After one too many pirate attacks in the 17th century, the city of Campeche said, “Enough!!!” and started the construction of a defensive wall around the Spanish settlement. Of course, you wonder what took them so long. According to Wikipedia, the city suffered myriad pirate attacks for 160 years before getting around to building the wall. The final straw was the famously bloody attack on the city in 1685 by the Dutch pirate, Laurens de Graff, where he besieged the city for two months, took hostages, and began to burn down the city until the Spanish met his demands. Immediately thereafter wall construction began, encircling what is now the Centro Historico of Campeche.
Inside that wall lies a lovely colonial city, with narrow, semi-cobbled streets, brightly painted facades, and a beautiful town square, el Parque de la Independencia. This Centro Historico looks a lot like San Juan, Puerto Rico. Of course, the cities were both built by the Spanish, and at about the same time. (1540 vs 1521 for San Juan.) And of course, both have walls, as both had trouble with those pesky pirates. So it’s not surprising that there’s some family resemblance.
I’m happy to be here, but I nearly skipped Campeche in my desire to escape the heat. While I was in Valladolid, the tropical weather stopped playing “Mr. Nice Guy” and got seriously hot. Like 97° going on to 105° hot. As a result, I spent most of Wednesday in a heat-induced stupor, trying to figure out what to do. The lack of options made the choice all the harder. Truth be told, there isn’t much to see in Valladolid. Between a couple of attractive plazas, a few blocks of colonial buildings, Ek Balam, and La Casa de los Venados, there isn’t much else. Since I had seen all the streets and plazas, escaping the heat became top of mind. But I also did want to see Ek Balam, but after having written my post and eating lunch, it was too late and too hot. I’d have to wait until the next day.
Thursday morning, I got up relatively early and managed to get out of my hotel by about ten. I drove straight to Ek Balam, hoping it wasn’t going to get too much hotter. I figured I’d spend a couple of hours at the site, and then begin heading toward Palenque.
Ek Balam is fascinating, both for what you can see, and for what remains to be explored. The site itself has a fascinating collection of pyramids and other buildings, including the tomb of Maya ruler ruler Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’, sculpted in stucco, which is marvelously well-preserved. (I posted a photo of the replica here.) The city also has a number of other features uncommon in Mayan cities, including a perimeter wall (supposedly the city was under constant attack), several non-pyramidal temples, and a ceremonial gate. The structure of the buildings, too, is unique. But what fascinated me the most are the unrestored buildings. There are several large buildings to the side of the the temple in which Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’ is buried. These mostly look like small hills, but in places you can see still-surviving stonework and walls. For me, it’s fascinating to look at such a place and wonder what it would look like restored, and how on earth you’d be able to properly restore such a structure. And I wonder as I pass by, what unknown treasures lie within? Stucco wall-sculptures? Figurines? Jade? Perhaps the remains of a once-great ruler? These mysteries remain for future archaeologists to uncover, but they keep my imagination going full-steam while I stroll about.
Looking North from the Oval Palace
Upon leaving Ek Balam, all I could think about was cooling off. At one point between Mérida and Campeche, I stopped for gas. The attendant told me it was 42° C or about 108° F. Ouch! I needed to head to higher ground to escape this heat. Mentally, I ruled out Campeche. Even though Joanna had told me it was charming, all I could think about was the heat and the need to escape. But as I approached the turnoff to go into the city, I stuck my hand out the window. “Cooler,” I thought, and pointed the truck toward downtown. I ended up driving along a beautiful stretch of coastline, dotted with hotels and nice stores. As I got further, I saw a sign for the Fort of San Miguel, and decided to stop.
The fort was constructed in 1777, as the wall around the city wasn’t sufficient to completely keep the pirates at bay. With a moat, a curvy, tunnel-like entrance to make it impossible to shoot at the doorway, and a drawbridge, the fort was extremely secure. Located on a hilltop, its cannons can easily fire at enemy ships.
Finally, I decided to head into the Centro Historico. After a few wrong turns, I finally found it, and found a place where I could cross the wall. Soon after parking, I came across the Hotel Lopez, and inquired about a room. There was one available, and at 650 pesos, it seemed a bargain, particularly for such a nice hotel, centrally located, and with a nice pool. I checked in, and then went for the inevitable photo walk.
Campeche’s Centro Historico doesn’t lack for photo opportunities, as you can see above. There’s a lovely plaza, with the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception on the northeast side.
Another view of the same cathedral. (Hint: press f11 to go full-screen on your browser.)
The wall itself is under repair, a process no doubt given additional urgency after Russia’s grab of Crimea. Outside the wall there’s a group of youths practicing some kind of drum and bugle corps. In the photo you can see a detail of the wall, which is quite impressive.
After a long walk looking for food, I finally find a place for diner where I have a large salad, a Mexican craft beer, and a sandwich. I’m glad I’ve stopped in this charming port town, and I look forward to seeing a bit more this afternoon. Saludos!