The City of San Francisco de Campeche is one of the least known and most overlooked colonial cities in Mexico.
When I told the woman at the hotel pool with whom I was comparing travel plans that we were going to spend six nights in Campeche. She shrieked, “Whatever for? There’s nothing in Campeche that can’t be done in one day!”
I disagree! Although, technically, it could all be seen in one day, I’m glad we didn’t rush it. Campeche is made for slow travel. No hurries! We wish we had several more days here. Not sure if it’s because of the sunsets and refreshing ocean breezes, or the cute easy walkable town, or our lovely Airbnb with private pool. Perhaps it is the good food and fun eateries – or the combination of it all.
What To Do in Campeche
Watch the Sunset. We made it a priority to watch the sun set each evening from the waterfront boardwalk – or malecón. There was a different display each night.
Stroll the Malecon. The Sea Gate originally led to the wharf, but now there is a seawall and a wide multi-mile-long malecón which is popular with tourists and locals alike.
Take the Trolley Tour. Making this one of the first activities gives a great overview of the area where you’ll discover that the city is quite compact and walkable. It leaves from the Central Plaza for a 40-60 minute ride through some of the nearby original neighborhoods.
Walk the Wall and Bastions. The Spanish built a city which became rich. Shipping in these waters attracted pirates. Campeche suffered more than twenty one major pirate attacks in the colonial era prompting a wall to be constructed around the city as well as numerous forts. Work began in 1685 and took 24 years to complete. The fortifications succeeded in stopping major pirate attacks, with only one, Barbillas, finding a way to enter the city in 1708.
Walking these walls reminded us of other walled cities we’ve visited and walked: Kotor, Montenegro; Dubrovnik, Croatia and Jerusalem, but especially Cartagena, Colombia (no doubt due to the Spanish influence.) Once upon a time, walled cities were the norm. Old city gates remain in many European cities, even Rome!
Visit the Central Plaza, Cathedral, and Museum in the old Customs House.
Wander in Wonder. The original city enclosed by the walls consisted of basically 40 blocks of colorful colonial buildings. It is simple to explore Campeche, but use extreme caution as the sidewalks are slick as ice! I skated down a wheelchair ramp on one foot. Quite scary!
More to Explore. There are old forts and haciendas not too far from the city as well as many majestic Mayan archeological sites throughout the state.
A Little History
The first people to dominate the area were the Maya. The Maya civilization reached its height between 600 AD and 900 AD. Photos of our tour to the Mayan site of Chichen Itza can be seen here: The Colorful Riviera Maya of Mexico.
The first Spaniards to arrive in the area were Francisco Hernández de Córdoba and Antón de Alaminos who landed in 1517 at a Mayan settlement called “Can-Pech.” They named it San Lázaro, but it didn’t stick! It eventually came to be called Campeche.
The Spanish conquest of Can-Pech and the rest of the Yucatán Peninsula began in earnest in 1540, under Francisco de Montejos, senior and junior, the founders of Mérida.
Think about those dates! May I remind you that Columbus sailed in 1492 so it wasn’t long afterwards that the Spanish Conquest began. Yet it wasn’t until nearly one hundred years later that the Puritans arrived in what is today Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA.
Campeche was a rich and important port during the colonial period equal to the ports of Havana, Cuba and Cartagena, Colombia. Mayan artisans were trained in ship construction, repair and maintenance. Local salt mines provided an essential product for sailing ships – preserved meat and fish.
The worst pirate attack occurred in 1685, when Laurens de Graaf sacked the city of Campeche and the surrounding haciendas for over thirty days, killing about a third of the area’s population.
Exports included Mayan woven cotton mantles, wax, honey, and the very profitable “green gold” and “black gold. Green gold was the agave plant fibers used to manufacture henequén or sisal rope products. Black gold was logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum L.) or Campeachy wood that grows in the Yucatán wetlands. Its trunk is used to make a colorant used to dye cloth black, violet gray and dark blue and was highly prized by the European textile industry.
“The Campeche Chair (butaque or butaca, as it is called in Spanish) is a reclining, non-folding, sling-seat chair with a distinctive side-placed curule base. In North America, they are named for the Campeche region of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, and were popular in the Americas during the early nineteenth-century.”
“Thomas Jefferson, who received a pair of such chairs in August 1819 from Louisiana representative Thomas Bolling Robertson, referred to them in his correspondence as “Campeachy” or “Siesta” chairs, signifying his understanding of their Mexican origin and their informal use.”Wikipedia
We really enjoyed our 6-night stay in colorful Campeche and hated to leave. It felt different than Mérida and other Mexican colonial cities. There are many tourists, yet it feels less touristy and more authentic. There are a lot less street vendors and souvenir shops. Some things cost more; espresso drinks were priced 30-50% more than we paid in Mérida, but seafood cost less!
We bused back to Merida and a few days later went on an adventure that yielded many Instagram worthy photos which I’ll show you next time I Meet You in the Morning from one of the most magical pueblos of Yucatán state.