My big adventure last week was taking the bus to the city of Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico. It's the capital of the state of the same name. The trip took almost three hours because of highway construction most of the way, but the first-class bus was comfortable. I had only two short days there but was able to see a lot of the historic center.
The city was founded by the Spaniards in 1540 after finally conquering the Maya, who had resisted for 20 years. For the next 200 years the city was repeatedly plundered by European pirates. After a particularly brutal attack that essentially wiped out the city, the Spanish built a stone wall that completely surrounded it and ended the attacks. Large sections of the wall, two of the four gates, and seven of the eight "balluartes," or bastions, still stand.
Inside the wall is the historic, cultural, and commercial center. The wall-to-wall adjacent buildings are painted in bright or pastel colors with decorative contrasting trim. It's quite a captivating sight. The buildings house shops, restaurants, offices, libraries, academic institutions, banks, bars, museums, and hotels. Streets and sidewalks are narrow, driving and parking are a challenge, but everyone seems to take the squeeze in stride and good humor. Outside the gate are, on the east side, a bustling market, and on the west side, a malecon, or seaside promenade, for pedestrians and cyclists that goes on for miles.
I walked quite a bit, including along the top of one of the walls, saw some of the historic buildings, and did some shopping at the market. The city was buzzing with activity on Saturday, with families shopping in the center and at the market. I saw relatively few restaurants, no sidewalk cafes (no room on the sidewalks, but front walls are typically large, open doors), lots of shoe stores (they must wear out shoes quickly, or they just love shoes!) and quite a few fabric stores, all highlighting colorful and sparkly fabrics in anticipation of Carneval. Music blared from many a storefront, mostly latin pop or hip-hop from the US. Both Campeche and Merida have a profusion of storefront casual eateries offering tacos and local specialties, as well as the equivalent of juice bars, where one can buy delicious and refreshing juices and juice drinks.
Part of my brief adventure was another bus trip. I decided to take a local bus to the first-class bus terminal on my return to Merida. After asking a tourism rep and multiple bus drivers where to get on the correct bus, I ended up walking across town and getting on a bus that I was told would take me there. What I wasn't told (or didn't understand) was that it would take over an hour for the 10-minute trip. The bus circled completely around the city center, then went up into the residential areas in the surrounding hills. I got an interesting tour of the city and arrived at the station with five minutes to spare.
If I had been able to visit a bit longer during a hot spell, I would have checked out some coastal beaches, which I've read are beautiful. I didn't make it to the two forts located outside the town. These are museums displaying the colonial and pre-colonial history of the city. One still has its moat, drawbridge, and cannons. The other focuses on ships and weapons.
The city has been off the tourist radar, but tourism is on the rise. Many Canadians, but few US citizens so far, are coming to consider the possibilities of moving there. Little English is spoken, but I expect that will change as ex-pats move in. Campeche's commitment to restore its architectural and cultural treasures and to keep it's history alive make it a must-visit when you come to this part of Mexico.