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Think of a Mexican state that has all the attractions dear to a tourist's heart: white sand beaches, colonial architecture, unspoiled ecological areas and awe-inspiring Mayan ruins. Then imagine that despite all that, only a few hundred Canadians managed to visit there last year.

Better known to archeologists than travel agents, the state of Campeche wants to become the Next Big Thing in a country that seems to have an endless supply of destinations. The likely reason so few Canadians have ventured there is that there isn't a direct flight to the state from North America. Yet Campeche is hardly inaccessible: There are direct flights from Mexico City, and charter flights go to Merida in neighbouring Yucatan state, just 150 kilometres from the capital, Campeche City.

It is worth the trip. One of three states that share the Yucatan Peninsula, Campeche is awash in history, from its 16th-century walled capital, to its 3,000 Mayan archeological sites, including the pre-Columbian cities of Edzna and Calakmul. And it also has one eye firmly on the planet's future: The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in southern Campeche is part of the third-largest tract of unspoiled jungle in the Americas, and was recently declared a world heritage site by UNESCO. Throw into that mix the white-sand Sabancuy, one of the most spectacular beaches in Mexico, and you have the makings of a nearly perfect destination.

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Start your trip in Campeche City, a peaceful, unhurried place with a long, rambling seawall perfect for evening strolls. Its shady squares and elegant colonial mansions date back to the 16th century, when the city was one of only three Spanish free ports, and ships laden with goods from both New and Old Worlds docked at its harbour.

Founded in 1540 by Francisco de Montejo, the city became notorious for harbouring pirates, and suffered frequent sackings by English buccaneers. To protect themselves, colonists built a massive wall, nearly two-and-a-half metres thick, around the city, punctuated by several gates and watchtowers, or baluartes.

To visit some of them, I took a walk along Avenida Circuita Baluartes where I stopped at Baluarte de la Soledad (now a Mayan museum), and Baluarte de Santiago, which has been transformed into a tropical botanical garden. Kids get into romping around the ramparts, planning attacks on imaginary pirate ships docked in the harbour below. In the evening, visitors gather at the Sea Gate for a nightly show staged on the bulwarks of the city walls, where actors and musicians bring 500 years of swashbuckling history to life in a music-and-light show.

Beyond the city, on hills overlooking the port, the Spanish built fortresses as a second line of defence against pirates. The sweeping views of the city and sea from any of these are impressive. Fort San Miguel in particular houses a remarkable cache of treasures. Its museum of archeology features seven magnificent jade masks, plus an array of elaborate jewellery and artifacts discovered at sites in Campeche.

My appetite for all things Mayan whetted, I joined a group departing on a tour of the state's archeological sites. We began at Edzna, the best-known site, about 45 minutes from the capital. As luck would have it, we were accompanied by two excellent guides, Marco Tulio Gomez, and Elvira Sello.

Gomez had discovered an unmapped Mayan ruin some months before, while guiding a rafting trip in southern Campeche. An old man had told him about a site three kilometres north of the Guatemalan border, and although he was skeptical at first, the two made their way through the jungle on donkey. "When I finally saw the extent of it, I couldn't believe my eyes," Tulio recalled. "A few days later, I returned with an archeologist friend and we spent the next eight days mapping it out."

Mucaanacah, which means hidden village in Mayan, has somewhere between 20 and 40 structures, including a towering central pyramid, three acropolis-like structures, a ball-game court and numerous outbuildings. Tulio hopes archeologists will excavate it soon -- before looters have a chance to get to it -- but the odds are against that happening.

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As we approached Edzna, the bus stopped to pick up a withered old man in the village of La China. Sello explained that although she worked as a high-school teacher and guide, in her off-hours she was studying to become a Mayan priest. The old gent we'd picked up was her instructor, a shaman who offered to perform a lohate -- a traditional ceremony of introduction, to appease the aluxes, mischievous sprites who guard Mayan cities and, so we were told, like to throw rocks at unannounced visitors.

On a stone dais in front of Edzna's exquisitely detailed pyramid, in the centre of its great acropolis, we gathered in a circle. The shaman lit several gourds full of incense and placed them on the ground around us while directing incantations to the north, south, east and west. He then said each of our names while brushing a tree branch across our shoulders. To complete the ceremony, he sounded a few blasts from a conch shell.

As he pronounced us "not friends any longer, but brothers and sisters," we drank from a hollowed-out gourd full of balche, a Mayan liqueur made from tree bark, honey and rum. With the spirits appeased and our own spirits raised considerably, we felt brave enough to tackle Edzna's five storey pyramid.

The pyramid is a triumph of Mayan postmodernism, taking architectural elements from the four classical Mayan periods and combining them into one beautifully executed structure. Edzna was an astronomical centre, where priests would rule on crucial questions according to the position of the sun and stars.

