Capital of the state that bears its name, beautiful Campeche is one of Mexico’s finest colonial cities, but it draws relatively few tourists. 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 and neatly restored. Nonetheless, the place doesn’t feel like an outdoor museum, with appliance stores and internet cafés occupying many of the 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 than Mérida, its immaculately preserved and tranquil streets compare favourably, and campechanos live up to their reputation as some of the most gracious people in Mexico.
One of the greatest pleasures to be had in Campeche comes from simply wandering in the early evening and on Sundays, when the central Plaza de la Independencia (which locals call the parque principal, or just parque) is closed to cars for a mellow party. Only the archeological museum in the Fuerte de San Miguel can be described as a “must-see”. The market, just outside the wall by the Puerta de Tierra, is as far as you’re likely to need to venture into the modern city.
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 bulwarks (baluartes), 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 Although large sections of the walls have been replaced by a ring road, two major sections survive, along with seven of the eight baluartes.