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Campeche – Mexico’s Hidden Treasure

CAMPECHE – Mexico’s Hidden Treasure
- Laurel Van Horn, Former Executive Director, SATH and
Former Editor-in-Chief, Open World Magazine

ACAPULCO, CANCUN, PUERTO VALLARTA—everyone’s heard of them. But Campeche? This is truly “Undiscovered Mexico,” as the Mexico Tourism Board phrases it. Situated on the southwestern side of the Yucatan Peninsula, this little-known state boasts two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the walled colonial city of Campeche and the ancient Maya ceremonial center of Calakmul, located within Mexico’s newest and largest biosphere reserve. Edzná in the north and Chicanná, Becán, Balamkú and Xpuhil in the south are other major centers of Mayan civilization open to visitors. Add to this the hospitality for which Campechanos are famous, the beautiful coastline on the Gulf of Mexico and the great seafood, and you have the perfect spot for a unique and memorable vacation.

I had the pleasure last spring to visit Campeche in the company of other members of the international press following the 27th Tianguis Acapulco, Mexico’s main travel trade show. The 3-day visit provided the small group of writers and photographers a very intense introduction to the state’s main attractions. Of course, I was curious to see how welcoming this less-visited corner of Mexico would be for people with restricted mobility. Would any awareness of disability access even exist? How manageable would the city itself be or the archeological sites?

Getting There
For visitors from afar, the first challenge in terms of access is always the airport. Campeche’s is modern but small and without jet ways. In this case, one does have the option of flying into Merida, the capital of Yucatan, which not only has boarding bridges but also direct flights from the United States. Approximately 120 miles away via good roads, Merida has much to offer in its own right—a charming central plaza, ornate colonial mansions, the nearby Mayan ruins at Dzibilchaltún where there is an accessible museum, and the Celestun Biosphere Reserve with its very pink flamingos. En route to Campeche one should detour to visit the massive Mayan ruins at Uxmal. Merida has at least two relatively accessible hotels, the Fiesta Americana and the Holiday Inn. At the coast the Reef Club has adapted rooms
and good access everywhere except to the beach. In both Campeche and Merida, as elsewhere in Mexico, ground transport is another barrier for wheel-chair users who require lift-equipped or ramped vehicles. During my visit I was not able to locate a single adapted van, but, given that none exists in Cancun either, this was no surprise.

The City of Campeche
The capital city, Campeche, proved to be an absolute delight, with its stone walls, forts, colonial mansions, arcaded passageways and churches amazingly intact. This, by the way, is Mexico’s only walled city. Under a government-funded project, about 1600 facades and monuments have been restored to their 18th century splendor. Campeche is very much alive though, not a museum piece. The last night of our stay, the whole town—young, old and even a young man in a wheelchair turned out for an evening of salsa and cumbia,
with dancing ‘til 3 a.m.

The city’s historic center is relatively small and easy to explore although some sidewalks are narrow and some streets made of cobblestone. The style of curb cuts used in Campeche was new to me (see photo) and a bit disconcerting for pedestrians. Suddenly the outer half of the sidewalk slopes down to street level and then back up again. This is usually mid-block and doesn’t necessarily have a corresponding slope opposite.

Much of the old city’s encircling wall and 7 of the original 8 bastions, built after pirates all but wiped out the town and its inhabitants in 1663, are still intact. One can access the ramparts via ramp at several points including the Bastion of La Soledad, which houses the Museum of Stellae, and the Land Gate. Unfortunately, most of Campeche’s museums and colonial mansions have one or more steps, necessitating either hands-on assistance or a portable ramp for visitors in wheel chairs. We did see small wooden ramps in place at the city’s historic churches. San Miguel Fort, southwest of the city, presented an additional obstacle, a drawbridge with 4½. gaps between the planks. The Maya Museum there with its sculptures from the nearby island of Jaina and jade masks from Calakmul is a must-see. Exhibits are at a good viewing level with large print, high contrast signage but no captioning on the video.

In stark contrast to old Campeche is the modern waterfront area with its new esplanade. Here there are curb cuts, reserved disability parking and crosswalks ingeniously placed on the top of wide speed bumps so that the pathway from sidewalk to sidewalk is level. The esplanade, with its seating areas and paved walking and biking paths, is popular with local wheelchair users as a place to exercise and socialize. In the evening, both residents and visitors gather here to watch the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s very convenient then that two hotels with adapted rooms are just across from the esplanade. The Ocean View, a new property, has a level entrance, accessible public toilet and two adapted rooms with roll-in showers on the ground floor. Aside from a 4....step to the pool, the public areas including restroom are accessible. Church’s Chicken, a fast food restaurant next door, has reserved parking and a ramped entrance. Located further south just outside the old city is the Del Mar, which also has two adapted rooms with roll-in showers. The owner, an architect, is proprietor as well of the Chicanna Ecovillage.

