Let's go to Campeche! It is an invitation to visit the state of Campeche, but also to know its history, its customs, its gastronomy, its traditions, and its geography, an entity where we can find beaches, rivers, lagoons, mangroves, jungles. A place with surprising biodiversity that very few know about.

In the territory of Campeche flourished one of the most important cultures of Mesoamerica: the Maya, which every day surprises the world. In the jungles of Campeche, this civilization built portentous cities that still exist today. In them you can admire the four styles of architecture of this people: Petén, Río Bec, Chenes and Puuc, in sites such as Hochob, Santa Rosa Xtampak, Becán, Hormiguero and Xpujil, but among all of them, Edzná and Calakmul stand out.

Edzná

Edzná, "The house of the Itzaes", near the city of San Francisco de Campeche, was built in a privileged environment; the only patch of tropical jungle in the region. In this site stands out the Main Plaza where the largest number of constructions are located, the Nohochná, building that served for administrative functions, the ball game, the temple of the masks where Kinich Ahau is represented, the solar deity with aesthetic attributes typical of the Mayan elite and the Great Acropolis where the main building of five floors stands out, with numerous rooms and crowned with a crest. Edzná is a sample of the Mayan world that allows us to become deeply aware of the importance of the pre-Hispanic past.

Edzná
Edzná. Image: INAH

Calakmul

The jewel of the Mayan world is Calakmul, the ancient capital of the Kaan kingdom, the only mixed heritage of humanity in Mexico. A city nestled in the jungle where it is accompanied by the roar of the jaguar, the sacred animal of the Mayas, howler monkeys or the song of the toucan, parrots, and other birds that nest in its trees. Walking towards the monumental buildings we can still observe the zapote trees with the cuts where they were bled to extract from them the white sap later converted into chewing gum. A city that dominated a wide area where splendid examples of Mayan art have been found, especially mortuary masks that covered the faces of its rulers. Vestiges that the jungle-covered and protected for thousands of years, but are now being rescued to open their secrets to the world.

Calakmul
Calakmul. Image: INAH

City of San Francisco de Campeche

One peaceful morning, the people of Ah-kin-pech were surprised to contemplate in the distance some magical figures over the calm sea. Strange men descended from those ships in search of water. It was the first encounter of two different cultures: the Spanish and the Maya. It was the Sunday of Lazarus in 1517, and that is how they named it. From that moment on, a new history began a new cultural mix that would result in the Campeche we know today. Years later, around 1540, Francisco de Montejo "el mozo" would find a Spanish village with the name of San Francisco de Campeche, which would be the Spanish seat where the first City Hall would be established in peninsular lands. Thus, the town grew in importance because it was the only port in the region.

Panoramic view of Campeche from the cathedral.
Panoramic view of Campeche from the cathedral. Photo: Alejandro Navarrete, INAH.

The Alameda

The Alameda was built in 1830 under the impulse of Francisco de Paula Toro, at that time political chief and military commander of Campeche. It was erected on the side of the road from Puerta de Tierra to the Santa Ana neighborhood where his summer home was also located.

Military Architecture

The products of the land such as salt, wax, honey, and palo de tinte would soon become coveted goods by other nations. Pirates, corsairs, buccaneers, or filibusters assaulted, robbed, raped, and burned the town, celebrating their dishonor as a triumph. The inhabitants of the town sought a way to defend themselves from these dangers by building a stone belt to protect the town from robberies, and so they built a wall with eight bastions and four gates. This protective wall protected the town for more than two hundred years until picks and loot destroyed a good part of it.

Francisco de Paula Toro Theater

In 1832, General Francisco de Paula Toro initiated the construction of a building that would serve as a cultural and recreational center for a growing society. The Frenchman Teodoro Journot was in charge of the project. After several inconveniences, the building was inaugurated on September 15, 1834. In 1914 it was enlarged and named after its founder.

Haciendas

During the colonial era, the growing demand for farm products gave impetus to the concept of the hacienda as an agricultural estate and was adapted to American lands as a model of socio-economic organization. In past centuries, haciendas were important centers of housing and economic production in the region. The Hacienda de Uayamón, built at the end of the 16th century, stands out. Its name means "where the spirit descends" in the Mayan language.

Arches of the ancient rooms surrounding the central garden of the old Uayamón hacienda.
Arches of the ancient rooms surrounding the central garden of the old Uayamón hacienda. Photo: Alejandro Navarrete, INAH.

Corn cultivation and cattle raising were the main activities, although sugar cane and henequen were also grown and dyewood was exploited. In the 19th century, Uayamón was one of the most prosperous haciendas, in its heyday it functioned as a small town that offered social advances, such as hospital and educational care for workers; it also forged technological advances such as the introduction of electric light and the railroad.

