Majestic & Serene without Effort

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I woke up a little after 6:00 am, slightly irritated that yesterday’s hangover and anxiety lingered. The alcohol was out of my system, but I could feel the effects of dehydration on my system. I thoroughly enjoy drinking but it had been a long time since I enjoyed shots back to back, let alone shots of tequila. I drank some water and did some deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. After a few moments I remembered how much fun the prior night was and agreed that the lingering obsession and slight off feeling was well worth it. After all, sacrifices must be made for the cause and I have passed the days when I feared that an obsession would take hold and haunt me for the rest of my life.

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No more chaffing!

I learned my lesson at Tulum, shorts are an absolute must when going on adventures because the chaff factor is real. I settled on some shorts and a tank top, with my bathing suit underneath. I grabbed my water bottle from the fridge and left the hotel room with 20 minutes to spare. Despite some more profound ritualizing (I figured it would be worse after having given in yesterday) I left without any irritation. I scoffed down my usual at breakfast and headed out to meet my tour bus. It was a 7:00am.

Unlike previous tours, I had to take a local bus to a terminal station and load onto a larger bus. Like always, I tried to stay out of the way and under the radar.  I strategically place myself in line so that I was the last one to enter the large tour bus- I get a front row seat to myself right next to our two guides. They are a lot younger than our previous guides and I am sure they are around my same age. I looked around and realized that this tour was much more commercial than the others. These guides were younger, probably a couple of years out of college. They had matching shirts and hats. At least the bus boasted comfy seats and personal air conditioning- a nice upgrade from the rickety vans and busses I rode on previously.

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All the comforts of Western travel, minus wifi

Before travelling to Chicen-Itza our guide informed us that would be making a few stops. Our first visit was to a Mayan cooperative where we could receive blessings from a Mayan healer and wander through a gift shop of hand crafted jewelry, purses, bags and clothing. Afterwards we would head for lunch near Ik’Kil, one of the most famous xenotes in Mexico before entering Chichen-Itza, the holiest and best preserved of all the Mayan ruins.

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One of our guides telling us about the marketplace

On the way to the Mayan cooperative, our guide treated us to a quick tour of a nearby Spanish village. Even though it would have been nice to have gotten out of the bus and walked the streets, it was wonderful to be able to take in so much of the tiny village from the comfort of our tour bus.

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Spanish style Church, one of the oldest in Mexico

We passed one of the oldest and best preserved of the Spanish temples built following the arrival of the conquistadors. We passed through a large market with woman wearing traditional Mayan clothing, which consisted of a white three piece dress with bright embroidered flowers. One of the woman wore a black scarf, signifying her status as a widow. Our guides tells us that you will see Mayan women mix  western and traditional clothes. When they are wearing the traditional clothing of the Maya, it is an expression of respect and pride for their culture.

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Picture of the small town just 50 miles west of Playa del Carmen.

The bus was moving fast and I barely had time to drink in all the sights and sounds- the honks of tourist busses, the sounds of the car engine and the beautiful Mayan women with their white dresses bursting with colors weaving in and out of the Spanish style and stuccoed buildings.

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Entrance to the Mayan Cooperative features a colorful snake mouth

Soon we arrived at the Mexican cooperative where we learned more about the Mayan calendar system and their fascination with documenting the movement of the stars as well as significant celestial and personal events. Our guide showed us a calendar documenting all the important dates of his life.  He went on to tell us about the significance of the Mayan alphabet and how each sound and letter had a significance. Apparently even the pronunciation of our names provided insight into our passions, potential careers and even our personality. When special words were combined with symbols for protection, wealth or joy, daily prayers could be given to the Gods to secure safe travel, happiness and abundance. These symbols could be worn as necklaces, or placed throughout the home to bless the inhabitants.

One of the things I enjoyed most, was learning about how the Mayan alphabet was combined with stones and prayers to help heal and restore people. Our guide informed us that when the Conquistadors first came to the Mayan cities, they were obsessed with obsidian stone, which adorned the entrances of temples, and shown like gold when the sun hit it.

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Obsidian stone carved in the shape of a snake

 

The Mayan believe that obsidian, which is the dry remains of lava, was the blood of Earth and that protection and purity would be offered if obsidian rocks were placed by the entrance of a house, or worn around an individual’s neck. To maintain the stones purity, or to remove any negative energy which accumulated, the stone just had to be placed in water, underneath the reflection of the moon.