Restaurants in Campeche, like its shops, tend to have an entry step or two. This is the case at La Pigua, open only for lunch, which has the best coconut shrimp I have ever tasted. A pleasant place to enjoy a coffee, pastry or homemade ice cream is El Kiosko, the gazebo right in the Central Plaza. Its proprietors also run Casa Vieja, a Cuban restaurant upstairs in the arcades overlooking the plaza and La Iguana Azul, just around the corner on Calle 53. Other memorable places to sample the unique local cuisine, a mix of Mayan and Spanish influences, are Marganzo, set in a colonial mansion on Calle #8, and Cenaduria Portales, in the arcades across from San Francisco Church. Note: none of these restaurants has accessible restrooms.

Only an hour’s drive from Campeche City is one of the state’s most impressive Mayan cities, Edzná. Settled originally as an agricultural village between 600 and 300 BC, the city reached the peak of its influence between 600 and 900 AD. While Chichen Itzá might get all the press, no one could fail to be awed by the Temple of Five Stories at Edzná and the other structures surrounding its Great Acropolis… and these you are likely to have more or less
to yourself. The quiet, pristine setting of Campeche’s archeological sites definitely con-tributes to the powerfulness of the experience.

In terms of access, the flat, hard-packed terrain at all the sites we visited in Campeche makes approach by wheelchair or for slow walkers quite manageable. Unfortunately, INAH, the National Institute of Anthropology and History, has not made barrier-free access a priority in its visitor centers so that the modern built environment—paving, entrances, restrooms—is more of an obstacle than the ancient pathways. Often one can find an alternate route to drive in closer to the site. At Edzná there is one rough patch with exposed stones to cross to reach the Central Plaza. While those less able-bodied may have to forego spectacular views from the top of the structures, there is more than enough to explore from ground level. INAH has, in fact, begun to ban climbing at some of its most heavily visited sites such as Chichén Itzá and Tulum, and this may become the norm elsewhere as well.

I should note that the climate in Campeche and the Yucatan Peninsula in general may prove a greater obstacle than terrain for many older visitors or those with disabilities such as multiple sclerosis. Anyone affected by heat and humidity should definitely plan to visit during the milder dry months from November to April.

Located in the southeast corner of Campeche, only 35 miles from Guatemala, is another center of Mayan civilization, Calakmul. The urban zone here occupies an area of 42 square miles—twice as large as Tikal in Guatemala—and comprises more than 6,700 structures, one of which is the tallest pyramid in Mexico. What makes the site even more amazing is its setting within Mexico’s largest nature preserve, a tropical jungle that is home to tapirs, jaguars, deer, howler monkeys and 300 species of birds. By arriving in early morning, one can combine game viewing with archeology for an absolutely unique experience.

Chicanná Ecovillage
A visit to Calakmul and the other main Rio Bec archeological sites in the area—Becán, Chicanná, Xpuhil, and Balamkú—should definitely be a multi-day expedition, especially since the approximately 200-mile drive from Campeche City takes up to 6 hours.Fortunately, there is a relatively accessible ecotourism lodge right at hand, the Chicanná Ecovillage. Moderately priced and thoroughly charming, this oasis in the jungle boasts two accessible cabins with roll-in showers. Was I surprised? You bet! In fact, the whole press group was bowled over, especially since the lodge’s small restaurant, where we enjoyed
an excellent lunch, is up several steps. While the bathrooms are not perfectly adapted, the cabins are ramped and have wide doors. Another very welcome feature in the hot,humid climate is the lodge’s swimming pool which, whether by design or accident, has a wall the perfect height for wheelchair transfers. Unfortunately, we had no time for a dip ourselves, having one more Mayan city to visit before the long drive back.

Although Calakmul is a hard act to follow, Becan certainly has its own points of interest. Some of its structures are among the largest in the state, rising more than 100 feet thanks to the ornamental towers that characterize Rio Bec architecture. Most unique, however, is Becan’s defensive dry moat which encircles the entire city and measures more than 46 feet wide, 13 feet deep and 1.4 miles in diameter. In the 1600’s the Spanish had fortified their port city, Campeche, against marauding pirates. Between one and two millennia earlier, the Mayans, too, had sought to ward off their enemies through an even more massive investment of state surplus and human labor power.

That night, back in Campeche City, we put aside our historical musings to just enjoy the vibrant culture born of the mix of Mayan and Spanish traditions and bloodlines. A fiesta was in full swing on the reclaimed land just outside the Sea Gate, with 3 or 4 live bands and most of the town’s inhabitants taking part. For those of us still upright at the end of a 24-hour day, it was the perfect end to our whirlwind tour.

Special thanks to the Mexican Tourism Board, the Secretary of Tourism of Campeche and all our hosts, as well as to our wonderful guide, Ruby , from the local tourism office. You left us in no doubt: Campeche is indeed “The Hidden Treasure of Mexico.”

If You Go…

Mexico Tourism Board, MEXICO; E-mail:;

Secretary of Tourism, Campeche,
Tel. 52 (981) 655 93;
Non-Official Web Sites:

Ocean View, Tel. 52 (981) 199 99;

Del Mar, Tel. 52 (981) 191 91;
E-mail: or

Chicanna Eco-Resort,
Tel. 52 (981) 191 91;
Note: The above hotels can also be booked online at:

From OPEN WORLD, Vol. 5, Issue 2, Fall 2002.
Copyright 2002. All rights reserved.