Capital of the state that bears its name, beautiful Campech is one of Mexico’s finest colonial gems. At its heart, relatively intact, lies a historic port town still surrounded by hefty defensive walls and fortresses; within them, interspersed with the occasional grand Baroque church, are elegant eighteenth- and nineteenth-century houses painted in pastel shades, hundreds of which have been restored to their former glory. Nonetheless, the place doesn’t feel like an outdoor museum, with appliance stores and internet cafés occupying many of the historic shopfronts. Around the old centre are the trappings of a modern city that is once again becoming wealthy, while the seafront, built on reclaimed land, provides a thoroughly modern vista. Though the city is less lively, its immaculately preserved and tranquil streets compare favourably with Mérida’s, and campechanos live up to their reputation as some of the most gracious people in Mexico.
In 1517, a crew of Spanish explorers under Francisco Hernández landed outside the Maya town of Ah Kin Pech, only to beat a hasty retreat on seeing the forces lined up to greet them. Not until 1540 did second-generation conquistador Francisco de Montejo the Younger found the modern town. Until the nineteenth century, Campeche was the peninsula’s chief port, exporting mainly logwood (source of a red dye known as hematein) from local forests. It was an irresistible target for pirates until locals prevailed upon the Spanish authorities to fortify the city: construction of the walls, with eight massive baluartes (bulwarks), began in 1686 after a particularly brutal massacre. Although large sections of the walls have been replaced by a ring road, two major sections survive, along with seven of the eight baluartes.