The Riviera Maya on the Yucatan of Mexico is a very special place. Thick tropical jungles of lush greenery embrace the pale yellow, soft sand of the playas, or beaches, which are continually kissed by gentle waves of the warm, clear aqua-green, opalescent Caribbean waters. As I lazily watch fluffy white clouds drift across the azure sky, I lie on a comfortable beach chair warmed by the bright sun and think of the people who have come and gone from these beautiful shores. Since over a millennium before Christ, the Mayan civilization thrived in this rich peninsula and preserved the land that provided their needs with abundant fruits and animals, birds, and sealife. The Yucatan has many cenotas ,or underground fresh water rivers, flowing through limestone tunnels and caves, which the Mayans kept pure as their source of life. And, thanks to the strict building codes and careful planning of current developers and the government, visitors can still enjoy much of the unspoiled landscape and seascape of the ancients.
In the 16th century the Spaniards arrived by ships and took over by force, killing many Mayans with swords or with European diseases. These armies brought Catholicism to the Indians and took riches and slaves. In time the Conquistadors established themselves as conquerors and built missions, set up trade, exchanged knowledge, and inter-married with the Mayans, creating the mixed, or Mexican population.
But some of the Mayans deep within the jungle villages were spared the invasion and have kept their lifestyles and skills and beliefs somewhat intact from ancient times. In the 20th century people began leaving these villages to find work in towns. But some of these Mayan villages still exist within the jungles of Riviera Maya and their heritage and ways are respected. AllTourNative.com has created eco-tours which help these people preserve their way of village life with income from the eco-tourism enterprise. We traveled a couple of hours from Cancun Airport south to see the remarkable Archeological Site of Coba. We were able to climb to the top of the tallest ancient stone buildings and see the jungle and valley for miles around. We rode rented bikes through the large historic site for a wonderful morning. Then we were shuttled on a straight road several miles into the deep jungle, where we turned right at the tallest pine tree and arrived at the Mayan village of PacChen. It was a thrill to visit in the town which is home to many families, who were healthy, clean, happy and friendly. Their small palapa houses with dirt floors and thatch roofs have never had signs of modern life until the summer of 2008 when they received electricity, The first thing they did with the money they had earned from tourist visits was to buy a television for the village!
In Pac Chen we found wonderful activities to fill all the rest of our daylight hours. We had a guided tour into the jungle, learning about the vegetation, poisonous plants, and the animal life, which is mainly nocturnal. After walking for a half hour we came to an altar site where an authentic Mayan Shaman, or holy man, conducted a cleansing blessing and prayer service before we were allowed to proceed. Years ago the shaman had prayed fervently for a way for villagers to earn money and preserve their village. When AlltourNative company worked with the village to develop tours and activities yet preserve the jungle and the authentic Mayan way of life, the shaman was grateful and made a vow to God that he would conduct this cleansing blessing with every visitor in order to give thanks and to protect the cenote the tourists would visit. We formed a circle and the Mayan shaman carried a small incense burner made from a hand hewn log, which held the hot copal resin, burning fragrantly as the offering to the spirits. With a branch of one of the local trees he fanned the heavy smelling smoke onto each visitor individually as he said a prayer in his native language, looking heavenward. Then he placed the incense on the altar of flowers and fruits and lit candles, praying and bowing. Then we were allowed to go on to the cenote activity.
A sturdy stone well had been built around a large hole in the limestone. We could look down deep below and see the clear, cool, underground river. With modern climbers’ rope, harnesses, and caribinders, we repelled from the well into the fresh water where innertubes awaited us for the fun floating. When we were ready to ascend we had a modern rope ladder to climb up through another well that was above ground. What a thrilling experience. We were ready for a hot meal!
We walked back to the center of Pac Chen where the villagers had been preparing for us. On the night before we arrived a farm-grown pig had been butchered and dressed for cooking. It was wrapped in banana leaves and placed in a metal pot with a lid. The village men had dug a pit into the earth, and the large pot was placed on hot coals and then buried beneath palm leaves and dirt and rocks for 12 hours. We all watched and took pictures as the shaman ceremoniously dug up our dinner. It smelled delicious. The women, dressed in their lovely white dresses with elaborate colored flowers hand-embroidered on the yokes, had been making hundreds of corn tortillas all morning. They sat on the floor and made masa balls with their hands and then patted them on a low wooden table until they were perfect small circles. Then they fried them over an open fire.
We had a feast on tables covered with hand-embroidered white cloths which were protected by clear plastic overlays. We had never eaten such delicious small black beans and perfect rice. We rolled our pulled pork in tortillas and doused them with native pepper sauces the women had made, some very hot. We quenched our thirst and the peppery burn with freshly squeezed fruit juices the women had also prepared for us. No city restaurant could equal this delicious, home-prepared meal! We tried in English and Spanish to say thank you to our modest hosts, but they still speak Mayan and could only understand our big smiles.
Some of us had been concerned about finding bathroom facilities or pure water to drink, but purified water was available. Bathroom facilities were modest and clean and were western style toilets, which use a natural compost system to stay sanitary and odor free.
There were boats we could take out on the picturesque lake, and swimming was fun for those who wished to take a dip. We all wanted to purchase the simple handcrafts in the little village hut in order to help preserve the Mayan crafts. There were hand-carved animals of wood or stone, many kinds of jewelry, embroideries, pottery, Mayan calendars of ceramic, and other items. The hand-woven hammocks and hand-embroidered clothing were especially popular, and all were modestly priced.
We noticed a few cars in the village and learned the villagers do go into larger towns for supplies. They are isolated only by choice and with the determination to preserve their culture. We wondered, as we left, how much the new television will change the way of life and alter this beautiful native culture. The Mexican government provides schools within the jungle villages through elementary grades, and then the children must go to larger towns to continue their education. It was a day we will never forget, and it changed us, giving us first-hand knowledge of how people can live gently on the earth, without abusing or raping the environment with greed.