All posts by johnmitchell

2012 The Year of the Maya – Doomsday Or A New Day? Plan Early

MERIDA, Mexico – Will December 21, 2012 fulfill the ancient Mayan prophecy as the end of the world or will it be the beginning of a new era of enlightenment?

Banking on the latter, Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon has designated 2012 The Year of the Maya. This year-long festival of special events celebrates all things Maya and will include international exhibits, symposiums with renowned scholars, dance festivals, concerts, and regional culinary festivals. Facilities under construction for this special year include two new museums on the Maya, and the public opening of several new archaeological sites.

El Caracol, a Maya astronomical observatory at Chichen Itza. Click on photo for more information.

Early Planning is Essential! Put a Stay at Hacienda Xcanatun on The Calendar Now.

Savvy travelers are already reserving luxury accommodations at the historic and centrally located Hacienda Xcanatun ( elegant, boutique hotel is set on the outskirts of Merida, and recommended by Patricia Schultz in the second edition of her book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Guests enjoy a prime vantage point for sampling a luxe lifestyle and easy access to all the special events and new venues in and around Merida during The Year of the Maya.

What’s On Tap for 2012?

Almost around the corner from Hacienda Xcanatun, is Merida’s new archaeology museum: The Museum of the Mayan World (Museo del Mundo Maya). It is expected to open in October 2012. Interactive exhibitions will showcase rare Mayan miniatures and ceramic pieces, along with a collection of carved Chacmool statues. The Chacmool is often associated with the rain god Chac, and at other times served as an altar for offerings to the gods.

Chac Mool sculpture from Chichen Itza. Please click on the photo for more information.

Another major exhibit will document the rise and fall of sisal and the sisal plantations in the 18th century. Sisal, a.k.a. green gold, was essential for making rope, critical to the shipping industry. It became the Yucatan’s most important cash crop creating 100’s of millionaires who built opulent plantations and a lifestyle to match. Other exhibitions will showcase Mexico’s ethnic groups. A botanical garden and an IMAX theater will also be housed in the new facility.

The Palace of the Mayan World (El Palacio del Mundo Maya) is under construction 7 miles from Chichen Itza, in the town of Yaxkaba. Promising a different kind of experience, The Palace will replicate a sacred Maya city when completed, where visitors can experience how life was organized and the daily activities in a holy center. For bikers, a trail from Chichen Itza to The Palace runs over a sacbe or “white road” similar to those great ceremonial avenues connecting ancient Maya centers.

Archaeological sites unavailable to the public will be opened, and several older archaeology sites are being further restored with improved access roads and facilities.

Maya dancers performing at the Teatro Indigena in Tocopo, Yucatan, Mexican
Yucatec Maya Dancers. Please click on the photo for more information.

The Best Place To Stay? Hacienda Xcanatun!

Hacienda Xcanatun was once one of the largest and grandest sisal plantations in the Yucatan. Current owners Cristina Baker and Jorge Ruz, son of one of Mexico’s most famous archaeologists, spent five years transforming the estate into a luxe manor house hotel with acres of gardens and manicured jungle. From the beginning they have instilled the Maya legacy of living in harmony with nature into their management style. This commitment extends to the intimate spa, where Carolina Martinez, Xcanatun’s head Maya therapist, trained by her shaman (healer) grandfather, creates unique treatments from ancient Maya rituals. Very popular with guests are Hacienda Xcanatun’s customized private day trips guided by skilled archaeologists and ecologists native to the Yucatan. These trips should be arranged in advance when booking 2012 reservations!

Accommodations feature 18 high-ceilinged suites, each with a private balcony or patio. All are air-conditioned and individually decorated in a Carib-colonial style with hand-carved furnishings, antiques, and marble bathrooms. Two swimming pools provide a calm oasis deep in the gardens. Casa de Piedra, their gourmet restaurant, highlights enticing Fusion Yucatecan specialties. It is ranked among the top 50 restaurants in Mexico.

From 2011 through 2012 nightly rates range from $260 – $345 single or double occupancy (Christmas/New Year’s slightly higher). The rates include continental breakfast. Taxes and hotel service charges are additional.

For reservations and more information about Hacienda Xcanatun and the Year of the Maya call toll-free: USA 1-888–883-3633; in Canada: 877-838-1445. The website is at; or e-mail

Hacienda Xcanatun
Km. 12 Carretera Merida-Progreso
Merida, Yucatan, Mexico

Images by John Mitchell


By John Mitchell

Canoes leaving the village of Polé at the Sacred Mayan Journey 2011 event, Riviera Maya, Mexico. Click on photo to see larger version.

Perched on steep cliffs overlooking white-sand beaches and the startlingly blue Caribbean Sea, the ruined city of Tulum is now a magnet for tourists visiting the Riviera Maya. At one time, however, Tulum was part of a network of busy ports from which Mayan seafarers embarked on trading journeys that took them as far away as Panama. The Yucatec Maya also made frequent pilgrimages to the island of Cutzamil, now modern-day Cozumel, where they worshiped the moon goddess Ixchel who – among other things – governed the tides, sent hurricanes and bestowed fertility.

