Romantic Port and Pirate's Den
on Mexico's Gulf Coast
Campeche is one of two surviving walled Spanish colonial cities in the western hemisphere – the other is in Cartegena in Colombia. It is also the best restored colonial city in Mexico and is on the UNESCO Heritage list as an example of Spanish military architecture in the New World.
History and Legend
Campeche’s romantic history of pirates, sea faring traders and sieges is reflected in its narrow cobbled streets, beautifully preserved pastel-colored Spanish mansions, its fortified walls and fortresses.
Beyond the walls, there is a charmingly quiet Mexican provincial capital with a colorful mercado (market) and a picturesque malecon (waterfront) on the Gulf of Mexico for a brisk morning bike ride or a leisurely sunset stroll.
Zocalo in Campeche
Best of all, it is a compact city easily explored on foot and is off the beaten track for most tourists. The city’s walls and baluartes (bastions) were built in the 1600s to protect itself against repeated pirate attacks. When completed, there were four points of entry and access, with the two main ones still standing. The Puerta de Mar (Sea Gate) opens to the Gulf, and on the landward side is Puerta de Tierra (Land Gate).
The city also built an extra layer of defense by constructing two forts with drawbridges, moats and towers on the hills. With these defenses, Campeche became one of the best fortified cities in the 1800s
Puerta de Tierra, which is the city’s icon, has wooden gates installed in 1732 and protected its residents from subsequent sieges. It is one of the largest surviving parts of the ramparts after the wall was razed in the early 1900s. The five ton cannon near the gate was discovered as recently as 1990.
Things to See and Do
Three times a week, enjoy a spectacular sound and light show which cleverly uses the old architecture as backdrop for tales of piracy and battles from the city’s past.
Start your walking tour at the Parque Principal, an airy central plaza with wrought-iron street lamps and gates, a gazebo in the center and leafy trees providing shade. Bus tours around the city leave from the plaza each hour. Across the park is the lofty Cathedral de la Concepcion which was built in a style typical of churches of the Spanish Renaissance.
Built of limestone, its tall twin towers were built in stages over 2 centuries. It started as a small church with a thatched roof in the 1500s and the construction on the first tower called El Colonial was started in 1760. The second tower was completed after independence and is named El Campechano. The working church is believed to be packed to capacity on Sundays.
Step through the Moorish-style arches of Casa #6 to see how a wealthy Campechano lived in the 1800s. This lovely old house has been beautifully restored, with period furniture on display in its various rooms. Now the city’s main tourist office, there are frequent cultural exhibitions in its patio.
Must-See Museums Several of the surviving seven baluartes are worth visiting as part of a walking tour. Baluarte del la Soledad, which is close to the seagate, is the largest and had as many as 13 cannons at peak. Now it now houses the excellent Museo de la Arquitectura Maya which showcases Mayan stelae drawn from various surrounding ruins.
This is the must-see museum in Campeche for a great introduction to the various Mayan ruins in the state as well as the architectural styles associated with them. Although most of the stelae are badly worn, line drawings allow you to envision their original design.
To catch a glimpse of Campeche as it was, visit the city museum at the Baluarte de San Carlos. Primarily devoted to showing the city’s fortifications, there is a scale model of the city in its glory days, a collection of old maps and several models of ships.
More Mayan relics, including exquisite jade burial masks with gold nose and ear rings from Calakmul, jade jewelry, vases and seashell artifacts are on display in the San Miguel fort. This is Campeche’s largest and its best fort from which you can get a wonderful view of the city and the ocean.
San Jose Fort In the north, the San Jose fort has exhibits of ship models and colonial weapons which tell the story of the city’s history as one of Spain’s busiest trading ports in the New World. You cross a drawbridge over a moat to get to this nicely restored fortress, from which you get a sweeping view of the city and mangrove swamps to the north.
Carnaval Campeche’s Carnaval in February is thought to be the oldest in the nation. It is several weeks of festivities, music festivals and pageants which begin with the burning of an effigy of a pirate which is then tossed into the sea. Celebrations culminate in the Sabado de Bando, a parade of outrageous costumes and masks up and down the malecon
Shopping Handicrafts can be found at the Folk Arts Bazaar down by the malecon near the convention center. Look out for the Panama hat, crafted by artisans who have to work in humid caves in order to properly mold the thin palm fiber into beautifully patterned hats. Other crafts to look out for are pottery, seashell jewelry and artifacts and leather goods.
Nightlife There is little nightlife in Campeche but you can count on excellent seafood for dinner or at any time of the day or night at La Parroquia, which is the place to meet in the city.
Local Cuisine When in Campeche, eat as the locals do and opt for the small Gulf shrimp thought to be one of the tastiest shrimps in the region. Otherwise, fish is plentiful with such choices as stone-bass, snapper, baby shark, pampano and a whole lot more. Served with the achiote, the traditional Mayan spice paste or Spanish herbs, the end product is delicious to the eye and to the taste.
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