This article is from the March 2005 The Mexico File newsletter.
Let Me Loose in Campeche!
Story and photos by Jane Onstott Jane is an editor, translator, and travel writer, and a frequent contributor to The Mexico File.
In the last issue of The Mexico File, I wrote about Campeche City and the archaeological site of Edzná, less than an hour away. But more adventure waits for those eager to tool around the small state’s two-lane highways, away from tourist offices and restaurants with English-language menus. Campeche City itself is pretty untouristy—there’s not a swim-up bar in the city—but the countryside is positively ethnic. So get out the guidebook or map, review your Spanish, and hit the road.
I enjoy traveling by bus throughout Mexico, and it often seems the better option for exploring. However in Campeche state, there are lots of places I want to stop and see, but only briefly. Hotels and restaurants are few and far between in the countryside, and getting to the archaeological sites beyond Edzná is possible only on a guided tour or by private vehicle. In any case, Campeche state is perfect for driving: its two-lane highways are decently signed and maintained, and not at all crowded.
Every driver needs a destination, no matter how random. So although you can probably find more jipis (hats woven from the fronds of the jipi palm) in Campeche City than in Bécal, it’s fun to visit the town where they are made. That’s as good an excuse as any to hit the road. As you travel along highway 180 north of Campeche City, you can visit the somnolent towns en route. Each has at least one old Franciscan church, most faded, some vibrant, others in the process of renovation. If you keep going on this road you’ll be in Yucatan state, and soon, Merida.
A car trip along the Camino Real, as this stretch of highway is called, is more about the journey than the destinations. If you decide to do this route, pack a few snacks, clean the windshield, fill the car with gas. Don’t forget the camera and a sense of curiosity in simple things.
El Camino Real
I’ve never stayed at Hacienda Blanca Flor, but it’s about the only really inviting hotel in the area, and makes a perfect base for exploration. Both times I’ve visited, there have been no other guests at all. (They must cater mainly to groups.) Despite its abandoned state, this unpretentious and comfortable hacienda-turned-hotel is appealing, and nowhere near as expensive as the luxury hacienda-hotels of the Starwood chain. There’s an unmanned bar out back by the vegetable garden and a cavernous dining room with a table of Elizabethan proportions. On my most recent Campeche trip this past January, I went there for lunch with Terry and two other friends.
Since we were the only diners, the meal was served in the front room of the hacienda. With period-appropriate furnishings and old sepia photos on the walls, it’s much more intimate and homey than the formal dining room.. The food, served to us by the same woman who prepared it, was deliciously straightforward. We started with wonderful split pea soup, then moved on to tortitas de chaya (cornmeal cakes with spinach-like chaya), roasted chicken, and mashed potatoes. Lastly, the sticky sweet fruit dessert até was served with a nice tangy cheese.
Erik proclaimed himself “Tan lleno como perro de rancho” (full as a ranch dog): we’d all stuffed ourselves. That meal was a big relief after a week of more exotic Yucatecan recipes. I’m a wanna-be vegetarian. In order to immerse myself in the culture, however, I was determined to try the regional cuisine on this visit. I had been bravely ordering main dishes like the all-black Relleno de Negro (or Negro de Relleno, I can never remember), an inky-looking sauce drenching the body parts of some unfortunate turkey. What I really wanted was what my friend Terry kept ordering: rice, beans, and handmade tortillas. Although it was meat, at least the chicken served at Hacienda Blanca Flor was crispy, plain, and delicious. I had only my conscience to worry about, not my condiments.
Hacienda Blanca Flor is roughly halfway between the Yucatan state border and Campeche City. The closest sizable town is Hecelchakán (pronounced Eh-sell-cha-KAN), a very old and traditional town. In front of the beautiful limestone church a round kiosk sells cochinita pibil (pit-cooked pork, a regional delicacy); folks generally wander over midmorning for a plate of steamed pig and hot tortillas. The food kiosk is right next to the town square, which doubles as a playground for kids, with weathered-looking climbing equipment and seesaws. On the far side of the plaza, Hecelchakán’s Camino Real Museum (closed Mondays and midday) has some outstanding Maya stelae as well as interesting statuettes from Isla de Jaína, just offshore and connected by a tiny strip of land.
