For several centuries the Yucatán peninsula was home to a flourishing Mayan civilization. There were at least three tribes, each with its own dialect and distinct style of art and architecture. From archaeological evidence we know that the Maya accurately observed and documented astronomical events, developed a sophisticated mathematical system and a precise calendar. For reasons that are not clear however, their numbers abruptly declined in the 8th and 9th centuries.
Although diminished in number they managed to stave off the Spaniards when they first arrived early in the 16th century. In 1527 the Spanish conquistador San Francisco de Montejo made his first failed attempt to conquer Campeche or Ah-Kin-Pech as the Maya called it; native resistance was strong. He fled and returned a few years later with his son, but again left defeated. In his third attempt in 1537 the Spaniard prevailed and in 1540 the city was established as Villa de San Francisco de Campeche in his honor.
San Francisco de Campeche became an extremely important port city on the Yucatán peninsula particularly for trading in salt and dyewood. The logwood tree, Palo de Campeche, grew abundantly and was prized for its use as a natural dye; it became Campeche’s most valuable export. In Europe at that time colorful textiles were rare and brightly colored garments were reserved for royalty. Dyewood brought great wealth to Campeche which in turn brought pirates. The city was attacked repeatedly. Eventually for protection, massive walls were built surrounding Campeche. Construction began in 1686 and in 1704 the hexagonal structure that measures 2,560 meters (8,400 ft) around and over 8 meters (26 ft) high was completed. Those walls still surround the city today.
When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 the entire Yucatán region was one state. Over the years uprisings continued to change the region’s status and in 1957 Campeche declared independence from Yucatán and named the city of San Francisco de Campeche as its capital. Statehood was finally ratified by the Mexican Congress in 1862.
San Francisco de Campeche remains today a city which displays its history proudly. It has retained both its colonial charm and Mayan roots evident in its language, cuisine, architecture, and people.