Capital of the state that bears its name, beautiful Campeche is one of Mexico’s finest colonial cities, but 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, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 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 far 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.
Beyond the archeological museum in the Fuerte de San Miguel (a must-see) and the market, which lies just outside the wall by the Puerta de Tierra, you don’t really need to venture into the modern city. Instead, one of the greatest pleasures to be had in Campeche comes from simply wandering around the old town 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.
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 Although large sections of the walls have been replaced by a ring road, two major sections survive, along with seven of the eight baluartes.