A Guide to Campeche: Mexico’s Most Underrated City?

Last Updated on: 5th May 2024, 07:42 pm

Campeche is perhaps best known as a base for visiting the nearby ruins of Edzná. But many are surprised to encounter a beautiful colonial city with enough attractions to keep one occupied for several days. Not only is Campeche one the most charming cities of the Yucatán Peninsula, it’s arguably one of the most underrated destinations in the entire country. In the following Campche guide, we’ll cover the top things to see and do in one of Mexico’s best-kept secrets.

With the exception of the forts on the outskirts of town, most of the attractions below can easily be explored on foot. Including a day trip to Edzná, try giving yourself at least three days in town.

For more information on getting to the state capital and the best place to stay, be sure to check the very end of this Campeche guide.

Exploring Central Campeche

Campeche was officially founded in 1540 by the Spanish. But like many cities in the region, it was built atop an older Mayan city named Can Pech, of which little evidence remains.

Together with Veracruz, Campeche served as one of the Spanish Empire’s most important port cities in the Gulf of Mexico. And it was also the Yucatán Peninsula’s only port equipped for Atlantic trade.

Campeche Guide
The Puerta de Mar, one of the walled city's original entrances

Campeche is the only city in Mexico that maintains its original city walls. And most of the main attractions in this Campeche guide can be found within them or just outside of the historic city limits.

Near one edge of the walled city is Campeche’s main park, surrounding which are several important historical landmarks.

Campeche Guide
Campeche Guide

The Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción, or simply Campeche Cathedral, is a Baroque style building with tall towers which can be seen from all over the city. 

Construction began upon the city’s founding in 1540, but it wasn’t fully completed until 1760, later being granted the rank of cathedral in 1895.

As we’ll cover in more detail shortly, the historic house museum and old City Hall can also be found around this plaza

Landmarks aside, one of the main things to do in Campeche is simply walking around and admiring its colorful architecture. For those coming directly from Mérida, this city of 250,000 is also noticeably a lot calmer.

Campeche, in fact, turned out to be exactly what I was hoping and expecting Mérida to be. It’s a wonder, then, why it hardly gets mentioned in either tourist or expat circles.

Campeche Guide
Campeche Guide

While many cities in Mexico (or the world) have all their historic architecture concentrated in a small central area, this isn’t the case with Campeche. 

Even well beyond the city walls, visitors will encounter streets entirely lined with colorful colonial buildings, making the city a pleasure to explore on foot.

Keep reading to learn more about specific landmarks to seek out around town.

Campeche Guide
Portales de San Francisco, a colonial era square about a kilometer east of the center

Centro Cultural Casa No. 6

Facing the city’s central park is one of its most notable historic houses. Occupied by a wealthy merchant family in the second half of the 18th century, the house has been preserved and restored to maintain its original look and feel.

Campeche Guide
Campeche Guide

The ground floor is centered around an open courtyard with elegant stained glass arches. Elsewhere, you can see the kitchen, bedrooms and common room. 

As was typical among wealthy families of the era, the furniture here largely mimics what was popular in Europe at the time. Interestingly, the items currently on display are a mix of originals and replicas.

Campeche Guide

The house is quite small when compared with the house museums of nearby Mérida. But given its convenient location, there’s no reason not to visit.

Museo el Palacio

Also facing the main plaza is the Museo el Palacio, situated in the former city hall. Entry is free, and various exhibitions explain the history of the city and Campeche’s role as one of the main Spanish trading ports.

Campeche Guide
Campeche Guide
Campeche Guide

You’ll learn about the prominent trading routes and types of ships of the era, along with the difficulties the city faced for years at the hands of pirates. In fact, one of the more interesting pieces on display is a replica of a pirate ship.

From Thursday to Saturday each week, a light show takes place outside here at 20:00. Unfortunately, my stay happened to last from Monday until Thursday morning, so I never got a chance to see it.

Xmuch Haltún Botanical Garden

Though it regularly appears on lists of top things to do in Campeche, this botanical garden in the northeast part of town is not quite worth going out of your way for.

For 15 pesos, you’ll be able to see everything in just a minute or two, while the garden is a bit disorganized and unkempt. Its most notable feature is the fact that it’s situated inside of an old bulwark constructed in 1704.

Campeche Guide

The Mayan Architecture Museum

Right in the heart of the walled town is the Mayan Architecture Museum which, as the name suggests, showcases various architectural styles that the Mayans utilized throughout Mexico.

Throughout the small museum, you’ll find examples of Chenes, Puuc, Río Bec and Northern Petén art and architecture.

But one can also find similar examples at the nearby San Miguel Fort featured below, while that museum hosts a lot more artifacts in general.

