We advanced quietly through the darkness-shrouded ruins. Flickering candles drew us towards the 900-year-old Mayan pyramid of the Ruinas del Rey on this solemn night of October 31. The people of the remote jungle village had travelled three hours to reach this sacred spot, the first time in more than 30 years they had been permitted to do so.
We were 13 in number and we watched quietly as villagers lit candles and prepared sacred dishes of mole, pibe, tamale and a drink of honey-sweetened raw chocolate. Perhaps the size of our group was a coincidence, but the Maya consider 13 to be a lucky number. It is the number of benign gods in their pantheon, sadly outnumbered by the 19 evil deities, against which they struggle bravely to protect mankind.
The “Day of the Dead” should perhaps be more appropriately called the “Days of the Dead,” since from October 31 to November 2, all across Mexico, deceased loved ones are memorialized during this time.
In urban areas the custom is treated much like our own Halloween, but in rural Mexico it is still an intensely religious holiday with roots going back into the mists of pre-Columbian times. Though now ostensibly Christianized, it is really an ancient Mayan rite that was moved to All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. The celebrations remain a mélange of traditional and Christian festivals. The festival can be quite joyous. I tis not unusual to welcome departed souls with graveside picnics complete with fireworks, mariachi bands and flowers. It is also considered good luck to receive a sugar skull on which is inscribed your name.
Carved skulls and skeletons reflect a pre-Columbian fascination with the calcified portions of human remains, evidence of which can be seen in ruins like Chichen Itza. Tonight, however, is especially dedicated to the souls of little children.
Villagers consume the food for the offering and pass it around to guests. I try some, and afterwards down a draught of honeyed chocolatl, long a sacred drink before the Hispanic conquest. The shared sustenance seems to cement a bond between the simple villagers and onlookers. The ceremony ends and we trudge back through the ruins.
On All Saints Day, November 1, we cross the bay to the Isla de Mujeres, or Island of Women. In ancient times this was the easternmost outpost of the Maya, sacred because it was the first part of their territory to receive the rays of the rising sun. The island is dedicated to Ixchel, the goddess of the moon, and of fertility.
The remnants of her temple are found on the southern tip of the island. When Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico, first reached Isla de Mujeres, he discovered a cache of female fertility figures, hence the name. He smashed them all, as evidence of idolatry. The isle still remains a popular place of pilgrimage for those seeking fertility, both for locals and New-Agers from further afield.
There is a walking trail along the coral encrusted coast offering vistas of turquoise waters, sea birds and the island of Cancun in the distance. Dotting the sides of the trails are small coral caves where guests can seek tranquility or visitors can climb up to the statuary garden with its colorful and sometimes jarring works prefacing the approach to Ixchel’s temple itself.
Along the way we pass through a charming and colorful Caribbean village, which also houses a small museum dedicated to the pirate Moncada. He made a fortune in the slave trade, then, as legend fittingly has it, fell into an unrequited love affair with a native woman and died of a broken heart. The remains of the estate and garden he built, a vain attempt to lure his beloved into his arms, can still be seen further north on the island.
All Souls’ Day, November 2, dawned with our party journeying to Xcaret. Another ancient Mayan site, up the coast from Cozumel, it boasts some interesting ruins and a themed eco-park. It is a child-friendly place that features visits to a quite convincing reproduction of an ancient Mayan village.
Here locals of Mayan heritage make and sell crafts including gorgeous hand-woven blankets, colorful pottery and figurines depicting Mayan deities and monarchs. A unique option is to don a life vest and float through a 600-meter-long underground river. I tried this and soon gained some understanding of how the damned souls in Dante’s Inferno felt, floating along the River Styx. Another river system offers a float through deep, narrow gorges past the Mayan village on the banks high above.
As a special treat, today’s festivities include the grand opening of a new cemetery. The seven-tiered conical structure features 365 graves, each unique, representing the days of the year. After the opening ceremonies the park threw a grand fiesta with local cuisine and music.
I decided to explore some out-of-the-way corners of the park further and somehow found myself in an underground labyrinth of caves. Natural light came down through occasional holes in the limestone crust, but this was gradually fading as twilight approached. I became separated from my group and was totally lost.
Despite tantalizing strains of music, I was unable to find my way out and had dark visions of spending the rest of my days in some Mayan underworld. Finally, in desperation I climbed up through a sinkhole, headed for the music and stumbled onto a path just as the rest of the group passed by. The Mayan god of the foolish must have been smiling on me.
My final day was marked by packing and getting ready to check out of the hotel, the JW Marriott Resort and Spa in Cancun. I decided my trip would not be complete without a visit to the spa (purely for research purposes, you understand) and so I booked a Mayan Copan Style Massage. My masseuse, Nexy, was a full-blooded Mayan.
To background Mayan music, I was treated not only to a massage but a ritual which involved Nexy chanting in Mayan, waving palm branches and placing a large Tiger’s Eye gem over the center of my chest. Fortunately, I recalled that unlike the Aztecs, Mayan rituals did not include removal of the heart.
The ritual was followed by a very decadent 50-minute light massage with oils, incense and flowers thrown in. I felt so relaxed you could have poured me off the table, but I did steel myself for the follow-up, including a eucalyptus scented steam room, a wet sauna, followed by 10 minutes in a hot, then cool Jacuzzi.
Let’s say the subsequent trip home was very relaxed.
All photos © George Burden
“Cemetery: Sunset silhouette of Xcaret cemetery”
“Altar: Day of the Dead altar on Halloween night in Ruinas del Rey”
“Author and friend: Author holding a “good luck” sugar skull at next to a Day of the Dead altar”
“Day of the Dead ladies: Day of the Dead skeletons in the latest fashions”
“Swimming through underground caves at Xcaret”
“Mayan warrior: A Mayan warrior greets visitors to the spectacular evening show at Xcaret”
“Dead” couple: Pair of Day of the Dead skeletons about to get hitched”
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