CENOTES – Gateway to the Mayan afterlife

Cenote

Underground Cenote

“The watery graves of the Maya”, an article featured in National Geographic brought me to this part of the world and ignited my curiosity of the ancient Mayan underworld.

Hundreds of cenotes exist in the Yucatan Peninsula, and believed to have been used by the pre-hispanic and contemporary Mayan people both as a source of fresh water and as a setting for sacred rituals, especially those dedicated to the rain gods.

A local guide told me that a team of archaeologists, cavers, photographers, and local guides entered the jungle in hopes of uncovering the way caves were used by the ancient Maya to enact rituals and communicate with spirits to elevate their social and religious status. Through their excavation efforts, researchers documented petroglyphs (rock engravings) and ancient pathways, as well as offerings such as human remains, ceramics, and jewellery dating from 800 B.C. to after contact with the Spanish.

I was starstruck by the cenotes and the stories behind it. But these are just theories, about which we can only speculate.

True or not it took less than one minute to completely win me over.

Skull

Ancient Maya relics and human remains are discovered deep within the sacrificial pit of a cenote in Cancun

Cenotes were considered sacred places of the Mayans not only because they were the only source of fresh water, but also because they represented the entrance to Xibalba, the underworld where their gods lived.

Some cenotes played important roles in Mayan rituals, believing that these pools were gateways to the afterlife and the home of their gods the Mayans sometimes threw valuable items into them.

It is also believed that cenotes were involved in rituals of human sacrifice, both valuable sacrificial objects and human skeletons having been discovered in several cenotes along the Mayan Riviera.

A cenote are freshwater limestone sinkholes scattered throughout Mexico. There are thousands of them, 3,000 scattered all over Mexico. And they all look different.

Yucatan is home to the biggest single underwater cave system in the world, thanks to the fact that the entire peninsula is essentially sitting on a large layer of soluble limestone. Amazing! These cave systems often make their way to the surface and thus the cenotes are revealed.

Cenote diving

CENOTE AUZL. Best kept secret.

Cenote Azul. Outside of Chetumal. 4 hours drive south of Cancun to be exact.

A local told me about it and we took a walk down a rocky jungle path and before we even arrived, a sweet fresh aroma hit me. It was one of the most beautiful places i think i have ever seen although it was perhaps the magic of the moment.

At the end of the path we discovered a little paradise, a great place to swim and refresh, investigate the beautiful jungle fauna and even snorkel. Jump off the cliff if you are brave! I did. They say it is 92 meters deep around the edges and at least 150 meters deep in the middle.

The locals tell me there aren’t that many tourists here but on Sundays the local families fill the rocks around the swimming hole. I have to say this was a great way of sampling the sacred waters, like i was swimming in a little piece of history. I found it simply majestic.

Cenote Azul

CENOTE ESCONDIDO. Another best kept secret.

Cenote Escondido literally translates into “hidden cave”. Interesting story in its re-discovery as an American scuba diver entered the cave, gave up his old identity, moved to the Yucatan and become a Maya.

50 years down the track and there i was lucky enough to experience my 3rd cenote on my trip, each one with a different story attached to it.

Accompanied by my new bestie, a local called Juan, we walked about a kilometer through natural jungle filled with the most gigantic palm leaves i have ever seen. I even saw a spider monkey swinging around in the trees and except for 2 other locals, we were the only one’s there. Cenote Escondido was huge, deep and the water was crystal clear surrounded by rock cliffs about 4 meters high.

While visiting this hidden cenote though, i was in deep thought following a tale from local Maya elder about the mystical ‘alux‘ (similar to a leprechaun). Now in his late 60’s, the locals retold his story (through my translater Juan) of when he was 15 years old, relaxing below the two large palm leaves alongside the cenote after labouring all day long and heard the Chachalaka birds shouting out warning that someone was coming. He saw an 18 inch tall pot bellied naked man-like creature. The ‘alux’ however did not see him as by this stage the local was holding his breath under water in the cenote. The alux did eventually disappeared and his description of him was a hairless, dark-skinned creature with fingers the size of baby fingers.

Stories like these abound in the  jungles of the Mayan Riviera and i was lucky enough to be shown the way to this hidden swimming hole.

Cenote Escondido near Tulum

Spanish records tell how live victims were thrown into the sacred cenote at Chichen Itza (a major Maya city), on the premise that, as sacrifices to the gods, they would not die—even though they were never seen again.

For most of us, a cenote is just a hole with water. But it is not uncommon around this part of Mexico for an older person that still lives to tell the tale or a team of archeologists  to say that young female virgins were sacrificed where God would open up a road to bring in the gold that exists ‘down there’.

Apparently they were not all young girls. And that they were not all sacrificed.

