After its foundation in 1540, Campeche quickly became a victim of its own success thanks to its strategic position in the Gulf of Mexico. Heaving Spanish galleons plied these lucrative waters, making regular runs between the New World of Mexico and the Old World of Spain and, by the early 1600s, Campeche had become one of the wealthiest cities in the Viceroyalty of New Spain and a prime target for the even-then notorious Pirates of the Caribbean.
Famous pirates and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake, John Hawkins and Jean Lafitte ran daring raids on Campeche but nothing had prepared the city for what was to happen on the morning of the 8th February 1663.
The ruthless buccaneer Christopher Myngs had amassed over 1,400 blood-thirsty cohorts in Jamaica, including the legendary Captain Morgan (an ancestor perhaps?). Crammed aboard some 20 ships these gold-crazed opportunists arrived off poorly fortified Campeche, ransacking the city over two riotous days. The booty tally from this incredibly rich city was 150,000 Spanish pieces of eight, 14 Spanish galleons anchored off the shore and untold riches from the homes of the hopelessly unprepared merchants that lived there. The attack on Campeche was so devastating that the Spanish had no choice other than afterwards to fortify the city. But that took decades, leaving the city for some time as vulnerable to pirate raids as ever.
The old city walls don’t extend entirely around the city these days – there are gaps where the ramparts stop and hang, exposed to the modern city beyond. In fact, there are just a few sections of the wall that you can walk on, the other sections either closed for renovation or missing altogether. The ramparts are accessible from one or two bastions within the walls – where, after buying a ticket, you’re escorted to a small gate. We didn’t think anything of it as we passed through and clambered up the stone steps to take in the view, and what a view! With cathedral bells tolling, the whole town, with its tiny coloured casas, is laid out before you. But it’s only when elevated above the streets that you realise that some of the painted houses just beneath the walls are in fact just facades, with crumbling, roofless rooms and empty blocks of land behind, left to large iguanas to soak up the hot sun. Clearly the house-fronts are band-aids on the challenges of being a UNESCO-listed site of Universal Value.
Only when we returned to the gate did it dawn on us that it had been locked behind us and we were trapped on the exposed wall in the baking midday sun. What to do? The solution soon presented itself when better-primed locals appeared. You have to clang a huge old bell to get the gate keeper to return and open the door. Who knew?!
Pirates have since become synonymous with Campeche. The bastions, the ramparts and cobbled streets echo to the romantic swash-buckling adventures of these pirates even today. Made even more real by the sight one evening of a band of silent pirates striding down one of the cobbled streets. Did we did see that? Were they actors off to a performance? Party-goers off to a party? Or… perhaps some ghostly apparition from centuries ago… I’d like to think that.