The Sacred Mayan Journey project was founded in 2007 with the intent of bringing this ancient religious pilgrimage back to life. Then and every year since, about 300 men and women volunteers from the Riviera Maya communities of Xcaret, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen have trained for months in order to make the grueling 100-kilometer (60-mile) round trip to Cozumel in up to 30 traditional Mayan dugout canoes. The crossing takes at least five hours each way on the rough waters of the Cozumel channel.

This year (May 19-21, 2011), the Riviera Maya marked the fifth anniversary of the Sacred Mayan Journey event, and I was fortunate enough to be invited, along with a number of other travel journalists, to attend the festivities. The event began at Xcaret with the re-creation of an ancient Mayan market or Kii’wik. Before entering the market, we were told to put our pesos and dollars away. Each of us was then given a bag of cacao beans (most other visitors had to pay for theirs), which were used as currency by the Maya in pre-Hispanic times. Once inside the bustling outdoor marketplace, we were immersed in a world of exotic sights, sounds, and smells.

The pungent odor of copal incense wafted through the air, and the local Mayan dialect replaced Spanish as vendors dressed in traditional costumes hawked their wares. Offered for sale in a maze of wooden stalls were honey, seashell jewelry, herbs and spices, fresh produce, plus a host of other earthy delights. Craftspeople were hard at work making baskets and wooden carvings, while others cooked tortillas and roasted cacao beans in huge ceramic bowls. From the steps of a stone ceremonial platform at the center of the market, an elderly Maya chieftain or shaman — I wasn’t sure which — sporting a regal feathered headdress serenely surveyed the hectic scene. The market was obviously theater. Nonetheless, the atmosphere was upbeat, and proceeds from sales went to help local Maya communities.

Leaving the market, we joined the throng heading towards the seaside village of Polé to watch the opening ceremonies. En route, we were purified by clouds of copal incense pouring from chalices held high by dancers clad in white gowns. The path wound through lush forest past a voluptuous effigy of Ixchel surrounded by offerings of flowers, ears of corn, and squash. Soon we arrived at the beach where there was a palpable air of anticipation as the spectators awaited the arrival of warriors with Guerrero Gonzalez, a shipwrecked Spanish sailor who had been captured and enslaved by the Maya.

What followed was a program of traditional music, colorful purification rituals and dances that stretched into the night. Our small group eventually headed back to our comfy hotel, the Hacienda Tres Rios, for a few hours of shuteye before returning to Polé to witness the departure of the boats. At the first light of dawn, we were back at the cove with some 3000 people watching the hardy paddlers climb into their canoes and sail off into the choppy water under a pink-tinged sky. Shamans, along with baritone blasts from conch-shell horns and cheers from the crowd, bid the seafarers farewell. Once at Cutzamil, the oarsmen would present the slave Guerrero Gonzalez and other offerings to Ixchel and then ask the goddess for her blessings, which they would take back to the mainland.

On the following afternoon, we gathered on the beach at Xamanhá, now the resort city of Playa del Carmen, to await the pilgrims’ return. The crowd eagerly scanned the horizon for signs of the canoes. Suddenly they appeared from around a rocky point, accompanied by two Mexican naval vessels. Bravos rang out as the first canoes hit the sandy shore, and a wave of people ran to greet and hug the paddlers.

A closing ceremony ensued with more music, dancing and theater, this time featuring a reborn Guerrero Gonzalez, who had been granted his freedom while on Cutzamil and was about to elope with an alluring Mayan princess. Most moving of all, though, was the presentation of awards to the paddlers, who looked tired and sunburned but were obviously in high spirits. The glowing looks on the participants’ faces as they received medals and certificates spoke of their sense of accomplishment and camaraderie that will no doubt ensure the continuation of this demanding journey in years to come.

Here is a slideshow of some of my photos taken at this year’s Sacred Mayan Journey event. Move the cursor over the screen to view captions. Click on individual images to see larger versions and for information on ordering prints or downloading photos.

Get Adobe Flash player

Sacred Mayan Journey 2011 – Images by John Mitchell

Off to the Riviera Maya

By John Mitchell

Next week, yours truly will be heading off to the Riviera Maya to attend the Sacred Mayan Journey event (May 19-21). This annual ceremony is the recreation of an ancient Mayan pilgrimage in seagoing canoes to the Island of Cozumel, where the Maya used to worship the moon goddess Ixchel. I shall also be visiting the archaeological sites of Tulum and Cobá. After my return, I will be posting reports of this trip (including lots of photos) on Mexico Premiere. So please stay tuned…

© John Mitchell, Mexico, Coba, mayan pyramid
The Great Pyramid or Nohoch Mul (Great Mound) at the Mayan ruins of Coba, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Click on the image to see a larger version.