The discovery of a 6 human including 2 children – jade beads, stone tools and other treasures found deep in Chichen Itza’s cenotes supports the idea that, for the Maya, cenotes represented a communication channel with the spiritual and sacred world. Others speculate remains and artifacts were ‘tossed’ into the cenotes themselves.

We’ll probably never know the real answer. And I think that may actually be better. These unanswerable questions only add to the mysticism of cenotes, and isn’t that ever so much more fun?!

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My Mayan Riviera highlights

~ CANCUN ~

Cancun

Cancun

There is no ‘real’ Cancun.

That term didn’t sink it until i arrived to Cancun and anyone that has been to Canberra will know what i am talking about.

Cancun is an artificial and invented place which was little more than an empty stretch of white sand and turquoise waters. Forty years later, someone with the brilliant idea of throwing up a few hotels along this stretch targeting vacationing Americans gave birth to what is now known as the party capital of the Mayan Riviera.

..and if you can’t have fun in Cancun then you can’t have fun anywhere! Tequila shots and Cancun are two things that blend well together.

White sandy beaches, turquoise waters and nightlife to rival Vegas is what keeps me coming back for more. Temperatures were HOT in July when i visited, the price to pay for purposefully avoiding spring break in the cooler temperatures in March..still no regrets though!

~ PLAYA DEL CARMEN ~

5th Avenue, Playa Del Carmen

Having spent 2 weeks in Cancun, Playa Del Carmen was the perfect place to unwind!

It is only 40 miles south of Cancun yet it felt like a million miles away. My first impressions were the low-rise buildings as a pose to Cancun’s multi-million dollar high-rise resorts….the atmosphere was charming and authentic and while i was still seeking abit of fun in the sun, the great thing about ‘Playa’ is that it gives you the option of relaxing or partying thanks to its unpretentious bars and clubs along the pedestrian strip ‘Avenida Quinta’.

Quinta Avenida or 5th Avenue is the busiest part of Playa which runs parallel to the Caribbean Sea.

What i enjoyed most was it is a great place to just wander along seeing what’s there to be seen. 5th avenue isn’t somewhere to rush down!  sampling local food, pausing by a street performer, exploring the shops and drifting into the bars was fast becoming my past time. What i loved about it is that it’s fully pedestrianized and cobblestoned making the atmosphere extra special.

Having spent a considerable amount of time in Cancun, it’s the community feel to ‘Playa’ that was a stand out in my mind as the daytime is so relaxed and happy…

The jewellery was handmade and very unique and while the chain stores sold the stereotypical Mexican clothing, there are also boutiques that sell clothes that Mexicans really wear.

And the vibe at night is so electric, unpretentious and relaxed depending on what mood you are in..definitely did not miss the cheesy Coco Bongo nightclubs in Cancun!

~ CHICHEN ITZA ~

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza

I was determined to get outside the touristy areas, away from the glittering high-rises in the Hotel Zone of Cancun and get a feel for the ‘real’ Cancun.

My first book on Mayan civilisation had a picture of a giant pyramid on it. Ten years later i was standing in front of this masterpiece completely in awe of what the Mayans created.

And Chichen Itza is a stunning testament to what man is capable of achieving.

It’s located about 2 1/2 hours from Cancun and is by far the best excavated site and probably the most famous in the area. I went on a tour which stopped in a town called Valladolid which adds a bit of time to the trip so making it closer to 3 hours.Lots of crowds, scorching hot in July and tours only allow for about 2 hours of visiting time.

The most startling feature in this Mayan center is the main pyramid Chichen Itza. Both the east and south sides of the pyramid were restored, with the west and north sides left to its original state. The pyramid is a temple pyramid representing the current calendar we observe today. It was built for astronomical purposes.

What is truly impressive is that during the vernal equinox (March 20) and autumnal equinox (September 21) at about 3pm, the sunlight bathes the western balustrade of the pyramids main stairway.This causes to form imitating the body of a serpent that creeps downwards until it joins the serpent’s head carved in stone at the bottom of the stairway The four sides of the pyramid represents the 4 seasons.The steps up to the temple are days in each season, times 4 to total the 364 days in one year, plus the 1 step in the temple, totaling 365 days.Each block on each side of the pyramid represents the number of weeks in the year, total 52 weeks.

Let that one sink in for a moment.

Having recently visited Chitchen Itza and Tulum, I can confirm that the buzz over 2012, which marks the end of the Maya calendar, is heating up, at least in the Mayan Riviera.

~  TULUM ~

Tulum

Location! location! location!

The Mayans selected their real estate wisely.

I can see why Tulum sits on the list of the worlds best beaches. What blew me away was exciting mixture of stunning Caribbean views and the ancient history, in fact Tulum is considered the ‘odd one out’ of all Mayan cities because it’s actually located on the ocean… where turquoise seas meets 1200 year old Mayan ruins!

