5-15 Jan 2017. Pirate: a person who attacks and robs ships at sea. Synonyms: freebooter, marauder, raider. Historical: privateer. Archaic: buccaneer, corsair.
Buccaneer: a pirate, originally off the Spanish-American coasts.
Back in the 1600’s the port of Campeche, on the west side of the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico, was a dangerous place. During the colonial era the port was used to ship agricultural goods and hardwoods to Spain. Far more importantly the port was used to ship gold and silver, and there were plenty of pirates around who wanted a piece of the action. And the pieces of eight.
Diego the Mulatto.
Any one of these names was enough to evoke fear at the mere mention of it. These were brutal fearsome men who would stop at nothing to get the treasure; and there was frequently treasure being shipped from Campeche. Some did it for personal gain. Some did it for King and country. All did it with wild determination, and without mercy.
Fortification of the town began in 1610, but it was not sufficient. In 1663, pirates, led by Christopher Myngs and Edward Mansvelt, sacked and raided the city. Then in 1685 Laurens de Graaf and his men sacked the city and the surrounding haciendas, killing about one third of the population.
Naturally the people of Campeche were highly motivated to build some pretty serious walls around their town. By the time they’d finished it the wall was 2,560 meters (2,800 yards) long in a roughly hexagonal shape with eight defensive forts at the corners. All the forts, as well as some of the original walls are still standing.
We arrive in modern Campeche by bus from Merida and take a taxi to our hotel in the old town. From the moment we enter inside the walls and see the impeccably restored candy-coloured streets we are smitten. What a perfectly beautiful place. We have no knowledge of its bloody and frightening past. We only know that we’ve stepped into a pastel-frosted fairyland.
We have five days here and we do pretty much nothing but wander around the town softened by the sweetness of our surroundings. Our only excursion out of town is to the ancient Mayan city of Edzna. I never even go outside the walls to modern Campeche; Don ventures out a couple of times to get supplies from the big supermarket.
Most mornings we stroll to our favourite café, Luan, for a breakfast of fruit and yogurt, orange juice, and eggs with spinach in a cup of buttered bread nestled and baked in a ceramic pot. Best eggs ever.
We have lazy days at home catching up on writing and interneting, and lazy days and evenings strolling around the town, exploring slowly. We walk into buildings around the zocalo, or town square, because there’s nothing to stop us,
and after dinner wander back that way.
We stroll down to the “Sea Gate”,
and through it to the malecon, the long causeway by the sea.
Walking in the other direction straight down the street for five blocks we come to the “Land Gate”,
and there go into one of the rooms of the original fortifications,
and then up onto the top of the wall where we can see the whole town spread out before us like a movie set.
Every day we walk some, if only venturing out for meals, and in the process discover new places and people,
and every day most of the day we laze around with no agenda or need for one.
I never thought I’d say I’m grateful for oil money but it is oil money that preserved Campeche and led to it being declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999.
The city was founded in 1540 by the Conquistadores at the site of the Mayan village of Can Pech. It became wealthy and important because of the port and remained so until the early 1800’s. The Yucatan port of Sisal opened in 1811 and took much of the business from Campeche, and with the abolition of slavery agriculture declined. Campeche’s reversal of fortune came with the discovery of oil just off the coast when a fisherman noticed an oil slick in 1971. Campeche now provides 70% of Mexico’s oil and is the top producer in the country. It is the prosperity that came from oil that allowed the The State Office of Cultural Heritage Sites and Monuments to buy abandoned properties and refurbish them as schools, museums, theatres, and a library. Over one thousand buildings and facades have been restored.
Outside the walls modern Campeche is a regular city, much like many other Mexican cities. Within the walls it is as if we have gone back in time, only now it is an oasis of calm, an unexpected dreamland with sophisticated cafés and restaurants, and the only pirates to be found are quiet companions.
We’d read that Villahermosa (beautiful villa) doesn’t live up to it’s name, but we decide to go there anyway for two reasons: it has an open air museum displaying the gigantic carved stone heads of the Olmec, one of the very early Mayan societies, and because we want to break the long journey from Palenque to Chiapa de Corzo.
The guidebooks are right about Villahermosa. The only saving grace is that Don had found a hotel on the lake, and because there are so few people staying there we are given the very best room on the fourth floor with a private balcony overlooking the lake.
We are welcomed like royalty with very large glasses of red wine, which we decline. To drink any wine mid afternoon would do us both in for the rest of the day, but a whole goblet-full would probably have us comatose.
The woman managing the large, and largely empty, hotel explains that it had been her father’s, but he had not properly protected ownership of it. It’s all looking a little faded and shabby, and it’s a huge property to care for. Family members are employed there and are trying to make a go of it, but who wants to visit Villahermosa? The location of the hotel on the shores of the lake is lovely, the town itself not so much. It’s an average Mexican city. There’s nothing really dire about it, but nothing to recommend it either.
So we go to the open air Parque de la Venta, which contains, along with the giant heads, many wonderful Olmec carvings,
dozens of marauding coatis roaming freely, and a very sad zoo with some playful spider monkeys.
I say hello to some close cousins of the tiger, my animal totem: a black panther,
and a couple of jaguars who at least are playing with each other a little as cats do.
The next day we get on a bus and go to the extraordinary Mayan ruins of Palenque.
Next post: the Grande Fiesta de Enero at Chiapa de Corzo – a festival as only the Mexicans do them – crowds, colour, parades, masks, men in drag, women in dresses to die for, rainbow serapes, and wigs that look like toilet brushes.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2017.