Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Exploring Campeche

Campeche's Cathedral, viewed from under the arches of the Regional Museum. The Cathedral and the Palace containing the Museum form two sides of the Campeche's main plaza, called Plaza PrincipalOur first visit to Campeche was with Caravan Tours back in the winter of 2010. Our brief 48 hour stop provided very little time to explore the city and no time at all to investigate the Maya ruins in the countryside. However, my interest was aroused. I was determined to return to see what treasures this small Mexican state might hold. This posting is the first of a series about our adventures in Campeche in December of 2018. Hopefully it will encourage you to check it out yourself.


Map of central and northern Campeche. Located on the Gulf Coast, the city of Campeche is the capital of a state with the same name. In colonial times, it was a major port and entry point to this part of the Yucatan Peninsula. On the map are pyramid symbols of various sizes. These show the locations of ancient Maya cities. Of the nine shown, we visited five , including Edzna, Hochob, Tahcok, Xtampac, and Xcalmukín.

We also toured the spectacular ruin of Kabah, just across the state line in Yucatan. Two other sites we visited that are not shown on the map are Oxkintok (also in Yucatan) and Dzibilnocac. In addition to those on the map, or that I have mentioned, there are many more pre-hispanic sites in Campeche. It would take several more visits to see even a majority of them and possibly a lifetime to see them all.

Several of the sites we visited were quite remote. As a result, we traveled through a great deal of Campeche. We passed through lush farmland closer to the coast and deep jungle in the interior. Overall, the road system is good-to-excellent and the pueblos we passed through seemed relatively prosperous. The people we encountered were friendly and helpful, which has been our universal experience in Mexico.

Hotel Plaza Campeche

During our visit, we stayed at Hotel Plaza Campeche. This modern, comfortable hotel is located in the northeastern part of the old city. It is just inside the old walls but still only 3 blocks from the Plaza Principal. A charming botanical garden housed in an old fortress is only a block away.  Directly across the street from the hotel is Parque San Martin, a small plaza. Rates for a double room at Hotel Plaza Campeche are quite reasonable at $1581 pesos ($79 USD) per night.

The rooms are air conditioned and have flat-screen TVs and in-room safes. The last is especially important because it enables us to lock up all of our valuables and important documents. The hotel provides off-street parking, another important consideration since we had a rental car. We found the hotel staff to be friendly and efficient and at least some spoke English.

The only downsides we experienced at the hotel were the icy level of their restaurant air conditioning and the traffic noise outside our room window. It is always advisable to ask for a room away from any street and in this case we neglected to do so.

Calle 10 is a street that leads directly from our hotel to the Plaza Principal. "Calle" means street in Spanish. You can see the steeple of the Cathedral in the distance. Within the walls of the Old Town, the 18th and 19th century buildings have been carefully preserved and painted in charming pastels. In colonial times, many of these would have been the mansions of wealthy Spanish merchants and others would have been the townhouses of local hacendados (hacienda owners).

Parque Principal

Plaza Principal is the center of life in Campeche. Nearly all colonial towns follow the urban layout decreed by King Phillip II, the ruler of Spain through most of the 16th century. The king's plan required a strict grid pattern of streets with the main plaza in the center. He commanded that a plaza should have the main church on one block, the government's administrative headquarters on another, with the remaining two sides left for commercial establishments and the mansions of the wealthy.

King Phillip specified that open arcades should run along the front of one or more sides of a plaza. These would provide shelter from rain and hot sun to those who might want to conduct business there. After 500 years, the king's plan still shapes urban centers, large and small, throughout Mexico.

The green "touribus" parked by the plaza will take you on a tour through the city. Tickets are sold at a nearby kiosk. Most tour guides on the buses speak only Spanish, but even if you are not biligual it is still worth it to get an overall sense of the town.

Two stories of arcades line the block on the south side of Plaza Principal. The rows of columns support arched openings called "portales". The street level contains various shops. The upper level is a restaurant with a porch that overlooks the Plaza and Cathedral. I very much wanted to eat a leisurely dinner there some evening. However, for some reason, we could never find the place open and no one we spoke to seemed to know when it might be.

