Beautiful Campeche | Mexico | Living in Mexico

Beautiful Campeche

An easy two-hour drive down Mex 180 from Mérida brings us to Campeche, capital city of the state of the same name. It's small, maybe 190,000 people, about twice the size of our home town, San MIguel de Allende. So it feels more laid back, more manageable than Mérida, which has a million. It's in a beautiful setting on the Gulf of Mexico.

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The Málecon runs for several miles along the Gulf, giving everyone access to the shore. The waterfront is not blocked off by high rises like Cancun or Miami. Obnoxious discos like Señor Frogs are mercifully absent from the coast road. Residents run, walk, bicycle or skate along the Málecon, giving the populace a youthful, wholesome character.

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Every morning, eight kayaks race down the waterfront. They time their races to correspond exactly with the time that Jean takes her shower, giving me time to observe and photograph the contest.

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In addition to building a gorgeous waterfront, Campechanos have renovated the historical center, restoring buildings and painting them in pastels. (Pastels? In Mexico?) As a result, the city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, something San Miguel has yet to achieve.

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The city is not a "living museum" like Williamsburg VA. It's not overrun with souvenir shops and galleries like San Miguel. Behind Campeche's beautiful façades are gyms, language schools, banks, tienditas, juice bars and bookstores. This is a working town where people live real lives.

Surprisingly few tourists visit here, although the city is hoping for more. (They should be careful what they wish for.) Mexicans or Europeans come here for proximity to Mayan ruins. Americans mostly want sun, sand, suds and sex, so they go to Playa del Carmen instead.

Behind doors fronting sidewalks we saw gracious courtyards. Unlike San Miguel, where colonial residents drew water from public fountains, 18th-century Campechanos channeled rainwater from their roofs into cisterns, so most courtyards have old-fashioned well-like structures.

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An old converted public building on the square houses a balcony restaurant where Jean ordered Café Americano. The waiter brought her a demitasse of espresso. Jean said, "¡Señor! Con agua caliente por favor."

The waiter went out and came back with a coffee cup full to the brim with hot water. Hmm. No room to mix in the espresso. So Jean said, "¡No señor! Quiero un tea pot." (Yeah. She really said that.)

So the waiter brings her a cereal bowl full of hot water and sets it down alongside the full coffee cup and her rapidly cooling espresso. Finally I take pity on her and say, "Una taza más, por favor, sin agua."

The waiter brings an empty cup and she makes Café Americano, pouring hot water from her cereal bowl into her cup.

(Jean has just got to work on her Spanish.)

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Jean waits patiently for hot water.

San Miguel has approximately one museum. Campeche has approximately ten. This small museum consists of three rooms in a restored colonial mansion, decorated in the Cuban furniture favored by the rich of that era.

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At least two museums have excellent exhibits of Pre-Columbian Mayan objects. This figure from a temple frieze is housed in a bastion (part of the city's old fortifications) called Baluarte de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad.

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Churches are undergoing restoration, too. This gilt altarpiece is in La Parroquoia de la Purísima Concepción del Sagrario.

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Seven bastions survive, most surmounted by the type of guard cupola found on forts all over the Spanish Caribbean; yet one more example of Campeche's fine preservation and restoration work.

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The cathedral is not as ornate, inside and out, as San Miguel's parroquoia, but lighting does a lot for its nighttime appearance, especially as seen from a bench in the plaza.

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Campeche has a lot to offer, and the best can't be described in photographs. For example, one night Jean and I were walking down the Málecon, getting a little exercise. Jean asked two middle-aged women if they knew of a restaurant nearby. She suddenly found herself involved in an animated conversation. Minutes later, two of their adult children joined us. After an extended discussion of our plight (our pitiful hunger and what to do about it), we were hustled into the back of a subcompact car (Four of us in the back seat!) and driven to a palapa restaurant. They were so friendly and helpful, treating us like old neighbors they'd just run into in the street.

The following night, we ate at a Lebanese restaurant. Our waitress wanted to practice her English, so she talked to us through half the meal. She told us about her American boyfriend and her hope that he'll marry her and take her to the U. S. She talked about her parents' concern that she's 23 years old and still not married and having babies. She was open and sweet and gave us hugs and kisses when the meal was over.

Campechanos have a reputation for friendliness and generosity and we ran smack into it without even looking for it. Of all Mexican cities we've visited, Campeche is one of the best. It's attractive, interesting, and friendly.

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