Campeche was the most important Spanish colonial port in Mexico, and one of the most important colonial cities in the Caribbean. Because of the wealth that passed through here on its way to Europe, it was also one of the most attractive and luratice targets for pirates in the New World. To protect it the Spanish turned Campeche into one of the most heavily fortified cities in the Western Hemisphere. In addition to the massive city wall, Campeche boasts several fortresses to defend its approaches. The Fortifications are part of the Old City of Campeche UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The area where the city of Campeche now stands was discovered by Spanish explorers in 1517. Originally known by its native name, Ah Kim Pech, the Spanish founded their own city on the site in 1540. Located close to the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, Campeche was ideally located as a port where the wealth of Mexico could be gathered before being shipped off to Spain. Unfortunately this also made the city one of the biggest prizes in the Spanish colonies.
From the time of its founding until the end of the end of the 17th century, Campeche was attacked on countless occasions by English, French and Dutch privateers. Among the luminaries who led raids against the city were Francis Drake and John Hawkins, who later went on to help defeat the Spanish Armada; Jean Lafitte, whose renegade band helped to defend New Orleans during the War of 812; and Henry Morgan, one of the most successful pirates of all time.
The Spanish were constantly improving the city’s defenses, but by the early 18th century they had had enough. A massive new fortification system was undertaken, the main feature of which was an immense wall stretching more than a mile and a half around the city and port. This improved and incorporated most of Campeche’s earlier fortifications. In addition, two new fortresses were built to protect both the landward and seaward approaches to the city.
The efforts paid off. By the mid-18th century, Campeche was one of the most impregnable cities in the New World, and the pirate attacks tapered off. However, Campeche became a hotbed of intrigue in Mexican politics, and the city’s defenses often came in handy again for the numerous insurgencies. The city still saw action as recently as a century ago, during the Mexican revolution. Today Campeche is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Yucatan.
The Wall and Fortresses of Campeche are among the finest still standing in North America. Almost the entirety of the wall is still intact. Built in six sections with seven defensive bulwarks, many parts of the defenses are now used for other purposes. Two of the bastions now house city museums; one is home to a university library; and one is part of the city’s botanical gardens.
The older of the city’s forts, the Fuerte de San Jose El Alto, was completed in 1792. Built to defend the northeast approaches to the city, it now houses a museum with exhibits on arms of the colonial era and piracy. The second fort, the Fuerte de San Miguel, defended the south side of the city and was finished a few years later. It also now houses a museum, this one dedicated to the region’s archaeology and the Mayan culture that once thrived here. To add to the authenticity of the entire site, the city’s walls and both fortress stil bristle with cannons peeking out from over the battlements.
The Walls of Campeche enclose the old town of Campeche, approximately 210 miles southwest of Cancun. They are for the most part an open site, though access to some sections of the bulwarks are now part of other attractions, such as the city museums. The Fuerta de San Jose El Alto and the Fuerte De San Miguel are 2.5 miles north and 3.0 miles south of the city, respectively. Both forts are open Tuesdays through Sundays from 9:00am-5:30pm, with earlier closings on Sundays. The cost of admission is P27 and P34, respectively. Web: www.campeche.travel (official tourism website of Campeche).
While Campeche has the best surviving Colonial fortifications in Mexico, those of Veracruz were perhaps even more historically important. The Castillo de San Juan de Ulua was founded by the conquistador Hernando Cortez. A small portion of the city wall, the Baluarte De Santiago, is also still intact.