A little bit of history on Tulum.

It is one of the few Mayan cities known to have been inhabited when the conquistadores arrived in the 16th century. Wondering around the site, the tour guide painted a picture of this once thriving trade center, a safe harbor for trade goods from rival communities who considered the city neutral territory. The city reached its height when its merchants, made wealthy through trading, for the first time outranked Maya priests in authority and power. The arrivals of the Spaniards forbade the Maya traders to sail the seas, and commerce hence the decline of the Maya people.

As the Spaniards never officially conquered this city, Tulum is a symbol of independence and resistance for the Maya although it was abandoned by the Maya about 75 years after the conquest of the rest of Mexico.

The Castillo (Castle) is the largest, tallest and most-photographed structure and sits at the edge of a 40-foot limestone cliff, definately the highlight!

Tulum was only an easy hour drive south of Playa del Carmen which was great and the actual site is relatively compact and takes about  100-120 minutes to walk around at a slow pace (especially in the HOT July heat).

I opted for a tour guide once i arrived which wasn’t a problem as there are people out the front offering their services.

~XEL-HA~

Xel-Ha

Xel-Ha…heaven on earth.

Translating to “where the water is born”, Xel-Ha (pronounced “shell-HAH”) is a breathtaking place of natural beauty.

It’s essentially a natural aquarium made from coves, lagoons and natural wells inlets cut from the limestone shoreline. The natural spring water flows out to meet the salt water of the Mexican Caribbean sea creating a beautiful home for tropical marine life.

I bought a day pass but would have rather a life pass. I have been here before and it never fails to amaze me.

While its sometimes felt like an all-inclusive water park experience (having to pay for extra things like swimming with the dolphins, snorkelling gear etc !) it did not take way from my experience. I loved the fact that there were Mayan ruins are scattered throughout the park, gives it a little touch of history.

What i enjoyed most and what actually caught me by surprise was that for a very touristy attraction, i was able to wander around at my own pace thanks to the low wooden bridges over the lagoons and the fact there were so many spots to rest or swim. It offers  just about anything a tourist could want: snorkeling, tubing down natural-spring rivers flowing out of underground cenotes (the highlight!!!),  cliff-jumping, swimming with dolphins and all-inclusive access to food and drink, especially tequila : )

As with most touristy places though, my last visit here seems that Xel-Ha is trying to be too many things to too many people, trying to attract the adventure-sport crowd, catering to families with lots of kids with playgrounds resembling Disneyland.

Nature did a great job creating Xel-Ha and i hope developers stop trying so hard to improve it.

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Hacienda Uayamon – 5 hours later

Hacienda Uayamon ~ Merida, Mexico

Hacienda Uayamon

Hacienda Uayamon

My arrival in Hacienda Uayamon turned out to be nothing less than magical. This 18th century estate was on the top of my travel list and the 5 hour drive east from the coast of the Mayan Riviera just to spend 1 night on this luxury estate was well worth it! The bus ride (at least the bus i took) was far from luxurious, moved painfully slowly but is a perfectly wonderful adventure all in itself!

This resort is a timeless and special place that left me mesmorised taking me back to ancient Mayan civilization.

When I think about the history in these walls, it touches my soul. Wondering around and strolling through these old architectural treasures knowing that other significant archaeological sites such as the ancient Mayan cities of Edzna, Balamkú, and Calakmul were just around the corner!

After being restored, Hacienda Uayamon has begun its new life as a luxurious vacation rental.

I like how it has used old traditional elements but with contemporary elements too…the highlight of my stay was the pool itself and i felt like I was swimming through history. I was honored as a guest staying here.

This place oozes Mexico, from the jungle enclosed estates to the friendly and attentive staff as you dine on the open-air deck in the unhurried luxury of a authentic Mexican evening.

It’s as authentic Mexico as you can get. All I can tell you is that if you like yourself at all, even just a little, you’ll bring yourself here one day and luxuriate in this amazing place. The only thing missing are the Mayans.

Beautiful swimming pool

Beautiful swimming pool

Massage room

Massage room

 

Bedroom

Bedroom

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WooHoo Cancun style!

Cancun’s miles of white sandy beaches and turquoise waters are simply stunning. As locals may tell you ‘we live where u come to spring break’. I’m not a spring breaker but i can see their point. It’s hard not to love Cancun. It’s paradise on earth. It’s the jewel of the Mayan Riviera offering something for everyone, from spring-breakers looking for drunken craziness to retirees just seeking a relaxing spot in the sun. I have discovered throughout my travels to other Caribbean destinations that Cancun by far has a much livelier nightlife.

