Celebrating the New Dawn on a Sacred Maya Journey in Mexico’s Yucatan

It’s 4:30 a.m. in this ancient port of Ppolé (modern-day Xcaret on the Riviera Maya). As I trudge through the pelting rain along dark jungle paths, slipping and sliding across the occasional stone walkway, I can’t help but question my sanity.

My companions and I are clad in the drab, though welcome, hooded plastic ponchos given to us by the organizers of this seemingly mad trek. Between the pelting rain and the crackle of plastic covering my ears I can barely identify who’s hurling curses along the way. One of the photographers is worried about getting his camera wet and under different circumstances the colorful language might be humorous. But for now, I’m just as miserable as he is.

Suddenly, I hear the mournful wail of a conch shell coming to us from a distance. It’s an eerie sound and it stirs me like nothing else could do at this ungodly hour. It reminds me that I am following the re-creation of a sacred journey, one that the mighty Maya first embarked on eons ago.

In Your Bucket Because….

  • You want to embark on a “soulful” journey.
  • You know there’s more to Maya culture than sun and surf.
  • Good for culture hounds and those who are fascinated by mystical experience.

In the Beginning

For more than a thousand years, people from all over the Maya world came here to make the 17-mile canoe trip from this important trading center to the island of Cuzamil (Maya word for “swallow”). Their pilgrimage began days before with a marketplace, where they traded different objects that would be offered to  Ixchel,  goddess of the moon, childbirth, procreation and medicine.  Their currency was the cocoa bean, considered “food of the gods.”

Contrary to modern opinion, the Maya have not disappeared. Descendants of this storied civilization are alive and well and continue to carry on rituals introduced by their ancestors centuries ago. This one, the “Sacred Maya Journey” — rekindled in 2006 and held every spring — draws people from all over the world.

A New Dawn

Local chieftain prepares for the “fiesta” (photo credit: Michelle da Silva Richmond c 2012)

In 2012, the journey held profound significance, since December 21, 2012 marks the end of the 5,125-year cycle in Maya cosmology. Contrary to popular belief, this date was never intended to portend  the end of the world, but rather, to foretell the start of a new calendar cycle. The modern Maya scoff at the apocalyptic predictions of doomsday: For the people of this magical peninsula, the new calendar is the beginning of a new era: a time of hope, renewal, and harmony with the universe.

The ancient Maya had a civilization that thrived in southern Mexico and Central America from around 500 BC until the 16th century when the Spanish conquistadores arrived. I find myself wondering what their descendants are feeling this early morning as they prepare to reenact this solemn voyage across the sea.

“Pure” Preparations

Maya marketplaces thrive to this day in the area (photo credit: Michelle da Silva Richmond c 2012)

The night before the journey, participants were invited to a recreated Maya village. We exchanged our pesos for cacao seeds (the Maya currency)  and then bartered for crafts, food and herbs, just as the Mayas did centuries ago. When night fell, a local shaman went down to the sea and staged a colorful purification ceremony to the goddess Ixchel and the new cycle. People young and old participated. With the colors, the joyful feelings, and the beat of the drums, it was definitely “fiesta time” in the Maya world.

The Journey Begins

The next morning, it is time for us to make the journey. As we near the beach in the early light, the wail of the conch shell and the pungent odor of copal incense drift toward us. The pounding of the surf and the dark menacing clouds cannot dampen my enthusiasm at being here for this mystical celebration. Then, almost as if on cue, the clouds part, the rain stops and the sky lightens, revealing a row of roughly hewn canoes lining the shore, perfectly poised for departure.

Dawn breaks on the ancient port of Ppolé (photo credit: Michelle da Silva Richmond c 2012)

Around 5:30 a.m. the canoeros (rowers) clad largely in traditional white Maya garments emerge in a torch-lit procession. A loud roar bursts from the crowd. Some 300 men and women, who have trained for six months, both physically and spiritually, for this journey, climb into the 28 waiting canoes.

After a final blessing from the shaman and the release of dozens of colorful macaws, they head off to sea, accompanied by dolphins that seemingly appear out of nowhere, along with two Mexican Navy vessels and a host of private boats,  including the one I am sailing in. We accompany them for about an hour, and then bidding them Godspeed with a flourish of hand gestures and shouts, we head back to shore.

It seems that Ixchel is with them today as the sea becomes calm and they reach their sacred island in record time: 3 hours 50 minutes. When they reach Cozumel, they are greeted by a cast of thousands and are allowed a well- earned rest, until 8 p.m. when they consult with the Oracle of the goddess Ixchel and take part in a Fire Ceremony at Chankanaab Park. The next day, at 5:30 a.m., the canoeros bid farewell to Cozumel and make the return crossing to the mainland at Playa del Carmen, where they are greeted with yet more fanfare.

The next date for the Sacred Voyage has been set  for May 23 – 25, 2013 and I make a mental note to return. I can’t wait for my date with the goddess Ixchel next year because I have it on good authority that the world will not end in December.


  • The Riviera Maya stretches 100 miles south of  Cancun.
  • Fly into Cancun International Airport.
  • Public transportation is available from there. Often, hotels provide transportation.
  • For more information, Riviera Maya Tourist Bureau




  1. Tom says

    Wonderfully vivid account, intertwining historical and personal perspective. Reading this, I felt that I was THERE – and that I understood the meaning behind everything that I was seeing.

  2. says

    This is a fascinating trip. Maya culture is still very much alive in Mexico. In the state of Campeche, where I live in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, there’s a town where people dig up their forebears every All Saints’ Day to wash the bones and provide their ancestors with a ritual meal.

    • Michelle da Silva Richmond says

      I’ve never heard of digging them up but I do know that throughout Mexico they go to the cemeteries on Nov. 1 with the deceased dearly beloved’s favorite food and drink to “convivir” or spend time with them. It turns into a raucous celebration. I’ve written about it many times.


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