I’ve always liked the road, that feeling of advancing through the landscape and enjoying it as much as reaching the intended destination. Today, as we make progress on Carretera Federal 180, the road ceases to be a straight flat line (as most roads are in the Yucatan Peninsula) and becomes a sinuous ascent, revealing a landscape of rolling hills. It makes me realize we’re now in the State of Campeche.
When we reach the exit to San Francisco de Campeche I check the time: scarcely ninety minutes have passed since our departure from downtown Merida. Rose makes a call to confirm directions to our first planned stop, the Ocean View hotel. Our friend Francisco Hernández, always in high spirits, says we can’t miss it if we “just keep going straight”.
Moments later, after the mangrove forest on our right comes to an end, the Bay of Campeche is unveiled in all its glory. The impressive malecón draws a line eight kilometers long between the city and the sea. It’s teeming with life, some people out for a sunset stroll, others fishing, exercising or just admiring the landscape. The general atmosphere is one of tranquil coexistence and the word “peaceful” comes to mind. We soon spot the hotel on our left and minutes later, thanks to the quick and friendly front-desk staff, find ourselves comfortably settled in. Campeche has a welcoming feel to it.
Later that night we have dinner with Francisco and his wife Carmen in their very famous restaurant, La Pigua. Manitas de cangrejo (crab hands) are a house specialty and prove to be delicious, as is everything else sent to our table from this multi-award-winning kitchen. With happy hearts and bellies Francisco drops us off at our hotel, but we decide to head out again, camera on a tripod, to capture images of Campeche’s beautifully preserved colonial core.
The city of San Francisco de Campeche, founded in 1504 by Francisco de Montejo, was essential to the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan Peninsula. The Maya warriors greatly outnumbered the conquistadors and put up many a fierce battle, but the Spaniards’ superior military technology would eventually tip the balance in their favor. Religion was also part of the fight and it was here that the first Catholic mass was celebrated in the continent’s mainland. (In relation to this information, please see NOTE at the end of this post).
Campeche stood for centuries as the peninsula’s most important seaport, from whence tons of precious woods were shipped off to the Old Continent. Stories of piracy are also plentiful in this walled city that not surprisingly boasts significant examples of military architecture from the XVII and XVIII centuries, one of the reasons it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
Some 1,600 buildings from colonial times have been cataloged in San Francisco de Campeche and many of them have been restored, not just in the downtown area but also in the barrios of San Román, Guadalupe and San Francisco. Our time to explore the cobblestone downtown streets is limited, but we enjoy it thoroughly as this is without a doubt one of the best preserved colonial cities we’ve seen.
It’s close to midnight when we decide to head back to our room for some sleep. We’re excited about the next day, when we’ll get up at dawn to board a small plane and fly to Calakmul. As some of you may remember, that’s the story we’ve been telling here, here and here. It involves two species of monkeys, amazing colorful birds, a jaguar and magnificent Maya cities nestled in the lush forest. If you haven’t been following this story, I invite you to catch up now. Or bookmark the links for later and just continue traveling along with us, as I now fast-forward to the final day of this trip.
And so it is that, after three days in Calakmul, we are now aboard the van, cameras close at hand as we travel on road 186 to Escarcega. From there we’ll head north on road 261 to Champotón, then continue on road 180 following the coastline all the way to San Francisco de Campeche. We expect to see many birds along the way and as it turns out Campeche refuses to disappoint, prompting us to stop frequently to make photographs. Our driver is always mindful of vehicles behind and ahead before pulling over, an example to be emulated as there is plenty of traffic on this road and the last thing anyone wants is to see birding enthusiasm turn into misadventure. I include here a selection of images, starting with an animated sequence of a Gray Hawk (Buteo nitidus) going airborne.
As we get closer to Campeche a string of water-front restaurants awakens our appetite. Francisco knows just where to stop and we’re rewarded with tasty seafood at El Cachimbazo, including some of the best shrimp ever. The cool marine breeze keeps us lingering in the restaurant’s terrace, then a visual spectacle further up the coast catches our eye. It’s a proper closing curtain for this joyous trip, for Campeche has now chosen to give us a full rainbow! Rest assured, fellow travelers: no one can blame us for wanting to come back. See you soon, Campeche!
NOTE: In relation to the founding date of Campeche, I received a message with interesting precisions from eminent conservationist Joann Andrews, from which I quote directly below:
“Dear Ivan, what a wonderfully written article about one of my very favorite towns. What better way to end the story than with a rainbow. Just one comment about the article: I think the info you have for the founding of Campeche is not correct, certainly not as early as 1509. I think you would have to say that Hernandez de Cordaba discovered it in 1517. Looking for freshwater and sailing along the north coast, Hernandez came across the town of Campeche, where they were welcomed by the Maya but told to continue down the coast. At Champoton, the largest town of the war-like Couohes, they put up battle against the Spanish, forcing them to withdraw and wounding fatally Hernandez de Cordoba, who sailed back to Cuba to die. Grijalva set off from Havana the next year in 1518 and again sailed along the north coast, visiting Campeche, named Puebla de Lazaro (the saint’s day when Hernandez had arrived there). Again seeking water and expecting a warm reception, Grijalva was met by fierce Mayas who battled the Spanish, lost and fled the town. I don’t know when the town was renamed Campeche rather than Lazarus, nor when it was actually colonized probably by Francisco de Montejo’s family a decade or more later. This information is drawn from Chamberlain’s The Conquest and Colonization of Yucatan 1517-1550.”
I extend my deepest thanks to Joann for reading our articles and for sharing her knowledge with us here in RIDE INTO BIRDLAND.
RIDE INTO BIRDLAND sincerely thanks the Government of Campeche, the office of Governor Lic. Fernando Ortega Bernés and the Campeche Secretary of Tourism for their invaluable support with the air and ground transportation that made this story possible. We also thank Don Francisco Hernández, Ambassador ad-honorem for the State of Campeche, who invited us to discover the wonders of his state, and the Ocean View hotel for comfortable and easy-to-find lodgings on the day of our arrival.
The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. (Sixth Edition).