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.