Just over 180ks from Mérida lies the beautiful pocket-sized coastal city of Campeche, founded in 1540 by the Spanish conquistadores on top of the ancient Maya city of Ahk’in Pech (Can Pech) and now a UNESCO World Heritage listed city of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’.
We took the super modern ADOgl bus service from Mérida in a little over 2 hours in AC comfort – reclining seats, curtained windows and TV screens (showing cheesily eclectic child-friendly movies – Dwayne Johnson anyone? Pete’s Dragon? Queen concert in Budapest?). Since the demise of train travel in Mexico (previous post), bus travel has exploded with fast safe connections all over the country for incredibly low fares. Our journey for instance cost just A$25 each.
Campeche is distinguished by being the only walled city in Mexico with its hexagonal-shaped defence system of bastions and ramparts, enclosing a tightly packed checkerboard of cobbled streets and alleys that take up just over 100 acres.
Campeche has street after street of brightly coloured terraces and cute casas comprising some 1000 heritage-listed baroque buildings whose bright colour palette is a feast for the eyes. Calle 59 is the main (if sole car-free) artery, connecting the Puerta de Mar (Sea Gate) with the Puerta de Tierra (Land Gate) and is lined with restaurants, bars and cafes. In some ways, this particular area of town reminds me of Malaga Old Town (a small version) – the narrow laneways with tables and umbrellas, the hawkish waiters darting at passers-by, waving menus with rapid-fire enticements of cerveza fría and margaritas heladas en las rocas (ice-cold margaritas-on-the-rocks – a winner for us!) Though there perhaps the similarity ends, because there was hardly anyone here – waiters at lunchtime easily outnumbering tourists.
Another thing that strikes you about Campeche is the aroma. It’s of the sea. The fresh sea breezes waft through the narrow streets carrying the smells of fish cooking over coals. There are sudden, ear-piercing calls coming from vendors cycling around town with brightly coloured umbrellas and large portable ice coolers, selling cold drinks to locals. Pozol Frío “Pozolli” is made from corn dough, ground coconut or cacao, and iced water, strained and served in a cup. Mariachi music drifts out of homes during the siesta as the streets empty and the locals snooze the afternoon away.
It’s baking hot in Campeche once the sun has hauled itself out of the Gulf, so eating outside really isn’t an option until evening and even then, it’s roasting. It’s only at night that the locals and the few travellers emerge, turning Calle 59 into one continuous seam of bustling tables. It’s also at night that the street musicians and entertainers shake off their siesta, roaming the laneways in merry bands, serenading diners for a few pesos. One shabby but dapper old bloke (who we’d seen begging earlier) stood alongside and joined in – tunelessly sharing the attention and cheekily collecting tips. They didn’t seem to mind.
The historical baroque centre is easy to walk around, though I was surprised at just how many cars there are here – and in this town, with such narrow streets, they are an unwelcome companion. For a UNESCO World Heritage site, you’d think traffic would have been banned from within the walls. But sadly many of these tiny unique street-scapes are jammed with cars – for local residents and businesses I guess – but most business is outside the walls where the modern city of Campeche explodes into frenetic action. There are hardly any modern buildings within the old city walls, but just outside are some strikingly modern structures including the Palacio de Gobierno (Campeche State Government) which has cleverly, and, I might add, very sympathetically, incorporated a glass wall to face the old town, reflecting the coloured buildings. It’s very nicely done.
One particularly unique feature of the old walled town is the changeable elevation of the sidewalks and shop-fronts, at times much higher than the road, keeping the roadways on one even level, but making things for pedestrians quite precarious in the day, downright treacherous at night. Right in the heart of the old walled town is the imposing baroque 16th Century Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception that dominates the main square of elegant shaded colonnades. There are some fine mansions and palacios off the square and nearby, the monolithic yellow Church of San Roque and the (even more so) baroque pile of San José with its exquisite blue and yellow tiles that glint in the tropical sunshine.