I had been to Mexico before. A paradise of white sandy beaches rolled by warm tides that bask in perfect sunrises. This time I was called to the Yucatán Peninsula to experience the 9th annual Sacred Mayan Journey hosted by Xcaret Park in Playa del Carmen.
For centuries the Mayans performed this pilgrimage to receive a divine message from the Goddess Ixchel. In 2007, Xcaret Park brought back to life this sacred ceremony to instill cultural awareness in the community and the world. And I was about to watch it all unfold. From a white sandy beach rolled by warm tides beneath a pending sunrise, I was about to experience an ancient Mayan ceremony. My excitement level was at an all time high.
The History Behind the Sacred Mayan Journey
The Goddess Ixchel at a Glance
- Associated with floods and rains
- Commonly worshipped as the patron goddess of weaving and especially childbirth
- Prominent shrines for Ixchel located on Cozumel and Isla Mujeres
- In Mayan legends, Ixchel fell in love with the sun-god but her grandfather became upset and accidentally killed her with a lightening bolt. Dragonflies sang over her body and she returned to the sun’s palace, but before long he grew jealous and threw her out. After growing tired of the sun’s attitude, Ixchel withdrew to the night and remains hidden whenever the sun is around
The ritual of the Sacred Mayan Journey dates back to 1250-1519 AD when Mayans would make the pilgrimage from the Yucatán Peninsula to Cozumel for Ixchel’s divine message. This was a pretty big deal and would take two days to complete beginning and ending with a sacred ritualistic ceremony. Now, after over 500 years, Xcaret Park has brought back the culmination of culture, maritime knowledge and myth.
Celebrating its 9th year under the guidance of the INAH (Institution of National Anthropology and History), Xcaret hosts the two-day event as the ceremony is reenacted in complete accuracy, adhering to the original dances, music and rituals, and even using the same type of canoes.
The Oarsmen and Women
This year about 500 applications were seen by Manual Munoz, Training and Logistics Coordinator for the Sacred Mayan Journey. Of those applicants, 360 made it through the rigorous training required to make the 18-hour journey to Cozumel and back. Of the remaining applicants, 42% of them were women. Amazing if you ask me. I mean, picture yourself under the hot sweltering sun in a canoe for 6-9 hours. You can’t stop, you can’t just jump out and quit. This is a true test of not only strength and teamwork, but it’s a mental journey to success. One that given the opportunity, I’m not even sure I could do.
However, should you happen to want the opportunity, anyone in the world is welcome to apply. Registration opens in October for the following year. You can apply here. (Remember you must be living in Playa del Carmen for the training period).
My Experience in Photos
It was early in the morning yet dark as night. I took a very quiet walk through the outer corridors of the tropical resort I was staying at. The warm damp air, a blanket over my skin, was barely a gentle breeze. I didn’t know what to expect as I followed the press team into the jungle-like tunnel of palm trees lined by torches. Through the darkness I could smell the salt in the sea as it mixed with the aroma of incense placed at a statue of Ixchel.
There she was, beneath an arch of purple flowers and palms, surrounded by burning incense and offerings of herbs. A young portrayal of the Goddess Ixchel at which point she dominated fertility and birth. Immediately I was transported back 800 years as I walked further down the path to where my feet met the soft sand.
There were torches burning and people dancing in traditional Mayan clothing. The intensity of the tribal drums guided the rhythm of their feet. I quickly made my way to the front of the crowd where I could get a closer look at the ceremony.
I watched as blessings were made, children danced, and men brought out a young beautiful woman in the image of the Goddess Ixchel. The dancing continued as sandy feet made their way to the other side of the beach where more sacred rituals (which I could not understand as it was all in Mayan) were performed. The singing and dancing went on as the sun rose over the horizon. Then the oarsmen and women set off into the distance as scarlet macaws flew across the breaking light with screams overlapping the beat of the drums and making all too real the wild nature of this cultural event.
As the canoes disappeared into the waves, my mind pondered the journey ahead of them both physical and emotional. Fascinated and moved by the power of my experience I couldn’t help but wonder how they managed this 800 years ago. With that, I grew a whole new respect for Mexico and the varying cultures of the world. With this, it was time to set sail to catch up with them out to sea and find out how they were doing.
I was warmed by the heat of the Caribbean sun on the same beach I stood on the day before only this time it was high noon. The aromas of freshly made churro sticks, meats, and incidence tangled in the air, competing for my attention to the sound of bongos and flutes. The energy from the anticipation and excitement the locals was gaining by the minute as we all awaited the arrival of the oarsmen and women.
For hours chanting, dancing and music commenced before the statue of the Goddess Ixchel and around sacred flames. There I was at what may be the most cultural and raw event I have ever experienced. I couldn’t believe how close it was to home. How had I gone a lifetime without even hearing about this spectacular experience?
Then finally, after waiting for half the day (which was actually a delight), the first canoe broke the horizon. Surrounded by a sea of glittering waves, I watched the water splashed beneath them as their oars rowed faster and harder than ever before, fueled by their own adrenaline which had been mounting for 48 hours. Immediately my eyes welled up with tears. I don’t know why, but I was flooded with emotions, completely bathed in happiness for their journey knowing the struggles they must have faced.
One by one the canoes came in bringing 360 victorious men and women back to the white sandy beach rolled by warm tides. I watched in awe as they jumped from their vessels into the salty water to cleanse their sweat covered skin, only to break through and embrace their comrades. This was truly an intangible moment. And as the crowd chanted and the waves crashed, I realized anything is possible.
Special thanks goes to Xcaret Park for inviting me to this amazing event. While all costs were paid for by them, this in no way shaped my opinion of this truly spectacular event.