Many places that are accustomed to receiving visitors have clearly defined tourist areas. Depending on the size of the place, this section can be relegated to specific neighborhoods, a cluster of blocks, or even one solo street.
As a long-term traveler, going somewhere just to see the sights is not fulfilling. There’s always the desire to peel back the superficial layer of the tourist district. Going beyond these boundaries is often the easiest way to observe a new culture minus the smoke and mirrors.
I had forgotten this simple principle during the few days I spent in Campeche. The city’s center is surrounded by an old stone wall that was built to fend off intruding pirates. Inside the barricade is where the hotels, museums, and restaurants are found.
The buildings shine with fresh coats of pastel-colored paint and have recently undergone (or are currently undergoing) a major restoration.
This polished part of town makes for a pleasant day or two strolling around, snapping photos, and taking in the archeological museum. And after I had done all of that, I felt like I had seen it all.
After I checked out of my hotel on my last day there, I had several hours to burn before my night bus to San Cristobal de las Casas. I spent the first few hours checking emails, reading in the central park, and trying not to doze off on the couch in the lobby.
During my time there, I had been making rounds at the three (!) vegetarian restaurants I found. For dinner though, I had a craving for some real, cheap, Mexican street food. I hadn’t seen anything like that within the walls, so I wandered outside of them for the first time.
Almost immediately, I came upon another park with characteristic economical restaurants lining one side. I chose a family-run shop on the corner. Inside were two sticky plastic tables and matching plastic chairs. I ordered two cheese empanadas for 16 pesos (about $1.33 USD) and sat at the table in the corner.
The owner’s grandson, a chunky, hyperactive kid of about 9, sat at the one next to me. He sipped from a large cup of soda which left a wet mustache on his face. He excitedly regaled his family with jokes, which they humored with giggles and encouragement.
I smiled too. I could tell this close-knit family was raising a much-loved child.
After scarfing down the delicious empanadas, I walked further into the neighborhood. The homes here were equally beautiful as the ones found within the walls, though with older paint jobs. I came across another tree-filled local park with old men chatting on benches and a fat, orange-y church across the street from it.
At this point, I had to laugh at myself. By sticking to the designated areas I had cheated myself of going deeper, seeing more, getting to really see the place and not just the sights.
No matter how small a town or how long I’ve been somewhere, I will never see it all. There will always be a new trail, a river, a patch of flowers, a rock left unturned…