The Real Pirates of the Caribbean

Campeche City (which is the capital of the Mexican State of the same name) is located on the Yucatán peninsula and faces the Gulf of Mexico.  It boasts a fascinating history and a well maintained historical center.  We had the opportunity to travel there with our Peace Corps companion Paul in late December 2011 and early 2012 with the purpose of seeing both the city and archeological sites in the southern part of Campeche State.

The city was founded in the 16th century and served as a major port for the export of precious metals from Mexico to Spain.  Other European powers were jealous of Spain’s access to the riches of the New World and encouraged or commissioned pirates to steal these cargoes.  English and Dutch pirates attacked and pillaged Campeche on several occasions and finally the local colonial governors authorized the construction of a fortified wall around the city, as well as eight defensive bastions (guard towers) and two outlying forts, to protect Campeche and its inhabitants.  The forts, bastions, and much of the wall still exist today and have been converted to historical landmarks and museums that allow a visitor to understand the predicament of the colonial residents.

Campeche City was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 and it takes the designation seriously.  Downtown streets are kept meticulously clean and buildings have been restored and painted various pastel shades.  There are many excellent restaurants in the city that feature fresh seafood and fish from the Gulf, so a trip here has many benefits.

We left the city by bus for a five hour ride that first took us south along the coast and then turned eastward into the jungle of southern Campeche State.  Our immediate destination was Xpujil (which we finally determined is pronounced Eesh-poo-hil with a guttural “h”), the small town nearest to several archeological sites.  We stayed at a comfortable eco-lodge called Rio Bec Dreams that consists of about eight cabins and is run by a very hospitable Canadian couple.  We celebrated the New Year 2012 with our hosts and fellow guests in the jungle and were treated to a five course dinner accompanied by champagne!

Our goal was to visit the Mayan ruins at Calakmul and several smaller sites in the area.  Calakmul thrived during what experts designate as the Maya classic period (300 AD – 1000 AD) and was a powerful kingdom in its day that waged war for dominance of the region with its southern neighbor Tikal (now located in Guatemala).  The site was identified by workers exploring for chicle in the 1930s and has still only partially been uncovered by archeologists.  A visitor standing on top of the main pyramid at Calakmul can see the jungle stretching out in all directions below and appreciate how difficult it is to reclaim ancient cities from centuries of abandonment.  On the following day, we visited the smaller, but still impressive Mayan sites of Hormiguero, Becán and Chicanná.  The highlight of Chicanná is a structure that retains a complete facade representing the mask of the Earth Monster, a personification of the Mayans’ principal deity.  We are pictured in front of its mouth and you can identify its teeth and jaw.

We returned to Campeche City for a few days before heading home.  The city’s cathedral faces the main plaza and we dined on the balcony of one of the restaurants flanking the plaza as dusk fell.  Enjoying a mild evening in the Yucatan peninsula, we appreciated the beautiful effects produced by the lights of the cathedral in a now peaceful place that has known so much conflict and history.

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