Campeche was stop #3 of 6 on our two-week road trip around the Yucatán Peninsula, and was our favorite colonial city. The first Spaniards arrived in Campeche in 1517, introducing crops such as sugar cane, but the main draw of this city is the shallow and accessible port. During the colonial era, it was a port similar to Havana and Cartagena, though piracy was a constant threat. The worst pirate attack came in 1685 and lasted 30 days, wiping out around a third of the area’s population. This prompted fortification efforts, thus constructing a wall around the entire city in an irregular polygon shape, nearly all of which still stands today. Campeche was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
What we liked about Campeche was the charm and vibrancy, with brightly painted walls adorning cobblestone streets for as long as the eye can see. During non-Covid times, I’m sure this place sees many a tourist, but we saw only a handful of non-Mexican tourists during our time there.
Taking a stroll inside the walled city is a fun and relaxing experience. Calle (street) 59 is the main street, bustling at nearly all hours of the day with shops and restaurants where you can eat outside on the cobblestone street, which are blocked off for pedestrians only. In the morning it’s easy to stumble upon streets with no people in sight. We visited Campeche during Christmas, so it was extra charming!
Be sure to take a walk at sunset to watch the small town come to life with energetic beats and tasty treats.
If you’re doing a road trip around the Yucatan Peninsula like we did, keep in mind that you will gain one hour when arriving to Campeche, as you’ll cross a time zone, and Campeche is a different state. We got stopped by a security guard at one of the checkpoints along the way, and they were very friendly. They simply asked where we were from, where we came from and where we were going, then made sure we were enjoying our trip so far and sent us off with a smile.
What To See in Campeche
Take a Photo of the Campeche Sign
Each city in Mexico has its own sign in large colorful block letters. This one is directly on the malecón (stone-built embankment / esplanade) on the sea.
Visit the Museo de Arquitectura Maya ($45 pesos per person)
This ticket provides you access to walk atop the walls (ring the bell above Calle 59 while you’re at it!)
Visit the Museo El Palacio Centro Cultural (free admission)
This museum will give you some insight into how the Maya people lived until the supposed “collapse” of their civilization (which is still to this day, argued by archeologists and historians, and still unclear.) I recommend listening to a podcast called Fall of Civilizations by Paul Cooper about the Maya civilization prior to your trip to Mexico (or whilst driving like we did!) so that you can better appreciate what you’re seeing when you visit all the ruins, otherwise it will appear to be a giant pile of rocks. 😂
One hypothesis about the demise of the Maya civilization is due to the poor soil quality around the Yucatán Peninsula. This area is made of limestone, which is the geological equivalent of Swiss cheese – soft and porous. This is why there are no rivers in the area, because the water just sinks through to the bottom of the earth. Water pools in one place and creates an underwater cave, known as a Cenote. Because of the thin soil (only a few centimeters deep before hitting limestone), farming was a challenge. The Maya were also at a disadvantage because they did not have four-legged animals to domesticate in order to assist them with farming and construction (no horses nor ox.) They simply tied a strap to their forehead and carried everything on their backs. The Maya had to burn the region just to make the soil suitable to continue growing crops (this is called “Slash and burn farming”.) Because of all the fires, deforestation started to occur. Mayanists (the term for a scholar specializing in the research of Mesoamerica pre-Colombian Maya civilization) theorize that by the time Spanish conquistadors arrived to the area, the Mayan civilization was already ancient history.
Stroll Through a Small Botanical Garden in the Middle of the City
Jardin Botanico Xmuch’haltun: $15 pesos per person (about $.75 cents USD) – very small but a sweet little oasis in the middle of the city.
Glimpse Into Life in the Past at Centro Cultural Casa #6: $20 pesos per person / $1 USD)
Photograph the Colorful Walls Along Cobblestone Streets
Take a Day Trip to Uxmal Ruins
Located in between Campeche and Merida, these Mayan ruins cost $80 pesos per vehicle ($4 USD) + $856 pesos for two people ($21 USD person). Please note that they do not allow bags, drones or selfie sticks, only water and cameras. The car park is pretty safe and everybody leaves their bags in the trunk.
Pronounced “Oosh-mal” (the letter “X” is very common in the Mayan language and is pronounced “shh”, like you’re telling somebody to be quiet.) These structures are in the typical Puuc style with smooth low walls. The pyramid structures were built as temples, and the Maya believed that the higher they built their temple, the closer they were to God. The structures were used not for living quarters, rather for rituals, ceremonies, celebrations, and games.
WHERE TO EAT IN CAMPECHE
Chocol-Ha – local chocolates and a cute outdoor courtyard seating area
Aduana Vasconcelos – great for dinner on Calle 59 (their pork belly mole with platanos was outstanding, and their mojitos are fresh and sour with lots of lime instead of sugar (as it should be!))
La Recova Mexican Steakhouse – empanadas and guacamole were great. Ask for lime and salt on the side, and you can spruce is up as you wish. All meals come with complimentary sauces and butter with home made bread.
WHERE TO STAY IN CAMPECHE
We enjoyed our stay at Gamma Campeche Malecon, a medium-sized hotel because of the sea view rooms and two-minute walk access to the entrance of the old town. You can’t beat the location!
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