Near the first of May every year, Edzna's priests would gather on the reviewing stands across the plaza from the pyramid to await the setting of the sun. When the last rays struck a polished stone placed at the top of the pyramid, a laser-like beam of light would reflect back at them. Only then would Edzna's high priest give the signal to begin planting the crucial corn crop. As we watched the last rays of the sun bounce off the face of the pyramid, we too experienced the exacting geometry of the place and felt its mystical pull.

While Edzna is the best known of Campeche's Mayan sites, archeologists say its fame will soon be eclipsed by the sheer size and historical importance of Calakmul -- our next destination. According to the Mexican Institute of Anthropology and History, the site represents one of the largest kingdoms of the ancient Maya, with more buildings and stelae than any other lowland kingdom. To get there from the capital, we drove two hours down the coast to a town called Champoton, where we stopped for a snack of fresh crab legs and icy cold beer. We then continued south to Escarcega, where a federal highway cuts across the lower half of the Yucatan Peninsula and takes visitors into the Calakmul Biosphere.

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Rich in wildlife, the biosphere is the Mexican portion of the Maya Forest, or el Gran Peten, an immense, protected reserve that extends across the borders of Guatemala, Belize and Mexico. In ancient times, Calakmul was the most northern of several kingdoms that thrived in this region. Its kings were great diplomats, forging alliances and managing to avoid much of the violence that plagued other Mayan city states. But its very remoteness also meant that when it was eventually attacked by a stronger army, Calakmul's leaders were left to fend for themselves, and were ultimately vanquished.

The first shovels hit the ground at Calakmul in the mid-1980s, when a joint U.S.-Mexican team confirmed that Calakmul's apogee occurred during the Mayan Classical period of 300 to 800 AD. Today, Mexican archeologist Ramon Carrasco leads the excavations, which have proved uncommonly rich.

In 1996, the seventh in a series of jade funerary masks was discovered in a tomb chamber. It joined six other masks on display in the San Miguel museum in Campeche City, along with ceramic dishes, bowls, marine mollusks, jaguar bones and mosaic masks. Carrasco, whom we met at the site, is currently analyzing the masks in an attempt to decide whether they originated from seven separate dynasties or were all related to the same royal family.

The biosphere itself was a joy to spend time in: visitors here can see pumas darting across the road, glimpse one of 40 species of orchids and hear the shriek of chachalacas, an endangered bird of prey. Preserving the biosphere's beauty, however, will be a challenge. There are thousands of people who live in communities scattered throughout parts of it, many of whom eke out a living growing subsistence crops on cleared forest and scrubland. Slash-and-burn agriculture, illegal logging and recent forest fires have all taken their toll.

Yet, there's good reason for optimism since the federal government ceded control of the region to the state of Campeche, which has since ensured that the biosphere is managed jointly by the reserve's management, inhabitants and a conservation group based in Merida. It's the first arrangement of its kind in Mexico, with the twin goals of preserving the region's biodiversity while promoting the livelihood of the reserve's inhabitants. With so many archeological treasures contained within the reserve, sustainable tourism is very much a part of this picture.

Tourism officials claim they have learned their lessons from resorts that grew too rapidly, often at the expense of the environment. And they know that many travellers are looking for alternatives to the massive resort developments of the 70s and 80s.

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The prototype for further construction is a Ramada-owned-and-operated solar-powered lodge within walking distance of the Chicanna ruins. It has a water catchment system that collects and recycles rainwater. Wildlife as diverse as parrots, jaguars, tapirs and howler monkeys can be heard, if not seen, from the hotel balconies. Luring tourist dollars to this underappreciated paradise -- while maintaining its beauty and wonder -- will be a tricky balancing act indeed. Ilona Biro is a Toronto-based freelance travel writer.


Flights.The easiest way to get there is via Mexico City. I flew Mexicana Airlines to Mexico City and transferred onto a flight to Merida, 849 kilometres to the southeast. From Merida it's a 160-kilometre drive to Campeche City on excellent roads. There are also direct flights to Campeche City from the capital, on Aeromexico. You could also drive from Cancun (305 kilometres), although it would take considerably longer. Hotels and cars.There are several hotels in Campeche City. While none offer deluxe accommodations, the Ramada was comfortable. In the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, at Chicanna, there is the environmentally friendly Ramada Ecovillage. Cars can be rented at the Merida airport or in Campeche City. Reading. Michael Coe's books on this area are excellent introductions to Mayan civilization. Look for The Maya, Breaking the Maya Code, The Art of the Maya Scribe, The Atlas of Ancient America, and Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. Recent papers on the Calakmul site can be read in Spanish in Archeologica Mexicana, available in Mexico City bookstores. Guides. Marco Tulio Gomez is one of the best English-speaking guides working in Campeche. He has extensive knowledge of Mayan archeology, and many personal contacts in the archeology world. He can be reached in Campeche City at 011-52-9-816-0822. Web site. .

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