THE SMELL OF COPAL incense hangs heavily in the hot, humid air of the Riviera Maya, as paddlers prepare themselves for a ceremonial pilgrimage to visit the sanctuary of the goddess Ixchel on Cozumel.
Ixchel, goddess of the Moon, was revered by the ancient Mayans; after all, she was the goddess in charge of tides and fertility – two key components that greatly affected life on the deep waters of the Caribbean.
However, the sacred journey remained a relic of the past – a forgotten memory – as the practice virtually disappeared over 500 years ago when the Spanish Crown prohibited the indigenous population from crossing the water. As a result, the goddess Ixchel was eventually forgotten, banished to distant dreams, and relegated to oblivion by the ravages of time.
Rebirth of the Annual Pilgrimage
Beginning in 2007, the sacred journey was recreated by a consortium of sponsors interested in reviving the Mayan culture, while strengthening the cultural identity of locals.
By consulting written glyphs, historians were able to reconstruct some of the ritual and ceremony surrounding Ixchel, thus bringing the Mayan civilization of the 11th to 16th centuries back alive.
In the process, the Sacred Mayan Journey has helped instill a cultural foundation for many of those in the Yucatan region, with authentic detailing of dance, dress, food, currency, and beliefs that defined the ancient Maya.
Nowadays, the journey is reenacted with hundreds of volunteers from seven villages who work as the cast of players and support crew. Together, they work with 300 paddlers in 30 canoes who ply the waters from Xcaret to Cozumel and then back to Playa del Carmen on the mainland, seeking favor and special blessings from Ixchel through displays of physical endurance, petitions, and offerings of fruit.
The voyage is no small feat, as it is done in handmade, traditionally-crafted Mayan canoes. Great physical effort is required from the rowers, as the journey is about 31 miles roundtrip and involves 6 to 7 hours of free paddling. For this reason, all paddling participants must agree beforehand to at least 4 months of preparatory workouts in rowing, swimming, flotation and endurance training.
Contemporary reenactment permits both males and females to row, unlike the original excursions, with one of the participants in the 2010 ceremony confined to a wheelchair.
“I am so excited and proud to be a part of the Sacred Mayan Journey,” said Aída Gomez, who is wheelchair bound. Born in Guadalajara but living in Cozumel, she only walks with the help of a walker. But that didn’t stop her from paddling both crossings.
“This was my first time,“ Gomez explains. “And it was great to have my friends, my mom and family to help support me all the way.” She also had the support of her crew. Once her canoe reached shore, fellow oarsmen carried her piggyback so that she could be a part of the ceremony.
Xcaret – Start of the Journey
The inaugural ceremony for the journey begins in Xcaret, known in the Mayan world as Polé.
“The Sacred Mayan Ceremony is special because it reenacts a pilgrimage that took place in the ancient Mayan times and reaches a lot of people. It helps create a sense of belonging to the area,” according to Iliana Rodríguez, Assistant Director for Public Relations and Communications for Xcaret.
It is here where the seven communities arrive in their canoes during the evening. They come to Polé from Acalán, Conil, Ochtankah, Zamá, Xcambó, Xamanhá, and Ichpatun for rituals, dances, and purification ceremonies to honor Ixchel.
With the first rays of sunlight the following morning, the shamans bid the rowers farewell on their journey to goddess Ixchel.
The 300 paddlers are “chosen ones”, serving as messengers who petition the goddess for good favors and blessings. Their successful crossing of the channel was and is essential to ensuring fertility and abundance for the people of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Ixchel Speaks: Delivering the Message at Playa del Carmen
With attendant ceremonial festivities, the rowers are welcomed to Cozumel after their strenuous journey, with family and friends bearing plates of fresh fruit and drink. After a symbolic meeting with the oracle, rowers are given a message from Ixchel to take back to the mainland.
They rest for the night, and then once again undertake the sacred journey across the channel. This time, however, the paddlers carry a message of abundance from Ixchel.
After crossing the sea from Cozumel to Playa del Carmen, the canoeists are greeted by the village shamans and the message of the oracle is delivered with gratitude and celebrations.
But as in most things in life, the journey ends up not being about where you go. The message becomes more about what we learn about the process, and in so doing, what we learn about ourselves. As Jhoni Puc, an oarsman for the past 4 years says: “It’s not about beating the sea; it’s about beating our own negative thoughts, our own fears. We don’t beat a sea, we beat ourselves.”
Have you been on a journey where you conquered your fears? Share your experience below.