Think Mexico, and you think beaches and margaritas, right?
Think again: If plunging into genuine, rich history, off-the-beaten-path real-deal adventure, exploration, and discovery sounds appealing, put Campeche on your immediate to-do bucket list.
This gorgeous jungle state, tucked up against the southernmost coast of the Gulf of Mexico, even offers beaches. But they are undeveloped, virtually empty of people, hotels and thatched hut palapa diners. This part of Mexico has not quite been discovered by developers, and that’s a rare and wonderful thing.
The ancient coastal city of Campeche, in the state by the same name, is about two hours’ drive time west of Merida or a quick connecting Aeromexico flight from Merida or Mexico City. Still almost entirely Spanish-speaking with few tourists around, it started as the early Mayan town of Canpech and was developed and renamed San Francisco de Campeche by Mexico’s colonial Spanish conquerors in the mid-1500s.
A major economic centre for the Spaniards, the city was frequently under siege by pirates and an impressive protective set of fortified walls was slowly built up, a system that’s still in place today and that made Campeche a World Heritage Site. Now, it’s a gateway to nature preserves and ancient Mayan ruins hardly ever seen by North American eyes, though European visitors have helped spark development of enough comfy hotels and restaurants in the region to make it attractive to usually-less-adventurous North Americans.
Oh, Where to Stay...
The Centro Historico (Historic Centre) has been magnificently-renovated, and a few of the old colonial buildings have been converted into fine hotels: the 18th-century vintage Castelmar, once a military barracks, and the two-dozen-room Francis Drake are the pick of that crop; the much newer, five-star Plaza Campeche and Plaza Colonial are also in the Centro Historico close to the city’s major attractions. But for a real immersion into Spanish colonialism, book a stay at one of the sprinkling of haciendas-turned-hotels outside the city: the 16th-century Hacienda Blanca Flor, north of Campeche on Highway 180 and near the town of Hecelchakan, or one of two stunning Starwood Hotel chain-run luxury properties – the 17th-century collection of houses right in the old city, dubbed the Hacienda Puerta Campeche, or the Hacienda Uayamón with contemporary bedroom styling against a stunning visual colonial palette, tucked into the jungle south of Campeche, off Highway 60. A stay in one of these haciendas is like stepping back more than 400 years in time, to 4.5-metre ceilings with thick crossbeams and rough plaster painted in luscious pastels, exquisite period furniture – but with great contemporary plumbing.
And What to Do...
Roll the linguistic dice on two different trolley tours of the city: they’ll likely be in Spanish only, but they’re fascinating nonetheless – great ways to take in the highlights without wearing out your sandals. You'll see a solid sampling of forts and “bulwarks” (fortified walls) along with the malecon (seaside boardwalk), a couple of fine museums, and plenty of historic colonial buildings like the majestic cathedral. The cobbled streets with brightly-painted colonial structures are a joy to photograph, and you can scope out shops and restaurants for later, more detailed attention. On weekends, the main square’s a temporary handcrafts market well worth browsing, especially for unique local crafts like unique hand-woven hats from the jipi (hee-pee) palm, pottery, porcelain and woodcrafts, and embroidered clothing.
At remodeled colonial house Casa No. 6 Centro Cultural, check out the period furniture, traditional kitchen, arched patio with a restaurant, and bookstore where you can get tickets to the out-of-town light and sound show at the X’Tacunbilxuna’an Caves near the small inland town of Hopelchen. This typical little settlement is surrounded by Mayan ruins, including the must-see Santa Rosa Xtampak.
Once you’ve devoured the city of Campeche, take a taste of the rest of the state. If you absolutely must have a bit of beach, drive your car rental along the coast south to the town of Champoton, sampling San Lorenzo, Mar Azul, and Sabancuy (roughly halfway between Campeche and the more southerly booming oil island city of Ciudad del Carmen), as well as plenty of fresh local seafood at roadside eateries. Take the old road that edges the sea, not the newer superhighway toll road that’s just inland and misses all the fun. Popular with locals, Playa Bonita, eight kilometres from downtown Campeche, offers bring-your-own-hammock (buy one in town before you come) palapas and beverage stands. Bear in mind, these are not resort-groomed beaches, they’re au naturel and that can include (unfortunately) some washed-up ocean trash.
Tour the ruins of Edzna about 45 minutes’ drive from Campeche – not a huge site, but the main plaza is spectacular. Save your energy, however, for spectacular, isolated Calakmul. About four hours’ drive from Campeche; stay overnight at one of the lodges and see the ruins in cooler morning air. Visitors must take a transport shuttle in from the Museum of Calakmul, 40 kilometres from the site.
Chicanna Ecovillage has actual hotel rooms, but is in Xpujil, a town about an hour from the archaeological site. Rio Bec Dreams offers rustic cabanas and shared washroom-facility “jungalows”, and Puerta Calakmul eco-lodge (your cabana’s right in the jungle) is closest to the ruin, which sits in the middle of a vast, phenomenal, 700,000-hectare biosphere reserve. The ruins themselves offer some 6,000 structures and the tallest pyramid in Mexico. Carry water and get a guide; this place is isolated – no vendors, few other people.
The nature preserve shelters all sorts of jungle wildlife. Along with two other reserves, Balam Kin and Balam Ku, it protects a big part of the more than two million-hectare Maya Forest that sprawls into Guatemala and Belize, and is critical nesting and migratory habitat to a huge variety of plants and animals.
On the eastern border of the state, hordes of pink flamingos live and breed at the Celestun Biosphere Reserve. Boat tours, often with a stop at a cenote for a swim, are available, though visitors are not allowed near the breeding area.
So who needs beaches when there’s all this magnificent nature and history to explore?