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.
Sacred Mayan Journey 2011 – Images by John Mitchell