Campeche: The hidden face of Mayan Mexico
"The ancient Maya believed that each time you pass through this doorway you would become a year younger", said Alfredo. Despite having to bend almost double, I tried it three times; it's easy to suspend Western rationalism here in the magical surroundings of Edzna, one of the cities mysteriously abandoned by the Maya around 1,000 years ago.
The centrepiece is the five-storey pyramid, a palace-cum-temple with an array of 40 doors and a unique curved wall down which a waterfall once cascaded. There's a very special kind of beauty in these dramatic, semi-restored grey stone monuments set in broad grassy clearings in the jungle.
In Edzna's little museum is a collection of stelae, the standing stones which recorded and commemorated key Mayan events in hieroglyphs, and sculpted figures with elongated heads and cross-eyes. Such features were considered the peak of physical beauty by the Maya, who took cruel measures to develop them in chosen children.
Campeche state is the hidden, exotic face of Mayan Mexico. Its 400-kilometre coastline stretches down the west side of the Yucatá* peninsula, away from the beaches of the Riviera Maya and the bright lights, night clubs and super-hotels of Cancun, which have long been within easy reach of British travellers. (Virgin Atlantic joined the party this summer, introducing a new route from Gatwick to Cancun.) However, most visitors are still unaware of the tranquil city of Campeche, waiting across the peninsula, and the deserted, historic sites and accessible jungle that lie in the surrounding state.
It took five hours for Alfredo and me to drive – mostly by motorway – from Cancun to his home state. Alfredo is one of the 90,000 people (more than 10 per cent of the population) who still speak the Mayan language in Campeche. He's keen to introduce visitors to the culture of today's rural Maya.
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