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.
Canoeists digging in as a Shaman watches
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.
Turning the corner into rough seas
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.
Gonzalo Guerrero begs for mercy
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.
Zazil Há waiting for Gonzalo
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.
Victorious paddlers pull traditional dugout canoes to shore
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.”
My alarm went off at 7:15, in time for a quick breakfast before driving a few kilometers down the road to Chichen-Itza and being the 3rd person through the gate at 8am. I had the ruins largely to myself for the first hour. If you’re going to visit this Wonder of the World, early is the only way.
As is always the case in such places, I was approached by a knowledgeable guide, 30 years studying Mayan history. While I would have loved an in-depth tour, the $60 price tag was too rich for my blood, so I wandered happily on my own. The most famous of the Mayan ruins, it largely did not disappoint. Unfortunately, due to stupid people falling and killing themselves and “Johnny loves Jane” vandalism, all access to the ruins is blocked by ropes. That said, the sense of history was palpable. At one point I touched a column, and had that same feeling I remembered from being able to touch the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum before it was cordoned off a few years later.
Iguanas flitted across the grounds as workers swept and souvenir sellers set up their shops in growing numbers. By the time I left 3 hours later, the central plaza was filling up with tourists, and as I drove away, minivans and buses passed continuously in the other direction.
After a swim at the hotel and a cold beer, I started heading back towards the coast instead of to Merida as originally planned. A friend’s suggestion made my decision for me to spend the night in Valladolid, and I quickly found the best hostel in town, Candelaria, where $10 gets you a dorm bed and breakfast to share with other travelers in a lovely outdoor garden kitchen. I checked in, and drove back to Ek Balam where I had only seen the parking lot yesterday.
The same guide I’d given a ride to offered his services for the same $60 so once again I opted for my own exploration. It was an entirely different experience. Not only did I have the site to myself for a good hour before a small handful of other visitors showed up, but access to the ruins was largely unfettered. I clambered up and around the structures, peeking into corners and crevices. Even though the site is established, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like a true explorer coming across something undiscovered in the middle of the jungle.
The highlight was the main and tallest building on the complex, saved for last. I climbed the hundred or more narrow stone steps to the top, where I was in awe of the commanding view over the Yucatan countryside, slash-and-burn farming throwing columns of smoke in the distance. The entrance building seemed far below me, dizzyingly down the steps I’d just climbed. After enjoying the view, I carefully side-stepped halfway down to a platform covered by a thatched roof. I saw what seemed like a reconstruction, perfect in every detail. The same guide was there with a couple, and as they made their ascension to the top, he remained and we chatted for a few minutes. Not a reconstruction at all, it was a tomb that had been discovered only 11 years ago, encased behind a wall, some 1300 years ago, perfectly preserved. This was what he comes to work every day for, to show and to study this section of the complex. With a serious tone, Casimiro said that tourist dollars alone paid for the upkeep of this discovery, including the thatched roof which requires regular maintenance. If there becomes a point that they can’t take proper care of it, they will seal it up again to protect it. Hopefully, this will be unnecessary and it will remain open to future generations, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of seeing something that may one day be hidden behind stone again.
Alone, I awoke this morning in the room of someone I’d met just 36 hours before. I’d been connected to JC through a woman I’d met once at a Burning Man party last summer. Thankfully, travelers tend to look out for each other and freely offer crash space, even if it isn’t theirs.
I’d arrived in Cancun on Saturday night and made the 90 minute drive south to Tulum, passing kilometer after kilometer of one resort after another. However, as soon as I reached Tulum, it had a different feel – more like Pai, and less like, well, Cancun, the top of every spring break list.
I spent my first full day enjoying the beach at Playa El Mariachi, and my first cavern dive at Dos Ojos. While entirely awesome, that will be a different story. On a rather tight timeline for the week, I don’t have the leisure of staying in one place for long, so today I started off snorkeling at Gran Cenote, before heading off towards Chichen-Itza, stopping for lunch at a roadside ceviche stand.
I saw a sign mentioning Ek Balam, and decided to follow my map along smaller roads. Unfortunately, said map appeared to be a bit incomplete and outdated. I passed Yalcoba as expected, but ended up in Xtut rather than Dzalbay. Turning around, I came across a sign for Hunuku, but still had to stop a few times to ask locals the right way. Interestingly, this lostness wasn’t stressful in the slightest. There was still plenty of daylight left, and the scenery was beautiful. There were arches of beautiful red-leafed trees and rolling fields. I stopped to let a small herd of cows pass, and several iguanas played frogger across the road.
I finally arrived at Ek Balam at 4:50, only to be told that the gates closed at 4:30, and really, anytime after 4:00 since everyone gets kicked out at 5:00. But I took even this in stride. The day, much like this trip, is about the journey, not about the destination. Besides, a stranded tour guide needed a lift down the road to the next town, so clearly my purpose in showing up so late was to be his ride. Casimiro and I talked about local life and his desire to start a family as we made our way to Temozon.
Now I sit alone in Hotel Dolores Alba in the town of Piste, near Chichen-Itza, with plans to visit the ruins first thing in the morning before the tour buses arrive from Cancun, and then I shall try again to see Ek Balam, and either spend the night in Valladolid or return to Tulum, before returning to Cancun on Wednesday for the true purpose of this trip, to witness the Sacred Mayan Journey of hundreds of canoeists traveling from the mainland to Cozumel to hear the wisdom of the goddess Ix Chel.
The Sacred Mayan Journey recreates the Mayan pilgrimage from the Ppole port (now Xcaret). The ancient Mayans would row across the ocean towards Cuzamil (now Cozumel) to hear the oracle predictions from goddess Ix Chel. The rowers would then cross the ocean once again to arrive at Xamanha (Playa del Carmen).
Not one to be satisfied with just a few days in a new place, I will also spend some time driving around the Yucatán, exploring ruins, passing through small villages, and diving in a cenote.
Curious about my whirlwind itinerary through Mayan history?
Every day has some driving, with the last being 5+ hours of driving from Merida to Cancun. However, like the sacred journey of the seven villages, it’s about the voyage, not about the destination. Although, I do expect a hot tub at the end.