Riviera Maya: Where Past and Present Live

ArticleJessica SoltComment

In my mind, the perfect visit to the Riviera Maya involves more cenotes and less hours lounging by the infinity pool. More sipping xtabentún—an anise and honey liquor made in Yucatan—and less salt-rimmed-margaritas. More papadzules and absolutely no Señor Frog’s.

Millions flock to Cancun each year to run away from life, cold weather, and strict drinking laws. Who can blame them? But for me there is something enticing about this part of Mexican’s Caribbean coast that you can’t find anywhere else. Something hidden in the deep jungle, bathed by the sea, spread from generation to generation by word of mouth: Maya culture. Going back to your city of origin without an attempt at understanding even a spoonful of this magical civilization is a sin in my book.

I remember the first time I saw a cenote. The year must have been 2003 and my sister and friends were driving a little vocho—the tiny old VW beetle—along the Mayan Riviera in search of these unique oases. By the time I laid my eyes on those clear, cool waters I was already peeling off my clothes to take a plunge. This time around, we drive down the road to Tulum and explore Cenote Azul, Dos Ojos, and Cristal. The word comes from dzonot, defined by the Mayan dictionary as a “hole filled with water which is abysmal and deep”. It is formed when groundwater seeps through the cracks of the limestone bedrock, creating a large underground cavern roofed by only a thin layer. Erosion causes the roof to collapse, leaving an open water-filled hole, which over the course of thousands of years collects debris, and forms stalactites and stalagmites—a feast for the senses.

There was a time, not too long ago, when hailing a taxi in the Cancun-Playa del Carmen area was cheap and affordable. Not anymore. If you want to visit the cenotes—and you should— your best bet would be to rent a car and explore them at your own pace. They’re sprinkled all over the peninsula, so fitting them into your trip to Tulum or Chichen-Itza is very doable. Although the Maya believed they could communicate with the gods and ancestors by offering objects and even people into these water pits, I decide not to jump into my death just yet. A quest to find true regional food is my next mission.

Playa del Carmen, originally a small fishing town, is a charming city in the heart of the Riviera. It is a favorite spot for backpackers from all over the world and home to thousands of expatriates. La Quinta Avenida, or Fifth Avenue, is the busiest part of town and a place where pedestrians move freely on foot, surrounded by shops, bars, and restaurants. This is where we find Yaxche, a restaurant known to preserve Maya culinary traditions while incorporating the local Yucatán flavors.

I feel reluctant to order the Margarita Maya but then I’m pleasantly surprised by the combination of cucumber, orange, tequila, chile piquin, and chaya—a green shrub that is commonly found in dishes from the area. “We offer three styles of food,” says Yaxche’s Executive Chef David Reyes Jaramillo, “traditional Maya cuisine, the kind that has traveled orally from generation to generation; Mestizo cuisine, which incorporates Maya and Yucatecan flavors; and contemporary Maya, where we use modern cooking techniques to prepare traditional dishes.”

The moment our food hits the table my mouth begins to water. The Panuchos de cochinita are tasty without being pretentious; tortillas filled with chicken cooked in a subtle citrus marinade, topped with tart pickled red onions and silky avocado slices. I feel tempted by the tortilla chips and salsa, but have to be cautious since this is habanero salsa. Proceed only if you are brave enough to conquer the heat. The Tsic is a deep fried tortilla topped with shrimp and fish, tomato, avocado and cilantro, crunchy and refreshing. Brazo de reina, Yucatan’s own unique take on tamal, is made from corn masa, egg, chaya and pumpkin seeds—another ingredient commonly found in this type of cuisine. Then we face a long yellow pepper and wonder if it is safe to dissect. “They can be very spicy,” warns our server. It is called Pibxcatic, a xcatic pepper filled with cochinita pibil. Since it’s no trip to hell, we finish it all. We move onto the Papadzules, tortillas prepared with boiled eggs in a creamy epazote and pumpkin seed sauce, an original delight.

Chef Reyes explains he came to the Yucatan Peninsula to attend Gastronomy School and fell in love with Maya cuisine when he spent months living among Maya people doing his social service, a requirement for all Mexican college students to graduate. “I was supposed to help their communities, but they ended up teaching me the cooking techniques I use today, which is more than I could ever hope for,” says Chef Reyes with a smile.

Everywhere you go people speak Maya. There are approximately 6 million Maya living today in Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize. The juxtaposition of ancient traditions and western customs confirms the fact that they belong to both worlds. It isn’t hard to find close-knit Maya communities where they practice a hybrid of Maya beliefs and rituals, and Catholicism. Their houses are usually made from palma de guano or xa’an, which means “that which offers shade”, a material that provides cool living environments and a rain-resistant structure. They subsist on agriculture and farming, speak the native language, and the luckiest even enjoy the luxury of having their own cenote.