The north side of the Plaza contains the Centro Cultural and the Museo Regional. Once again, portales line the whole block. Regional museums are usually located in state capitals and they are nearly always worth a visit. The displays are well organized and usually contain signs in English as well as Spanish. This one is no exception.

The displays in the museum primarily relate to the period between the 16th and 19th centuries. The four main areas include: pre-hispanic artifacts, the colonial-era fortifications, seaborne trade, and the commerce of the colonial era and the 19th century. Museum hours are 10AM to 7PM.

The building that houses the Museo and Centro Cultural is known as the Palacio because it was once the Governor's office. One of its most important functions was Aduana (Customs). It is no coincidence that the Palacio is located very near the Puerta de Mar (Sea Gate), where incoming ships tied up at a long pier that once extended out into the bay.

Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Purisma Concepción

The Catedral stands on the southeast corner of Plaza Principal. It was constructed between 1540 and 1760 in the Baroque architectural style. Because of the ebb and flow of church finances, it was not uncommon for a major construction project to last for a century or two. In the late 18th century, the interior was remodeled in the Neo-Classic style. The church did not gain the rank of cathedral until 1895, when it was awarded by Pope Leo XIII. A cathedral is the headquarters of a geographic area, called a diocese, presided over by a bishop.

The Nave of the Catedral. While the exterior retains its Baroque aspects, the interior shows the simpler, more severe style called Neo-Classic. Spaced along the walls are a series of pilasters, which have the appearance of columns but provide no structural support. Pilasters are purely decorative elements. Between them, paintings or statues can be displayed. The arched ceiling resembles the hull of a ship. The word "nave" means ship or vessel in Spanish, which is how this area of a church got its name.

The altar area was decorated with flowers because of the Christmas season. The central figure in the retablo behind the altar is Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception). This name does not refer to the Catholic belief in the virginity of Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. The Church decided to take it one step further and assert that Mary was herself immaculately conceived in her own mother's womb and without sin from that moment. Mary's mother, however, was apparently conceived in the usual way.

Silver reliquary on the altar below the statue of Mary. A reliquary is a box, usually highly decorated, which contains relics of a saint. These often include some bone fragments. Reliquaries are usually displayed prominently on the main altar of a church. In the Middle Ages, people believed such relics had great powers, including the ability to cure diseases or other physical ailments. Consequently, there was a lively business in fake relics. It was said that if all the relics of a particularly popular saint were collected together, the skeleton could have been reconstructed several times over.

Street Scenes

Calle 59 is one of the most famous streets in Campeche. It stretches from the Puerta de Mar, to the Puerta de Tierra (Land Gate). Thus, it crosses the whole width of the Old City. Calle 59 is an andador (pedestrian only street), making it a popular area for both tourists and locals. The section pictured above has been turned into a string of outdoor seating areas serviced by adjacent restaurants and bars. In the distance, you can see the arch of the Puerta de Mar.

This police vehicle was probably selected with the narrow streets in mind. The little car seems more like a motorized roller skate than a stern vehicle of official authority. Still, it probably does its job well enough. 

Motorcycles line a parking space dedicated to them. Motorcycles and scooters are a popular transportation option in Campeche. Not only are they highly maneuverable in the crowded streets, but they are cheap to maintain and can travel a long way on a few liters of gasoline. However, their maneuverability tends to encourage excessive speed and wild maneuvers. Before crossing any street in Campeche, it is advisable to check in both directions, and more than once.

Palacio Municipal on Calle 8. This attractive and well preserved building was constructed in 1842, although the date over the main door says 1882. However, that may be when it was remodeled. It is currently Campeche's City Hall, but it was a barracks for federal troops at one time.

View of Calle 8, the Plaza Principal, and the Cathedral. The arches on the yellow building at the left are the entrance to an excellent little coffee house called Frappisimo. We often bought coffee there to sip on a bench in the plaza. It was a pleasant way to observe the city coming to life in the morning. Just around the corner of the blue building is El Bastion de Campeche, a small restaurant where we ate several times. The food was great and the prices were very reasonable.

