The azure blue waters of the Caribbean, with white sandy beaches, sunny skies and warm breezes are enough to attract a lot of Canadians to Cancun. We are told that 80% of their visitors are either Canadian or American. However, for those who are looking for a little more adventure, the Yucatan Peninsula can offer some surprises.
A Mayan Encounter Tour by Alltournative sounded different. The itinerary said, “Discover Coba and climb Nohoch Muul, the tallest pyramid in the Northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula. Now that intrigued me. I am fascinated by the archeological ruins that have been unearthed in various places around the world. Next the itinerary said, “Visit a Mayan village.” The opportunity to visit a people who trace their civilization to Pre-Hispanic days also intrigued me. However, also included in this itinerary was paddling a kayak on a Mayan lagoon, rappelling into a cenote, and flying on a zip line! My immediate response to those activities was, “Forget it. Those aren’t for me. I’ll just watch.” However, one day after receiving the itinerary, an e-mail came in that happened to have a picture of a zip line at Whistler, B.C. When I read that it was a steel cable, I began to rethink my immediate response. Instead of downright refusal to consider the idea, I decided to reserve my decision until I saw what it was all about. I certainly wanted to see the pyramid and the other archeological discoveries at Coba and I wanted the opportunity to visit the Mayan people, but we would have to wait and see what the rest was all about.
We had an early start that morning. Our guide, Ricardo Cortez, turned out to be a very versatile and personable young man. He was also our driver, who gave us a running commentary of what we were seeing and going to see on the two hour drive to our destination. He took charge of our safety and became the cheer leader for those who overcame their fears and tested their abilities throughout the day.
The drive took us out to the jungle home of the indigenous Mayan people. These people’s ancestors have a long history in this part of the world. They were the only people here until the Toltecs, from Central Mexico, conquered them over a thousand years ago. As we drove through the villages it was apparent that many of the people still live as their ancestors did centuries ago. Their homes are still made of bamboo poles, standing in a loose frame, without nails, held only by several horizontal poles and roofed with a thatch of palm leaves. I was told the palm leaves are waterproof and will last about ten years. They use white stucco on the inside. The houses are sparsely furnished. The people sleep on hammocks, either individual ones or larger ones that can sleep maybe five people. They prefer the hammocks because they are much cooler in this hot climate. Approximately 80 % of the population is Catholic so many homes have an altar at one end of the room. They may also have a fire for cooking, with an opening in the roof and a few poles at the side removed to allow the smoke to leave. Nowadays, I notice, there may sometimes be a car on the property. We were told that burials took place in the centre of these one room structures. I gather sometimes the smell from the body drove the people to move outside temporarily. I don’t know if that practice still takes place.
After passing through several villages, we drove off onto a rougher road that took us into the Mayan jungle. Eventually we came to a stop near a small dock at the edge of a lagoon. Here several men were waiting for us. We were offered lifejackets. Then we set off in kayaks, in groups of two. Paddling through the first open lagoon, we entered a channel which took us through tall, thick, green reeds. Second in a line of inexperienced kayakers, we were soon heading for the mass of tall weeds. Correcting our direction before being enclosed in the greenery became imperative. I would paddle furiously, hoping to keep the boat on course, however some of the time our momentum would take us into the weeds, before we could correct. Sitting in front it would then be my responsibility to push the boat back out with the oar. Sometimes if we were paddling well and maintaining our direction, we would begin to overtake the preceding boat that was heading into the reeds. In the narrow channel, this was not a desired result. Before long our kayaks broke out into the second open lagoon and our destination, a dock on the far side, came into view. Soon we were all gathered on the other shore.
Ricardo gathered us together and led us onto a trail leading up a hill to sacred Mayan grounds. Here we were met by a Shaman who preformed a ceremony with smoke to cleanse any spirits that might be coming with us. After the ceremony we went into a narrow tunnel, down a series of steps, into an underground cave where we found a Cenote or underground pool of clear, sparkling water that bubbles up through the limestone. It is incredibly beautiful in the cave, with weird shaped stalagmites decorating the walls of the cave. We are told there are fish in the cenote that are blind as they have never seen daylight. Some of our group swam. I sat on the steps in the refreshing, cool, clear water. Two of the men splashed me, apologizing for their actions, but stating that I would feel much better once I was cooled off by the water. Their words were so true!