The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) is currently excavating on Jaina Island, and it’s off-limits to casual visitors. Famous for its wonderfully expressive figurines, the island of Jaina has proven a godsend for Maya scholars. The figurines represent people from different classes and trades, and the details of clothing and jewelry give lots of clues about life in the golden age of the Maya. Nearly 1,000 graves have been discovered on Jaina, leading experts to regard it as a giant graveyard.
More recent theories imply that the island may have been a community, however, and that the pre-Hispanic custom of burying the dead beneath the house accounts for the presence of the exquisite statuettes. In addition to the figurines, the Maya buried coins to pay for the deceased’s voyage through the various levels of the next world. Plates with food were prepared for the journey, and other people and animals were buried as well—pets, servants, and possibly family members—for companionship. In addition to the massive number of graves, archaeologists have discovered and partly restored a temple, several platforms, and a ball court on Isla de Jaína.
Northern Campeche is the state’s agricultural region. There are cashews in the summer, and preserves of various fruits year-round. Lining the two-lane highway south of Hecelchakan, men and women sell large jars of homemade preserves. The presence of these vendors serves even better than Mexico’s infamous speed bumps to slow you down prior to entering Pomuch, “the bread town.” If you look beyond the mundane, Pomuch is a sweet town with Mexico’s characteristic, colorful homes and businesses lining the main street. But the chief reason people stop is to visit “La Huachita.”
Located on one corner of the plaza, this bakery first opened its doors in 1891. Ever since, the owners (past and present) have been pulling from the oven wonderful pastries, turnovers, and breads flavored with cinnamon, chocolate, anise, and other flavors. Therese and I couldn’t resist buying a giant pichón. The delicious ham-and-cheese loaf was still warm from the oven. I know: Again with the meat. I chalked it up to research, and promised to mend my ways when I got back home.
North of Hechelchakán, the most accessible and interesting towns are Bécal, Tepakán, and Calkini. The northernmost, just before the Yucatan state border, is Bécal, the humble little town where jipis are made. A statue of two giant sombreros in the town’s main square is hard to miss, but the actual talleres, or workshops, are a little harder to find. Only a few artisans remain dedicated to the trade, but those that are still make their hats in traditional underground caves.
We visited the “Lool Jipi” workshop of do a Chari. Do a Chari wasn’t home, but her daughter showed us the damp, basement-level cave in their backyard. Open to the air and accessible by a short flight of steps, the cave held only a low stool, a knife, and a bucket of jipi fronds. “Only the old people can split the palm fibers just right,” Chari’s daughter explained. “Each strand must measure just so, depending on the quality of hat you will make. Each must be the same thickness as the others.” Only the elders, apparently, have both the experience and the patience for this sort of work.
In Tepakán, just a few miles south of Bécan, about 15 families still make pottery. Rustic is the keyword here, or perhaps not so much rustic as simple. The most traditional pieces are beige pots, water jugs, and plates with black and red bands, some with simple floral motifs. We entered Taller Lo’ol Ka’at to watch the artist in her cluttered backyard—which contained a few bald and a few not-bald chickens and some washing on the line in addition to her gas kiln—to watch her decorate her pots. Natural colors are mined from the hills around town, but apparently the art is in decline partly because artisans find it increasingly difficult to obtain these natural pigments. Erik explained that the cacique (local boss) is selling the soil to Yucatan state.