Cancun is separated into two very distinct sections (the Hotel zone and downtown) and depending where you stay you will experience a very different experience.  The hotel zone is a much ritzier, geared toward tourists, and has little in common with Mexico. Downtown is where the locals live where you will find the best food..but a 10 minute bus ride to the beach and meals roughly 1/3 the price of a comparable meal in the hotel zone!

 The pristine white sandy beaches are amazing, the tequila shots abundant and very happy.

Cancun beach

Cancun beach

I had 2 weeks in Cancun, I unknowingly booked a room at a family resort (40 minutes away from the hotel zone) online  and when I checked in, the owner saw me looking somewhat disappointed and he transferred me to their other hotel for a little extra fee l (I didn’t know where I just needed to leave asap!)

A taxi ride later and checking into the ‘other’ resort, I found myself surrounded by half-naked guests realizing it was an ‘adults’ all inclusive resort. Well, there’s a first time for everything but I will still happy to wear my board shorts and bikini top I got on sale at Myers!

After enjoying the pool and swimming in the warm Caribbean sea, I eagerly devoured my lunch at the resort restaurant. I had a delicious fresh strawberry, banana and kiwi smoothies, cheese fondue, chips loaded with spicy salsa, guacamole.

Pool at Temptation Resort

Pool at Temptation Resort

swim-up-pool, Temptation Resort

Did  somebody say ‘Booze Cruise?!!!!!’

After much deliberating of going on a Booze cruise, I decided to take the plunge.

Tequilla shots at midday seemed like the best way to settle in to Cancun.

The best thing about staying at a resort is that you can just book things last minute all at the convenience at the front desk.

Before i knew it, i was on board ‘The Caribbean Carnival”..catamaran I might add. Every one of my new best party friends was in the partying mood and the party did started as soon as we set sail.

The cruise was open-air, open bar, the drinks were excellent and despite the condition I was in once we arrived at Isla Mujeres (an island just off the coast of Cancun)…it was a perfect end to an awesome day.

 "booze cruise" on a catamaran

“booze cruise” on a catamaran

 “booze cruise” on a catamaran

We returned to Cancun 3 hours later and back to my resort. Drinks suddenly seemed like a very good idea again.

Cocktails on a stunning beach have a way of making anyone’s troubles melt away. I was in a bubbly mood again and the “Woo hoo” cocktail, partly because it sounded delicious and partly because I don’t think I could resist ordering any drink named “Woo Hoo.”

I finished my night with jello shots, fruity cocktails and lots of popcorn at Senor Frogs nightclub (I’m going to write another blog devoted entirely to this!).

After a couple of drinks I loudly announced to my fellow party goers that I was going to live here.

I didn’t mean just Cancun.

I meant the Senor Frogs nightclub specifically!

I’m still not sure how they finally got me to leave.

I will miss Cancun. The resort i stayed at, on top of having great food, offers a perfect spot from which to enjoy a cocktail while watching breath-taking sunsets over the Caribbean, and the sunsets are always breath-taking, by the way. Every day. Guaranteed!

Cancun Sunset

Cancun Sunset

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My Mayan Riviera

My Mayan Riviera Trail

The Mayan Rivera has always appealed to me as a travel destination for its beauty and rich Mayan history. History and nightlife is a destination deal breaker for me and this part of the world has made my travel choice very easy. I rarely travel to the same place twice – there are far too many amazing places too see!!!

The Mayan Riviera is a popular tourist spot in the eastern Yucatan Peninsula on the Mexican stretch of the Caribbean sea.

The starting point is Playa Del Carmen and ends in Tulum including all those wonderful little towns in between.

I have travelled throughout most of this area independently and intend to travel the rest…if not in this lifetime then in the afterlife, as the Mayans would say.

 

From its name, the Mayans settled in this area around the 17th century excelling in the fields of mathematics, writing, engineering and astronomy. And while most people travel here mainly to soak up the sun and enjoy the beautiful crystal waters, there is a deep history that is a must see for everybody.

The best thing is the proximity of ancient Mayan archeological ruins to the major towns along the coast. Popular ruins such as  Tulum, Chichen Itza and Coba can each be visited in a day. Xel-Ha eco park was a great way to refresh, unwind and enjoy the smaller  archeological ruins which was one of the highlights of my trip!

Every city i have travelled to along this beautiful stretch of coast was awesome. Cancun is awesome. Playa del Carmen is awesome, just to name a few.  This is actually jaw-dropping near-disbelief beauty where the earth is showing off at its best.  It really is paradise.

Everyone i have met here were celebrating something big – a honeymoon, a 25th wedding anniversary, a 50th birthday!

This is the place people dream of going, planning for that one special occasion when they can make their dreams come true. And it’s worth every dollar, every airport transit, every sleepless hour getting here. It’s stunning.

Mayan Ruins in Tulum

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