My view was different. Jungle extended infinitely in every direction. To the south, Guatemala. To the north, the horizon undulated like heat. “Those hills out there,” Mr. Pech said, “we don’t know which are just hills and which are pyramids that we haven’t uncovered yet.” The only signs of human life were the peaks of Calakmul’s two other great pyramids bursting through the canopy like mountains through clouds.
I left Calakmul the following day and drove east, stopping at Becán, where a series of interconnected plazas and public buildings suggest the shape of quotidian Maya life, and at Chicanná, once Becán’s aristocratic suburb, now another abandoned stone settlement in the forest, where heavily ornamented mansions reveal a world as stratified as our own. At Xpujil — the last of the ruins along the highway, roughly 40 minutes from Puerta Calakmul by car — I turned north along a recently paved two-lane road and through 40 miles of forest, virtually uninterrupted by human settlement. The trees along the roadside were more chartreuse than green. Swarms of butterflies ferried between them like they had places to go.
The scenic route took me through languid towns like Dzitbalché and Iturbide, and to beautiful, lonely ruins at Dzibilnocac and Hochob, elaborately carved in an architectural style known today as “Chenes,” which Mr. Suarez would later describe as “Maya Baroque.” About 25 miles before Campeche, I stopped at Edzná, whose carefully reconstructed galleries, pyramids and open plazas rival Calakmul’s in grandeur. A short distance from Hacienda Huayamon — Campeche’s most luxurious hotel, housed in the restored remains of an 18th-century plantation — Edzná is Campeche’s most popular archaeological site. Even still, on the day I visited, there were more iguanas than people. When I reached Campeche that evening, I settled in at the Hacienda Huayamon’s sister hotel, Hacienda Puerta Campeche, just inside the city walls (rates in high season start at $418).
Like most haciendas in the Yucatán, Huayamon — a 20-minute drive from the city — was founded in the 18th century (although most of its buildings date to the 19th century) to cultivate and process henequen, a tough fiber made from a variety of agave. Starting in 1870, the buildings that now house Puerta Campeche served as Huayamon’s warehouse and a shop selling everything from imported wines to lentils to rubber from the southern forests. Both are relics of the city’s 19th-century decline, a reminder of where the word decadence comes from.
By the time henequen had become the Yucatán’s economic mainstay, most trade had shifted away from Campeche to the newly built port of Progreso — or Progress — on the peninsula’s northern coast. For the previous three centuries, Campeche, Mexico’s second-oldest port, had thrived at the periphery of law. Though just two hours from Mexico City by plane, Campeche was, in those days, far from the centers of colonial power and virtually ungovernable. When I met Ms. Peniche’s husband, the local historian Alejandro MacGregor Gonzalez, he told me, “contraband was this city’s glory!”
He had asked me to join him for breakfast at a no-frills storefront on the Parque Santa Ana, a charming plaza just outside the city walls. He ordered us ice-cold bottles of sweet black tea and two trancas de lechón, the Taquería del Parque’s specialty. The tea, he explained, combined Campeche’s first colonial cash crop, sugar cane, with black tea that came in on British pirate ships in the 16th century. The trancas were sandwiches of lechón, a Creole roast pork dish from the Caribbean, served on crusty lengths of bread introduced by French corsairs.
“That food is very Yucateco,” he said, pointing across the street to Taquería Hecelchakán, which trucks in cochinita from the town of the same name each morning. “This is very Campechano. Our whole culture is mixed!” Elsewhere in Mexico, the word campechano is usually used in the context of food and means just that — mixed — as in a campechano taco, made with meat and sausage, or a campechano ceviche, made with shrimp and octopus and whatever else is on hand.
For the rest of the day, Mr. MacGregor showed me around the elegantly restored old quarter center of his hometown and its northern and southern edges, where the peaceful streets give way to mangroves and scruffy urban beaches. He told me about centuries of pirate attacks and the city walls — the last of their kind in Mexico — built to fend them off. He told me how his own ancestors, Scottish privateers, had arrived here in the 17th century via Charleston. We drank beers on the tranquil malecón and watched cormorants dive low over the water. The name Campeche, he explained, derives from the words kaam, meaning mirror, and pech, meaning birds in the near-extinct local dialect of Maya. “Campeche is literally ‘a mirror for the birds!” he said. I’ve never known someone to speak with so many exclamation points.