Campeche: An Off-the-Beaten Path Gem in Mexico's Yucatan, for Less

by  Lisa Cheng | Jan 4, 2019
Campeche Old Town, Mexico
Campeche Old Town, Mexico / bypty/iStock

Travelers often get the idea that the Yucatan Peninsula is all about fiestas and siestas — with margarita-fueled spring break crowds against a backdrop of high-rise hotels and mega theme parks. But, the region isn’t just about Cancun and its exaggerated stereotypes. On the western side of the peninsula lies Campeche, an enchanting colonial-era harbor town with Baroque architecture, surrounded by ramparts that once guarded against marauding corsairs and pirates. With a potent combo of history and culture, a beachfront promenade, and a robust food scene, Campeche has the whole package, minus an overabundance of tourists. Here, our recommendations:

What to See

A sea port with Mayan roots, Campeche played an important role for the conquest and evangelization of the Yucatan Peninsula — so much that its historic significance has been recognized by UNESCO. The gates guarding the walled center lead to cobblestoned lanes and pastel-colored buildings; a wander through the streets makes a picturesque (and low-cost) way as an introduction to the town. For more context, head up the slope to Fort San Miguel, an archaeological museum with artifacts from ancient Mayan sites, and Fort San José el Alto, which exhibits naval boats and other military memorabilia. Meanwhile, Casa Numero 6, a restored merchant’s home, is adorned with stained glass windows and antiques such as chandeliers and porcelain figures — many pieces from the Old Continent. For souvenirs, shop at Casa de Artesanias Tukulna, a colonial mansion turned handicrafts store that showcases the regions of Mexico: artisans are on hand to demonstrate their trades. Nylon hammocks, hand-woven baskets, painted fans, intricate jewelry, Mexican chocolate, and candy made from honey or coconut are on display, for sale, and even to sample. Stock up: despite the quality of the craftsmanship, prices are very reasonable.

For seaside pleasures, go for a stroll along the promenade, and you’ll find free exercise classes along the stretch of white sands, along with lounging locals and visitors alike taking in salty breezes and catching rays of sun. On select evenings, a spectacular (and free) outdoor sound and light show takes place Campeche’s central plaza, which consists of dazzling flashes of color and animation that includes Mayan legends and vintage photographs.  

Where to Eat

Because of Campeche’s location on the border of the Gulf of Mexico, the bounty of the ocean is a staple of the local cuisine, from deep-fried coconut shrimp to fresh octopus and seafood stews. Admire water-facing views at the alfresco La Palapa del Tio Fitowhere fish is hauled in before being cooked and presented on your plate. Fresh catches include shrimp, and local fish varieties such as red drum and pargo are served simply here, a la plancha (grilled on a metal plate) with sauces such as butter, garlic, or creamy chipotle. Grab a seat on the outdoor balcony at the Casa del Vieja de los Arcos, located under the arches, as the restaurant’s name suggests, which overlooks Campeche’s main plaza. Order the regional specialty pan de cazon, tortillas layered with refried beans and dogfish smothered in tomato sauce. At La Parrilla Colonial, you can feast on fajitas, tacos, and a banana leaf-wrapped cochinita pibil (a succulent, slow-cooked shredded pork) in a courtyard space (at the end of the meal, the waiters roll out carts to flambée desserts). Touted as one of the best eateries in Campeche, La Pigua serves regional classics such as fish-stuffed chile rellenos, pompano en verde (a fish dish with green chiles and tomatillos), and a guava paste with cheese for dessert.

Where to Stay

For central location, the Hotel Plaza Campeche (from $51 per night), has spacious, air-conditioned rooms decorated with colorful embroidered pillows and bed runners. The former hacienda also has a courtyard pool and a lounge with an illuminated bar and checkered floor, plus a restaurant that serves both a buffet and à la carte dishes for breakfast. For a splurge, book a night at the Hacienda Puerta Campeche, a Luxury Collection Hotel (from $259 per night). Originally constructed in the 16th century, the property has rooms with beamed ceilings, rustic stone, and period-inspired furniture (the three-bedroom suites, which start at $349 are a particularly good value). The spa’s Mayan-inspired treatments and the atmospheric restaurant, which overlooks a garden makes it an absolute stand-out. 

How to Get There

You can take an hour and 45 minute flight to Campeche from Mexico City, which will cost you anywhere from $90 to $180 USD depending on the airline and the season. Upon arrival in Campeche, you can either hire a taxi to pick you up at the airport, or, if you're looking to save some money, you can hop on a collectivo (essentially a shared taxi) to your destination. You can also drive to Campeche from the town of Merida (the capital of Mexican state of Yucatán, which is also packed with rich Mayan and colonial history). This will take about two-and-a-half hours by car. 

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