Connecting with the Maya in Mexico
Perhaps the most exciting part of modern day travel is experiencing ancient cultures, especially in the case of the Maya. From history buffs and scholars, researchers and authors who thrive on historical facts and figures to travelers seeking new cultural encounters, experiencing the magic of the sacred Maya culture is northing short of other-worldly.
The Maya culture has long been a mysterious and fascinating part of Mexico’s rich history. With the abundance of ancient cultural sites, original indigenous languages, arts and crafts, cuisine, native music, dance and timeless customs, the Maya culture still thrives today in Yucatán Peninsula and beyond.
Capturing the world’s attention as the end of an era approaches, (December 21, 2012 marks the end of the Maya Long Count, a 5,125-year cycle), and the beginning of a new one draws near, here are a few ways in which you can meet the Maya and learn about their sacred cultural traditions.
Maya Day of the Dead - Hanal Pixán
Dia de los Muertos – or Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico as an homage of life where families throughout Mexico take part in a religious ceremony, honoring those who have passed. Through customized altars built and covered with colorful decorations, photos of loved ones, candles, paper mache skeletons or calaveras, skull candies, special breads and food and drink, the concept of death is celebrated throughout Mexico from October 31 to November 2.
November 1st, a national holiday in many historically Catholic countries, is All Saints’ Day when the spirits of children are thought to return, while November 2nd, All Souls’ Day, honors the souls of adults and all of the faithfully departed.
This time of year in Mexico is a special time to show great respect through this deeply rooted tradition and tribute to all who have passed, from babies to the elderly.
The Maya Day of the Dead is called Hanal Pixán, which translates to “feast of souls” in the Mayan language. It is celebrated similarly to Day of the Dead but with foods unique to the Maya area including mucbipollo (buried chicken), large chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in an underground pit with gourds of tan-chucua, a thick corn drink flavored with crushed cacao beans, pepper and aniseed. This meal is eaten and enjoyed by the Maya along with balche, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and tree bark. The meal is enjoyed by both the spirits, who are thought to consume its essence, and by the participants.
It is said that during this time, the Maya abstain from certain tasks such as hunting and sewing so as not to injure one of the wandering souls.
In Yucatán, visit Mérida for special festivities in the streets and at the local cemeteries. Don’t miss the annual celebration of the “Festival of Life and Death” at Xcaret eco-park in Quintana Roo. During this festival, the park is filled with rhythmic drum beats, the scent of burning copal, faces painted like skeletons, and an abundance of orange and yellow marigolds. Special festivities include concerts, plays, dances, art exhibitions and a variety of children’s activities. Be sure to visit the park’s authentic Mexican Cemetery, built cone-shaped, with seven levels and 365 different tombs. With more than 40 different natural and cultural attractions here, you can enhance or expand your appreciation of the Maya and Mexican culture.
Traditional Maya Bee Honey Harvesting Ceremony in Xel-Há
Twice a year, a traditional Maya bee honey-harvest ceremony (Xunaan-Cab or Melipona) takes place at Xel-Há, a natural aquarium park located in Riviera Maya, Quintana Roo.
The purpose of the festival, which is presented during a full moon in June and December, is to clean or unclog the jobones, (hollow trunks that represent beehives) and to collect the honey. Extensively cultured by the Maya for honey and regarded as sacred, the unique Melipona (of the Meliponini tribe) are stingless bees and produce a very high nutritional and medicinal type of honey.
A beautiful ceremony is conducted by a Maya priest who leads a ritual through offerings of thankfulness to Maya deities for their blessings and for the bees’ fertility. Xel-Há promotes the rescue of this ancient tradition of the Yucatán Peninsula as the Melipona bee is considered endangered.
Other activities can include a visit to Chichen Itza (any day, year round). A visit to this spectacular archeological site and large pre-Columbian city built by the Maya civilization is a must but particularly during Spring and Autumn equinoxes, in the late afternoon when the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows on El Castillo to evoke the appearance of a serpent. Or experience Momentos Sagrados Mayas (Sacred Mayan Moments), a seasonal play and indigenous Maya festival with a cast of inhabitants from the east part of Yucatán is staged every Sunday from January to March in X’ocen near Valladolid and presented by the Laboratorio de Teatro Campesino e Indígena on an open-air stage.
As the Maya (and Mayan calendar) have captured the world’s attention, perhaps now, more than ever, participation in a cultural Maya experience is essential for any itinerary.