Just south of Tulum, and somewhat off the beaten track, you find the majestic Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. A place that goes ignored by the average visitor maybe because it offers a raw look at nature, as opposed to Xel–Ha or Xcaret, modern one-stop eco-parks tailored for tourists. The reserve is home to the Muyil and Chunyaxché lagoons, and the Muyil archeological site, one of the earliest inhabited ancient Maya cities on the eastern coast of Yucatan. The ruins feature a series of structures, which show evidence of pre-Hispanic Maya settlements. After walking through the majestic display of architecture left behind, we venture into the jungle through a boardwalk that takes us to the lagoon. The vertigo-immune climb a wooden structure to get a viewpoint of the entire reserve, while the rest continue their journey.

Once at the lagoon, a motorboat takes us to a canal system dredged by the ancient Maya to link the sea entrance at Boca Paila to the lagoons. This allowed them to trade goods such as jade, obsidian, chocolate, and chewing gum with other towns. The beautiful narrow canals are surrounded by mangrove and marshy lands. The only thing you need is a life-vest to let the subtle current drag you for a few miles until you reach the other side of a wooden path that takes you back to the boat. There is a small ruin right by the entrance of the small canal, which is believed to have been a customs office of sorts. I’m glad I don’t need a visa to wander these grounds.

The next day I’m torn between excitement and nervousness. I’ve never been to a temazcal before and the little information I have about them is that the heat can be overwhelming. This type of sweat bath was born in Mesoamerica, a tradition that wasn’t used for ceremonial purposes but as a therapeutic and healing instrument.

We take the small road to Dos Ojos Cenote and turn right to enter a small Maya village. In spite of the few signs of modern life reaching this community, it seems as though time stands still. I spot a spider monkey chained to a rope that connects two trees and I am naive enough to salute the creature. A few seconds later, she’s on my head with no intention of letting go. Panic invades me. A villager comes to my rescue, warning me about how she can bite on occasion. I’m thinking this is not the best start to the ritual I am about to experience.

Fredy, our Shaman, comes out to greet us. He has prepared an offering plants and incense on a stone table. We stand still, breathe the copal and drink a concoction made from balché and honey. “It has purifying effects,” he explains. The taste is so pleasant that I almost want to ask for seconds. It’s time to blow the conch and the Shaman has the largest one, its whistling sound so perfect. Only mute air comes out of mine. We then gather around a circle of concrete and our host salutes the cosmic Gods. There is a fire burning in the center of the circle, the atmosphere already scorching hot. He “cleans” us with a palm tree before entering the domed structure where we’re supposed to get rid of evil spirits, toxins, and illness. We are asked to rub aloe all over our bodies. The gelatinous plant gives our skins a soothing sensation. Outside, his helper closes the tiny door and now we sit in a room of blackness.

Together we sing and meditate while rivers of sweat leave our bodies. The Shaman keeps feeding the herbal water to the hot volcanic rocks in the central pit, creating the steam that fills our man-made cave. “Clap twice if you need to leave,” he says right at the beginning. But who would dare break the spell? The trance so hard to disrupt.

Is the Earth swallowing me alive?

I’m becoming more aware of my breathing and my pulse as time goes by. My heart would jump out of my chest if it could. I try to relax. A mix of eucalyptus, orange, basil, rosemary, copal, and epazote—intoxicating aromas—fills the air. The heat is dense (your body temperature can reach 104 degrees) and I search for a cool spot against floor—the only viable comfort aside from actually escaping through the tiny door.

The temazcal is pitch-dark and we are reaching the climax of the ritual, the part where our Shaman invites us to let go of our emotions. “Laugh, cry, scream, if you need to!” Fredy urges. Not a minute goes by when I hear a woman sobbing four feet away from where I’m sitting. I can’t offer any consolation. The Shaman begins to throw water from his bucket in our direction, which offers unexpected relief.

Daylight and fresh air creeps in as the door opens. The sensation in our bodies is hard to describe. Our Shaman announces we are free of evil and illness—I believe him. He wants to close our pores with warm water so we meet him outside and kneel in front of him in an act that resembles a christening. I want water, in drinking form, but we are banned from this indulgence just yet. Instead, they guide us into their own backyard cenote and we dive into its turquoise waters.

For a moment I forget about my thirst, the mosquito cloud that is bound to hunt me down the minute I come out of the water, and the bats that flap their wings from one side of the cave to the other. If these were my last minutes on Earth, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.