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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkTravel & Outdoors | October 2008 

Relive Sacred Mayan Journey
email this pageprint this pageemail usLorne Mallin - The Canadian Press
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A team of women paddlers sets out across the channel to the Riviera Mayan mainland. (Lorne Mallin - Click HERE for more photos)
At first it was just a speck on the horizon of the turquoise Caribbean Sea. Then we could see the first of the native dugout canoes with four men in loincloths and one woman in a Mayan dress paddling steadily in the choppy ocean.

Slowly they carved a path through the waves toward the golden sands of Mamitas Beach at this resort city an hour south of Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula's Riviera Maya.

Metres from the beach the canoe tipped over and other paddlers rushed into the surf to help.

When the exhausted paddlers finally made it to shore they were embraced by family and friends while hundreds of onlookers cheered and applauded.

Two more boats arrived for the closing ceremonies of a remarkable cultural, spiritual and theatrical experience called the Sacred Mayan Journey, the recreation of an ancient annual pilgrimage by canoe to the island of Cozumel that was lost for more than 500 years after the Spanish colonized the area.

Women had been required to be pilgrims there at least once in their lives to ask for fertility.

Local officials plan to continue the event every year, helping this area make its mark as more than a sun and sand destination.

For tourists, it's a window to the customs and practices of a people who built an elaborate, complex civilization here many centuries ago.

The focus of the journey was to honour Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of the moon, with prayers and offerings for four reasons - fertility of the soil, good weather, health and the continuity of life - and to bring back her message.

Our press-tour group of invited journalists witnessed colourful ceremonies, dances, music and purification rites that began near midnight May 30 at the eco-archeological Xcaret Park and ended more than 36 hours later.

At the start, hundreds of Mayan villagers arrived singing in processions.

To purify ourselves, we joined in by removing our shoes and walking barefoot on a jungle path carpeted with palm leaves. We were also encouraged to participate by writing offerings to Ixchel on slips of paper that were ceremonially burned to reach the goddess. I'm not sure I was in the right spirit. I offered my "tsuris," Yiddish for troubles.

Some of the journalists stayed all night. I slipped away with two others to the adjacent Occidental Grand Xcaret Resort for a few hours sleep and to marvel at the wonders of a gorgeous all-inclusive where even the mini-bar is included.

Throughout the rituals, we were serenaded by a melodic chant to the goddess: "Ixchel, Ixchel, la mision y el trabajo esperan ya; Ixchel, Ixchel, nadie puede ocultarnos tu verdad." Which means "Ixchel, Ixchel, the mission and work are waiting for us; Ixchel, Ixchel, nobody can hide your truth from us."

Teams of paddlers in Playa Del Carmen and on Cozumel trained for months to make the challenging crossing, 150 of them in 30 eight-metre canoes going over and another 150 coming back.

At least, that was the plan. The weekend was all about Ixchel, but a couple powerful guys, the Mayan rain god Chac and tropical storm Arthur, stole her thunder. Torrential rains and fierce winds swept through the coastline.

The 18-kilometre canoe crossing to Cozumel was cancelled, a huge disappointment for the participants. In the morning in a tranquil Xcaret Park lagoon fringed with Mayan huts we witnessed paddlers circling their canoes without taking on the wild waters.

It turned out to be a wise decision. When the journalists headed over to Cozumel in a catamaran, we had to turn back halfway when high waves constantly washed over the deck. Some were sick and some were scared. Totally soaked, I chanted for deliverance.

But the show must go on. We crossed in a large ferry, rested and freshened up at Cozumel's waterfront Coral Princess Hotel and Resort, and bussed to Chankanaab National Park to see the evening dances and rituals.

Here we found another serene lagoon with a recreated Mayan village and temple platform.

The dramatic presentation with fire, bathing maidens and fantastic costumes led to the focus of the evening - the message from the goddess, in her turban-like headdress of an entwined serpent, through the medium of oracle priests.

Essentially, her very eco-conscious message was: Mankind has destroyed the environment, and for that reason we're the ones responsible for our destiny. Ixchel said the only way this world is going to change is if we don't wait for some miracle to happen but make the change ourselves.

Early the next morning, the seas had calmed considerably and three canoes that were transported over from the mainland readied for the crossing while a fourth held five women in red dresses, their faces painted in vertical turquoise stripes. Representing phases of the moon, they were paddled around the lagoon under the gaze of four men painted head to foot in brilliant colours portraying spirits of the four ways of the cosmos.

A chilam or priest blessed the three canoes and they paddled away. Two of them made it to the other side in just over three hours while the third capsized and the paddlers were rescued. Mexican navy vessels were on hand to help.

Meanwhile, 12 canoes left Xcaret Park for the nine-kilometre journey up the coast to Mamitas Beach. Nine had to turn back in the worsening waves, including one that capsized four times and waited a half-hour for rescue.

The three from Xcaret that made it delivered Ixchel's message to the local Mayan leader amid dances and celebrations.

Betty Sandoval, 31, who paddled from Cozumel, said on the beach that the crossing "touched our hearts."

She said the ancient pilgrims didn't have the benefit of weather forecasting technology. "They spiritually offered themselves to their god. I really admire that."

As many as 800 people took part in the many facets of the sacred journey. Fidencio Tzel, a dancer from a long line of Mayans, played a priest. "I was proud to be able to rescue part of the culture of my ancestors," he said.

The event was initiated by Xcaret Park, the launching point of the ancient pilgrimages, and organized with local municipalities. Two years of research involved the National Institute of Anthropology and History, the Maya Centre of the National Council for Culture and the Arts and the Research Institute of Philology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. A choreographer, a composer, and makeup and costume artists helped make it a crowd-pleaser.

While it will be another year before the next journey, there are many other ways to connect with the Maya.

Xcaret's spectacular evening show spotlights Mayan history and the park includes other cultural and spiritual experiences.

The Life and Death Festival at Xcaret (Oct. 30 to Nov. 2) is another creative production.

The Riviera Maya features Mayan ruins and villages well worth seeing. I visited Tulum, a magical Mayan city from the 13th to 15th centuries an hour's drive south of Playa Del Carmen. The Palace of the Frescoes features a mural of Ixchel and the main pyramid rises above a high cliff over the beach.

Life is not all history. The Riviera Maya attracts with modern-day cultural events, including two film festivals in the fall and the annual jazz festival Nov. 29 to Dec. 1.

For some distilled culture, take in the Expo Tequila in mid-August on the main shopping street of Playa Del Carmen.

There'll be food delights, mariachi bands, and tequila tasting. No historical study needed. Just raise a glass and say "salud!"

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