Colonial Cities

Close to the capital is Champotón, a place where the Spanish explorers were defeated by the Mayan armies under the command of Moch-Cohuó, chief of the town, even though they had better weapons. This military action was recorded in history as "Champotón, the bay of the bad fight". Today it is a picturesque port where you can taste fresh seafood and fish seasoned locally.

Ciudad del Carmen was the busiest port in the 19th century. From its docks, ships of all nationalities sailed with precious woods and the legendary dye stick, material necessary to color fabrics, after unloading countless products such as wine, olives, books, cheese, butter, fabrics, clay, and marble tiles for house and church floors and tiles from Marseilles. Thus, many haciendas and towns such as Palizada -today Pueblo Mágico-, Champotón, Campeche, and Carmen painted their roofs with the red of those tiles.

Handicrafts

The book Artesanías de Campeche, expresión viva de nuestras raíces ("Handicrafts of Campeche, living expression of our roots"), points out that "being an artisan is something that is learned from childhood. In the Mayan communities, children are initiated in the artisan life as one more activity. In particular, if they are born in a community in the municipality of Calkiní, the men will learn to weave baskets and the women, mats and jipijapa hats".

It is in this region that the artisans of Bécal and ex hacienda Santa Cruz, weave the palm in caves so that the humidity allows their hands to weave the palm threads and make necklaces, key chains, fans, and the famous hats. "Once the palm is ready, with the support of the weaver's fingernail or a needle, the cuts are made in the form of grated from top to bottom. The number of cuts or scratches are called partidas ("splits"); one cut is one split, two cuts are two splits, and so on. With the cut of four partidas the finest hats are made."

Weavers of jipi palm in caves.
Bécal, a community in the municipality of Calkiní in Campeche, is known for the production of Jipi palm hats. In this place, artisans weave the hats inside a cave, because the humidity allows them to better manipulate the palm. Image: Miguel Torruco Marqués via Twitter

The entire state of Campeche is made up of an extraordinary cultural richness but mainly the area we know as the Camino Real ("Royal Road") and the Chenes because it was the product of the crossbreeding of two cultures: the Maya and the Spanish. The fusion of both made it possible for the music and dance in this region to be nourished with new ingredients, but with its personality.

Gastronomy

The gastronomy of Campeche is composed of three elements: smells, flavors, and colors. One of the stanzas of the danzón Champotón says: "Let's go to Campeche and even Champotón, to eat fish and dogfish bread". Indeed, in Campeche fish and seafood stews predominate, such as pan de cazón, casseroled or pickled mackerel, papered pompano, octopus with bread powder, or in its ink, and Campeche sea bass. The antojitos, such as panuchos, tamales torteados or colados, dzotobichay or brazo de reina, snacks or tostadas covered with chicken, black stuffing or cochinita, are a point and a part of the menu.

There are colors, smells, and flavors in the puchero de gallina or puchero de las tres carnes with vegetables and to give it flavor, it is accompanied with a splash of radish and cilantro. The black stuffing of chicken, turkey, or chicken. The white stuffing of turkey or chicken deserves a special mention and, of course, the cochinita pibil, peninsular dish par excellence.

Hearty crab and clams on a plate in Campeche.
Hearty crab and clams on a plate in Campeche. Image by jotabrand from Pixabay

What is it that gives color and flavor to the food of Campeche? Without a doubt, it is the recados, pastes made with products such as red or black achiote, cloves, oregano, Castile or Tabasco pepper, salt, and the essential sour orange juice. With these ingredients, the hands of the expert cooks of Campeche season all kinds of foods, based on chicken, chicken, turkey, pork, fish, and seafood. Nor can we forget the desserts that range from a simple and delicious rice pudding to the elaboration of fruit sweets such as sweet potato, pumpkin, plum, and papaya; from the different cornbreads, butter, aniseed, and many others.

As we can see, the cuisine of Campeche is a pleasure to the senses, because we can feel the smells of each stew, each soup, each sauce, each dessert; we can see the colors that incite the eyes, because in each meal a whole range of shades parade before us and, finally, most importantly, we can enjoy in each dish with the different flavors of their recipes, very special pleasure that incites the palate, and then enjoy the feeling of being in paradise.

Traditions

Carnival

Each region of the state has its traditions, its festivities, and even its gastronomy. The city of San Francisco de Campeche preserves two that are deeply rooted among the population that eagerly awaits their arrival. One is the carnival and the other is the San Roman fair.

Carnival was brought by the Spaniards, but here it has acquired its own identity and has even exported some expressions such as the Children's Corso. It generally begins with the "burial of bad humor" to give way to a series of coronations such as the coronation of the kings of students, children, and people with disabilities -another of the innovations of the carnival in Campeche-, until culminating with the kings of the city, to start, from Friday, with the parades on the boardwalk to see the parades, floats throwing gifts to spectators and costumed people who show off their ingenuity and creativity. All these days are full of color and fun, to forget the sorrows and give way to joy.

