This post is part of a series about the Maya Ka'an tourism project in Yucatan, Mexico. This project, which aims to create sustainable, community-based tourism for the benefit of indigenous Mayans, is backed by the Meso-American Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI), an important coalition of NGOs that has been working to combine conservation and tourism throughout coastal Central America since 2006. The Rainforest Alliance, which sent me to the Yucatan, and a local NGO, Amigos de Sian Ka'an, are members of MARTI, which has been responsible for the development and funding of the Maya Ka'an project. See links to related posts at bottom.
“You must be purified before entering this space.”
An elegant woman dressed in a traditional embroidered Mayan dress held a smoking gourd in front of my face. Slowly and deliberately, she moved it around my body while praying quietly in Mayan. I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of the burning resin that’s used for every Mayan purification ceremony. After a minute, she nodded and I was allowed to step through the gate of Raxalaj Mayab, a centre for healing and alternative medicine that’s located outside the city of Felipe Carrillo Puerto in the Mayan region of the Yucatan.Thus began my first official lesson in Mayan plant medicine. Doña Columba led us through a narrow rainforest path, stopping every few steps to point out another leaf, bark, or flower with potent healing powers. From her ‘living pharmacy,’ she showed us cures for everything from depression and insomnia to burns, bleeding, and labour pains. There was even a ‘good luck’ plant that encourages happiness to flourish in one’s home. “Everyone should have one of these,” she said with a smile.
I liked the fact that Doña Columba didn’t differentiate between physical and emotional problems. It was as natural for her to offer an antidote to anger as for swelling. This is rarely done in North America, where our medical system insists on keeping the body and mind completely separate – to the detriment of patients, I think, since the two are deeply entwined.
From there, we headed to Siijil Noh Ha, a beautiful eco-tourism centre built on the shore of a freshwater lagoon. I had a delicious meal that was marred only by an unfortunate run-in with habanero chile. I quickly learned that I was overconfident in my ability to handle spicy food and, for a few long minutes, thought I was going to die at Siijil Noh Ha.
I survived, only to face another challenge – a 28-metre-deep cenote, a sinkhole within the shallow lagoon that connects to the Yucatan’s famous web of underground rivers. All my companions jumped happily into the cenote for a refreshing dip while I stared in horror. I don’t even like opening my eyes in a swimming pool, so the idea of jumping into an extremely deep hole, with who knows what down there, was nerve-wracking. But I did it, and thankfully only learned afterwards that some cenotes were used to dispose of sacrificial bodies and dead soldiers during the Mexican-Mayan wars.
Siijil Noh Ha has a renowned forestry conservation program and receives funding from the United Nations to be a carbon offset preserve. The director took us on a long hike through the rainforest where I saw wild orchids growing from the crevices of trees, colourful beetles that looked like Ukrainian Easter eggs, and the famous chicozapote tree from which the Mayans have made natural chewing gum for centuries. I also learned to avoid the trees that grow spikes, and the bark that gives second-degree burns within a half-hour of touching.
And so ended my first full day in the Mayan region of the Yucatan, a place that had already enchanted me completely.