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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Exploring Campeche, the colonial bastion on the Gulf of Mexico

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Though not as popular a tourism destination as Mérida or Valladolid, the city of Campeche has a wide range of attractions to keep even the most jaded visitor interested. In recent years, the city has also become home to a growing community of expats looking to settle down in this beautiful colonial city on the banks of the Gulf of Mexico. 

Beautifully adorned colonial facades in Campeche make for stunning photographs. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

Officially named San Francisco de Campeche, the city is the capital of the state of the same name on the Western Yucatán Peninsula. Campeche is well known for its beautiful architecture and the impressive state of preservation of its city walls built in the 17th century to fight off invaders and pirates. 

Because Campeche was built using many of the same architectural features as Havana, the city has often filled the role of Cuba’s capital in Hollywood films set in the Communist country. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Established in 1540 by Francisco de Montejo and León “El Mozo,” son of the elder Francisco de Montejo, Campeche was founded two years before Mérida — making it the first major Spanish settlement on the Peninsula. 

Capeche’s town square is flanked by the Catedral de Cienfuegos built in 1833. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Before the arrival of Europeans on the Peninsula, the area covering modern Campeche was under the control of the Mayan city-state of Edzná, 38 miles west. 

Edzná is now open to the public as an archaeological site and makes for a great day trip from Campeche City. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Aside from Edzná, the city of Campeche is a popular point for day trips to several other archaeological sites such as Hochob, El Tabasqueño, and Dzibilnocac. Day trips are also offered to sites further afield including Calakmul and Becán, but if you intend to visit these faraway sites you really are better off staying at least a couple of nights at a more nearby location such as Xpujil or Chicanná

Travel time between Campeche City and Calakmul is roughly six hours each way, making day trips possible, but far from ideal to enjoy one of the largest and most impressive sites of the Mayan world. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The name Campeche is said to be a derivation of the Yucatec-Mayan name given to the village of Can Pech, meaning “Snake Flea.” Though at the time Can Pech was relatively small, Spanish soldiers were chased out of the community by Mayan warriors. 

View of a colorful street in Campeche from atop the city’s fortified walls. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

But the Spanish would return in larger numbers and make Campeche a regional capital and port city. The city’s location on the calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico made it both an important logistical hub for trade with other colonies in the region and in the Caribbean, as well as a target for pirates. As a result, Spanish authorities soon developed a large network of fortifications and defense towers equipped with powerful cannons.  

Some of the most famous pirates to attack Campeche included names such as Jean Lafitte, Henry Morgan (pictured), and Francis Drake. Photo: Courtesy Wikimedia Foundation

Today the City of Campeche is home to several hotels as well as great restaurants tailored to just about any budget.

Campeche’s most famous dish is Pan de Corazon, made by stacking tortillas over layers of shark meat and accompanied with a tomato sauce and habanero peppers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like Yucatán, Jarana is the traditional dance of Campeche, though variations in its steps, rhythms, and regional costumes make it appear quite different.

Women perform the campechanita habanera, a regional variant of Yucatán’s traditional jarana with influences from Andalucia and Cuba. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The city has also done a particularly good job of restoring its historic downtown area, which is large — although not as big as Mérida’s.

Built in 1716, the former Church of San José is famous for being one of the best surviving colonial constructions in Campeche, as well as for its mosaic-style facade. The historic building now serves as a museum and gallery. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

During the evenings the city’s boardwalk is perfect for long walks or jogs as it stretches for nearly four miles from end to end. 

The cool breeze from the Gulf of Mexico makes walking down Campeche’s boardwalk quite comfortable, even on the hottest of summer nights. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Campeche’s boardwalk is also home to several parks, including areas for skating and a series of lit fountains synchronized to the rhythm of classical music. 

Entrance to Campeche’s historic fortified center through the “Puerta de Tierra.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The sculpture known as La Novia del Mar, or the Ocean’s Bride, is one of Campeche’s most well-known landmarks, sitting on the boardwalk facing the ocean. The aesthetic of the sculpture is believed to have been inspired by The Little Mermaid, in Copenhagen, Denmark. 

La Novia del Mar is said to have been built in honor of a young woman who lost her love to the ocean over 500 years ago and is said to still await his return. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Visiting Campeche from Mérida is quite easy as the federal highway connecting these two cities is quite good and has plenty of signage. What is even better is that there are no tolls and the trip can be made in under two hours. 

During your drive, you are likely to notice several abandoned haciendas. Some are very easily accessible and quite spectacular. Just avoid jumping any walls or fences, as most are privately owned, even if they are essentially ruins. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht. 

So if you have never visited Campeche, or even if you have, consider it for a weekend getaway.

A colorful traditional wedding procession heads down Campche’s colorful streets. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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