Xcaret, Mexico – Witness to the Sacred Journey
By Christopher Ludgate
We met just before twilight while the calm of Xcaret still quelled its wildlife and as the tides of the Riviera Maya gently spilled in and out of the natural pool of our Occidental Resort.
Sitting snug inside our go-cart, we hugged the narrow dewy path. We were blanketed by the branches of the tropical jungle en-route to begin our stroll on the torch-lit paths to greet the Maya and witness their ceremonial rituals before they embarked on their ancient Sacred Journey to the island of Cozumel.
The Journey to Ix-Chel Begins
Along the lush winding paths inside the Xcaret Eco-archeological Park where pink flamingos stood perched and regal, incense clouds floated in the sultry air. The sound of drums and the dancing flames in the distance signaled our direction and awakened my senses and intrigue.
Naureen, Dean, and I carved a quick path to a closer, more intimate view of the shore. Before us, the illuminated turquoise lagoon revealed the hand-carved canoes sitting still in the soft ebb and flow.
The canoes are the traditional mode of transport used in the Sacred Journey to consult fertility Goddess, Ix-Chel, on the island of Cozumel. Being a maize-centric civilization, the Maya firmly believe in the highly revered connection between crops and worship of Ix-Chel.
This elaborate annual ritual would welcome hundreds of rowers who have undergone intense training. Much more elaborate than I expected.
“Extensive preparations, including eight months of strength-training of the oarsmen and ancient customs like stabbing a knife into the soil to ensure good weather,” were well underway, resort rep, Francisco Ramos, informed us at dinner the night before.
In a nearby section by the mouth of the coast – bestowing some other-worldly feeling in the seemingly endless night – a berth extended out atop the water as dancers and chanters performed choreographed rites.
The ceremonial garb and face paint employed symbolism and colors signifying cosmic points and the cardinal directions. A larger-than-life statue breathed silhouettes of incense beneath the moon’s glow.
Our anticipation grew with the energy on the pier and the wakening waters, as the crescendo of the drums welcomed the first sign of the sunrise.
Then, in the distance, the hardy rowers – male and female - poured onto the sand with roars of excitement - one team after another pushing out into the rough waters of the Yucatan Peninsula for the 37-mile journey in their hand-carved vessels as celebration of the ancient tradition ensued.
The Nature of Xcaret
Walking the grounds of Occidental Xcaret, one expects to see iguanas, deer, and maybe macaws freely about, but it was completely unexpected to encounter swinging Saraguato monkeys – on the terraces, atop the balconies – in the trees while strolling the path and bridges above the winding pool on the way to our to Spa treatments one morning.
I’m not sure if it was they or we who were the spectators, but what a wild thrill for us!
Inspired, we later strapped our hiking shoes on and gathered for a little eco-tour of the area’s exotic hidden gems. Like all indigenous peoples, the Mayan experience incorporated natural plants as medicines like the ones flourishing here.
Our guide, Maria, imparted of the green-certified resort: “…Before the resort was being built, it was very important to all involved, including the natives to keep the grounds and environment authentic rather than manufactured. That’s unique to our Occidental Xcaret.” Indeed, it is enchanting.
While meandering about the lay of the land is part of the fun, a good sense of direction or a quick study of the map is useful. The little taxi go-carts are aplenty to swiftly sweep you up, however.
As we approached the resort’s spectacular natural pool area which is peppered with hammocks and swinging beds, Maria revealed we were also encountering the remains of one of the stone lighthouses used during the original Mayan Sacred Journeys.
I immediately welcomed the opportunity to explore and climb to the entrance of this, one of the three dozen millennia-old Mayan beacons.
We passed the functioning Temezcal where Maria got a chuckle, playfully teasing about it being where the natives cooked tourists. It’s an enclosed stone sweat room, of course.
Upon re-entering the sheltering jungle, we came upon the grand remains of a Mayan temple which contains remnants of a throne or alter, exposing a contrast in culture with what lies by an adjacent path to the ruins of the said oldest Catholic Church in the region built when the Spanish invaded the tropical territory.
Kick it Up a Notch to Royal Level
I met Naureen and Dean in the resort’s new Solarium by the Royal Level restaurant of the resort where the billowing fabric of beach beds seductively blew in the sunset’s breeze. One of the perks of the accommodations is access to the best of anything almost any time of day & night, all-inclusive.
So we didn’t hesitate to sit with new friends on the beachfront deck of the private restaurant and enjoy dinner cooked by chef Ciro Gutierres, who deliciously indulged all of our various dietary needs along with some savory regional favorites.
While cleansing our satiated palates over avocado, lemon, and mango gelato one night, we got a clearer picture of local development from Francesco Ramos:
“Twenty-five or so years ago - the Riviera Maya was not known for its resorts. In fact, you might say was all hippies and artists, bohemians, really. But as the economy grew, resorts continued to come in. It’s incredibly important for the locals now.”
The restaurant also hosts regionally authentic cooking classes, such as the hands-on ceviche lesson we attended, which culminated in an afternoon feast for those partaking while cocktails flowed freely.
Later in the day, we enjoyed time by our hot-tubs, balconies, and private pools, noshing on locally made marzipan, soft-cheeses, and pineapple while sipping the finest tequila the rest of the afternoon. Naturally.
Music, Dancing, & a Mayan Sacrifice
We headed down to the theater for a show of traditionally-themed Latin music and dance one evening. A large audience filled with dazzled spectators swayed to the live band, and singers and dancers were splashed with colorful spotlights.
The arena stretched out into a buzzing multi-level courtyard of diversions with local craft shops and multi-themed restaurants, including buffets and a taqueria.
Down the steps into another level is the Palenque Nightclub next to the sports bar for passionate soccer addicts, of course, and those that love them.
Dean, Naureen, and I went for it with some Mezcal Palomas, but asked our bartender to mix something unique and exotic; something not on the menu. “Maybe something with X’tabentun,” Naureen suggested.
Exclusive to the Yucatan region, “It’s [X’tabentu] from anise seed and fermented honey by honey bees from the nectar of Xtabantun flowers,” our mixologist, Juan, explained.
“¡Arriba, abajo, al centro, pa' dentro, Salud!” - so it goes in Mexico - and down the hatch it went.
I don’t quite recall what other spirits were involved, but it was an intoxicating induction to the Mayan Sacrifice – among a few of my late night delights in Mexico.
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