Campeche Guide

Still, there’s one major reason to make a stop at this museum, as it’s where you’ll find the most iconic jade mask discovered at Calakmul

While numerous jade masks were found in the pyramid tombs of Calakmul (many of which are on display at the San Miguel Fort), this one is widely regarded as the most exquisite.

Campeche Guide
Campeche Guide

There’s yet another good reason to visit The Mayan Architecture Museum. Outside the main exhibits, a ramp leads up to the Baluarte de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, constructed in the 17th century.

Campeche Guide

Walking along the top, you can enjoy various vantage points of central Campeche, with some sections even offering views of the sea.

As we’ll cover shortly, this is just one of several bastions to explore during your time in the historical center. 

Campeche Guide
Campeche Guide

Puerta de Tierra

Arguably the top attraction in the city center – and one of the main attractions of this entire Campeche guide – is Puerta de Tierra. As mentioned above, Campeche was (and still is) a walled city. And this was its main entrance gate, at least for those coming by land (hence the name).

Notably, Campeche did not begin to fortify itself until the year 1686, after its rulers finally got fed up with incessant pirate attacks that lasted over a century.

Campeche Guide
Campeche Guide
Campeche Guide

The city walls extend out to over 2500 meters in total, forming a hexagon shape with eight bastions. As you’ll notice during your time in the city – and especially here – the fortification walls remain impeccably preserved.

For just 15 pesos, visitors have the chance to explore the top of the gate and walk along much of these walls. As you’ll notice, some parts are still lined with their original cannons.

Campeche Guide
Campeche Guide

Walking along the walls, you can appreciate views of the colorful historical core of the city on one side and the hustle and bustle of modern Campeche on the other.

Apparently, as is the case with the Museo el Palacio (see above), a sound and light show is held here during weekends.

Note that a staff member will lock the door behind you as you make your way up. When finished, be sure to ring the large bell at the top to signal that you’re ready to leave.

During my time in Campeche, I somehow missed the fact that in addition to the Botanical Garden, even more of the city’s original bastions remain open for visitors. If you like this kind of thing, seek out Baluarte de Santa Rosa and Baluarte de San Carlos, which also hosts a small city museum.

Campeche Guide

The Malecón

Campeche isn’t just known for its colonial architecture, but also for its long Malecón, which stretches out to 7 km in total. While Campeche lacks any beaches, visitors will have ample opportunity to admire views of the Gulf of Mexico during their stay.

Campeche Guide
Campeche Guide
Campeche Guide

The Malecón is lined with monuments dedicated to significant historical events and even local legends. Among the notable sculptures is that of Novia del Mar, based on a tale of a beautiful girl who once lived in Campeche.

According to the story, she would often spend her time at the water’s edge, watching the foreign ships come in and out of the port. And one day, a young and handsome sailor arrived with whom she quickly fell in love.

Campeche Guide
Campeche Guide
Novia del Mar

The two soon became inseparable. But the sea itself would grow jealous, as the young woman would no longer come each day to keep it company. And so one day, when the sailor had to embark on a trip, the sea caused a terrible storm, causing him and his crew to drown.

The beautiful girl did not know what happened, and for the rest of her life, she’d sit by the water’s edge, waiting for his return.

The San Miguel Fort & Archaeology Museum

The number one attraction in this Campeche guide would have to be the San Miguel Fort & Archaeology Museum, situated about 4 km southwest of the city center (learn more about getting there below).

The fort was completed in 1801 to add further protection to the city. And while the fort itself would make for a pretty cool destination in its own right, its former commander’s quarters, storage rooms, and barracks now host museum exhibitions dedicated to the Mayan civilization.

Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide
Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide
Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide

Ascending the hill and reaching the entrance, you’ll first encounter a windy path, built in this manner to prevent attackers from striking the entrance with cannon fire.

Next comes a drawbridge which takes you over a dry moat, after which you’ll find the ticket booth. At the time of writing, entry costs $65 MXN and the museum is open from 8:00-17:00 every day except Mondays.

Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide

Before or after exploring the main museum, you can also head to the roof to admire some excellent views of the sea. 

While the archaeology museum’s setting is certainly unique, it would still be one of the finest Mayan museums in Mexico even if it were housed in an ordinary building. 

In fact, it arguably even surpasses the larger and more famous Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Mérida. But what makes it so special?

Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide
Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide

While many museums provide a basic overview of Mayan history, culture and religion, this one goes a lot deeper. 

You’ll learn specific details about Mayan rituals and symbolism, in-depth information about royal burials, and the specific differences between regional architectural styles, among many other interesting facts.

A sculpture of a ruler
Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide

Regarding symbolism, you’ll learn how flowers in Mayan art represented supernatural beings and the concept of paradise, along with vital breath and the wind. 

