A Mayan Journey - Quintana Roo and Yucatan, Mexico
It's a long way from frosty Bloomsbury to the teal blue coast of Quintana Roo and the pulsing jungle of Yucatan but that's where my Mayan journey started. I was listening to a group of Guatemalan Village Elders (By 900 A.D. the Maya empire stretched upwards from what is now El Salvador to Guatemala; Mexico; Belize and Honduras) explain the wonders of Mayan astrology and numerology including how these connect to the land. The calendar has 18 months of 20 days, totalling a 360 day agricultural cycle and then 5 days when the earth completely rests. Each day starts not at midnight but when the first bird sings. These cyclical calculations are currently in the limelight as we edge closer to 2012 and all that tricksy End of the World panic but more about that later......
In Mexico, a very 21st century place to start with the world of the Maya people, can be found 70 kilometres south of Cancun in the resort town of Playa del Carmen. Between the bars and tourist shops, Yaxche restaurant serves Mayan Fusion food. Anibal, the manager, explained that the menu is based on native Maya recipes and traditional ingredients, such as the spinach like vegetable chaya; pumpkin seeds; earthy achiote and sour orange, from around the Yucatan Peninsula, purchased directly from villages within a 2 hour radius of the restaurant. I dived in with a glowing green Chaya Margarita to accompany my mixed starter of Mayan style Tamale (corn bread bursting with chaya, boiled eggs and pumpkin seeds),filled Xcatic peppers, Papadzul (filled tortillas in a pumpkin seed sauce), Shrimp Panuchos and Ceviche. It was absolutely delicious, as was the main course of shrimps with tangerine and chipotle pepper sauce served with black rice. I finished with a very potent Mayan hot chocolate.
Tulum, with it's barefoot beachside cabana living, is another 45 minutes, by car, down the coast. Perched high on the cliff, at the crossroads of historic, valuable land and sea routes, are the ruins of the Mayan walled city, occupied in approximately 1200 AD by high ranking officials and priests. The towers of Tulum were almost certainly used for star gazing and the window of the main temple was placed so that the sun aligns precisely with the window during the equinoxes causing a spectacular beam of light that astonished and terrified the masses outside the walls. After you have marvelled at the buildings and the surviving colours inside the Temple of the Frescoes, descend the steep steps to the fairytale cove below.
Chichen Itza, in the state of Yucatan, is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. The sprawling site hosts ruins with both Maya and Toltec influences. The archaeologists uncovering and restoring the buildings have found evidence of human sacrifice, snake worship and a bloody ball game where the winning priest had the honour of forfeiting his life. El Castillo, the step pyramid, is the most famous of the site's buildings and the northern side has two snake heads at the base. During the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, the sun angles the shadow to form the body of the snake god, Kukulcan, to each of the heads. This spectacle is viewed each year by thousands of visitors. "And Maya people too?" I asked the guide. "No, we are much too superstitious to go to ceremonies at Chichen Itza". It seemed that this was because most Maya people are now Catholics and, additionally, feel uneasy that the ruins have been disturbed. I asked what happened, traditionally, if it was cloudy and the sun didn't create the shadow. "Big problems" he replied "If Kulkulcan didn't appear, the people thought that the gods were angry with the amount of offerings that year and that the land would not give food". It was time to address the question of 2012. "The Maya people don't believe that it's the end of the world but the 21st December 2012 is the beginning of a new cycle and there will be changes. We have seen the amount of hurricanes recorded, in Yucatan, increase in the last ten years and there have also been changes to El Nino". I took this, not overwhelmingly comforting, explanation and headed to the Cenote.
Cenotes are sacred to Maya people. Rain buries into the limewater ground, causing it to drop and form sinkholes below ground level. In the Mexican long, dry summers the Cenotes provide a supply of fresh water leading to their esteemed position in Mayan culture. Nowadays, Cenote swimming, diving and caving is popular and Jacques Cousteau's National Geographic coverage of Yucatan's Cenotes has sealed their renown. I stayed at the Yucatan Mayan Retreat, 10 minutes away from Chichen Itza and steps away from the Yokdzonot Cenote and descended the steep, winding steps for a Sunday afternoon swim.
Floating on my back, as birds skydived from the oceanic sky into the pool, I was mesmerised by the fact that I was looking upwards at tree roots.
