City of Contrasts

Full of Mexican flavor, the city of Campeche blends ancient history and modern architecture

By: Renee Huang

Approaching the walled city of Campeche by air, it’s tough to see how its residents centuries ago felt a sense of impending danger, flanked by open ocean and encircled by what is still impenetrable tropical jungle as far as the eye can see.

But back in the 16th century, when the city was founded as the seat of Spanish colonial expansion into the Yucatan, piracy still ruled the seas. After several brutal attacks, in 1704 the Spanish crown completed an elaborate eight-sided polygon fortress around an 80-hectare swath of land with a bastion tower in each apex and four doors that gave the city access to the outside world.

The city underwent several periods of political and financial turmoil before establishing itself in the early 20th century as an exporter of salt, wood, palo de tinte (a tree used to make dyes), zapote resin and heneqen fibers.

Today Campeche is a quiet town with orderly streets and pastel colored building facades that juxtapose against the remaining 200 meters of wall and imposing historic bastions and forts which are still the city’s main tourist attractions. In fact, in 1999 the forts of Campeche were declared a World Heritage Site for their exemplary 17th- and 18th-century military architecture and example of a complete defense system that protected Spanish colonies from marauding pirates.

Campeche the capital is small, with a population of just 200,000, but it’s still large enough to have a Baskin Robbins ice cream store, VIPS restaurant (a Mexican fast-food chain akin to Denny’s) and McDonald’s just one block from where our Florida-style hotel sat facing the ocean.

Several of the bastions have been put to use as modern-day museums, a botanical garden, tourist information center and permanent crafts show. The most impressive panoramic views of the city and sea are found at San Miguel fort, where visitors are transported back in time upon crossing the moat and drawbridge, where cannons sit frozen in time, trained at the blue horizon. A museum houses important pieces found at Calakmul archeological site, including several dazzling jade masks.

One of Campeche’s most unique attributes is a curious trend in 1960s Brazilia-style angular architecture, the peculiar influence of a forward-thinking state governor Coronel Jose Ortiz Avila, who envisioned bringing a wave of progress to the state through ultra-modern buildings. During his tenure in the early 1960s, he oversaw the construction of the UFO-like city hall, modernist sail fountain and several other buildings that still can be seen in a stroll around town. For residents, the most controversial decision was Avila’s ordered demolition of the old colonial government palace and replacement with one that reflected his obsession with modernity. The main square was restored to its original colonial state in 2001.

Politics and town walkabouts aside, sampling the local cuisine was in tall order. We ate lunch at one of the city’s most vetted seafood restaurants, La Pigua, where an old family recipe for breaded coconut shrimp has brought people from far and wide to sample the delicious dish.

Another night we feasted on local tapas at a rowdy plaza not far from the center of town. Regional delicacies included soft corn panuchos, costrada (fried cheese skins), tortas de jamon claveteado (jam sandwiches cooked in sweet wine) and, for dessert, candied yam ates (fruit jellies). All around us was the clamor of locals feasting with their families and the contented din of people with stomachs full of comfort food.

On Sunday evenings locals and visitors alike congregated at the main square to stroll around and socialize as they have done for generations in towns across Mexico. An almost full evening mass emerged just after 7 p.m. from the Catholic Church, its brightly-lit bell tower setting off a warm glow in the fading light of dusk. A lively bingo game was in progress with 10 tables set up under the porticos on one side of the square. Not far away, a crowd listened to the slightly off-tune, 13-piece band which played with vigorous enthusiasm in front of the museum. Vendors sold fresh fruit waters, and shaved ices flavored with guava, tamarind, orange or mango syrup. Children raced ahead of their parents to jostle the balloon seller who held a fist full of gleaming helium-filled delights. And, the souvenir stores lining the streets around the zocalo stayed open until 9 p.m. selling men’s guayabera shirts, woven reed baskets, onyx jewelry and other knick knacks.

Our last morning, we ate brunch at Restaurant Campeche on the main plaza. We sampled pan de cazon, a much-heralded local delicacy of shredded shark meat tortilla smothered in creamy refried beans, onion and bathed in fragrant tomato sauce.

It turns that out after a few days of sampling Campeche’s regional and historical flavors, that shark dish served up just enough exotic bite to qualify as our most memorable catch of the day.


Tourism Secretariat
Av. Ruiz Cortinez S/N,
Plaza Moch-Couoh
Campeche, Mexico
C.P. 24000


La Pigua
Av. Miguel Aleman No. 179-A
Campeche, Campeche

Restaurant Campeche
Calle 57 No. 2-A, Between 8 & 10
Campeche, Campeche


Hacienda Puerto Campeche
Calle 59, No. 71 Pro 16 & 18
Campeche, Campeche 24000, Mexico

Hotel Del Mar
Ave. Ruiz Cortines No. 51
Col. Centro
Campeche, Campeche, 24000

Hotel Ocean View
Av. Pedro Sainz de Baranda y Joaquin Clausell s/n, San Francisco
Campeche, 24010
52 -981-811-9999