Divine Daytripper Freelance Travel Writer


Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

A medicine man burns amber infused incense of
capal to bring in good spirits


The Sacred Mayan Journey
by Ingrid Hart

The aroma of amber-infused incense fills the thick jungle air.  It’s after midnight as the Mayan procession of medicine men, rowers and maidens pass by. The high priest’s face is painted to look like a skeleton—an ominous black on white. Adding to his attire is a regal feather head dress and a commanding leopard skin covering most of his body. The rowers don white loin cloths and high ponytails that expose tender body parts. The maidens dress in bright orange cotton caftans made of burlap fabric that swishes on the ground as they walk.  These pilgrims, over one hundred and twenty of them, come from the villages of Polé and Xaman-Ha along the coastline of the Yucatan Peninsula, an hour south of Cancun.  They are here on the Sacred Mayan Journey to worship Ix Chel, the goddess of fertility and abundance.

The Sacred Mayan Journey begins with the
gathering of medicine men

Throughout the night there will be rituals, ceremonies, music, and dance. In the morning the strongest of the group will row fifteen miles across the Caribbean Sea to the island of Cozumel.  In unison, the haunting procession chants a simple prayer in a supernatural voice: Ix Chel: the mission and work are waiting for us. Ix Chel: nobody can hide your truth from us.

The Sacred Mayan Journey, now in its second year is a mystical and oftentimes theatrical re-creation of the ancient pilgrimage.  This historical and cultural legacy of Mayan past was lost after the Spaniards invaded and conquered Mexico nearly five hundred years ago.

The journey’s sponsors include the eco-archeological park Xcaret, the marketing collaborative Riviera Maya, and the island of Cozumel.  According to State of Quintana Roo Tourism Secretary Carlos Joaquin Gonzales, “We want to diversify the tourism base from beach lovers to include people who are interested in culture and archeology.  We hope to innovate and initiate new projects that will showcase our best assets.  The Sacred Mayan Journey is helping to rescue a lost culture.”

Two young boys smile in delight at being
part of the ceremony


History of the
Goddess Ix Chel

The heart of the journey resides in the worship of Ix Chel, the ancient Mayan goddess responsible for fertility of the earth, good weather, health and continuity of life.  The story is told that pilgrims would petition the goddess to bestow upon them her blessings and favor them with a year of abundance.  Sounds easy, right? Here’s where the “journey” part of the adventure begins.  The challenge is that Ix Chel’s stronghold is on the island of Cozumel, a fifteen-mile canoe traverse from Polé, the site of present-day Xcaret, where the quest begins. The journey was a dangerous, mystical undertaking for these ancient navigators, whose trade networks were one of the crowning glories of the Yucatan culture.  At the crossing were rough seas, leaky crafts, and bad luck – qualities that could terminate a life in short order.  In the Mayan post-classic period, life vests were not an option.

Once the paddlers were successful crossing the Channel of Cozumel along the Caribbean Sea to Ix Chel’s sanctuary, they had to endure a three-hour walk to the island’s center at San Gervasio.  Bearing offerings of corn, squash and cacao beans to honor the goddess, these pilgrims would then consult an oracle to channel Ix Chel’s wisdom on their behalf.  The goddess provided insight for the year on her area of expertise.  If all went well, omens of good fortune would be bestowed upon these courageous pilgrims.

This Pahuaho'ob medicine man is serious in
his belief of Ix Chel

Before crossing in their wooden canoes made from the Pich tree back to the mainland, the pilgrims would receive a special blessing for a safe journey by el halach uinik – a wise man.  Again the paddlers took to the dangerous sea.  Upon their return to Xamanhá, the site of present-day Playa del Carmen, they were greeted by eager villagers, wanting insight into their future.  Dances of joy were held celebrating the transmission of their goddess Ix Chel’s message. 


Present Day Sacred Crossing 

Exist in the moment” is the island of Cozumel’s motto.  True to heart, present-day rowers recreating the Sacred Mayan Journey leave the island as the sun rises over the tranquil waters of eco-archeological park Chankanaab.  They have one goal in mind, paddle across the 15-mile waters to reach the other side.  These present day rowers are escorted by enthusiastic boaters and a coast guard vessel, each one keeping the spirit of the journey alive.

A group of dedicated pilgrims and rowers
help bring in a canoe

On a white sandy beach at the end of the journey is wind-swept Playa del Carmen.  The Caribbean Sea, turquoise and aquamarine, is churning with strength and ferocity on this alternating sunny and cloudy afternoon.  A thousand enthusiastic natives and tourists await the arrival of remaining rowers.  This recreation looks like a Hollywood movie set.  In costume are one of the four mysterious medicine men, clad in full red body paint with a necklace of feathers and shells. Topping his ensemble is an imposing three-foot wide horizontal gourd headdress.  He skulks along the beach like he’s ready to tear out the heart of whoever looks at him sideways.  As he whistles into an ancient flute the sound carries in the wind sending chills into the rapturous crowd. 

As each boat load of exhausted and exhilarated rowers arrives on the shore, they are greeted with an explosion of applause and some good ole’ whoopin’ and hollerin.’  Among the 26-foot canoes, each with a crew of four to six rowers are a group of women who have trained for three months in anticipation of the event. Two are sisters, the others—friends.  After a successful crossing to the other side, rower Betty Sandoval said that the group was singing and praying to Ix Chel.   “We have great respect for the original Mayans.  They were brave and powerful,” said the 37-year-old Cozumel native.  “We were trying to talk my sister into having a baby.  Ix Chel is the goddess of fertility—we almost got her to agree.”

Women rowers share their tales of chanting
Ix Chel's name while paddling

The drama continues as six long-haired maidens in floor-length orange-red dresses, arms outstretched in meditative prayer await the remaining rowers.  Nearly thirty native men and women all wear white, with faces painted to reflect the time when the Mayan culture was rich with the promise of an everlasting existence.  Today, these proud descendents of the Mayans are reliving the fantasia, the dream.


Riviera Maya: Magic and Mystery

It’s easy to fall under the spell of enchantment at the archeologically rich Riviera Maya.  It is home to the ruins of Tulum, one of the best-preserved coastal Pre-Columbian Mayan sites.  The series of ancient buildings sit on a cliff, overlooking the Caribbean Sea.  There is also the hidden city of Coba, temples, and ceremonial sites—all a living testament to the Maya civilization, one of the grandest in world history. The ancient Maya occupied a vast geographic area in Central and South America from around 2000 BC until 1500 AD.  The reason for its collapse is still shrouded in mystery.

The ruins of Tulum, one of the best-preserved coastal Pre-Columbian Mayan sites

Today, the region is a thriving tourist destination with a range of attractions from beach activities such as snorkeling, scuba and swimming to adventure sports like hiking, horseback riding and of course golf and tennis.  Five-star hotels along with fine dining options make the Riviera Maya an appealing destination for visitors seeking a combination of cultural enlightenment, exploration and some down time to simply relax by the beach. 

So on your next visit to the Riviera Maya, if you happen to see a group of paddlers at sea dressed in native costume be certain to send along some good wishes.  You never know when the goddess Ix Chel will offer her blessing and grant you a year of abundance.  After all, her spirit is still alive in the hearts and minds of the Mayan people.  If the success of the second Sacred Mayan Journey is any indication of what’s to come, it will be a great year indeed.


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