Merida is Yucatan's largest city and the former centre of henequen production. The story of this fibre, used to make clothes, bags and rope, encapsulates the story of the Spanish conquest of Mayan lands. Henequen was originally produced using traditional methods to make small scale domestic products. The arrival of the Spanish, industrialised the process, and eventually heavy German machinery was imported, to make ropes and sacks for shipping and profits for the new landowners in their Hacienda estates. Following the revolution, some of this, originally Maya land, was re-confiscated and the emergence of manmade fibres caused industrialised henequen production in Yucatan to die out by the late 1980's. Some of these Haciendas remain and I spent the night in the Guest House within the Hacienda Yaxcopoil which has been preserved, albeit it at 3% of the size of its previous 22,000 acres, by the descendents of Don Donaciano and Dona Monica, the 19th century owners. After the sun has dipped behind the Moorish walls and archways, the caretakers bring a Yucatan feast of chicken and lime broth, Tamale and guava cake accompanied by a cold coconut milk and cinnamon drink.
I ended my journey, back in Quintana Roo, with a very special ritual. I was staying at the absolutely perfect Maroma Resort and Spa and had decided to continue my sporadic investigations into extreme spa treatments by valiantly trying the Temazcal. Set on the beach, the white Temazcal (sweat lodge) is decorated with Mayan symbols and is overlooked by a figure representing the mother. The Temazcal represents the womb with the hot coals within representing the grandmothers, reflecting the cultural and spiritual significance of ancestors. The ritual is performed at dusk and has parallels with western re-birthing ceremonies (I found it necessary to store my cynicism with my flip flops until after the treatment). The hot coals, the teacher and you are sealed inside the dark Temazcal and four 15 minute cycles engaging the earth, water, fire and air begin. The intensity increases with chanting and drum beating. At the end of each cycle, at the shout of "Puerta", the door is flung open, light rushes in, there's a brief glimpse of the waves behind the mother and the Coal Bearer brings further Grandmothers before sealing the door for the next cycle. During the Earth cycle, you apply the juice of a fresh aloe leaf to your arms and legs. During the next cycle, water and lemongrass is splashed onto the fire. Air is all about breathing and Fire focuses on channelling your energy. After the last shout of Puerta, you are led back into the tingly cool, now night, air to gulp down water and fruit before plunging into the sea. It was a fittingly mystical end to my Mayan Journey.
- I flew to Cancun with American Airlines via Miami. Alternatively, British Airways now fly direct from London once a week. If you are in transit through the US, remember that you will now need to complete an Electronic Visa Waiver to do so.
- I travelled through Quintana Roo and Yucatan using a combination of taxi, shared taxi and bus. The ADO Express Coach from Merida to Cancun is great. Hiring a car would also be a good option.
- www.mayacuisine.com for menu and location details of Yaxche.
- Finding the right beachside Cabana for you in Tulum is a bit like poker. Do you stick and reserve online before you go risking paying over the odds for a not very special place or twist by waiting until you arrive and looking around risking it being full? If it's not spring break, I'd suggest the latter approach!
- The Yucatan Mayan Retreat is an eco hotel offering either massive suites or camping if you are less scared of things that slither than I am. The bus to Chichen Itza takes 10 minutes from the main road and shared taxis also regularly come by the bus stop offering the same rates. It's free to swim in the Cenote and you are provided with mandatory lifejackets. There's a great cafe serving tasty home cooked, post swim food.
- www.yaxcopoil.com for booking information about Hacienda Yaxcopoil.
- The Temazcal is an amazing experience but two important things: Firstly, it's not for the claustrophobic as it is extremely dark and enclosed. Secondly, the Sweat Lodge has got itself bad press in America where inexperienced people tried to lead the ritual with fatal consequences so make sure you go somewhere reputable. The teacher at Maroma, has twelve years experience and was constantly checking that I was alright.
- The Maroma Resort and Spa is the most beautiful hotel that I've stayed at. Such is it's magic that, from my perch at Freddie's Tequila Bar, I witnessed a woman burst into tears at her first sighting of the beach (it was either that or her husband had promised her an Alaskan Cruise and she had only just realised the dastardliness of his trick!). The beach has the requisite recipe of being very long with white sand and turquoise water or, for sandphobes, there are two shaded, quiet swimming pools. There's Mexican breakfast served in American sized portions, 100 Tequilas and designer ceviches at Freddie's and restaurant food from, Mexico City acclaimed, chef Juan Pablo Loza. You can hear the sea from inside your gigantic bed, from within your own patio hammock and whilst you are making like a dolphin in the deep bathtub. The hotel's dive centre is renowned and, if you can, get a package where there is a guided snorkel thrown in. A ten minute speed boat ride from the hotel takes you to the second largest coral reef in the world where paint box fish swim with stingrays, turtles and lobsters. You can head to Puerto Adventuras and spend an hour swimming, kissing and being propelled through the air by dolphins, climb to Maroma's tree top studio for morning yoga or, back at the dive centre, take to the skies with Parasailing for an eagle's view beyond the coast back to the jungle.