A little bit to the south, Calkini is the county seat. Today it simmers in the tropical sunshine, and there isn’t much to do except take a walk around the main square and visit the somewhat battered but still intriguing Franciscan church. According to historical records, a member of the Canul family founded Calkini after the fall of Mayapán. Mayapán was a late-blooming, Late-Classic Maya city in southern Yucatan that rose to power after the decline of Chichén Itzá. The last of the pre-Hispanic cities to be abandoned, Mayapán was destroyed due to internal dissent among two of the ruling families: the Xiu and the Cocomes. Apparently the feud began when the Cocomes brought the Canuls, mercenaries from central Mexico, to Mayapán.
Way Off the Beaten Path
In the northeastern part of Campeche state are three small archaeological sites perfect for a day’s exploration. There’s not much in the way of accommodation in this part of the state, but there are several options for a day tour. Start off from Campeche City or from a base in southern Yucatan state (Ozcutzcab, Ticul, and Uxmal all have lodgings). From either side you can visit Holchob, Dzibilnocac, and Santa Rosa Xtampak in a day and return to your departure city, or continue on your way north or south. For a less rushed experience, stop overnight at the simple hotel Los Arcos, in Hopelchén.
Like most Campeche towns, Hopelchén was founded in pre-Hispanic times. Its name means “Place of Five Wells,” indicating an abundance of water. The Spanish turned it into a base of operations and supply center to strengthen their position on the peninsula. I spent the night there on a trip alone around Campeche in 1999, and although the Los Arcos was one of the plainer hotels where I’d stayed in years, I had an excellent night’s sleep.
The following morning I was ready to explore the ruins. I almost skipped a visit to Hochob, however, as it had started to rain. I decided not to wuss out, and took a short but steep, rocky path after parking my rental car. About four main buildings surround a small central plaza. Sharing the site with me was a group of boisterous kids enjoying a cultural escape from the classroom. The children, recognizing me instantly as an English-speaker, began creeping closer, practicing their innocent one-liners in breathy whispers.
“What is your name?” one girl finally asked me, in accented English. When I answered and asked her name in return, she and her friends dissolved into massive and contagious giggles like only pre-teens know how. I had them all pose for me in front of the most impressive building, whose façade represents a mask of the earth-monster god Itzamná. The “mask” is harder to discern than most guidebooks imply, although the doorway, obviously enough, represents both the mouth of the god and the entrance to the next world.
Returning toward Hopelchén, I took a detour to visit Dzibilnocac, a small archaeological site near Dzibalchén and Iturbide. I found the site abandoned, but luckily the gate was unlocked. I let myself in, and wandered for a while in the lovely little dale. Towering over the main structure is a giant ceiba tree. There were lizards and pigeons and butterflies, but not a human around. Only one structure here has been excavated, a palace-temple, although covered mounds reveal the presence of unexcavated buildings. The palace has softly rounded corners and three towers. An enormous earth monster mask decorates the façade, and on the corners are “cascades” of the rain god, Chaac. His telltale nose curves like a bent index finger or an elephant’s truck.
I gave Santa Rosa Xtampac a miss, and soon was back in Hopelchen. I wandered over to a restaurant near my hotel where on an outdoor corridor I had something to eat and drink. The World Series was on TV. A group of Mennonite men, all dressed in brand-new overalls, was discussing going to Honduras to “chambear” (work). I guess the need to leave Mexico affects even seemingly prosperous Mennonite farmers.
Free Land Gets Takers
The Mennonites moved to the Hopelchén area when offered land by the Mexican government in the 1980s. For the same reason, families from Chiapas, Veracruz, Tabasco, and several other states had moved in the 1960s to previously uncultivated land in southern Campeche. Populated by these outsiders, the few largish towns in the area—like the unattractive crossroads-truck-stop Escárcega and riverfront Candelaria—have reputations as the ruffians of the state.
In 2003, I happened to spend my birthday in Candelaria, and I can’t say it was memorable. My two companions and I drove around and around looking for a friendly place to have dinner, but there are only a couple restaurants open, and they just didn’t seem inviting. We ended up in the hotel lobby munching chips and drinking spiked Cokes that we bought at a small neighborhood store. The next day we did find a hospitable place for lunch, Comedor Los Reyes, after exploring the ruins of El Tigre.
