I’m swimming in darkness, but I’m not afraid. The flowing water—black, slightly cool—carries me effortlessly along. Sometimes I see others bobbing around me, paddling slowly. I pass them, preferring to swim with the current, my arms reaching forward, my legs kicking to a rhythm deep within.
As I glide through the limestone tunnels, crevices in the rock reveal glimpses of daylight. Exits float by for those who feel they can’t make it the one and a half miles this river snakes along underground, but I’m compelled to continue, reveling in this sensation of moving through the cool, wet darkness, feeling weightless, suspended in another time and place.
When it’s over, I climb out into the brilliant afternoon sun, exhilarated and a little tired. I’m in a nature park called Xcaret, full of happy families. A few steps away the Caribbean Sea undulates eastward, glistening under a shimmering blue sky. Rope hammocks sway under stately palm trees, and in the soft breeze, the fronds seem to whisper, “Come, lie down for a spell, and let your cares blow away.” I’m tempted, but I turn my back to the sea, for if I let the magic of the Mayan Riviera take hold, I may never come to my senses again.
This is my first real visit to Mexico. Oh sure, I crossed the border once into Tijuana during a visit to San Diego, but that city seemed a facsimile of what I perceived the real Mexico to be. On this trip I’m intent on exploring the rich culture and heritage of our neighbor to the south.
I’m staying in Cancun, which at first glance may seem an unlikely place to seek an authentic Mexican experience. After all Cancun is known for its towering resort hotels and wild nightlife. But at every turn I’m discovering that this jewel of a destination, spread like a bracelet through azure waters at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, offers much more: up-close encounters with nature, historical ruins, adventurous outings, plus towers and nightlife of a different kind.
And, by the way, it’s also perfectly fine to relax on gorgeous beaches, sample exquisite gastronomy, enjoy a Mayan massage, and do a little shopping. That’s the beauty of Cancun and environs: no matter what you’re looking for, it’s all here!
HEAVEN ON A HAMMOCK
I’ve picked a perfect time to explore Mexican culture. My arrival coincides with an ancient annual tradition: Hanal Pixan, or Day of the Dead, which occurs October 31-November 2 every year. During this time, Mexicans welcome back the souls of loved ones. In preparation, families set up altars in their homes, placing on them special treats and traditional food for the souls to enjoy. October 31 is dedicated to the souls of infant children, and this evening I’ll be attending a traditional Mayan ceremony. I can’t wait.
But first I’m heading to a nature park called Garrafon, which sits on one end of Isla Mujeres, The Island of Women, just a short boat ride from Cancun. Here in a gorgeous setting, visitors enjoy swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking, as well as the opportunity to learn about Mayan culture.
At the eastern tip of the island, ruins of a temple to the Mayan goddess Shell invite exploration. “She is the most important goddess,” Geraldo, our guide, explains, “and that’s why this island is known for its fertility powers. Even today a lot of people come here with fertility problems and,” he says, smiling, “they get pregnant.”
After a hearty buffet lunch at the tropical Tamarindo restaurant, I decide to try Garrafon’s zip line, a thrilling descent over woods and water involving three towers. In case you’ve never been on a zip line, this means jumping off and coming in for a landing three times, the scariest parts of the journey. I’m a bit nervous as I get strapped into my halter and prepare to zip away.
The first segment descends at a fairly steep angle down over treetops toward the second tower. I want to close my eyes, but I need to pay attention where I’m going so I don’t crash into the tower. A piece of wood acts as a brake to slow me down, and the trick is to pull down on it at exactly at the right time. If I’m too quick, I’ll stop before I get to the landing. If I wait too late to brake, I’ll crash into the tower. Luckily, I land intact. The person behind me brakes too soon, however, and one of the nimble attendants has to crawl monkey-like out on the rope and reel her in. Two zips later, I’m on solid ground, not sure that thrill seeking suits me.
Since the surf’s a little rough, snorkeling proves a disappointment, so I spend a little while in Hammock Heaven, a forest of hammocks strung between palm trees overlooking the Caribbean Sea. I close my eyes and languish in the breeze, losing myself in the simple pleasures of the moment. Too soon the boat whistle signals it’s time to return to Cancun, and I reluctantly leave Hammock Heaven behind.
IN THE SHADOW OF RUINS
That night under a sky bright with stars and rolling clouds we join local townspeople in the shadow of Mayan ruins for a special celebration performed by Mayan priests who have come from deep in the jungle. It’s pitch black as we walk to the site. Even nearby streetlights have been turned off for this special event. Ahead in a clearing we see an altar with a crowd of fifty people kneeling around it, holding candles, the flames dancing in the gentle wind. A dim light over the altar reveals a display of food items in front of which the Mayan priest prays. He speaks Spanish, and I can’t understand a word, so I listen to the musical rhythm of his prayer and, as my eyes become adjusted to the night, watch the local townsfolk around me.