So many museums, so little time…

By John Mitchell

When it comes to Mexico City’s museums, most people have probably heard of the world-famous National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park and the Frida Kahlo Museum in Coyoacan. But how many know about the likes of the Antique Toy Museum, the Watercolor Museum, or the National Museum of Interventions?

The fact is that Mexico City claims to have more museums than any other city in the world — at least 150 according to some sources — and exploring them all could easily become a lifelong project. Over the years, I’ve visited as many of Mexico City’s museums as time has allowed, but I still have an awfully long way to go. Here is a slide-show of some of the museums that I’ve managed to poke my camera into so far.

(Move the cursor over the screen to view captions. Click on individual images for information on ordering prints or on leasing photos for personal or editorial use.)

Get Adobe Flash player

Mexico City Museums – Images by John Mitchell

Goodbye Little Green Bugs

By John Mitchell

They are homely, cramped, polluting, and — with their two doors — a kidnapper’s dream come true. But Mexico City’s Volkswagen Bug taxis have been one of the city’s best known icons for almost half a century. Love them or loathe them, these once-ubiquitous, green and white vochos (as the locals call them) will soon be a thing of the past.

In 2002, Mexio City’s environmentally-friendly mayor declared the VW Beetle taxis nuisances and gave their drivers ten years to either turn in their Bugs to the government for a cash payment or keep them for personal use. He also decreed that all Mexico City’s taxis had to be less than ten years old and have four doors. Adding insult to injury, the last Mexican VW Beetle rolled off the assembly line a year later in the city of Puebla, where they had been made since 1967.

VW Bug taxis are a bit more difficult to spot these days because Mexico City’s entire fleet of cabs was repainted gold and maroon in 2009 to mark Mexico’s Bicentennial. There are still plenty of vochos prowling the city’s congested streets. But if you haven’t had the pleasure of riding in a vocho yet, you had better flag one down soon. They will all have beetled off into the sunset by 2012.

VW Bug taxis in front of the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Click on the photo to see a larger version and for information about ordering prints or leasing for personal or editorial use.

See More Images by John Mitchell

My pick for the best day-trip from Mazatlán — Concordia and Copala

By John Mitchell

The main plaza and Church of San José in the Spanish colonial mining town of Copala. Click on photo above to see larger version.

In a recent Mexico Premiere post, David Simmonds named Mazatlán as his “City Pick for 2011,” so I thought I would chime in and give my choice for the best day trip from this popular resort — the old Spanish colonial mining towns of Concordia and Copala in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental. With their winding cobblestone streets and unhurried ways, these two communities offer glimpses of a Mexico that has all but disappeared in Mexico’s bustling urban centers.

Concordia, which lies about 25 miles east of Mazatlán, has a peaceful main square dominated by the ornate baroque facade of its 18th-century San Sebastian Church. In front of the church, vendors sell colorful pottery and hand-carved wooden furniture that are fashioned in workshops around town. There is also an absurdly large rocking chair that looks as if it is waiting for a friendly giant to come along and sit in it.

Inside the nearby Municipal Palace, a lively mural chronicles key events in the area’s history from the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors to the 20th century. One panel shows Concordia’s buildings in flames after they were sacked by marauding French soldiers during the 1860’s. Another depicts the long-tailed urraca bird, which supposedly led the Spanish to Concordia’s rich silver deposits.

A few miles up the road from Concordia sits the mountain village of Copala. Smaller and more bucolic than Concordia, Copala still feels a bit like the virtual ghost town it once was. Brightly painted colonial-era buildings line Copala’s narrow streets, but the town’s most prominent landmark is the 18th-century Iglesia de San José. A statue of a dour-looking priest peers down menacingly from atop the church’s baroque facade, no doubt checking to make sure that parishioners attend mass regularly. Sunlight streams through high wooden doors illuminating an airy interior with a vaulted ceiling and neoclassical-style altars.

After Copala’s silver and gold mines ran dry, many of its citizens left in search of new livelihoods. But the re-opening of the abandoned mines for tourism has revitalized the town. Quite a number of foreign visitors liked Copala so much that they decided to stay. Some have started up funky hotels and restaurants such as the the Copala Butter Company facing the main square and Daniel’s Restaurant, famous for its “world-class coconut banana cream pie” that — as much as anything else — has helped put Copala back on the map.

Concordia and Copala can be visited on an independent day trip or organized tour from Mazatlán. There is bus service to both towns from Mazatlán’s second-class bus station. Passenger trucks called colectivos also ply the route between Concordia and Copala.

Move the cursor over the slide-show below to view captions. Click on images to see larger versions and for information on ordering prints or leasing photos for personal, editorial, or commercial use.

Get Adobe Flash player

Concordia and Copala, Mexico – Images by John Mitchell