Today we would have the chance to meet a healer who wears a protection pendant and meet the village healer who will happily bless us in a smudging ceremony and pray over any Mayan pendants we purchased.When our guide told me this, I once again felt affirmed by my choice to bring all of my crystals from DC, which coincidentally had already been charged at the top of Nohuch Mul two days prior.  I couldn’t wait to meet the village healer and receive their blessings in a smudge ceremony.

The Mayan cooperative was larger than I expected. Upon entering, we had the opportunity to smudge ourselves and ask for blessings and purification, which I did without hesitation- making sure I intentionally walked slowly so every who was simply going through the motions could finish before me.After uttering some prayers of gratitude I immediately walked to the jewelry making station to pick out my own protection necklace- I was determined to find one thing in Mexico I could use as a memory-something I could do everywhere I travelled. I wanted to find something more meaningful than spoons, or shot glasses or magnets and instead decided I would pick up a piece of jewelry everywhere I traveled. As a first gift to myself, and in honor of the significance of this journey, I splurged on a silver and gold handmade, Mayan protection necklace with my name spelled out.

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The Village healer praying over tourists.

I had several other offerings of gratitude to get for some healers back in DC. I decided early on I wouldn’t be bringing back ‘gifts’ from any of my travelers for friends or family unless they were offerings for a past for future energy exchange. More on this later. For now just know I paid for my protection necklace and then walked through  hundreds of square feet of obsidian and crystal tools and totems while my custom jewelry was completed. I found the perfect offerings and hurried away to find my necklace. Time was running out and I wanted to have the healer bless my things before I returned back to the states.

As you can imagine, the smudge ceremony in the healing tent with my crystals, obsidian totems and necklace was super emotional. I literally just balled silently while this man with gentle eyes smudged burnt amber over my body, the smoke filling the tent and blocking my vision. He reached into a small wooden bowl and brushed cool water on several leaves. Uttering in Spanish and Maya, he asked for my name if I understood Spanish, and proceeded to wipe my face with the watery leaves. All the while I stood with my hands full, tears falling down my cheeks. Did he know the significance of this journey? Would I help to heal people like him one day?

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The Village Healers Tent, our guide is to the right.

So many questions and so little time. I came out of the tent crying and our guides smiled when I told them (in Spanish) how I had been waiting for this and how emotional I was because of the work I hoped to do oneday in the United States. They too waited patiently for the smudge ceremony and ushered me patiently into the van without a glimmer of judgment or confusion about my red eyes.

We were the last to arrive to the tour bus and I quickly grabbed my things and plopped down in my seat. Along the way, a young Mayan man called to me, joking playfully about my how beautiful I was. I thanked him in Spanish and he asked to greet me. He reached his hands out, and OCD seized me. His hands were covered in soot and it triggered an intense disgust reaction-really all that’s left of the contamination OCD. I wasn’t afraid I would catch something, it just felt dirty. Not wanting to be triggered, I pretended I didn’t understand and waved a hand in the air, grateful to have escaped without adding another obsession to the list and ashamed that I didn’t want to shake hands with him. Normally I would have pushed myself but I was still a little more anxious than usual and I figured it was worth it to try and enjoy the rest of my trip. I also realized that I don’t have to do anything out of convenience for another. I feel half bad about it now, but I know there will be a time for pushing boundaries when I returned. (It’s important to note that I was in the middle of my medicine taper during this trip and forgot my Zoloft. Towards the end of the trip my goal was simply not to freak out without my medicine or loose an entire vacation to obsessing and ritualizing, in case withdrawal hit me.

We journeyed another 45 minutes away to one of the most beautiful xenotes I have ever seen. Even after experiencing several different xenotes the day before I left, this was my all time favorite, and a hands down must see for anyone visiting Chichen-Itza.

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Everywhere you looked was breathtaking. And I mean everywhere.

The entire area was like an oasis in the desert. Trees and beautiful flowers lined a tile pathway that meandered around a large xenote opening and throughout a shower and sitting area. I opted to grab a locker and skipped out on the life jacket rental, figuring I could save a couple of bucks. I only checked the locker twice before I realized I wasn’t doing a god job ignoring the urge to check, before I literally just told myself who cares and left the tiny blue locker to go cliff jumping in Ik’Kil.

And so I did…and it was amazing. Apparently this xenote is where the red bull cliff diving competition happens. I can understand the allure of this area- so beautiful it didn’t even bother me that the place was swamped with tourists.

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Top view of the xenote, Ik’Kil

The cool part about this xenote is that you descend maybe 65 or 70 feet into a cave before the water greets you. Immediately to your right are three large diving steps with eager tourists. To your left is cool, silvery limestone cave descending straight up. Right above you is the piercing sunlight sparkling on the blue xenote water- tree roots and vines fell from the ceiling and water trickled from the walls. Tiny black catfish swam in circles around you and everywhere you looked was breathtaking.

