As lavender clouds herald the rising sun, over 300 men and women ready themselves for a grueling journey, hoping that five months of hard training have prepared them for this day. Barefoot and dressed in simple linens, they walk across the white sand beach with oars in their hands to a line of dugout canoes strung out along the shore. Spurred on by the beating of drums, they paddle away through a haze of burning copal incense.
This was the scene a few weeks ago at Xcaret, a cultural resort on the Mayan Riviera, halfway between Cancun and Tulum. These dedicated canoeists were the most important participants in the 5th annual Sacred Mayan Journey, bringing to life an ancient and sacred pilgrimage. Over the course of nearly seven centuries, millions of Mayan pilgrims would make the journey to the village of Polé, where Xcaret now stands. Often traveling in groups, they walked for hundreds of miles on white stone “sacbe” highways across the Yucatan Peninsula. Some would be ferried up the coast in canoes from Mayan port cities as far away as Honduras.
Once at Polé, these worshippers would brave 17 miles of rough seas to reach the island of Cutzamil (Cozumel), where they would bring offerings and pray to the goddess Ix Chel for prosperity, bountiful crops, and fertility. As a rite of passage, young women would travel with their families to receive her blessing and ask for strong sons. This important journey was put to an end with the Spanish Conquest when the crown prohibited the Mayans from crossing the water, but in 2007 a coalition of sponsors, including the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, got together to revive this tradition and promote Mayan culture.
A Mayan Market and a Shipwrecked Sailor
The 2011 Sacred Journey (Travesía Sagrada) officially began the night before with the recreation of a Mayan market, called a Kii´wik. Using cacao beans instead of pesos, we joined the other invited guests in bartering for such items as dried fish, fresh fruit, necklaces, and roasted tortillas. The vendors wore white linens and their language was Mayan, not Spanish. I tried to buy a beautiful pink seashell for my lovely wife back home, but the tanned woman simply held her hands out as if holding a basketball representing how many cacao beans I would need.
With the setting sun, we were ushered away from the ancient bazaar towards a small cove to witness the opening ceremony. A large man – tall and broad, wearing bells around his ankles and dressed in feathers and gold jaguar shoulder plates – strode across the sandy beach waving a censer of copal. After sanctifying the space, the King of Polé received the visiting pilgrims who presented their offerings. Among the corn, flowers, and jewelry was a man in chains. A stranded Spaniard, Gonzalo Guerrero begged for his life.
As his luck would have it, the princess took a liking to him. The king commanded Gonzalo to beg for Ix Chel’s mercy, so he joined the pilgrims as a slave and Zazil Há waited for his return.
30 hours after watching the canoes charge out into the ocean with the sunrise, the crowds gathered on the shores of Xamanhá (Playa del Carmen) to welcome them back.
Under the heat of the mid-day sun, brown and white dots on the horizon slowly resolved into the returning worshippers. One canoe after another made landfall, and the beach came alive with the cheers of triumph. The mood was joyous as paddlers hugged each other and helped pull the boats onto land.
With Ix Chel’s blessing, Gonzalo was welcomed as a villager and reunited with the princess. Guerrero forsake his allegiance to the crown, marrying Zazil Há and becoming the Chief of the town of Chetumal, helping to defend the Mayan people against his born countrymen. The first Spaniard to fall in love with a Mayan, he fathered three mestizo children, and is considered the father of Mexico.
“Every year has a different story,” pointed out Xcaret’s Chief Communications Officer, Iliana Rodríguez. “This year we’re honoring 500 years since Gonzalo Guerrero came to the Mayan people. Next year we will tell another story.”
Next year’s Sacred Mayan Journey will be May 17-21, 2012. My bet is on the asking of Ix Chel to deliver the Mayan people safely into the 14th baktun (long count calendar cycle), proudly celebrating that it is not, in fact, the end of the world.