For centuries, the ancient Mayans made an annual pilgrimage from the seaport settlement of Pole on Yucatan to the nearby island of Cozumel. It was a somewhat dangerous cross channel journey in canoes, which were nothing more than hollowed out tree trunks.
Their goal was to worship the goddess of fertility, Ixchel, consult the goddess’s oracle and bring a new era of balance to the natural world.
One of the most ancient traditions in Mayan culture, the pilgrimages came to a stop with the Spanish conquest and lay dormant for more than 500 years.
Six years ago, the custom was revived at Xcaret (pronounced esh-ka-ret), a 200-acre eco-park located about 37 miles south of Cancun close to where Pole once stood.
Among its many attractions, Xcaret is also the home of the Yuri Knorozov Center, named after the Russian linguist and ethnographer who’s known for his pivotal role in deciphering the Mayan script.
Research into Mayan culture continues at the Center to this day, which helps verify the authenticity of events such as "the Sacred Mayan Journey."
In the late afternoon on the day before the pilgrimage, I entered Xcaret’s Mayan Market and saw a modern day shaman holding a cup of burning copal incense as a blessing to those arriving.
With my bag of cocoa beans clutched in my hand as the currency I’d use in the outdoor market to purchase everything from leather goods and clay whistles shaped like animals to gourds and atole (a hot beverage made from corn), ominous-looking Mayan skeleton men, a.k.a. "lords of death," wordlessly milled through the crowd.
The cocoa tree had deep meaning for the Mayans, and the foamy chocolate made from its beans was considered "the food of the gods." Common folks like myself are able to purchase the traditional beverage for a mere pittance of a few cocoa beans at the marketplace.
For the Mayan, cocoa was so prized a commodity that its beans were used for the exchange of goods.
Unable to speak one another’s language, we bartered over prices and communicated back and forth by holding up an appropriate number of fingers.
Three beans for a clay whistle, five for a cup of chocolate made from ground beans boiled with milk in a large black kettle over an open fire.
As men grilled skewers of meat over a pit and woman, dressed in the traditional white cotton garb of their ancestors, used mortal and pestle to grind corn for making Mayan traditional tortillas, a group of traditional dancers performed a nearby.
As unusual as the sights and sounds of the marketplace were, the inaugural ceremony for the sacred crossing on the beach that evening was full of exotic ritual.
As the audience watched, dancers dressed in colorful costumes performed reconstructed rituals such as the fire dance and the dances of joy and rebirth. Finally, the teams of 268 rowers entered the site in a torchlight procession and received the blessing of the shamans and tribal chief at the close of the ceremony.
I didn’t particularly enjoy getting up the following morning at 4:30, then walking in a downpour covered by a poncho to the canoe launch site. Thankfully, the rain let up just prior to sunrise, and a sizable crowd watched as 28, 26-foot long canoes headed out to sea.
The roughly 17-mile journey to Cozumel includes traversing some strong currents. To insure the safety of the male and female canoe rowers, the Mexican navy sent along two vessels as escorts. To capture images of the journey across the channel with my digital camera, I boarded a catamaran that skirted the canoe teams across the sea.
Four hours later, the first team of rowers landed on Cozumel, where they were greeted by the Halach Wilnik, the supreme ruler of the land, and another set of celebratory dances began.
After spending the night on the island, the canoe teams rowed safely back home to the mainland.
According to Mayan folklore, Ixchel had once again restored cosmic order and balance, and the Mayans could look forward to another cycle of new beginnings.
If You’re Going . . .
The 2013 Sacred Mayan Journey will be repeated at Xcaret in mid-May 2013. For more information, go to website www.xcaret.com. or phone 1-888-922-7831.
For a place to stay, the Occidental Grand Xcaret Hotel is adjacent to Xcaret Park and boasts 11 restaurants, 10 bars, 5 swimming pools and live music in the evening. The hotel has 750 rooms in 15 different buildings, a fitness center, tennis courts, solarium, archery, shuffleboard courts and mini-golf. Phone 800-858-2258.
Dave Zuchowski is a travel columnist for CNHI News Service. Contact him at email@example.com.