Campeche, Mexico - It's pitch dark outside, with only a few red votive candles to guide walkers over uneven terrain toward layers of steep stone bleachers built around 500 AD.
Only a few stars appear in the pitch black sky, which makes the experience even spookier. My friends and I look for a seat that has been made smooth by centuries upon centuries of people sitting on this spot. We wait and look at ... nothing. It's like a scene from "Lost" or the movie "Ruins."
The mystery of why we were driven through country roads to a jungle continues - until colorful lights dramatically illuminate Mayan buildings directly across the lawn from us.
As the lights change from neon green to fuchsia to sapphire blue, they showcase the open air "windows" in these multi-storied stone sculptures resembling a condo building. An amplified voice asks the Mayans who disappeared to return home.
It's one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of all time. No one knows where or why these advanced communities disappeared. Surely no one would voluntarily leave a place surrounded by palm trees lining the Gulf of Mexico.
Fortunately visitors can appreciate the brilliance of this ancient architecture. It includes carved animals to ward off enemies, a building for games and a temple on top of the largest structure.
This is one of the most important Mayan ruins in Mexico and its located near Campeche (pronounced kahm-PEH-chay) in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Campeche does not have the beaches, glitz, and glamour of Puerto Vallarta, where paparazzi once shot photos of Liz Taylor sunbathing. What it does have is culture. Recently the United Nations World Tourism Organization held a summit in Campeche to draw attention to this hidden gem.
UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) granted this harbor town world heritage status primarily for its well preserved Spanish Baroque colonial stores and mansions with high ceilings, ornate iron balconies, and arched doorways. They're painted in a riot of colors that creates a rainbow effect, yellow, blue, red, and green buildings all next to each other and all true to their original color.
Also important are Campeche's many military fortresses, including the yellow San Josde Fort, designed with a curved entrance to prevent pirates from ramming logs into the front door. The curves didn't allow them to gain any momentum. Campeche's largest colonial fort is now an archaeological museum with a collection of ceramics and jade masks.
Mexico's Secretary of Tourism Gloria Guevara said, "We don't realize what we have in Campeche. This is a place where you experience the real Mexico."
Young men on bicycles toting small tamale trucks circle the town square, while women create straw hats on the lawn. Locals are happy to help the few tourists, and even though I don't speak Spanish, most of them speak English or understand pantomime. Campeche attracts visitors looking to escape the resort crowds.
The plaza in the center of downtown is filled with children playing while parents enjoy local seafood and watch lines of Zumba dancers exercising along the shoreline.
Traditional Mexican restaurants beckon with chicken mole, fresh shrimp, guacamole, empanadas, and, of course, beer. Be sure and try the famous sugary puffed pastry filled with whipped cream. Many restaurants have outdoor seating on upper floors where you can watch the action in the plaza below.
The best handicrafts can be found at a government-run store that features local artists to promote the area's ancient art forms.Campeche is also a terrific bargain, which everyone is looking for these days. Mexico's best-kept secret won't stay that way forever ... get there before the word gets out.