The year: 1663. The weather :what passes for winter in the tropics of Mexican Yucatan. The hour: early morning. The hapless sentry who had morning duty spots the pirate boats as the first hoards of pirateers* set foot on soil. Before the alarm is fully raised the fighting has started and will last for a mere two hours before the British, French and Dutch pirates overwhelm the Spanish militia guarding the port city of San Francisco de Campeche. The sack of this city was so comprehensive that the repercussions were felt as far away as the English court, where the King was forced to publicly forbid such raids. Even today this story is told as a part of cherished history of the city. The walls of the erstwhile fort still guard the city and rusted canons face off into the Campeche Bay of Gulf of Mexico, as if daring any future marauders to attack.
San Francisco de Campeche was a glorious Spanish colonial city and an important stopover for ships carrying silver from the “New World” mines enroute to Spain. Hence the interest for the legalized pirating of the English, French and Dutch buccaneers. The Montejo cousins**, won it for the Spanish crown from the Mayans who called it Ah Kin Pech (land of ticks!) and used it as a base for the conquest of Yucatan.
My arrival at this quaint little sleepy capital city on new year’s eve was a serendipitous one. I had no clue about the rich and interesting history of the city and would never have made it here at all if not for the dread of having to spend 6 hours homeless on the streets of Xpujil! I had made my (tortuous) way to Xpujil from Tulum a couple of days ago to see one of the oldest Mayan ruins in the jungles of Calakmul. My original plan was to backtrack half of the way to Chetumal and take one of the many buses from there to Merida, my final destination. But checking bus schedules from Xpujil to Chetumal during my downtime in the comfort of my Airbnb room, I realized there was only one bus leaving Xpujil to Chetumal on new years eve at 6.30pm. If I wanted to leave earlier than that I would have to take collectivo taxis, the last of which left at 7 am! I had almost reconciled myself to spending new years eve at a deserted bus stop waiting for my 6.30 bus to Chetumal, when a chance conversation with my Calakmul guide, suggested the alternative of Campeche city. It turns out there are hourly busses to Campeche city from Xpujil and if I didnt want to take a bus the collectivo taxis ran until 11 am. That made me wonder out loud about what was so special about Campeche city? To which the nonchalant reply came that it was the capital city of the state I was in and it had fun entertainment for new years eve! So long conversations of broken English and google translate Spanish with the ticket-seller later, I had myself a ticket on a second class bus (SUR bus) for 11.30 am to Campeche city.
Thus far in my Mexico trip I had only taken ADO buses that run point-to-point. I just assumed (since the ticket was bought at ADO bus stop) that a second class bus would just have less infrastructure (no restroom, tv etc). Little did I know that second class buses are run by a completely different company and stop to pick up anyone on the road that flags them down. So the 2.5 hr journey to Campeche city took 4 hrs to accomplish, as the bus meandered through local towns on the way, stopping for all passengers, or even street vendors who wish to sell their wares to the commuters. There is a lot of haggling for prices, some fare dodging, and lots and lots of chatter. The driver had intermittent conversations with other bus drivers both in exaggerated mime and shouted dialogs across the highway, frustrating and frantic foot wrestling with the accelerator and brake pedals in an attempt to keep the high-speed alarm from going off and a genial camaraderie with all the people he encountered during his long journey. His determinedly sunny disposition, my co-passengers’s joie de vivre and the ever changing scenery made this the most enjoyable, albeit longest, bus journey of my trip. I highly recommend this type of travel to everyone who have no particular place to be and all the time in the world to get there.
That evening, armed with a tiny little map from my hostel concierge, I ventured out into the old town to check out the famed entertainment and have some dinner. I was not disappointed. The streets were all closed off to all traffic and tables were set up for al fresco dining. Men in stilts and costumes were walking by offering balloons, parks were festooned with colorful lights and paper flags and everyone and his brother was out in anticipation.
I had of course no prior reservation and so could’nt sit at the beautifully laid-out tables, which was my excuse to stay away from the crowd and sit at an alcove and watch the world go by, while indulging in some really good pizza. After dinner, it was time for the show. My hostel concierge had told me about the light show that was due at 8pm on the central plaza where the history of the city will be shown as a cartoon slideshow set to music and projected on to the bare walls of the palacio municipal. So I made my way to the park, bought a helado (ice cream when it is at home) for dessert and got myself, what I thought was, a prime spot overlooking the building and waited. Of course 5 minutes before the show was to start everyone converged onto my spot effectively making it a not-so-good vantage point. But nevertheless, I enjoyed the show that began from the early Mayans, the advent of the white man, and continued on with the rise of the Spanish colony, the sack of the city by the pirates and finally to its present day peaceful city on the banks of the Gulf of Mexico. Celebrate Campeche! it admonished and I most certainly did.
A brief snippet of the show from my not so good vantage point:
*the term given to pirates who were encouraged by their respective kings to carry on raids against the Spanish as a sort of guerrilla war-fare in exchange for a percentage of their bounty and a sort of proxy war on the Spanish to challenge their “New World” hegemony.
**or the elder Fransisco de Montejo father and uncle to the younger ones who carried on the conquest of Yucatan.
- Use ADO movil app to book bus tickets for both second class and first class buses: http://www.adomovil.com/
- Consider staying at the Viatger Inn hostel for a budget stay. It is clean, comfortable and ideally located in the old part of the town and close to everything. The staff speak English and are very friendly.
- Champoton is only 45 min away by bus if you wish for some beach time. There are no beaches in Campeche city.
- Vegetarian eateries were closed for the night, but the pizzeria on the main square served veg pizzas.