Occupying the western third of the Yucatán Peninsula, the State of Campeche (pronounced kahm-PEH-chay) spans 56,800 sq.kms and like its neighboring states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo it is almost entirely flat. About 40% of the state is covered with jungle, and Mexico's largest biosphere reserve (Calakmul) spreads along the state's remote eastern border. With fairly typical Gulf of Mexico beaches, Campeche attracts visitors looking to escape the resort crowds.
Campeche State lures visitors with its charming colonial port, several massive Mayan ceremonial centers, and wild jungle reserves. The state has a small population (around 700,000) It's fascinating cultural and ecological attractions are an ideal option for vacationers wanting a "back roads" Mexico experience that still includes some remarkable attractions.
The State's Capital is the coastal colonial town of Campeche, population 190,800. A mere 2-1/2 hour drive to the south of Mérida, Campeche is a captivating port filled with naval history, Baroque Spanish architecture, and aging beauty. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, an event that has spurred restoration of the city's splendid architectural treasures. Specifically, UNESCO cited Campeche city as "a model of the city planning of a baroque colonial city. More that 1,000 buildings of historical value have survived as witness of how space and time were superimposed in the various important historical states in Mexico since the 16th century." After nearly a century in which the city was terrorized by French, Dutch and English pirates, a major fortification of the city was built by the Spaniards in1686. Eventually, Campeche became the Yucatán's principal colonial port, thanks to its formidable defense system - one of the Western Hemisphere's best.
Campeche has spent the past few years restoring hundreds of downtown historic buildings, making it one of the most photogenic Colonial cities in all of Mexico. Some 1,600 building façades were restored in the late 90's. Stately mansions with high ceilings, ornate balconies, and majestic arched doorways line the city's streets. Especially noteworthy are the residential neighborhoods of San Román, Guadalupe, and San Francisco. Visitors to Campeche City can stroll, skate, or jog on the waterfront "malecón" (restored in 2000). At sunset you can wander past silent rusty cannons that once defended the port. Friendly "campechano" residents are eager to help the few foreign tourists that visit.
See & Do
• Campeche, Flavors From Other Eras
With abundant land and marine resources, Campeche stands out due to a gastronomy that preserves Pre-Hispanic secrets (such as herbs and fruits), and wisely links them to products brought from Europe, such as pork meat and its by-products. From Campeche's kitchen, we can highlight the panuchos, empanadas, tamales and cazon tacos. Visitors can also enjoy the delicious escabeche vine leaves and the x'catic chili, battered and stuffed with cazon. One of the favorite products in Campeche is shrimp, which can be prepared with coconut, plain, as paté, in cocktails and some hot dishes. The papache, with an exotic flavor, is harvested in the swamps.
One the most traditional recipes from Campeche is beans with pork, even though other stews are prepared with this meat: from the delicious pork trancas (pulled pork sandwiches) to the traditional pibil pork (steamed and prepared with annatto) and clove ham. Turkey is prepared escabeche style, and it is served in salbutes (fried tortillas), sandwiches, tacos, empanadas and soups. Deer, armadillo and caiman meats are also found in the region.
The area's best seafood is served at La Pigua. Other recommended restaurants include Casa Vieja (Cuban food and live jazz); Chac-Pel, Morgan and La Palapa (famous seafood dining –don't miss the coconut shrimp); Marganzo (regional seafood specialties); La Cenaduria Los Portales de San Francisco (traditional place to taste local food, it only opens at night). Several good restaurants and bars are open at night along the waterfront boulevard (malecon).
For shoppers, the city's colorful market sells some of Mexico's best Panama hats (hand-woven in the humid subterranean tunnels in the city of Becal, between Merida and Campeche). There are several handicraft shops on the 10th and 59th streets. The handicraft store, Tukulna, is a beautifully restored house that exhibits products manufactured throughout the State. Other choices include Arte Mexicano (Calle 59 Depto 9-b), Baluarte de San Pedro (Calle 51), Codice (bookstore and crafts at Calle 10 No. 256), and Creaciones Edzna (Calle 10 No. 33).
• Fishing in Campeche
The Petenes Ecological Preserve is part of a coastal wetland corridor. Red, white and black mangroves create an ecosystem of great value due to its flora and fauna diversity. Here, visitors will find trees such as chechenes, mahogany, figs, chit palms and at least 400 plant species, many of them endemic. From its varied fauna stand out the pink flamingos, pelicans, river crocodiles, caimans, herons, white ibis, white winged ducks, Yucatan parrots, storks, sparrowhawks, howler monkeys, anteaters, four-eyed opossums and manatees.