Referring to a local cat and not an African or Bengal tiger, El Tigre is a long drive down a washboard road. It’s about 20 minutes off Highway 186, the east-west highway that connects Escarcega to the Caribbean coast at Chetumal. El Tigre has some human-size, pop-eyed molded stucco masks at the base of a partially restored temple. It’s a bit of a hike along a grassy track to a more elaborately restored pyramid, which you can climb to the top of for an aerial survey of the area.
One very cool way to visit the site is by boat from Candelaria, on the eponymous river. It takes even less time than it does by car (about 45 minutes as opposed to 1 ½ hours), and it’s lots more fun. Limestone deposits render the river a deep jade, and along the banks you’ll spot different types of storks. You might see turtles, beavers, and even crocodiles swimming in the river.
We drove to El Tigre, but we did take a trip down river from Candelaria, solely for the pleasure of being on the river. We saw what the locals refer to as an “underwater bridge.” Just under the water’s surface, it’s apparently a wall that goes from one side of the river to the other, and said to be part of an old Maya temple. We also docked the boat to cross a hanging bridge and explore a series of small waterfalls.
Farther east toward the Quintana Roo state line, Becán, Xpujil, and Chicanná archaeological sites are just off the highway. An important city in its day, Becán was surrounded by an uncharacteristic defensive moat. We climbed the tallest structure to see jutting above the trees three towers from neighboring Xpujil. Dominated by Becán, Xpujil was named for the cattails that once grew in the area. Chicanná, smaller than the other two sites, has—as they all do—intricate “monster mask” facades typical of the region.
On the north side of Highway 186, recently discovered Balamkú (“Jaguar’s Temple”) has an amazing sculpted frieze deep within the main temple. The Maya custom of rebuilding on top of, instead of replacing, outdated structures has kept this fantastically carved specimen in great shape. Molded stucco figures, once painted vivid blue, yellow, black, and red, take the form of hissing snakes, laconic gators, and a stern-faced god above it all, seated yoga style.
The mero mero (“big cheese”) of all archaeological sites in the area, however, is Calakmul. An hour and a half’s drive into the biosphere of the same name brings you to this fabulous site. In its day, Calakmul covered 70 square kilometers and, as center of government for the Serpent Head Dynasty, ruled over neighboring cities. Nearly 7,000 structures have been identified, and some 180 stelae (carved stone pillars) have been found. Once home to an estimated 50,000 people, today the extensive site probably sees more howlers and spider monkeys than visitors. We climbed to the of top many tall, partially restored structures for fantastic views of the surrounding forest all the way to Guatemala. Slender trees remain rooted to pyramid steps, and beyond the carefully raked dirt paths, the forest continually threatens to re-swallow what’s only just been excavated. Everything is green—and, despite the heat—totally cool.
If You Go
Where to Stay and Eat
Autel Jardines. Calle 27 No. 1, Candelaria, telf. 982/826–0515, www.auteljardines.com.mx. $30-$50 double.
Hacienda Blanca Flor. Carretera Campeche–Merida Km. 88, Hecelchakán, telf. 999/925-8042 or 999/925–9655 ( Merida). $80 double room. Make reservations in advance to stay or to eat.
Hotel Puerta Calakmul. Carretera 186, Km 98.5, at entrance to Reserva de la Biósfera Calakmul, telf. 998/109-0249 (Cancun). Double $70.
Los Arcos. Calle 23 s/n, centro, telf. 996/822-0123, Hopelchén. Double about $22.
Places to Visit
To visit Jaina, hire a guide and a boat from Espacios Nauticos (Av. Resurgimiento 120, Campeche, telf. 981/816-8082). Owner Hector Solis will help you obtain the necessary permission.
Do a Chari’s Lool Jipi hat workshop, Calle 30 No. 231, Bécal, telf. 996/431–4326
Taller Lo’ol Ka’at, Calle 10 No. 51, Tepakan.