Friday, March 26, 2010

Campeche: Mayas, conquistadores, and pirates

Cathedral of San Francisco de Campeche is wonderfully floodlit at night. Carole and I visited San Francisco de Campeche, the capital of Campeche State in the Yucatan Peninsula, during our 8-day tour of southern Mexico. Campeche is named after the ancient Maya kingdom of Ah Kin Pech, which means, roughly, "place of the serpents and ticks." There is archaeological evidence of occupation back to 300 AD. The local Mayans drove off the first two Spanish expeditions to visit, beginning in 1517, but eventually succumbed after Hernan Cortés defeated the Aztecs and then sent expeditions of conquest in all directions. Campeche ultimately became one of three Mexican states, including Yucatan and Quintana Roo, which occupy the Yucatan Peninsula.

I confess we had low expectations of Campeche, but on arrival we were utterly charmed. The colonial town is surrounded by 17th Century walls and fortifications erected to protect against hundreds of years of pirate raids. The old city within the walls is sparkling clean and painted with pastel colors that glow warmly in the late afternoon sun. At night, the whole plaza of El Centro is beautifully floodlit. Campeche's first church was built by Conquistador Francisco de Montejo and was a humble structure of lime and pebbles with a palm frond roof. In 1650, construction began on the church shown above and was completed in 1760. However, it wasn't until 1895 that Pope Leon VIII designated the church as a cathedral.

Our chariot on the tour. Our tour company, Caravan, used one of these buses. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced in the US. The seats were well cushioned and much more comfortable than airline seats. The views from the large, well-cleaned windows were spectacular. There were several drop-down "in-flight" screens along the aisle, so we could watch movies and videos on the long stretches between overnight stops. In addition to an on-board restroom, the bus service provided bottled water and sandwiches for our comfort. Most people from the US think "grubby Greyhound" when they think of long-distance public buses, and consider them the last resort when there are no other options. In Mexico, there are several excellent long-distance bus companies which provide regular service all over the country, as well as charter tours like ours. In this respect, the Mexican transportation system is light years ahead of its northern neighbor. Since there are no "show up 2 hours early" rules or security checkpoints, or interminable waits for baggage, you can actually get there faster than flying in some cases, and the buses are certainly much cheaper and more comfortable.

Brown Pelican cruises for lunch just off shore at Champotón. We stopped for lunch at this small city about 20 miles south of Campeche. El Timon restaurant extended right over the water, and we were able to watch both pelicans and human fishermen mining the fishy treasures of Campeche's Gulf Coast. Brown Pelicans can be found on both the Gulf and Pacific Coasts of Mexico. Unlike the White Pelicans that visit Lake Chapala in winter, the Brown Pelicans dive dramatically and are quite entertaining to watch. They share the White's tendency to appropriate any available anchored boats as perches. After 39 years on the Endangered Species list, the Browns seem to be recovering.

Shrimp hardly gets more fresh than this. I found this pair of Mexican women cleaning freshly caught Gulf shrimp just outside El Timon Restaurant. These would no doubt grace someone's plate in a short time. The women seemed a little mystified--but pleased--that someone would think their commonplace task worthy of recording on film.

Campeche, as it looked in the 17th Century. This old map shows the layout of Campeche, and the fortifications that were constructed to protect it from pirate raids that began almost as soon as the town was founded. The Cathedral seen in the first picture of this posting is located inside the walls just to the left of the sea gate, known as the Puerta de Mar, in the center of the wall facing the Bahia (Bay) de Campeche. There are 8 bastions, or forts, separated by long stretches of high wall topped with ramparts and sentry boxes. For a map of modern Campeche and the Gulf Coast, click here.

Puerta de Tierra, or Land Gate, faces the modern city outside the walls. During the 16th and 17th Centuries, Spain was the pre-eminent military power in the world based on its successful conclusion of a 700 year war to expel the Moors from Spain, and on the fantastic wealth pouring in from Spanish colonial possessions in the New World. The fortifications of Campeche have been described as the finest example of military construction of this kind in the Western Hemisphere. In the photo above, you can see part of the moat that surrounded the walls of the city. The walls extending out in a "V" shape are part of the defenses of the main city gate. Note the rifle slits along the walls which would give defenders excellent cover as they mowed down attackers attempting to cross the water-filled moat. Just inside the gate, two cannon stand ready to blast any attempt to force a way through.

The main line of defense was on the walls above the gate. As you can see, a cannon in this position would easily command the main gate and the enclosed yard in front. Attackers who make it this far will be penned in the yard and hit by rifle and cannon fire from several directions.

The walls of the main gate are extremely thick. Above the gate is a bell to alert the town of the approach of strangers. On the parapet along the top of the wall are more gun ports for either rifles or cannon.

Huge and powerful cannons awaited attackers. Carole walked through my photo just in time to provide some sense of scale. This is a very large gun. This particular cannon was probably originally situated on the seaward side, since it had the kind of range needed to fend off pirate ships in the Bahia. Note the royal crest on the upper part of the backside of the cannon.

Parapet walkways provided cover for soldiers moving between the bastions. Carole is walking toward the bastion known as the Baluarte de San Juan.