Black Christ of San Roman

Shrouded in the mystery of the legend of its arrival to this town from Veracruz in less than 24 hours, the Black Christ of San Roman, "El Negrito", has been in this city since 1565. The Black Christ is the protector of the city. One of the first defenses of the port was baptized with his name. Tens of generations have venerated him, his feast, which is celebrated in September, attracts thousands of faithful from all over the region.

The Black Christ of San Roman is part of the history of Campeche and continues to be an emblematic figure, so it is unthinkable to separate the devotion of the people of Campeche to Him. It is said that its color is due to the smoke of the candles that for centuries have burned at his feet or because of the tropical light that over time has blackened the carving. Today, the figure of the Black Christ of San Roman in its temple bathed by the sunlight and refreshed by the sea breeze continues to watch over the city of San Francisco de Campeche.

Dress of the Campeche woman

The first references to the dress of the Campeche woman appear in 1833 from an English traveler who visited the city of Campeche. The shirt or blouse had short sleeves, embroidered on the chest, and shoulder straps. The petticoats reached to the ankles and they wore slippers called chinelas with high heels and embroidered in gold or silver on a colored background.

The clothing did not undergo many changes with time; women who wore it daily, to differentiate them from those who did not, were called "Saya women". By the middle of the last century, this costume had practically disappeared. In 1940, when Campeche celebrated its first 400 years of foundation, among the celebrations was to rescue the dress of the Campeche woman, so some associations took on the task of doing so.

Campeche dress
Campeche dress. Image: SIAP

The embroidery used on the blouse varied to identify the neighborhood to which they belonged, the skirt should be open and open, not straight or flared, but assembled in pieces and a washer at the bottom. The fabric was brocade of different colors. The flip-flops were made of patent leather and leather with white thread trimmings and the toe upwards; the attire was completed with "garments" or jewelry, many of them gifts from the patrons on special dates.

In that same year of 1940, the blouse underwent an innovation when the Campeche coat of arms was embroidered on the front and the collar and sleeves with ships, castles, anchors, and palm trees, as a tribute to Campeche. To make it more attractive some contemporary designers have stylized it by modifying some aspects of the skirt and hairstyle accessories. Today the Campeche dress is worn with pride in every corner of the state because it is an expression of identity and a reminder of Campeche's mestizo heritage.

La Vaqueria

This tradition was born in the haciendas when cattle were branded; nowadays it is celebrated in the patron saint festivities of the towns of Los Chenes and Camino Real. The dancers arrive from the towns of the region, accompanied by a small band called Charanga. The celebration begins with the entrance of the "cabeza de cochino" (pig's head). This is carried on a table of short legs from which hang multicolored ribbons that hold the "vaqueras": young women dressed in the mestiza dress, white sneakers with low heels, hair tied in a bun with a ribbon bow and flowers, wearing a jipi hat with a mirror in front; behind them comes the troupe of dancers.

When the parade arrives at the hall or square where it will be celebrated, to the rhythm of the timbales, the baton player gives the order to begin the dances that can be of rhythms of 3x8 or 3x4 measures, the first with Andalusian reminiscences and the second waltz. The couples perform elegant and agile evolutions that, according to their complexity and style, make them worthy of public recognition. The jarana and other dances and contradanzas are an example of the cultural mestizaje that survives in the northern part of the state.

Palmar Festival

If the Camino Real and the Chenes have the Vaquería as their main folklore, the city of San Francisco de Campeche has two musical and dance representations: the Fiesta del Palmar and the Sarao. Its condition of port allowed it to receive the Caribbean influence in sounds and music that fused with the pre-Hispanic instruments originated the rhythms that compose its folklore.

The Palmar Festival was born in the neighborhood of San Roman for the celebrations of the Black Christ. The Alborada is a procession where women carry candles and tapers, others carry Chinese paper lanterns in the shape of stars, while praises are sung accompanied by the music of a Charanga and the multicolored burst of fireworks. At the end they gather under a coconut palm arbor and to the sound of the Charanga they begin their dances.

El Sarao

The Sarao party was born as a private celebration in the large country houses that were located in the Santa Ana neighborhood. Under the shade of avocado, orange, lemon, mango, caimito, and other trees, the owners invited their friends from the society of Campeche, relatives, and acquaintances to celebrate the patron saint who bore their name. While the diners tasted the delicacies, the air was filled with the sounds coming from a small orchestra composed of timbales, clarinets, trombones, rascabuches, and trumpets, all of them formed the Charanga, which played redobles, seguidillas, chaconas, pavas, and zarabandas to liven up the festivities.

With information from the Cultura Campeche