I’m surprised at how many families with young children are here taking part in this mystical celebration. A strange feeling hangs over this place: solemn but at the same time joyous, a sense of continuity—personified, it seems, by the little ones, who remind us of other little ones who left the earth too soon.
After the prayer ends, everyone stands listening to the priest explain the traditions surrounding the Day of the Dead. Since I can’t follow what he’s saying, I decide to open up my senses to the dynamics of this place, this magical scene with Mayan ruins serving as a backdrop. Strolling around under the vast night sky, I glance up to see a star shooting across the blackness, a message from above, reminding me of how fleeting life can be.
THE RHYTHMS OF NATURE
The next day we visit Xcaret, about an hour south of Cancun, which offers an array of adventurous activities, ranging from up-close encounters with nature to opportunities for exploring Mayan culture and history. After my swim in the magical underground river, I wander along Xcaret’s manicured paths and boardwalks, discovering hidden treasures at every turn. Here I stroll past a pond with a manatee lazily swimming in aqua water; over there families wait patiently to swim with dolphins.
Other paths lead to a butterfly pavilion, an orchid farm, a coral reef aquarium, even a jaguar exhibit. Around a bend, I stumble upon authentic Mayan ruins in the midst of a small patch of overgrown jungle. In fact, the land on which Xcaret sits was once revered as a center for Mayan celebrations. The developers of Xcaret have taken great measures to ensure the park educates visitors as well as entertains them.
The newest addition to Xcaret, opening tonight at sunset, is a Mayan Village Cemetery, which rises like a small mountain in the midst of the park. Dignitaries and townspeople alike gather at the cemetery’s entrance as the sun sinks down in a peachy-pink sky. A priest leads a procession up 52 steps into the cemetery, which features 365 faux tombs, each one decorated with candles and items of food. Instead of ordinary gray slabs, these graves boast bright colors from pastels to deep pinks and blues, made even more brilliant by the sun’s last rays.
As the priest circles through the cemetery, blessing the tombs, I begin to understand why the Day of the Dead is so important to the Mexican culture. By welcoming the departed souls back into their lives each year, today’s generations feel a closeness to the loved ones who have passed on.
A clutch of colorful balloons dances over a nearby tomb next to a statue of the Virgin Mary, an incongruous combination perhaps, yet it feels right somehow. At that moment, I feel a peacefulness within and recall the shooting star from last night’s ceremony in the dark shadows of the Mayan ruins. It’s as if I need to be here in this place now, learning a lesson from the Mayans about life and death and the rhythms of nature.
DEEPER INTO THE JUNGLE
Our last full day is spent in Cancun, visiting restaurants, viewing altars, and exploring the Popular Arts Museum, which features colorful folk art. I find a straw cowboy hat for around seven bucks and decide to please my inner cowgirl by buying it. Later we browse through a huge market complex with Mexican pottery, fabric, jewelry, and trinkets for sale. Haggling is expected and encouraged, and I buy a few shell necklaces for a song.
I’ve been staying at the J.W. Marriott Cancun Resort and Spa with luxurious oceanfront rooms, a heavenly breakfast buffet, lush landscaping, crystal-clear pools, and a ribbon of white-sand beach out front. The resort’s world-class spa is over 35,000 square feet, including a state-of-the-art fitness center. I take the time to enjoy a Mayan massage my last morning in Cancun. In a dimly lit room, smelling of earthy incense, the therapist begins by reciting Mayan blessings over my bare back. She proceeds to cleanse my aura, using a special Tiger-eye stone to purify me. Designed to improve the digestive system, the massage makes me melt into the table, my thoughts swirling around as the images of this magical place combine with my imagination to produce a euphoria quite unlike I’ve ever known.
There’s something about the ancient culture here that I feel in my bones, and I know I must visit the land of the Mayans again one day so that I can explore this soul-stirring corner of Mexico further. Only next time I will go deeper into the jungle.
For more information:
• Tourist Information: Call 01152-998-884-6531 or visit www.cancun.info
• Garrafon Park: Call 00152-998-849-4950 or visit www.garrafon.com
• Xcaret: Call 00152-998-898-1900 or visit www.xcaret.net
• J.W. Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa: Call 01152-998-881-2000 or visit www.jwmarriottcancunresort.com