Ex-Templo de San José

Ex-Templo de San José was once part of a Jesuit complex. It is located on the corner of Calle 10 and Calle 63, in the northwest part of the old city. The Templo was built in 1716 in the Baroque style. Its facade is beautifully decorated with blue and yellow talavera tiles, giving it a hint of the Moorish style. 

The spike-like finials on the roof above the entrance call to mind similar structures on Maya temples, as well as the combs worn in the hair of wealthy colonial women. Notice the difference between the left and right steeples. The left contains bells, but the right is topped by Campeche's first lighthouse, added in 1864. 

The building adjoining the Templo on the right was once a Jesuit school. Now, it contains the Instituto Campechano. After the Jesuits were expelled from all Spanish possessions in 1767, the Templo passed into other hands. It was eventually de-consecrated and is now used for secular purposes. 

Today, the church is used as a bazaar for artisans and for cultural functions. Like the Cathedral, the church retains its Baroque exterior but the interior has been changed to Neo-Classic. In the bazaar, you can buy baskets, toys, clothing and many other hand-made items.

Santuario Cristo Negro de San Ramón

Sanctuary of the Black Christ of San Román. The original church on this site  dates back to the mid-16th century. When Campeche was founded in 1540 by Francisco de Montejo, some of the soldiers in his army were Aztec mercenaries. He settled them in this neighborhood as farmers, but in 1562 their fields were decimated by a plague of lobsters. Hoping for a miracle, they held a feast in honor of San Román Martir. Later, they built an open chapel dedicated to him on the site of the present church. However, their little sanctuary lacked an image to worship. At this point, the story moves from history to legend.

The famous Black Christ is displayed on a cross at the altar. According to the legend, in 1565, the villagers contracted with a Campeche merchant to acquire a statue for their church. The statue is alleged to have been carved in Civitaveccia, Italy, a town renowned for its craftsmanship. It was shipped from there to Veracruz, on Mexico's Gulf Coast. The final leg of the journey was to Campeche, normally a voyage requiring several days. 

On the way to Campeche, the ship ran into a storm and nearly sank. However, in the nick of time, Christ miraculously appeared and took command. The ship was saved and arrived--a further miracle--only 24 hours after it had left Vera Cruz. So goes the legend and, like all such stories, it has been much embellished over the centuries. Black Christs were popular images in the 16th and 17th centuries. At one time, four Yucatan Peninsula churches had them, but this one is the sole survivor. The little open chapel was demolished in the 17th century and replaced by the present church.  

El Malecon

A Campechana takes a late afternoon stroll along the Malecon. A malecon is a walkway along a shoreline. Campeche's is 7 km (4.34 mi) long, making it a good place for jogging, bicycling, skateboarding, or strolling lovers. 

Seafood restaurants line the northern section of the Malecon. Carole and I had a sunset dinner here one night. The ambiance was great, but the prices were high and the food not particularly memorable. There are much better restaurants in the area of the Plaza Principal, in my opinion. However, if you just want to sip a drink and watch the sunset, this is not a bad choice.

This sculpture commemorates the founding of Campeche on October 4, 1540. The statues include Francisco de Montejo, a Franciscan priest, and a Maya cacique (headman). The cacique was ruler of Cam Pech, the Maya town that became colonial Campeche. Almost nothing remains of the original Cam Pech

The statue on the obelisk is a recent addition to the Malecon. It is the work of the artist Jorge Marin and was still unnamed as of the fall of 2018. The winged male figure represents the Maya. Under his arm, he holds a small boy who represents modernity and the new city of Campeche. Sr. Marin has invited the public to provide a name for his statue, but I don't know if anyone has come up with one yet.

This completes the first part of my Campeche series. In the next part we'll take a look at Campeche's history and how its extensive fortifications came to be. I hope you enjoyed this posting and, if so, that you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE include your email so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim