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The Hats of Bécal

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The statue of two monumental Panama hats which reigns supreme in the center of Bécal’s main plaza is strange, but leaves little doubt as to the town’s claim to fame. Found about an hour south of Mérida, Bécal is best known for its traditional hats made of jipi.

Hats Becal

We made a day trip to Bécal in order to see how the hats are made. The jipi is a type of palm tree from Guatemala. Here in the Yucatán, the weather is much drier and hotter than in the Guatemalan highlands, leaving the jipi fibers too brittle to weave into hats. To work around this, the artisans of Bécal work their magic in both natural and man-made caves, most often found in their backyards.

It took no time at all for us to find one of these caves. A foreign face in Bécal usually means just one thing, and we quickly had people offering to introduce us to their hat-making friends. Minutes after stepping off the bus, we were crouched inside an artificial cave in some guy’s yard, watching him weave a child-size hat.

The thinner the fiber, the higher quality of the hat, and the best require over two weeks to finish. It was fun to watch his fingers weave strand over strand with incredible speed and dexterity. After he had shown us how it’s done, we followed him into his shop. I’m not the kind of guy who can successfully pull off a Panama hat, and they weren’t all that cheap, but we bought one anyway. We kind of had to.

Location on our Map

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February 3, 2014 at 11:42 pm Comments (0)

Other Sights in Campeche

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We had circled the path of the old fortifications which once protected the city, and taken a trip into the jungles of the interior to visit Maya ruins, but it wasn’t until our final hours in Campeche that we spent much time exploring the city itself.

Campeche Church

Comprising a five-by-eight grid of streets, the center of Campeche hasn’t changed much since the fortifications were erected in the early 1700s. We ambled along the roads, climbing up onto the exaggeratedly-elevated sidewalks when a car would pass by, and directed ourselves to a few of the city’s sights.

First up, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which took nearly two centuries to complete. The baroque facade is impressive, but inside it’s much the same as any cathedral. It does, however, have a small museum full of macabre religious relics, the best of which is a black wood and silver coffin holding a Jesus corpse.

Mansión Carvajal

Nearby the cathedral, we stopped in at the Mansión Carvajal. This baroque residence was built by one of the city’s most important businessmen and is today home to government offices. Visitors are free to wander through, although there’s nothing specific to see here, apart from the interesting architecture.

San Jose Church Campeche

Across town, we sought out the Ex-Temple of San Jose, which is most notable for the lighthouse sticking out of its roof, and for the blue and yellow tiles of its exterior. During our visit, this former Jesuit convent was hosting an exhibit of modern art.

On the southern side of the Plaza Grande, visitors can tour the Centro Cultural Casa 6. This colonial-era home doesn’t have the most inspiring name, but it’s filled with authentic period furniture and does a good job of illuminating how the upper crust of the eighteenth century lived.

We only had a brief taste of Campeche, and were left wanting more. Its cobblestone streets, colorful houses and colonial architecture are hard to dislike. To experience the city at the relaxed pace that it seems to encourage, you’d need at least three or four days. Perhaps even 91.

Locations on our Map: Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception | Mansión Carvajal | Ex-Temple of San Jose | Centro Cultural Casa 6

List of hotels in Campeche

More photos from the Cathedral
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More photos from the Mansión Carvajal
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More photos from San Jose
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More photos from the Centro Cultural Casa 6
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January 26, 2014 at 10:13 pm Comments (0)

The Maya Ruins of Edzná

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Found 50 kilometers inland from Campeche, the Maya site of Edzná is best known for its five-level pyramid-palace structure. Without our own transportation, Edzná was difficult to reach, but the opportunity to see its compact and beautiful ruins made the effort worthwhile.

Edzna Maya Ruins

We had to depend on public transportation to get from Campeche to Edzná, and finding the bus wasn’t a simple task. The tourist office had been of no help, so we went to the market and started asking around. Everyone had a different idea on where to find the appropriate colectivo (mini-bus), but none of their advice panned out. Eventually, a scraggly, sketchy guy selling ice-pops out of a cooler approached us, claiming to know where to find the bus. We followed him apprehensively into a dilapidated building, out the back courtyard, and into an alley where, indeed, there were colectivos bound for Edzná. “Haha,” I said, clapping our hero on the shoulder, “and here I thought you were planning to kill us.”

The crowded, sweaty bus ride took an hour, but soon enough we were walking into the ruins. Edzná is an extremely old site. Originally settled around 400 BC, it reached its peak during the terminal classic period, in about AD 900, at which point it was home to 25,000 people. After a long decline, the city was abandoned by 1500. Edzná’s name means “House of the Itza”, indicating a strong connection to Chichén Itzá. It’s possible that the powerful Itzá clan settled here first before moving farther north.

Edzná is famous for a five-tiered structure that marries elements of a pyramid and a palace. When we first arrived, I figured that this was the somewhat large pyramid at the end of the plaza. Pretty cool, but not mind-blowing, and I couldn’t see any palace-type features on it. However, upon climbing to the top of a sub-structure, my mind was blown after all. Turns out that Ednzá’s famous five-story pyramid is completely obscured from view at the entrance, and suddenly seeing it after cresting the steps was quite a shock.

This structure, which you unfortunately can no longer climb, has multiple doorways on each floor that led to the private quarters of Edzná society. The more important you were, the higher up on the pyramid you lived. Considering that it wasn’t just ceremonial, but home to the upper echelon of Edzná society, it seems safe to assume that the pyramid must have been full of treasures. And it still might be. Incredibly, it’s never been fully excavated.

Edzná is compact, so you don’t need a lot of time to see the entire site; we were done in about an hour, and then had to wait for the colectivo back to Campeche. To pass the time, we ate tacos made by a woman at a makeshift stand on the side of the road, and chatted with her about the Mennonites who kept driving past. Jürgen and I don’t necessarily have a lot in common with rural taco ladies, but if there’s one thing that can bring even the most disparate groups of people together, it’s laughing about weird, white Mexican Mennonites.

Location of Edzná on our Map

Cheap Flights To Mexico

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January 26, 2014 at 7:21 pm Comment (1)

The Ramparts and Museums of Campeche

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At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the construction of Campeche’s fortifications rescued the city from the devastation of unrelenting pirate attacks. Three hundred years later, the surviving walls and fortresses have shifted their focus to tourism, and are presently home to the city’s best museums.

Seven of Campeche’s original eight bastions are still standing, and a satisfying tour of the city can be had by simply following their circular path. We started at the Baluarte de Santiago, which today hosts Campeche’s Botanical Garden. A walk about the small and attractive garden requires very little time, and costs next to nothing.

A bit farther west down the coast, we visited the sea-facing Baluarte de la Soledad which is home to the Museo de Arquitectura Maya. Spread across the bottom floor of the old fort, the museum introduces visitors to the basic concepts of Maya architecture. Each stele, or carved stone column, is accompanied by a point-by-point description of all the elements and glyphs, along with their probable meaning, which really helps in understanding the cryptic art of the Maya.

Next up was the Baluarte de San Carlos and the Museo de la Ciudad. With all the pirate attacks, Campeche has had a more colorful history than most cities, and this museum presents some of its more exciting and blood-soaked episodes. While I was in the bowels of the fort, reading up on the exploits of buccaneers and swashbucklers, Jürgen was on the roof snapping pictures of the city.

On the other side of Campeche is the Puerta de Tierra, a bastion which served as the city’s main entry point. Today, it’s most well-known for its light-and-sound show, performed three times a week. We arrived early for a performance, but didn’t know that a ticket was required. And by the time we realized our error, the show was sold out. Frustrating, because it’s supposed to be rather good.

Fuerte de San Miguel

All of these bastions were impressive, but for the best fortress and museum, you have to travel a couple kilometers outside of the city and scale a tall hill to reach the Museo de Cultura Maya inside the Fuerte de San Miguel. From the top of this fortress, you can enjoy an excellent view over the sea and city. The museum is spread out across ten rooms, with exhibits that focus on archaeological finds from around Campeche State, including some priceless pieces like a glowing jade mask in perfect condition.

Cheap Accommodation in Campeche

Locations on our Map: Baluarte de Santiago | Baluarte de la Soledad | Baluarte de San Carlos | Puerta de Tierra | Fuerte de San Miguel

More photos from the Baluarte de Santiago
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January 25, 2014 at 6:26 pm Comment (1)

A Trip to Campeche

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With a historic center that’s been protected for centuries by an impenetrable set of fortifications, Campeche has a reputation as one of Mexico’s most beautiful cities. We were completely won over by its picturesque charm, during a two-day excursion from Mérida.

Campeche

Campeche was founded in 1540, on the site of a Maya city called Kinpech. Almost right away, the new Spanish settlement drew the attention of pirates who were operating in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. Among the many who sacked Campeche, some big names appear… Henry Morgan, Roche Braziliano, John Hawkins, Francis Drake. Pirate League All-Stars! Their villainy was relentless; as soon as Campeche had recovered from one attack, the next would begin.

Things came to a head between 1663 and 1667, when the city was sacked almost without pause, the people terrorized and butchered by ever more greedy and bloodthirsty pirates. Finally, the Campechanos demanded that their Spanish rulers build a set of walls. Completed in 1702, the fortifications were successful in protecting the city from further assaults, and the real-life Pirates of the Caribbean moved on to easier fare.

Campeche’s historic town center is still defined by its life-saving fortifications. Seven of the eight balustrades remain standing, and a couple sections of the walls can be visited. The city has spread out far beyond its original size, but the fortified area remains the center of life, home to most of the touristic sights, with a charming colonial atmosphere that’s out-of-step with hectic modern Mexico. The cobblestone streets in a checkerboard layout, the thoughtfully-restored Baroque houses, and the walls themselves led UNESCO to declare Campeche a World Heritage Site in 2007.

We were visiting just before the New Year, while the town was still in the throes of its Christmas celebrations. The main plaza was lit up dazzlingly, and the atmosphere was so festive it bordered on insane. Noise and lights are always fun, but in Campeche we most enjoyed the quieter side of things; strolling along gorgeous colonial streets, drinking a beer on a balcony overlooking the plaza, or sitting by the ocean while the sun disappeared behind the Gulf. Simply put, this is a lovely city; the two days we spent here weren’t nearly enough.

Location on our Map

List Of Hotels In Cempeche

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January 25, 2014 at 12:37 am Comments (4)
The Hats of Bcal The statue of two monumental Panama hats which reigns supreme in the center of Bécal's main plaza is strange, but leaves little doubt as to the town's claim to fame. Found about an hour south of Mérida, Bécal is best known for its traditional hats made of jipi.
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