouterments necessary for good old-fashioned warfare, including rooftop gunnery slits and watchtowers. A 17th-century toilet is a hole in a stuccoed bench, falling straight to the ground below, hidden within a tiny private cell. The roof also had an escape-proof space where prisoners could be broiled in the sun, presumably prior to confessing the location of buried treasure. Downstairs, a small gift shop sells fine hats from Becal (home to the misnamed Panama hat). Unusual, natural-colored women’s shawls of loosely woven cotton look like hammocks for cold shoulders. There are pictures made from gigantic, mica-like fish scales and other regional crafts, including hammocks.

Heading counter-clockwise from St. Pete’s bulwark, Baluarte de Santiago now defends only the X’much Haltún Botanical Garden. It’s a small collection of plants, but it’s free and worth a look. Near the city’s main plaza, Baluarte de la Soledad houses a collection of Maya stelae. The 1,000-year-old, 10-foot stelae are impressive, although the presentation is unsophisticated, and few details about the stone monoliths are given. Next door, the puerta de mar was in days of yore opened only to admit skiffs from ships anchored offshore. Today it’s the main entrance to the old district from the malecón.

The malecón is both the city’s main thoroughfare and a miles-long cement seawalk punctuated with fountains, statues, and exercise equipment. Most of the year, it’s busy in the early morning with joggers and walkers, in the evening lovers snuggle on the built-in benches, and families and friends enjoy a stroll and each others’ company after the heat of the day has abated.

In January, however, the wind off the bay whipped our hair and chilled our faces even during the day. Terry had begun to use the fleece-lined corduroy coat she’d brought from Washington state. (I went for the layered approach.) Those who dislike the non-stop sweat-a-thons that visits to coastal Mexico tend to provoke may want to plan their visit between December and February, when the weather is coolest. The water (swimming pools, cenotes, and the ocean), however, is almost too cool for bathing.

Continuing counter-clockwise from the sea gate, el Baluarte de San Carlos has a small museum of historical memorabilia. Between Baluarte San Juan and the puerta de tierra, or land gate, is the only intact section of the old wall. You can walk along the top of the wall between one and the other and imagine what the inner and outer cities must have looked like long ago. Because of ongoing maintenance and strict civil codes, the historic downtown – a UNESCO patrimony of mankind site – looks quite a bit as it did 400 years ago.

The bastions and walls surrounding the city for the most part kept out remorseless pirates who so enjoyed sacking and burning the city before the barrier was completed. But they were of no help to the ships that anchored offshore laden with goods en route to the Old World, primarily dyewood, mahogany, salt, chicle, henequen, and other natural products. In return for these products, Campeche merchants would receive the luxuries that helped make their “outpost existence” a bit more civilized, like European furniture and Chinese silks. 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 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, at Fuerte San Jose el Alto, the Museum of Boats and Arms has items of interest to admirers of war and nautical themes.

Get Out and About

As welcoming and walkable as is historic Campeche, what lurks outside these walls is equally compelling, if not as tidy. Campeche state has more Maya ruins than either Quintana Roo or Yucatan state. Its two-lane highways are decently signed and maintained; even the long road penetrating enormous, once-remote Calakmul Biosphere Reserve has been paved.

One of the state’s most impressive archaeological sites, Edzná is less than an hour outside the capital. Between 2,500 and 4,000 people visit Chichén Itzá, in Yucatan state, on a typical day. Ednzá, on the other hand, might get one to two dozen sightseers. Without the distraction of hordes of people, it is possible to enjoy the natural beauty and the colossal architecture of the thousand-year-old buildings on a whole new level.

On our most recent visit, Erik Mendicuti, our extremely knowledgeable and friendly guide, led Terry and me along a nature trail before entering the site itself. We saw one of many chultunes, man-made holes that formed part of an extensive storage system to capture the area’s scant rainfall. Entering the main plaza, we admired a ball court and many graceful, Late Classic buildings. A light wind blessed the site, and flowers fluttered to the ground from a towering ceiba tree. My friend Terry, a curandera and bruja, scooped up some of the blossoms to save for conjuring purposes.

Traditional Maya believe that this beautiful tree connects heaven, earth, and the netherworld. Interested not only in the esoteric and intuitive, the Maya were awesome astronomers long before Copernicus trained his naked eye on the skies. So precise were first-millennium Maya priests in their calculations, that they routinely predicted the appearance of comets, the annual solstices, and other celestial events.

At Edzná, two well-preserved masks on the Temple of the Stone Masks provide a physical representation of the sun god, Kinich Ahau. The giant molded stucco figure on the far east side of the building represents the rising sun. On the west side, the setting sun is depicted with crossed eyes, an attribute prized by the Maya elite. Both have the filed teeth and ear plugs also favored by the gentry of the time. A hint of the original red and blue pigment gives only a small clue as to what these buildings might have looked like when painted in full color.

The Maya custom of constructing new buildings over old – instead of ripping them down and remodeling – is responsible for the preservation of incredible art, like these sun god masks. Today, a palm-thatch roof shields the figures from further destruction by the elements.

On my most recent visit, I climbed the site’s tallest and most impressive building, the Five-Level Building. Bats in crevices squeaked and purred. A large iguana scurried about in plain view amid the ruined temples and ritualistic steam bath on the uppermost platform. I used to be afraid of heights, and was fearful of climbing the narrow, sometimes slippery stone steps of Mexico’s pyramids. Coming down was even worse. I would crawl down at an agonizingly slow pace, crab-like, crouching – afraid to look down and afraid to stop. After decades of practice I can now walk upright on the diagonal course I’ve learned makes the trip up or down less dizzying.

Who was there to applaud my most recent descent to Ednza’s broad main acropolis, dotted with magical ceibas, slender chicle trees, and round altars? Just Erik and Terry, and a jade-blue motmot or two, winging among the silent trees.