Never mind that the goddess of the Moon wasn’t cooperating. Swept along in a throng of hundreds assembled on the Yucatán coast to honor Ixchel, I was not going to be deterred from reenacting the purification rites, petitions for prosperity, festive dancing and canoe pilgrimage required to observe a centuries-old Mayan ritual. Petulant Ixchel might be stirring up strenuous winds and intermittent rain gusts, but the crowd was determined to pay her homage.
Once an annual spring celebration, the Travesía Sagrada (Sacred Mayan Journey) had been suspended for five or six centuries until organizers revived it last year to rescue tradition — and attract tourists. Even though the junket called for running around the jungle in white clothing for two nights with minimal sleep, I signed on to participate in the four-stage proceedings: collect requests for good health and crops; paddle to the goddess’s principle shrine on the island of Cozumel, 12 miles across the Caribbean Sea; deliver the petitions for her blessing and then paddle back with her oracle’s response.
The site of the historic ritual is current home to Xcaret (pronounced shcar-ET) National Park, one of several historic sites in the Riviera Maya which have been developed into attractive eco-archaeological theme parks. Built around actual ruins, the parks feature scuba diving and snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, ziplining and other outdoor activities from horseback riding to lazing in hammocks.
In anticipation of the Sacred Journey, park officials consulted scholars at the University of Mexico and the Archaeological Institute of America, who helped prepare more than two dozen 98-foot tree-trunk canoes and construct Mayan villages of thatched huts and twig walkways. The villages were stocked with typical platters of chilies and shells, strings of dried fish and gourds. More than 800 local volunteers and descendants from the Zona Maya communities of Tzotziles, Chontales and Tihozuco rehearsed and trained for months to reenact the saga with the authentic settings helping them stay in character.
Since Ixchel (pronounced eesh-CHEL) is a lady of the night, it was nearly midnight when I left the park’s contiguous Occidental Grand Hotel Flamenco and joined the crowd stumbling in the dark through the jungle’s wind-tossed foliage along a path lit only by flaming torches. Clouds of copal resin incense wafted heavenward as fodder for the gods.
Groping along with us in the dark were costumed Mayan characters — women in huipil (white smocks banded with red and yellow) and men wearing nothing but the wrapped white loincloths depicted in hieroglyphs. Professional dancers coated in red, yellow, white or black paint wearing bulky gourd helmets were dressed up as Mayan spirits. Tribal leaders, the shamans, had painted their faces with the traditional turquoise shade of sacrifice and were swathed in authentic jaguar-skin cloaks with towering quetzal feather headdresses.
After doffing our shoes to tread barefoot across a corridor of palm fronds, we were received and purified by Batao’ob, whose blessing was obscured by the wind — though it didn’t much matter, since the Spanish translators didn’t understand the Mayan language any more than I did. We scrawled our wishes for the year — traditionally these were fertility of the soil, good weather, health and the continuity of life — on slips of brown paper, which were then collected and burned so the smoke could transmit our requests up to the goddess.
At the outdoor village, in an elaborate four-hour pageant, dancers depicted the pain of childbirth, the wonder of children among creatures in the jungle and interactions with the gods. Several spectators succumbed to napping on the beach, but as the sun rose we gathered on the shore for the canoe-launching ceremony. Alas, thwarting the hundreds of aspiring rowers who had trained for months, the morning’s deep swells and strong winds overruled the possibili ty of crossing to the island. Amid much chanting and flaming beacons, four token canoes feigned departure before the rest of us rushed off to catch the ferry to cross to Cozumel for the ceremonies.
Hampered by the wind, rain and seasickness, we arrived too late to see the local mayor’s contingent greet the “arriving” canoes. But that evening after dark we gathered around the lake in the remarkable setting of Cozumel’s eco-archaeological Chankanaab Park for a solemn and emotional sound and light show in which the costumed villagers and rowers encountered good and bad incarnations of Ixchel, who scolded them for squandering the earth’s resources and dispatched them back to mend their ways. We all left humming the goddess’s theme song.
A few hours later, at 4:30 a.m., roused from a comfortable room in Cozumel’s Coral Princess Hotel, I headed back to the park to witness launching the canoes for their return. Past flaming bowls of incense and the four Mayan spirits playing music on reed pipes, and with Mexican Navy ships vigilant in the background, four canoes set out to bring the oracle’s message back to the mainland Mayans. This time the swells were less intense, and all four crews — including one all-female contingent — made the 12-mile crossing back to Xcaret in less than four hours.
A crowd was there to greet them as they paddled in through the once again roiling sea. Staggering ashore in dripping wet costumes, the crews were cheered and hugged like marathon finishers. Though exhausted, they were also exhilarated. One amateur, who had been here the previous year as a spectator, had returned from Mexico City to take part. His canoe had turned over four times and he’d spent half an hour bobbing in the sea. “How was it?” I asked. “Horrid,” he replied. Would you do it again? “Absolutely.”
He’ll have his chance. The plan is to establish the ceremony as an annual event, not just to gratify today’s Mayans, but to show tourists a side of Yucatán’s allure beyond sea, sand and sun. No matter that May is the start of Yucatán’s rainy season. Even though every day was overcast, there was one evening when I did catch a glimpse of the moon overhead. Peeking from the clouds, an inverted crescent, it grinned down like the smile on a happy face. It was Ixtel, watching the proceedings with delight.
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