On Mexico’s Riviera Maya: Reviving the sacred journey

By Bob Schulman

Image courtesy of the Riviera Maya Destination Marketing Office.

Lol-be had just turned 12, and it was time for her “sacred journey” -- a ritual pilgrimage required of all Mayan women at least once in their lifetime. It meant a long, arduous trip to the shrine of the fertility goddess Ixchel on the island of Cuzamil.

Lol-be's journey began with a three-day walk on white-stone sacbe roads from her farming village in the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula to the port of Polé on its Caribbean shore. Along the way – besides looking out for things that growled, howled, snarled and slithered – she swapped precious cacao beans she'd saved to sleep in thatched-roof inns and for bowls of lime soup. Near the end of her walk she treated herself to a plate of suckling pig in pipal sauce.

At Polé, she pooled her beans with those of other pilgrims to pay for a 12-mile canoe ride across the choppy waters to Cuzamil.

On the island, the women walked a few miles inland to the purification huts and ceremonial temples of Ixchel, where they prayed for a fruitful marriage and healthy children. Flocks of sparrows (Ixchel's favorite bird) flying overhead signified that the goddess had heard their prayers. In return, many of the women left offerings of little straw dolls.

Then they turned around and did the whole journey again, in reverse.

The traditional pilgrimages went on for 700 years and must have been made by millions of women, and often family members, from across the Mayan empire. Lol-be (her name translates to “flower of the road”) might have been escorted by her mother Lol-há (“flower of the water”), who years earlier might have made the same trip with her mother.

Local historian Carlos Serrano says the pilgrims typically traveled in groups from the same village. Like Lol-be, many walked to Polé on the hundreds of miles of  sacbe roadscriss-crossing the Yucatan Peninsula. Others got there in canoes from Maya ports down the Caribbean shores as far away as Honduras.

(The long journeys ended in 1519 when the Spanish army of Hernan Cortes invaded Cuzamil. In their zest to bring Christianity to the island – they called it Cozumel – the conquistadores destroyed the temples of Ixchel.

From canoes to cruise liners

Fast forward to today, and millions of visitors are again coming to Cozumel – on jetliners, cruise ships and 600-passenger cross-channel ferries from the ancient Mayan port of Xaman-Ha, now called Playa del Carmen.

Besides underwater sightseeing on Cozumel's world-famous reefs and tanning up on talcumy beaches around the island, tourists can hop into jeeps for a short ride inland to explore the two-square-mile sanctuary of Ixchel at San Jervasio. Chances are, few are aware that their jeeps are bouncing along a paved road covering the centuries-old footsteps of the Mayan pilgrims.

Tourists explore ruins of Ixchel's shrines.

Not all of the visitors to San Jervasio are there just to look around. “Even today,” notes Cozumel historian Velio Vivas, “we still find little straw figures at the ruins of the shrines.”

Polé, now the popular eco-archaeological theme park of Xcaret, is about midway along the beaches of the 382 hotels lining the Yucatan's 70-mile-long Riviera Maya resort strip.

Putting the Maya back in the Riviera Maya

Spectators pack the opening ceremony at Xcaret.

The ancient pilgrimages might have been forgotten, had it not been for a program sparked by historians a few years ago at Xcaret. Working with other tourism and historical interests in the region, they put an annual event together called Travesia Sagrada Maya: a re-creation of the sacred journey to Cozumel, usually staged over a three-day period in late fall.

Day 1:The first part of the event kicks off at Xcaret at sundown. There, with wisps of purifying copal incense wafting through the air, thousands of spectators are treated to ancient Mayan dances performed to the beat of goatskin drums backed by tooting flutes, rattling gourds and tuba-like blasts from conch horns.

Dancers set a festive mood.After a couple of hours of ritual dancing and priestly incantations, the show wraps up with the blessing of 300 canoe paddlers from seven villages selected to compete in the trials of the next two days.

Day 2:Throngs of onlookers gather at Xcaret at the crack of dawn to cheer on the paddlers as they hop into 30 canoes to begin the rough trip across the channel to Cozumel. The race is on...they're expected to reach the island in four to seven hours, usually taking turns paddling and bailing in the six-foot-high waves of the channel.

On Cozumel, the exhausted paddlers are greeted by a beach full of fans, then taken to the ruins of the shrines at San Jervasio where they deliver messages to Ixchel.

Day 3: The last part of the ceremony – the return of the canoes – takes place

a few miles up the beach from Xcaret at the sprawling resort city of Playa del Carmen. Huge crowds turn out to welcome the paddlers as scores of colorfully dressed dancers, musicians, shamans (priests), guys dressed like pahuaatunoobs (powerful gods of the cosmic directions) and copal spritzers create a fittingly festive mood.

The first canoes pop up on the horizon around noon. Soon, the rest appear, and as the oarsmen beach their canoes they are rewarded with medals, fruit baskets, cheers from the crowd and congratulatory speeches by officials.

 

Lol-be and the millions of women who braved the hardships of their pilgrimages to Cozumel to pray at the shrine of Ixchel have once again been remembered.

Xcaret spokeswoman Iliana Rodriguez says the journey re-creation draws bigger and bigger crowds each year. The turnout is expected to nearly double next time.

Paddlers come ashore at Playa del Carmen.Getting and staying there: Visitors to the Riviera Maya typically fly to Cancun International Airport serving both Cancun and the Riviera. Stretching from Cancun down the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula to Tulum, the Riviera's hundreds of tropical palaces offer a total of 38,000 rooms overlooking the blue-green waters of the Caribbean.

Among popular properties on the Riviera is the 273-suite, all-inclusive Hacienda Tres Rios (www.haciendatresrios.com) near Playa del Carmen. The resort is nestled in a natural park spreading out over hundreds of acres and featuring three rivers flowing through a mangrove forest.

Aerial view of Hacienda Tres Rios. Photo courtesy of the resort.

More info: Visit www.rivieramaya.com,  www.travesiasagradamaya.com.mx.

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