Picture a small tropical city nestled up against sparkling coastal waters, surrounded by fortress walls, complete with drawbridges and moats to keep out invading buccaneers. Where, in the twenty-first century, could this possibly be? No, it isn’t Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland. Nothing constructed by a theme park could come close to the real thing, the intriguing Mexican city of Campeche.
Capital of the state of the same name, the westernmost of the three Yucatan peninsula states, the 465-year-old city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and with good reason. Originally the Mayan trading village of Ah Kim Pech, it was here that the Spaniards first landed on Mexican soil, making their first contact with the Mayans.
Local sources of valuable lumber attracted Spanish settlement, and the ships carrying these exports to Spain soon became targets of the English pirates. During 160 years of raids by the pirates, the Spaniards built thick stone bulwarks around their settlement, with eight fortresses whose walls extended into the sea.
Today, the Old Town of Campeche, with its bright, balconied Spanish colonial mansions, is still surrounded by these bastions, called baluartes. The visitor to the city can enjoy a view of the Gulf of Mexico from cannon-studded roofs, explore dungeons, and walk over moats that once held either crocodiles or skin-burning lime. Several of these fortresses now contain museums, with historical information and artifacts from both colonial and pre-Hispanic Mayan eras.
As interesting as these places are, the sultry climate and relaxed atmosphere combine to seduce the foot-weary tourist into one of the many restaurants and small cafes in search of a tall, cool drink. Search no further, because this is the home of the cocktail, a word which originated here with the English pirates, who enjoyed drinks adorned with palm fronds which reminded them of “cock’s tails.” Many a rum drink was imbibed by those hearty partiers, who appreciated the wealth of local tropical fruit, the juices of which mix so nicely with rum. The word campechana itself has come to mean a mixed drink or a mixed seafood cocktail. And speaking of seafood, we’re getting to the heart of the matter, at least where Campeche’s cuisine is concerned.
The coastal waters yield a variety of fish and shellfish, including shrimp, cazón (baby shark), pampano, esmedregal (black snapper) and octopus. Traditional Mayan ingredients, such as achiote, along with exotic fruits and Spanish herbs, combine to produce a cuisine that is both tasty and visually appealing.
These dishes can be enjoyed in a variety of settings, from fine restaurants, such as La Pigua, home of coconut shrimp, to more modest mom-and-pop establishments. And let’s not forget the market, which, like most Mexican mercados, offers a sampling of the best snacks and daily specials. People here have a pleasantly positive response to the visitor’s interest in the different dishes and ingredients. (Besides meaning a mixed drink or seafood cocktail, campechana is synonymous with a nice, easy-going person.)
A trip to the Campeche market is a rewarding and memorable experience, with stands featuring regional variations of typical Mexican fare. Instead of the gorditas, chalupas and memelas of central Mexico, other corn dough-based snacks prevail. Panuchos and salbutes may be filled with black beans, shredded fish, or chicken. Although famous for its seafood, Campeche has a good variety of chicken dishes using the white-skinned poultry bred in the area to resist the heat.
The local tropical fruit is also put to delicious use, and the city abounds with small storefronts offering juices, liquados and ice cream in a number of refreshing flavors. Much of the casual evening strolling that campechanos enjoy involves a stop or two for fruit ices or ice cream.
This month all of Mexico observes the Lenten season with seafood and fruit aguas, which campechanos enjoy year-round. Whether getting into the seasonal spirit or just looking for a few new recipes, try one or two of the following and enjoy a taste of one of the most unique cuisines of Mexico.
- Camarones al Coco: Coconut Shrimp
- Pan de Cazón: Tortillas with Shredded Fish and Black Beans
- Pampano en Salsa Verde a la Campechana: Campeche-Style Pampano in Green Sauce