Without a doubt, this is one of the best places for fishing due to the richness, volume and variety of species that you will be able to find. The Petenes Ecological Preserve is known as the sanctuary of the shad fish, a species that is really hard to catch and requires patience and expertise, even from those with experience. More and more operators offer tours that include a boat and fishing equipment, that way you will be able to catch more fish and enjoy the surrounding area.
Campeche really excites visitors wanting to explore wild and scenic landscapes. Whether it’s biking, hiking, bird watching, wildlife photography, kayaking, or horseback riding, this destination offers a wide range of activities. The Los Petenes Biosphere Reserve is located along the coast and Campeche’s state border with Yucatan State. In addition to the several archaeological sites (Jaina, Kanki, Xcalumkin, Santa Rosa Xtampak, Dzibilnocac), this region holds many natural treasures.
Aquatic life swirls around several coastal “cenotes” that push channels of fresh water into saltwater marshes. El Remate Lagoon flows from a freshwater spring into the Gulf. It was used by Mayas hundreds of years ago for bathing. The grottos of Xtacumbilxunaan are fascinating for their massive size (656,17 ft long and 262,47ft deep). You can enjoy the spectacular light and sound show, every 30 minutes from 9:00 to 5:00.
• Submerge yourself in Campeche's History
The city of Campeche, the state’s capital, was the most important port in the Yucatan Peninsula during the Colonial Era. It was a prominent commercial port for the Viceroyship of New Spain, as Mexico was once known, making it a strategic point that France and England, mainly, used to take away the riches of the envied empire. That is the reason pirates and corsairs appeared in the region; they would attack and loot the Spanish ships. The waters of the Gulf of Mexico hide the remains of shipwrecks from different eras; today, they are a bastion of the country’s history and a unique experience for visitors. Among schools of fish and coral reefs, visitors will find masts, keels and canyons that once were part of magnificent ships that today make up an unmatched underwater landscape.
Up to this date, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH, for its Spanish acronym), has detected 23 archeological sites submerged or wrecked. One of the most interesting ones is the ship from the New Spain fleet that set sail from Cadiz in 1630 and shipwrecked in 1631, when a violent storm kept it from reaching its destination. Just as attractive, is the wreckage of the English galleon named “The Fishing Boat”, which sunk over two centuries ago. The tours to explore the underwater archeological sites along Campeche’s coast are suitable for both, beginners and experience scuba divers; however, you must be in good shape to able to go underwater and explore the archeological sites. A guide and equipment in good condition are essential for this great adventure in Campeche.
• Calakmul, an Awesome View of a Green Sea
Occupying the state’s eastern border with Quintana Roo State, this enormous reserve (covering 15% of Campeche’s territory) is home to Mexico’s largest tract of tropical jungle. It covers 723,185 hectares (1.8 million acres), and affords visitors one of the Mundo Maya’s best eco-archaeological opportunities.The reserve is located 360 km south and east of Campeche City over Highways 261/186.There are several impressive, little-explored archaeological sites, including Calakmul, Hormiguero, Xpuhil, Chicanna, Balamku, Becan, and Rio Bec.
The area’s wildlife and tropical plant life diversity is astonishing. Calakmul is home to 86 species of mammals (jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay, jaguarondi, anteater, spider monkey, howler monkey, tapir, among others). It is also home to some 282 species of birds, 50 species of reptiles, 400 types of butterflies and 73 types of wild orchids.
The Reserve was created in 1989 as a great experiment in ecological protection. In 1993 a paved road opened to facilitate excavation of several archaeological sites. There are nearly 7,000 sites in the Reserve, spanning the Preclassic and Classic periods. 10 species of large mammals live in the Reserve, including five of the six felines found in Mexico. Its fauna also includes crocodiles, duck-billed tree frogs and anteaters. Over 230 bird species have been recorded within Calakmul.
The Calakmul archaeological site is quite spectacular. Discovered in 1931, the site is surrounded by dense jungle. Only a small part of the 100 sq-km area has been unearthed, let alone restored. The site was at its prime from 250-695 AD, but it is believed to have been occupied for some 1,400 years. It served as the main rival to mighty Tikal in neighboring Guatemala.
Rich burial crypts have been found, along with over 120 richly carved stelae. Some 6,000 buildings have been located, but only a handful have been excavated to date. The site was named in 2002 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Campeche’s second such designation.