It was pretty freaky swimming in the 150+ feet of water without a life jacket- but I felt comfortable pushing myself. When I became tired, I floated on my back into the center of the xenote so that the sun could hit my face and I could rest. When I grew tired of that, I practiced the breathe stroke to the side of the xenote where a yellow rope had been conveniently placed for tired swimmers to sit on, grab or rest near.

I spent around 30 minutes in the xenote, even jumping of the medium cliff twice before heading up for food. It was absolutely breathtaking and I wondered if there was some way to stay overnight in this area- I was getting the feeling I was only skimming the surface of these cites with my pre-packaged tours.

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Lunch was wonderful. I enjoyed all of the food- although I wasn’t sure if the fruits and vegetables were safe to eat (google warned me about eating raw fruits and vegetables that weren’t washed in filtered water) so unfortunately, I stayed away from the pico de gallo and fruit when out on daily excursions. But it didn’t matter, because I was in Mexico having the trip of a lifetime and each view filled me up in a way no fruit, or vegetable or margarita ever could.

Lunch was peaceful. I invited myself to a table with a group from Mexico City that thought it was so interesting that I spoke the language and was traveling solo. Not in the mood for back and forth discussion, I thanked them and hurried my meal- eager to walk around and snap a few pictures before it was time to head back to the bus.

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View of the grounds leading out from Ik’Kil

I soaked it all in. Writing to you now, I remember everything about that xenote. I remember the sun hitting my peeling shoulders and the frigid water of the cold showers.

Everything was exactly as it should be- majestic and serene without effort.

I was happy to hear that we were less than 15 minutes from Chichen-Itza. Knowing that most of the national archaeological sites closed at 5:00, I figured we had a little over two hours to explore Chichen Itza before the 2 and a half hour ride back to Cancun.

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Chichen Itza was added to UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites in 2015

We arrived at Chicen Itza and immediately felt the sun beat on our face and shoulders. Everywhere you went vendors shouted “get your hat-only 3 dollars, get your umbrella-only 3 dollars, very cheap, very cheap.” Our guides warned us about the heat and advised us to wear hats and I could have kicked myself for not having bought that REI hat last minute. To make matters worse, I realized I purchased sun tan oil instead of sun block from the hotel. I had done that before, forgetting that some people need help tanning. I bit the bullet though- my shoulders were already recovering from a sun burn and as long as I stayed under the shade of trees, I figured I would be okay.

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The Sun was not playing any games…

The first hour of Chichen-Itza was with our guide. Because our group contained more than 35 people, we split everyone up into two groups-Spanish and English. I opted for the Spanish group, hoping I would understand enough to follow.

Upon entering Chichen-Itza, I immediately realized why it was one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites.  The scale and grandeur of the buildings was hard to imagine. The size of everything was made even more pronounced by the ever approaching jungle, whose shadows encroached on the outskirts of the sites and over buildings that had yet to be excavated.

Even though some of the information, and even jokes told by the tour guides  were the same as the facts Miguel shared two days prior when I visited Coba and Tulum it was good to hear everything again in Spanish. Our guide spoke very fast but always began every sentence with a question, which was very helpful for me. “Why did the Mayan build temples” she would begin, before re stating ‘The Mayan built temples to track the stars and perform religious ceremonies. Even though we call these buildings and ruins, they are really giant calendars and observatories.

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View of Kukulkan Pyramid, also known as El Castillo

We stopped briefly for photos near the famous Kukulkan Pyramid known as “El Castillo” where thousands of tourists gather during the Spring Equinox to witness a light in the shape of a serpent zig zag its way down from the top of the pyramid. And as legend says, drink from the waters of the nearby Sacred Xenote, where sacrifices were made during times of drought.

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Serpent head depicting the Mayan God Kukulkan

Our guide shared more amazing details about the significance of numbers to each of the structures, whose dimensions were embedded with the Mayan’s love for 20 and other significant numbers such as the number of days in a year, the human gestation period and the lunar phase. The sun beat down on us and our guide quickly led us to the Ball Court, where the ball game Pok a Tok was played and we were treated to a demonstration of the court’s awesome acoustics.

 

We also visited the Temples of the Serpent and Eagle and the Temple of Venus. Our guide elaborated on the significance of Chichen-Itza as a religious site where the Mayan would travel hundreds of miles for prayers, healing and special celebrations.

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The Temple of Venus

She told us about the road system constructed by the Maya and my mind drifted- I could imagine walking through the jungle under the light of the moon- the face of Kukulkan standing out above the jungle canopy.

