Adventures in the Riviera Maya

Ubiquitous Mayan Culture

For this mystical adventurer, Playa Del Carmen offers many soul nurturing activities. For the second year in a row my family had the good fortune to visit Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. Traditional aspects of Mayan culture still abound in the Riviera Maya and without too much trouble can be found all over. For example, it’s not uncommon for the staff at resorts to speak Mayan. Most Spa services include some elements of traditional Mayan healing whether it be essential oils or energy balancing. In this blog I want to share a couple of my favorite stories from my trip.

As an aside, there are complex issues around labor issues involving indigenous culture and the tourist industry. I want to acknowledge that they exists and want to admit that I don’t have the answers or language to express the nuances of the ethics of visiting another country and participating in traditional cultural activities. The aim of this blog post is to tell you a story about my trip to Mexico.

Enduring Mayan Architecture

My daughters pose atop Mayan Ruins just outside Play Del Carmen

Just outside of town of Playa Del Carmen are the ancient ruins Xaman-Men Ha. Without any fanfare these humble ruins sit on the side of the road waiting for visitors to walk through them. These ruins sit near the main port where traveler’s would come to launch their pilgrimages to Cozumel; which usually involved prayers to a fertility goddess. Let’s face it-honeymooners still do the same!

Parque de los Fundadores showcases traditional ceremonies

A Mayan Dancer lights a ceremonial flame at Parque de los Fundadores, Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

There are daily traditional performances at the Parque de los Fundadores.  On this particular trip we caught a Mayan prayer dance. Mexican and International tourist alike stop to watch the performances. These athletic men dance in figures, blow on conch shells, drum, and light fires and incense under this magnificent sculpture. At the end they pass the hat for tips.

Looking for adventure

Once you get to the Riviera Maya, it can be hard to find adventures outside of those offered as packages through the tourist agents at the resorts. On this trip I wanted to swim in a Cenote, but didn’t want to go to a Wisconsin Dells style tourist destination. It pays to research ahead because once you get to Mexico the wi-fi can be spotty which makes planning and purchasing activities through your phone more challenging. Most activities in the Riviera Maya require planning ahead. There are very few places from which you can just decide to drive up and buy a ticket on the same day.

Chikin Ha here was come

After much searching I came across Chikin Ha (no there are no chickens here). Chikin Ha appealed to me because it came across as being more eco-friendly and less touristy than many of the other offerings. The entrance fee was reasonable and the cab for all 6 of us was about $100 USD round trip. Seeing as I speak Spanish, the conversations I had with the driver made the long cab rides worth the expense.

When we pulled into Chikin-Ha we drove about 2 miles down an unmarked gravel road through a forest.  We talked with the cab driver about all the animals. This felt like a good start to an adventure.

The entrance to Chikin-Ha was fairly humble.  Just a couple of huts set up for check-in.  

A glorious Cenote. On the other side of the pool our family descends for a dip.

Cenotes are naturally formed underground rivers leftover from the ice age.  Over time the cave roofs would crash in exposing spring fed swimming holes.  We were able to swim and snorkle at our leisure. Everyone once in a while fully equipped scuba divers would emerge or submerge to enjoy the extensive underground river system. In spite of the leaf debris, the spring fed water felt clean and pure.

The second cenote was more mysterious.  There are two open pools connected by a cave. A guide rope goes from one entrance to another to allow swimmers to find their way through the dark cavern.  It took us a minute to conjure up the courage to jump in as the pool was quite dark.  The water would go from rocky and shallow to quite deep. At one point we looked down and a light from deep below. It was a set of scuba divers coming out of a cave even lower down!!!!! We felt reborn from this cenote adventure and ready to move on.

Iguanas Everywhere!

We walked a forested path.  The smoke of Palo Santo filled the air as we noticed an ancient looking man managing the forest through controlled burning. We also delighted in the copious iguanas ambling over the paths and climbing the trees.

Taakbil Ha

At last we approached Taakbil Ha-the most sacred of cenotes. We scrambled down a steep staircase into the lower landing of this cenote. Clear water and majestic rocks dazzled our eyes. Through the hole in the upper ledge I could see the trees. Somehow we were inside, outside, up and down all at the same time.

Then I noticed a crude handrail leading into the dark recess of the cave. I couldn’t help it, I had to follow. I peered into the darkness and heard some rustling and wondered, “what could it be?”.  Then I saw a glimmer of light, and then another. With surprise, I realized that someone was quietly and systematically lighting candles in the cave.  Time stood still as the cave illuminated. We saw a man working, a bench and an altar. In a cauldron, he set incense on fire and the smoke escaped through a hole in the ceiling.  In spite of the kids telling me to stay out, I moved silently to the bench and watched as the man finished lighting the candles.

At first the cave was pitch black, but one by one the shaman lit the candles. I quietly walked in and took a seat. Notice the whole in the ceiling.

And then we talked quietly in the stillness. …..

I asked the man if I could sit and he acquiesced. We began to talk in Spanish. From him I learned that he was, indeed a Shaman and was setting up a ceremony for employees and tourists.  He learned the art of Shamanism from his Grandfather. He felt grateful that he could continue the practices at this site. We remarked on what a beautiful ceremony it is.

He told me about the ceremony, “First, I take a piece of Copal Resin and put it into the right hand.  The person makes a prayer or a wish. Then they put it into the cauldron so that the smoke can go out through the hole in the cave up to the gods.  They make an offering. The gods hear the prayer and purification comes back down.”

We could have paid to be part of the tourist group coming into be purified, but it felt more magical to witness the inception of this ceremony and have a soul to soul talk in Spanish with this Shaman. The lesson was clear to me-it’s better to walk into a dark cave than to avoid it.

For me the most magical part was the fluency with which I spoke to him. After almost 30 years of studying Spanish off and on I reached a level of fluency in this trip wherein I no longer translate in my mind. When I had this long complicated conversation with the man I felt like I had a true soul to soul connection that didn’t need translation.

On the way out, I purchased the purification ointment they sold at the entrance. In the vial was a mixture of Jojoba Oil, Grape seed Oil, Palo Santo, and Moon light.  You put a drop on your crown Chakra for daily purification. Up until this quarantine I had been putting a drop on my clients to calm the mind.

 Between the clean water, the talk with the Shaman and the oil, we all felt a keen sense of peace as we drove out of Chikin-Ha.

On the steps to the final Cenote Taakbil Ha

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