San Francisco de Campeche, or Campeche as it’s known locally, is a city in one of the safest states in Mexico and also one of the country’s most scenic. The city is one of the most charming and least-visited gems on the Gulf of Mexico; a wonderful alternative to tourist hotspots like Merida and Cancun. Here’s everything you need to know.
The site of the ancient Mayan city Ak-Kim-Pech was the first place in continental America where the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1517. The Europeans came under the leadership of Francisco Cortez de Cordoba, who ‘discovered’ (for the Spanish) the Yucatan Peninsula. Although the city is no longer such a crucial port, at the time, it was an important maritime point of access for the rest of the peninsula and had a significant role in the conquest and evangelization of the Mayan communities in Yucatan, Chiapas and Guatemala. Just a 20-minute drive from Campeche’s historic center you can find the ancient Mayan ruins of Edzna, founded around 400 BC.
The historic fortified town of Campeche is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is also one of the two intact colonial cities left in the Americas, the other being Cartagena, Colombia. The city was subject to relentless attacks by pirates, in part because of its position as a relatively important trading port with Veracruz – Mexico’s most important port on the Gulf of Mexico — and therefore saw a large number of boats with goods going to and from Europe. Campeche was also a prized destination for pirates because it was major producer of palo de tinte, or logwood tree, which was used for years in Europe as a source of fabric dye. Today, within the city, you can still see the two fortresses that flank the historic center, which were built in the 17th and 18th centuries to keep out the pirates.
On Friday nights the city comes alive with salsa dancing and live music. One particular event takes place from 8pm-9pm on the Román Piña Chan passageway, right in front of the Plaza of the Republic and just outside of the Puerta del Mar – one of two historic entrances to the walled part of the city. The famous Calle 59 leads to a small but lively outdoor salsa party where everyone from tourists to serious dancers comes out to listen to the live music from a local band, Son del Mar. Before heading out, grab dinner at the Parrilla Colonial on Calle 59, which is just a block away. Be sure to get there on time, as the band starts packing up at 9pm.
In Campeche you can have the most exquisite five-star dinner of your life in the only private restaurant in the country. Casa de los Murmullos (House of Whispers) is the 17th-century colonial home of the renowned French chef Patrick Cross. Have an aperitif on the veranda while Chef Patrick prepares the finishing touches, and then sit back and enjoy the classical piano player serenading you during the meal. Chef Patrick specializes in haute French cuisine with a Mexican/Mayan accent, and boasts a cellar with the best Mexican wines available. Be sure to make your reservations three to five weeks in advance if you plan on dining during the weekend, and at least four days ahead of time if you plan on coming during the week. It’s a pricey experience, but the more people you add to your dinner party the less it costs per person.
If you can’t afford the price tag of Casa de los Murmullos, or even if you can, you should still visit the iconic La Pigua for an afternoon bite. The restaurant opens from 1pm to 6pm, Tuesday through Sunday. For something different, try the fried crab tostadas (jaiba), the traditional pan de cazón (shredded small shark in tomato sauce piled over corn tortillas) or pompano en verde (pompano fish in a savory tomatillo sauce). Save room for a slice of the restaurant’s renowned coconut cake and an espresso before you go.
A visit to the Yucatan Peninsula wouldn’t be complete without a visit to ancient Mayan ruins. In Campeche, you can escape the tourist traps in the rest of the peninsula and check out the remains of the abandoned ancient Mayan city of Calakmul. In the nearby states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo, major archeological ruins like Chichen Itza sometimes get more than 5,000 visitors per day, but Calakmul probably gets 100 or fewer. The site was rediscovered by non-locals in the 1920s and didn’t even begin being excavated until the 1980s. You can drive there and back from the city of Campeche in one day, but if you want to stay the night, we recommend the eco-lodge Puerta Calakmul. Don’t forget your bug spray, visor and sunglasses for this trip.
Campeche’s 4.4-mile (7-kilometer) boardwalk, or malecón, is the perfect spot for some early-morning or evening exercise, or a leisurely stroll to see the city’s incredible sunsets. The boardwalk cradles the Bay of Campeche, which is part of the Gulf of Mexico.
A statue of the patron saint of sailors and fisherman came to Campeche in the 16th century. The beautiful ebony figure was made in Italy in 1575 and brought to Veracruz and then to Campeche. The story goes that a ship refused to carry the religious statue and was then shipwrecked, but the boat that took it arrived in Campeche in a record amount of time of 24 hours during hurricane season. You can see it at the Church of San Román, in the neighborhood of San Román.