Pumpkins, meanwhile, were symbols of regeneration and abundance. And in a broader sense, they symbolized the matrix of our physical reality.

Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide
A vase fragment from Teotihuacán
Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide

Each animal had a symbolic significance to the Maya as well. For example, coatis, due to their activity at dawn, were associated with the ‘Morning Star’ Venus. 

And given their propensity to disperse seeds around a given area, they also represented the concept of regeneration.

Additionally, macaws symbolized the sun and fire while owls were considered messengers of the gods of death.

Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide
Ancient drawings on stone
Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide
Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide

The artifacts themselves are also of top quality. As one might expect, they largely come from ruins within the state of Campeche, though there are a few from other places, like Mayapán and even Teotihuacán.

Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide
Various figurines depicting old age

Campeche state is home to what was one of the most powerful cities in Mayan history: Calakmul. And this is where most of the notable artifacts from the former capital are being kept. 

Even if you don’t have time to spare for a visit to Calakmul, located deep in the jungles on the other end of the state, you’ll still be amazed by the stunning jade funerary masks on display here.

As mentioned above, the Mayan Architecture Museum in the city center is also known for its jade mask, though you’ll find several more at this fort.

Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide
A recreation of a tomb in Calakmul
Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide
Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide
Jade funerary masks

Like many world cultures, the Mayans believed that the soul of the deceased had to make a perilous journey across a river to arrive safely to Xibalba, the underworld. And jade was one material that helped offer protection during this journey.

The Mayans buried their dead and also cremated them. Burial locations included tombs, caves, cenotes, or simply in the ground. While most people were believed to go to Xibalba after death, others were destined for particular realms of paradise associated with certain deities.

Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide
An inscribed altar from the site of Uxul
Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide
An inscribed panel from Naachtun
Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide
A figurine from the site of Jaina
Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide
A ceramic piece from a prince's tomb
Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide
A person in a jaguar headdress

GETTING THERE: From the city center, the San Miguel Fort Archaeology Museum can be reached by colectivo (shared minivans) bound for Lerma. You should be able to find one parked on Av. Cto Baluartes, not far from Puerta de Tierra.

Another option is to simply walk, as the western end of the Malecón terminates not far from the entrance to the fort.

Fort of San José el Alto

On the opposite side of central Campeche is yet another fort. Situated about 3.5 km northeast of the walled city is the Fort of San José el Alto, completed in 1792.

Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide

It’s very similar in size and appearance to the San Miguel Fort mentioned above. And its rooms are also being used to house a modern museum, which also costs $65 MXN to enter.

The exhibits here focus on a rather unique and niche topic: underwater archaeology. One room is dedicated to caves and another to marine life, while other exhibits focus on artifacts uncovered from shipwrecks.

Fort of San Miguel Archaeology Museum Campeche Guide
Campeche Guide
Campeche Guide
Campeche Guide

While the Mayan museum at the San Miguel Fort is fully bilingual, most of the information here is in Spanish only. Furthermore, the artifacts here are rather generic in contrast to the one-of-a-kind Mayan pieces at the other museum.

As it’s unclear how to reach this fort via public transport, I ended up walking. While it was luckily an interesting and scenic walk, the museum was rather anticlimactic after all the effort I put into to get there.

Campeche Guide

Needless to say, the San Miguel Fort is the one most visitors should choose, though the Fort of San José el Alto makes for an interesting trip for those with an extra day in town.

While the views from both forts are similar, the Fort of San José el Alto is perhaps the slightly more scenic of the two.

Campeche Guide

Additional Info

As the capital of the state of the same name, Campeche is well-connected by bus with many other cities throughout the region.

Buses depart regularly from Mérida, with the journey taking just a few hours. You can also find direct buses from Cancún and Ciudad del Carmen (not to be confused with Playa del Carmen).

Campeche has two main bus stations: ADO and Sur. The ADO station is too far from the center to walk, though a taxi should only cost you $50 MXN.

The Sur terminal is located about 15 minutes on foot east of the center, and this is the station you’ll want to go to for direct buses to Xpujil, the nearest town to Calakmul.

Note that you can find Mérida-bound buses at both bus stations.

Campeche also has a small airport with connections to Mexico City.

I stayed at Hotel Maya Becan, which I’d recommend to those looking for an affordable private room in a convenient area. While not located within the walled city, it was just five minutes or so from the entrance, making it easy to reach most sites in the Campeche guide above on foot.

With tax included, I paid about $420 MXN ($20 USD) per night, and my room included a private bathroom with air conditioning.

It was just a couple minutes on foot from the colectivo stop for the ruins of Edzna, and it was also a fairly easy walk to the Sur bus terminal to travel onward to Xpujil.



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