Campeche is the capital city of the namesake state and is often seen as one of Mexico’s best kept colonial secrets. The now UNESCO World Heritage Site was founded in 1540 on former Mayan grounds and quickly became an important strategic point of trade, exporting local timber, silver and gold to Europe. Of course this didn’t go unnoticed and gruesome pirate attacks rapidly followed. Unfortunately, great harm was already done by the time the Spanish built the large walls and fortification systems still present in this fascinating Caribbean port. The combination of Spanish and Moorish architectural influences, the impressive fortification system, and the nearby Mayan sites of significance make Campeche an ideal destination to spend a few days.
The old historical centre of Campeche can easily be explored on foot. Walk the cobblestone streets, admire the pastel-coloured buildings and take a break on Plaza de la Independencia to people-watch. This is a popular meeting point for locals and also houses some of the city’s most popular attractions, including the Cathedral de Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción and a Rococco-style gazebo at its centre. To get a good insight into the history of the Campeche State and the Maya archaeological sites of interest around the area, the Maya Architecture Museum is a perfect start. It’s situated just off the main square in one of the city’s limestone bastions built in the late 17th century to protect against pirates. Casa no. 6, just around the corner, is a remodelled colonial house decorated with period furnishings, which gives a good overview of how an upper-class Campechano family used to live during the prerevolutionary era.
Navigating the cobbled streets of the historic centre is easy, but visitors also have the option to travel in style by tranvias (trams). The Tranvia de la Ciudad tram route goes through the historic neighbourhoods, including San Roman, which is home to the black Christ of Saint Roman. The El Guapo takes route along the seafront to Fuerte de San Miguel, one of the most representative forts in the city. Both tram routes feature commentary in both Spanish as well as English.
From the seafront, make your way back to the historic centre via the malecon, the city’s 7km-long promenade. This part of Mexico is famous for its incredible sunsets, and seeing the pastel-coloured buildings light up in a beautiful glow is an amazing sight. Sample some seafood at one of the speciality restaurants within and just outside the city walls and sip on a margarita or two in one of the bars to finish the day in style.
When visiting Campeche for a few days, you can’t miss out on some of the fascinating Mayan sites that can be found nearby. Edzná is one of the sites that can easily be visited on a day trip from Campeche City. It features a unique combination of style and features, displaying the variety in religious and cultural influences. Edzná is one of the lesser-known Mayan sites, which makes that you can wander through the quiet plazas and admire the impressive structures uninterrupted. The five-storey central pyramid with its shrine and altar is the most remarkable building on the site. Close by is the Temple of the Masks, etched with depictions of the Sun God, while other buildings still lie hidden beneath a thick mantle of vegetation.
Even more remote are the Calakmul Mayan ruins, a jungle-swathed lost city located within a protected UNESCO Biosphere and a UNESCO World Heritage Site itself. The ‘Kingdom of the Snake’ once was the seat of one of the largest and most dominant powers within the Mayan empire and its extensive system of canals and reservoirs once served a population of over 50,000 Mayans. Even though the site is hugely significant and architecturally impressive, it’s off the beaten track and all the more magical for it – the foliage-smothered remains are tremendously photogenic, and the area is wildlife-rich with monkeys and over 230 species of birds.
Visit Campeche on our Eagle: Aztecs, Mayas and Conquistadores escorted group tour, or on our Luxury Mexico: self-drive Yucatan haciendas and Caribbean coast holiday.