Baluarte de San Pedro: how it looked to approaching pirates. There are only traces left of the moat that protected the base of the bastion. You can see cannon protruding from some of the embrasures (openings in the wall along the top of the parapet). From the base of the moat to the top of the parapet was a distance of about 18 feet. And, of course, anyone falling into the moat would probably drown, particularly if they wore any armor.

Sentry posts provided shelter from weather as well as gunfire. This one is placed about 1/2 way between the Puerta de Tierra and the Baluarte de San Pedro. The sentry inside could fire through a slit out the front, or through slits on either side, while being afforded almost perfect protection. The side slits allowed fire down the length of the wall at anyone attempting to climb over.

Baluarte de San Pedro, as a Spanish defender would have seen it. The bastions, or baluartes, were 4-sided, with 2 sides facing along the walls in either direction. Cannon like those you see above, or soldiers with rifles, could sweep the walls of attackers.

Interior of Baluarte de San Juan. The walls of the baluarte once echoed with the sound of Spanish boots pounding up the stairs, as soldiers were called to arms. These baluartes were forts in themselves, capable of independent defense even if other parts of the fortifications were overcome. The circular object at the bottom is a well. The heavy wooden gate leads out into the city.

Spanish soldier whiles away his free time with a bottle of rum. Spanish soldiers were highly disciplined and respected the world over as tough fighters in their time. As you can see, life was spartan in an outpost like Campeche. Quarters were small and shared with others. You can see a bunk bed in the back, and a few simple possessions.

A well was a vital part of the defense. One of the most critical issues in defending a fort is an ready supply of water. This is particularly true in a tropical climate like that of Campeche. With adequate water, food, and ammunition, defenders could hold a fortress like Campeche indefinitely against the most determined attackers.

The lot of a prisoner was grim. Here a prisoner is shackled with chains to a stone wall. He has no way to lie down or get comfortable for the hours, days, and weeks ahead. Is he a captured English pirate? Is he a Spanish soldier punished for too liberally using his allotment of rum? There was no sign to indicate, so it is left to our imaginations.

Sounding the alert. When he let us into the fortress, the museum guide said he would unlock the door to let us out when we rang the bell. We assumed this meant an electric buzzer of some sort. That was a bit too high-tech for Campeche's fortress. The only bell available was this one, used for centuries to alert the town of enemies at the gate. It clanged loudly and served its modern purpose as well as it did in past ages. In the photo above, I am wearing my new hat, acquired courtesy of Carole's sharp eye for a bargain.

Inside the grim fortress walls, a beautiful and cultured city. Here we are looking down the eastern side of the plaza in El Centro. To the right are the traditional portales, or columns separated by arches that support the covered walkway. Upstairs is Casa Vieja de los Arcos restaurant, while the downstairs is lined with shops. To the left is the plaza and in the distance are the spires of the Cathedral. The streets inside the walls are all paved with stone. While the one above is fairly wide, most are quite narrow.

A rooftop restaurant, perfect to catch a breeze off the bay. I took this photo from the parapet of the fortress. Part of the restaurant is under a set of portales, while the rest is directly across, almost at eye-level. Campeche possesses a large variety of interesting and attractive restaurants.

Another shot from the walls of the fortress, this time of ruins. Although the houses above looked intact from street level, from above I could peer into their interiors. You can see the holes for the ancient wooden beams, and the old stone walls covered by innumerable coats of plaster applied over the centuries. One of the rooms above is beautifully draped by bougainvilla.

Stately streets of Campeche glow in the afternoon sun. Second story wooden doors lead out onto iron balconies. Leaving the doors open would let in a welcome ocean breeze, and perhaps allow the Spaniard in residence to step out and view the activity in the street below. The whole of the old city seemed to be painted in lovely pastels.

Local public transportation. I found these motorized trollies parked beside the plaza. For a small fee, one could board for a tour of the city.

Cathedral spires glow over the city walls as evening approaches. I had made friends with Patrick, another guy on our tour who is a talented photographer. We decided to go out with our cameras and see what Campeche at night might offer. We were not disappointed in the least.

Puerta de Mar at night. The Sea Gate looks down an old and gently lit Campeche street. The goods of the Campeche province interior poured out this gate to waiting galleons, and through the same gate expensive Spanish imports poured into the city, no doubt passing each other in the streets.

Cathedral, plaza, and kiosko are lit up beautifully in Campeche's El Centro plaza. The kiosko (bandstand) is one of the more unusual I have found in a colonial town or city. The usual bandstand structure is there, but a roof extends out all around forming space for a restaurant/bar in the round. The flood-lighting of the Cathedral was gorgeous, the best I have seen in Mexico, and it made night photography almost too easy. Almost.

Campeche is absolutely worth a visit if you happen to come to the Yucatan peninsula. I hope you enjoyed this posting as much as we enjoyed Campeche "in the flesh." Please feel free to leave a comment in the section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the comment section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Nice shots Jimmy.

    I like the one of you sneakily sounding the town alarm and driving the townspeople into the streets with shouts of...attack! Jay K

  2. Just found your site last night.
    Thanks for sharing these pictures and your commentary as it is most helpful to plan visits.

    We only made Veracruz last Xmas and will take this in next Xmas.


    Jim and Sheila Dickinson

  3. Valerie Godfrey in UKNovember 1, 2013 at 7:22 AM

    Thanks for a very attractive & informative blog. We're going in 4weeks time - can't wait, having seen your photos! I'll have to try night-time shots too


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim