Tag Archives: Yucatan

Campeche, city of colors and lights

Visiting Campeche’s old quarters is like stepping back into the past.  This might be because as a UNESCO world heritage site, the area needs to look and feel like it did back in the mid 16th century soon after the Spanish began the conquest of the Yucatan Peninsula.  The best part of UNESCO sites are that they seem beautifully authentic, even if they are anything but.  And even if they are just facades, they do transport us.  Sometimes a little imagination and some turning off of skepticism can make the world seem brighter, and in fact, in Campeche, by allowing ourselves to be transported back in time, the walls that line the streets do seem more colorful.  On top of all this, although a bit Disneyland-esque, when the clock strikes 8pm, there is an entertaining light show accompanied by playful music in the main plaza of the old quarters.  Both locals and tourists come to the square to partake.

One of the highlights in Campeche happens just before sunset while we enjoy a ceviche cooking class.  We learn to make several varieties of ceviche, and throughout, we get to taste many other dishes of the region – panuchos, salbutes, sopa de lima, and more.  The scene romantic, the food fresh, the drinks smooth, and the evening warm, we wonder the typical question leaving any cooking class: They made that seem so easy, so what are the chances we can reproduce this back home?  The answer is maybe, but taste is only one part of an experience and reproducing all in its entirety will be nearly impossible.  Thus, we make sure to cherish and love the moment while here.

Becal, a quick hat detour

On our way from Celestún to Campeche, we learn of a city named Becal known for its panama hat trade, so we drive to the central plaza to investigate.  Getting more adept at navigating our rented Ford Aveo through the pot holes and speed bumps, we arrive at the plaza in front of the main church and then aren’t sure what our next move is.

Like a lost child entering a large room and moving our gaze constantly, we are all but asking for someone to come up and try to sell us something.  And within seconds while still in the car, someone tries to get us to roll down our window like it’s a fast food restaurant or something.  We don’t, but this guy is persistent.  He gets on his motorbike with a wooden love seat attached to the front and starts following us around the square.  If the bike didn’t look so ridiculous, I might have thought that we had a tail.  But, we slow down, and the bike/love-seat pulls up alongside us, we size him up as small, friendly and mostly harmless, and open our car window.

His first question is if we’re looking for hats.  Are we that obvious?  And yes, we are, and we read online that this is how hats are sold in Becal.  There are no storefronts, no vendors in the plaza, just folks waiting to take you to where the hat-making magic happens.  We follow this friendly man in the safety of our Aveo and we pull up to a modest, clean home where we learn how panama hats are made from plant to finish.  We also learn this is a family affair with many generations involved.  They are like a hat mafia, but instead of running organized crime, they’re in the business of beautifully crafted headwear.

We learn of quality differences between hats ranging from $5 to $300 USD.  I am clearly skeptical that such a range exists and that the most expensive of hats actually take a month to fabricate, but after trying them on and feeling them, I can differentiate.  The highest quality feels very smooth, almost like a soft fabric; it sits better on our heads, and it even looks better.  So we agree that there’s no reason to get the most expensive, but there’s also decent rationale not to go for the cheapest.  After a little bargaining, we walk away very happy customers with a new sombrero each.

Becal is legit: Many locals make their living weaving these jipijapas (the panama hats).  The best hats are then exported to connoisseurs in foreign cities.  Now, we know a guy who makes panama hats in Mexico in case that ever becomes useful.