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Our guide pointing out hieroglyphs on the Temple of the Eagle

Even though I enjoyed the comfort of the group, most of the information was repeat and I often found myself lagging behind- to busy snapping for the perfect selfie or pictures of the detailed buildings. After an hour long tour, consisting of carefully crafted stops to minimize our exposure to the sun by distracting us with math questions and other group activities until we could huddle under the shade of a nearby tree for Q&A, we were given an hour to roam the remainder of the site.

With only an hour to spare I half walked, jogged to the far corners of the site. I first visited the Temple of a Thousand Warriors, whose tall pillars looked out over the vast courtyard, just behind Kukulkan Pyramid. To the right of it lay the Temple of Big Pillars, whose presence was quiet, but deafening. The faded shouts of vendors selling cheap Mayan calendar for only 5 dollars was lost to the intensity of the two adjacent structures. The tourists even whispered when taking shots in this area- surely we could feel the sacredness of the site.

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View of the Temple of a Thousand Warriors

Afterwards I walked another 400 meters to the site of el Carcacol, commonly known as the Observatory. It was my favorite of all the ruins and in my opinion, the most interesting of all the structures I visited while in Mexico. I was amazed at the beauty of the dome shaped monument whose back wall abutted the dense jungle. The terraced steps where beautifully engineered and the entire building was a marvel. I wish I could have seen this place at night- I’m sure the stars would only have added to the unique sense of place.

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El Carocal, or simply the “Observatory”

With 40 minutes left to spare, I wandered even further to snap some intimate shots of the Monja complex, which housed several church like buildings and Akab Dzib, the intricate home of the City’s administrator which was named after all the tiny building chambers. Tourists thinned out and I was so happy to be able to grab some clear shots of the ruins without anyone obstructing my view.

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View of Akab Dzib with its many small chambers

I completely lost myself for a good 20 minutes while wondering the edges of the site. Every building had a story to tell. I wondered what colors splashed the walls thousands of years ago, what it would have been like when other indigenous tribes such as the Zapotecs overtook the city and forced Mayans to construct pyramids. I wondered what other mysteries lay hidden beneath the forest ruins. I thought about the ugly mix of modern buildings that dot the concrete streets of Washington, D.C. So uninspiring-surely we could learn a thing or two from the Maya.

 

I took so many pictures without even bothering to see if they were blog worthy-I just snapped and snapped and snapped every few moments between the loud rummaging of iguanas which sounded like jaguars stalking in the forest to the novice traveler. It was amazing and by far one of the highlights of my entire trip. It was different than Tulum and Coba. The energy around the city was so captivating. I couldn’t wait to return. I couldn’t help but feel like there was more for me to see and experience there- 2 and a half hours was not nearly enough to take it all in.

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Panaramaic view of buildings near the Monja Complex

With less than 5% battery and 10 minutes until the buss packed up, I sped walk back to the bus- weaving my way through hundreds of Mayan vendors who were wrapping up their goods in newspaper.  I snapped a picture of the Osorio or High Priestess temple where many human remains have been found.

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The Osario Temple

I didn’t even bother to stop at the bathroom when I left. Clearly I was incredibly dehydrated, having been too exhausted to have finished all the water I brought with me. On the way back I lightly sipped some warm water I had packed with me. I was just buzzing from the experience and sent as sent as many pictures of my experience to loved ones back home as soon as I got a signal. Chichen Itza was such a powerful experience.

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The entire trip home I quietly stared out my window at the jungle and reflected on what I had seen and felt. I thought about the Mayan cooperative we visited and clutched my protection necklace. For the first time all day, I realized the one obsession that had lingered from the day before seemed meaningless.

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Check out my sun burn!

2 and a half hours later and I arrived back the GR Solaris- sun burnt, exhausted and buzzing with energy. I was supposed to catch dinner with Nelly that night but I was to tired from the travels. I politely sent her a text while scarfing down food at the hotel.  I considered drinking some beer, but realized I just wanted some cool water and a good night’s sleep.

I had been up since 6 am and returned from the day’s travels around 7:30 pm. I was so exhausted I could barely function in the shower- mustering the last bits of strength I had to wash my dreads, clean my bathing suit and set some things aside for tomorrow. I was out by 9 p.m, exhausted, but excited for tomorrow. I would be visiting four different xenotes, where I would have the chance to snorkel, kayak, zip line and repel.

Before I drifted off to sleep, I remembered thinking, “I had the adventure of a lifetime and I still have one day left. How lucky am I?”

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