Our next adventure came when we reached a platform on the side of the hill, overlooking the lagoon. A steel cable was strung down across the jungle lagoons to the other side. It looked like a long way! Well I was there and I decided that I was not going to chicken out at that point. I had developed a trust in Ricardo. He said he didn’t see any reason for me not to try it after all someone who was 65 years old had already done it! I decided to go for it. Ricardo gave us all instructions. Each of us was given a hooked stick to be used as a brake. I was the third to be harnessed up and after Dick and Nancy went across, I pushed off! In seconds, I was free of the platform and flying through the air across the first lagoon, at amazing speed. I put my arms out and felt the air rush by. The view was incredible. I did not see any alligators, although I hear there could have been some down there! Ricardo had instructed us not to apply our brake until we reached the second lagoon, as we would slow our progress too much. As I flew through the air, I spun 180 degrees around so that when I went to apply the brake I found I had it in the wrong hand. Wasting no time, I changed hands and pulled down on the line, only to find the brake was having little effect on my propulsion towards the dock. Pulling still harder, did not seem to be slowing my progress appreciably! I could see two stocky, muscular Mayan men waiting on the dock and could envision myself barreling between them at break-neck speed! As I came flying up to the dock the two men stepped forward and grabbed me, bringing me to a safe and happy stop. I was elated to think that I had had the nerve to try a zip line in the jungle. I had allowed myself to experience something unique and wonderful.
Our next stop was in a Mayan village. Here we were led down a street to a small fence, behind which we found a few steps leading down to small landing. Here again we were to be challenged. The landing was at the top of a precipice. Again several stocky Mayan men were waiting to help us with a new experience. This time Ricardo fastened me into a harness and explained what my responsibilities would be as I descended down to the cenote below. A series of ropes and pulleys would allow me to rappel safely over the cliff. Here I had more difficulty because I knew that I would be letting the rope out as I went down and also I would be kicking off the rock face as I dropped. Ricardo assured us that the men were our back-up and would keep us from ascending too quickly. Again I was the third one over the edge. True to Ricardo’s word, I was not into a freefall, but slowly descended according to the amount of rope I released. What an empowering experience! I quickly passed the rock face and was soon dropping openly down to the base, where another Mayan was waiting to assure my safe landing. A small pool or cenote was right there at the base of the cliff. A big frog was sitting on a rock near the edge of the pool watching the performance. I waited and took pictures of several of my companions as they rappelled over the cliff, before following the path that led me up out of the cenote. Again I was elated to have achieved a physical (and mental) accomplishment that had seemed impossible to me only a short time before.
After all the exercise, we were taken to a covered picnic area, where tables and benches surrounded a tile covered stone counter with brazier. Here the local Mayan women laid out a buffet luncheon they had prepared for us. The food was good and the fruit drink was tasty. Dressed in their traditional white, colorfully embroidered dresses, they carried steaming pots of food from the nearby building. After all the exercise, I was ready for the good meal. After lunch we walked back to the building where our van was parked. Inside we noticed a wall lined with pictures. Upon closer inspection we discovered that the pictures had been taken of us as we flew on the zip line and rappelled down the cliff. The Mayan people put technology to work. Using digital cameras to record their visitor’s accomplishments, then with computers and printers a group of them industriously produced these special mementos of the occasion. Also in the same room they had t-shirts and craftwork, made by local people, displayed for sale. In this ingenious way these people have produced a product for tourists and improved their local economy. I left admiring the Mayan people. They are still a proud civilization.
Our next stop was Coba, once the trading centre of a huge population. This site is one of Mexico’s more recently discovered ancient ruins, only unearthed in the 1980s. A Mayan, government guide explained the site’s history and took us to some of the nearby ruins. Spread over a large area, we had the option of riding bicycles to Nohoch Muul, or being conveyed in two rider pedal-powered vehicles operated by a Mayan youth. After our strenuous day, we all opted for the ride through the green park-like setting. As we proceeded towards our destination other ruins appeared in the foliage. Soon Nohoch Muul was before us. One hundred and twenty stone steps ascended steeply to the top, where a small stone room was barely visible. For safety sake a rope was strung through metal eyes, down the centre of those steps. Eagerly my friends and I began to climb. I stayed close to the rope using it to help pull myself up the steep steps. It was pulled quite taunt as others were using it too. It proved to be unstable for that purpose. Within a dozen steps, others let go and the rope abruptly went slack. I lost my balance, fortunately falling to one side, as others watched in horror. I heard voices call out, “Are you all right Maxine?” from above and below me. I responded to reassure them, and began again to climb the remaining steps to the top, staying near the rope, but no longer holding it. I found that frequent rest stops enabled me to continue the climb without becoming too overtired and out of breath. The closer I got to the top, the more determined I was to complete the climb. Before long, hands were reaching out to help me over the lip of the last few steps. What a feeling of exhilaration it was to reach the pinnacle of the pyramid. The small room gave us a cool respite. We took pictures, congratulated each other and admired the view. Then came the trip down. Little thought had been given to the return journey. I began stepping down carefully. Before long, Ricardo joined me, holding out his hand for me, and together we descended the steps, standing tall.
What a day it had been for me. I approached it with trepidation and ended it with a tremendous feeling of personal accomplishment.
Story by M. Maxine George
Pictures of Maxine courtesy of Kim Coffman
Second rappelling picture and final zip-line picture by Alltournative
Nohoch Muul and Mayan pictures by Maxine George
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Last Updated on January 12, 2006 by M. Maxine George editor.
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