San Francisco de Campeche: Mexico’s classy colonial gem
For a Mexican vacation filled with adventure, culture and old-world luxury, leave Quintana Roo and her hedonistic resorts of Cancun and Playa del Carmen behind, and follow the road less travelled to the west coast of the Yucatan and the sprawling state of Campeche. There you will find a special place of quiet beauty and authentic Mexican charm.
Straddling the navy seas of the Gulf of Mexico and the exotic jungles of the Yucatan, San Francisco de Campeche is an enchanting little city of colonial splendour, wrapped inside sturdy fortified walls that have been protecting it for nearly 400 years.
Built on the treasures of swashbuckling pirates, Spanish conquistadors and the mysterious ancient Maya, the capital city of the state of Campeche is a living museum and the ideal base for the discerning traveller to explore the Yucatan’s least visited state.
The city as it stands today was built by the Spanish in the 17th century, when it flourished as one of the most important sea trading ports in the Americas. The walls originally had four gates, named Land, Sea, San Roman and Guadalupe, but only two remain – La Puerta de Tierra (Gate to the land) and La Puerta de Mar (Gate to the sea).
Pass under either of their whitewashed arches straight into the ‘Centro Historico’ where ancient cobbled streets lined with candy coloured casitas twist and turn, opening onto flower filled squares with baroque churches, elegant mansions and towering palms.
The city is very safe and easy to explore on foot or bicycle (there are plenty of hire paces in town) designed in a chequer board street plan where Calles run horizontally and vertically, meeting in pretty plazas before sprawling out to the residential Burros.
Architecture buffs will swoon over the faded elegance of restored mansions and the prettiness of the rainbow buildings. Spanish baroque and colonial architecture dominate the city, there are 2,000 restored buildings and the painstaking conservation and fascinating history of this beautiful city has earned it UNESCO world heritage status.
Some of the larger mansions are open to the public. These are the former homes of Campeche’s most illustrious residents, traders of salt and valuable red dye from the logwood tree and Spanish nobility who rebuilt Campeche after the devastating sacking of the city by pirates in 1663. Some of the houses have large story boards displayed upon the walls, which tell the fascinating history of the building’s former residents.
Campeche has several important museums which hold many treasures. A favourite amongst visitors to learn about Campeche’s history is the Centro Cultural El Palacio, on the north side of the central plaza, on Calle 8 between Calles 55 and 57 housed in a beautiful yellow hacienda.
There are many beautiful paintings by local artists displayed throughout the three adjoining rooms which tell the story of Campeche’s maritime history, I found my favourite painting of a tall sails ship hanging above the stairs.
There is a terrific model of a galleon on the ground floor and it is open on one side affording an examination of the interior of these magnificent ships. It really is outstanding in its detail, not to be missed! In the main room beneath 21st century spotlights, gold ingots, ceremonial jewellery and precious stones excavated from the sacred tombs of Edzna, Calakmul and Chichen Itza, now sparkle in glass cases.
Stepping back into the sunshine, wander a while and soon you will see many boutiques and artisan stores, be prepared to splash the cash, everything is gorgeous! For handmade jewellery, Panama (Jipi hats) and stylish fashion, peruse the chic boutiques on Calle 55. And when the Mexican sun gets too hot and your feet begin to ache, cool down with an icy Mojito and relax in the shade of La Parrilla on Calle 59.
For lazy lunches and elegant dining there are plentiful restaurants to suit the most discerning taste buds, fresh sea food and delicious traditional cuisine tempt and tantalise, and Vegans and Vegetarians are well catered for with an abundance of wonderful dishes to choose from. The restaurants are intimate and elegant, and you will never be far from a charming roof terrace with splendid views of the beautiful city and the sea.
There are several beautiful churches in Campeche, and the pretty 15th century Catedral de Neuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion, is the main attraction. I was enchanted by the sound of guitars strumming a beautiful melody from within, it lured me to the entrance where I hesitated because I am not religious at all – but the beauty of the music charmed me so much I could not resist entering. I slipped in behind a large group, feeling conspicuous because of my blonde hair and my lack of faith.
I was surprised by the simple beauty of the Cathedral’s interior compared to the heady grandeur of some I have seen. The altar was simple and unadorned, apart from a silver chalice and two candle sticks. The whitewashed walls plain but for a few small wooden framed pictures hanging there, and the only glitz on show – two crystal chandeliers sparkling in soft sunlight high above the black and white chequered tile floor.
Mariachi musicians strummed their guitars in front of the altar as the priests and congregation sang along to the beautiful music, and even though I could not understand the words, and I have no bond with God, I shed a few tears so moved was I by the beauty and passion of it all. When the music stopped and the queue for communion formed, I slipped out the side door.
Once Campeche is thoroughly explored by foot or bicycle, and you ‘ve had enough R&R by the pool, drive an hour south into the cool verdant jungles of the Zona Arquelogica.
Here you can explore mysterious Edzna, an ancient Maya city dating back to 400 BC! Hidden in the dense jungle until 1959, it is one of the least visited Mayan sites, so whilst tourist swarm all over Chichen Itza and Coba near the Riviera Maya, Edzna is wonderfully crowd free!
These dense, lush rainforests are home to exotic rare birds and screeching howler monkeys, their ear -splitting screams ricochet off the towering canopies, but trying to spot one is arduous, the elusive monkeys are very easy to hear but almost impossible to see!
Put your Jipi hat on to protect you from the searing sun and enjoy living out any Indiana Jones fantasies whilst exploring the site! Stroll through the ball court and marvel at the 442 feet long palace, built facing the Gran Acropolis, facing the sun point, the most significant position for the Maya.
Admire the 40 metre high Templo de los Cinco Pisos ( temple of five floors) but that’s all you can do, due to the excessive wear and tear from millions of tourists clambering all over them for years, many pyramids are now unsafe and in need of reconstruction, so climbing is now strictly prohibited, but you can climb some of the other structures for a bird’s eye view over the entire site and the jungle beyond.
Edzna, as with many Maya cities was abandoned around 1450, the reason why remains a mystery to this day. The Zona Arquelogica is a comfortable 49-minute drive away from Campeche, easy to do as a day trip from Campeche, or switch bases and check into the luxurious Hacienda Uayamon and soak up the mysterious atmosphere in style all night long!
Check into one of the pretty hacienda’s or grand merchant’s mansions, converted into elegant boutique hotels, carefully restored to retain their colonial style with a generous dash of 21st century luxury.
Campeche has many gorgeous hotels to suit the discerning traveller, and the 5* Hacienda Puerta Campeche, a Luxury Collection Hotel by Marriot is the most romantic and a firm favourite with international travellers.
Located in the historical centre of Campeche, Hotel Lopez is a little colonial stunner with a cute pool and fabulous views!
For direct sea views and a modern design, check into the Gamma Campeche Malecon. A stylish hotel with a fantastic pool and gardens. It’s opposite the Malecon and only a five- minute walk from the city walls.
Revel in 5* splendour in Hacienda Uayamon, another luxury hotel in Marriot’s Haciendas collection. Built within 17th century walls of a grand merchant’s hacienda, set in beautiful gardens a short walk from Edzna, it really is something special. Dine in style in the jungle and walk through candle lit gardens to Edzna and experience the mystical city underneath a full moon, unforgettable.