Ribald Tales: The Marauding Pirates of Campeche

Where there’s wealth, there are pirates – this was truer in the 1500s than it is today. And Campeche, which was a thriving timber, chicle (gum) and logwood (a natural source of dye) port in the mid-16th century, was the wealthiest place around.

Pirates (or 'privateers,' as some preferred to be called) terrorized Campeche for two centuries. Time and time again the port was invaded, ships sacked, citizens robbed and buildings burned – typical pirate stuff. The buccaneers’ hall of shame included the infamous John Hawkins, Francis Drake, Henry Morgan and the notorious ‘Peg-Leg’ himself. In their most gruesome assault, in early 1663, the various pirate hordes set aside rivalries to converge as a single flotilla upon the city, massacring Campeche’s citizens.

This tragedy finally spurred the Spanish monarchy to take preventive action, but it was another five years before work on the 3.5m-thick ramparts began. By 1686 a 2.5km hexagon incorporating eight strategically placed bastions surrounded the city. A segment of the ramparts extended out to sea so that ships literally sailed into a fortress to gain access to the city. With Campeche nearly impregnable, pirates turned to other ports and ships at sea. In 1717 the brilliant naval strategist Felipe de Aranda began a campaign against the buccaneers, and eventually made this area of the Gulf safe from piracy.

For a taste of the pirate life, take a 50-minute cruise on a ‘pirate ship’ that heads out Tuesday through Sunday at noon and 5pm (or noon and 6pm in warmer seasons), conditions permitting. Get information at a kiosk near the tranvía kiosk, in the Plaza Principal. (The ship was under maintenance at time of research so check if it's still afloat.)