Last updated: 03:00 AM ET, Fri April 24 2015

Opinion Home | Far-Sighted Field Notes

  • Rosalind Cummings-Yeates | April 24, 2015 3:00 AM ET

    A Glimpse Into Yucatan Mayan Traditions

    A Glimpse Into Yucatan Mayan Traditions

    All photos by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

    Intrigued by the ancient history of the Maya, I journeyed to the heart of Mayan culture in the Yucatan Peninsula to grab an up close and personal look at that culture’s traditional rituals. Stepping onto the gleaming marble floors of the JW Marriott Cancun lobby, I was greeted with the traditional Mayan welcome of In Lak’ech Ala, which translates to “I am you and you are me,” a statement of unity and oneness that runs through all of the ancient teachings.

    Mayan Massage

    My first Mayan experience was the Hunab Ku traditional massage. I was guided into the resort’s spa, which is adorned with  fountains, Mayan carvings, and statues, as well as a juice bar. I sipped freshly squeezed carrot and beet juice until my masseuse Barbara, led me to a room filled with burning incense, flowers, copal plant leaves, and balche, the sacred bark used in important Mayan rituals. Blowing on an ocarina wind instrument, Barbara started the massage by chanting, “Tene U susilem/Tene U ya cuma/Tene U kmac a holalem,” which translates to “I am the light, I am the peace, I am love, I am harmony.”  

    Mayan massage is noted for deep tissue techniques, especially around the abdominal area. Barbara stretched my arms and firmly  massaged my shoulder blades to release tension before she started. Traditionally, the balche bark is mixed with fermented honey for a ceremonial drink but for my massage, the pounded bark was blended with honey and flowers and slathered all over my body. The sensation felt goopy and tingly.

    Copal leaves are typically burned to clear the energy but the aroma is so strong that the spa substitutes Nag Champa incense. With the heady fragrance swirling through the room, Barbara vigorously massaged my toes, fingers, face and body. I drifted off as she blew the ocarina and the soothing tones echoed around me. After what seemed like an hour, but must have been 20 minutes, of the 80 minute massage, Barbara gently wiped the balche from my feet and legs as she helped me to the shower.

    Contemplating the treatment, I felt light-headed and freer, as if the massage had wiped away a year’s worth of stress.

    Sampling Mayan Dishes

    A stop in the old colonial town of Valladolid, on the eastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, provided a chance to sample an array of traditional Mayan dishes. I relaxed in the colorful ambiance of La Casona, a hacienda style restaurant that serves up Mayan meals with an elaborate buffet. First, I  tasted the wonderfully fragrant soup, sopa de lima. One of the most popular menu items in the region, the soup mixes chicken, spices, and bunches of sweet local limes for an invigorating start to any meal.

    The next dish I tried was the hallmark of Mayan cuisine, pescado tikin xic (pronounced teek n cheek), which features grilled fish usually grouper or red snapper, marinated in anchiote paste and then grilled in banana leaves. The fish was savory and tender with delicate spices accenting the mild fish flavor. The dish was accompanied by chaya, a leafy green vegetable that’s used for meals and healing. Purported to contain more iron, calcium and potassium than spinach, it’s used in stews soups and even drinks.

    My chaya was lightly sautéed and seasoned with garlic, for a  mellow flavor similar to mustard greens. Fried plantains, which tastes like sweet bananas, rounded out the meal. I washed all of this down with  local juices, tamarindo, a tart tropical fruit and guyanaba, a milky sweet fruit. All of this food was fortification for my visit to the ancient Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza.

    The Serpent Shadow at Chichen Itza

    No visit to the Yucatan is complete without viewing the sacred Mayan site of Chichen Itza. Shamen and priestesses hold rituals in the shadow of the Temple of Kukulkan, the massive pyramid that exhibits the astrological and architectural skill of the ancient Maya. Designated as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, the temple boasts a detailed structure that includes 91 steps on four sides, which add up to 364, almost the number of days in a calendar year.

    Master mathematicians and builders, the Maya constructed the site to honor the celestial changes that they held sacred, such as equinoxes. I was fortunate to visit during the spring equinox, when the sinking shadow of the sun creates a shadow dance that resembles the serpent god Kukulkan.

    Crowds from all over the world pour into the six-mile area of Chichen Itza to witness the spectacle.  Locals were dressed all in white, to signify reverence for the ritual. Some observers chanted, others played drums. A thick wall of people surrounded the pyramid to gain a clear view of the shadow.

    At 4 p.m., I glimpsed a small shadow forming at the top of the stairs of the pyramid. As the sun lowered, the shadow stretched out to resemble a 120-foot long snake creeping down the pyramid until it joined the massive serpent head at the bottom of the stairway. The crowd hushed as they watched the symbol of Kukulkan, the serpent god, come to life and appear to slither down the pyramid. It was an otherworldly experience to witness ancient Mayan astrological wisdom centuries later.

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Rosalind Cummings-Yeates Far-Sighted Field Notes

Rosalind Cummings-Yeates Rosalind Cummings-Yeates is a journalist, author and blogger who specializes in travel and culture topics. She loves guiding readers through the richness of various cultures and discovering the essence of a destination. Her travel and culture blog, Farsighted Fly Girl, offers travel insights through the music, food, art and history of various countries and cultures. Join her on the journey at www.Rosalindcummingsyeates.
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