The Full Maya

So the truth is, it was never a conscious thing not to go to Mexico. But now I admit, there might have been the odd stereotype in the way—I likely envisioned just all-inclusives. I no doubt pictured bachelorette soirees where most of the group missed the bus to Chichén Itzá and spent days over-communicating between tequila shots. Of course, there would be stunning beaches, but I’m not so much a sun and sand girl. I don’t think I’m a group travel girl and—definitely—I’m not really a resort girl. I mean, I’m an exploring kind of traveler. Who needs all that pampering?

So of course, when a friend invited me on a girls’ luxe spiritual bonding getaway to Mexico’s Riviera Maya, well, I had to say yes. I mean, what is travel if not an opportunity to challenge our hardened beliefs and to invite personal transformation. So, with such higher purpose in mind, Yo fui—which is to say in local parlance, I went.

The margarita slipped in my hand as I exit the limo at the Belmond Maroma Resort and Spa is a nice touch for this weary traveler. So is being whisked off to a torch-lit feast barefoot on the beach. My twelve fellow travelers are already mid fête. Bright moonlight sparkles off the pounding surf. The breeze is warm. The stylish women, and one brave man, all between 30 and 60, are easy company from sip one of some local vintage. Okay, this beach thing is kind of nice.

A tiny, iridescent yellow bird chirps inches from my window, then two bright red ones land on the branch behind him.  A huge raven-like guy with teal wings swoops in. I’m feeling a bit like 1937 animated Snow White in the forest scene. I mean, these mangroves of the Yucatán that seem to be swallowing my villa whole as I speak teem with life—buzzing, chirping, humming. The nearby surf keeps a slow, steady rhythm to it all. Hey, and there’s an iguana, seriously, just sauntering by. Okay, this Maya version of paradise, so far, is a little impressive. But what’s the real twist to this week ahead?

Our local insider, Allison, looks more like a native of Dingle Ireland (vibrant red curls and creamy white skin). After living and working here in years past, Allison can pull off the upward chin tilt with downward stare of a fierce Latina. I like her instantly, along with her more laidback business partner Deb. These two uber trip planners are pivoting creatively after decades working the demanding luxe world of meeting and incentives travel.

Okay, I dig the notion of spiritual luxury—I’m all over paradox. But then both women talk about this phenomenon among their groups of travelers. This inevitability. And here’s where I start to get squirmy. Not about this concept of bonding, but about me in this concept. We’ll see.

It’s our first morning. Maya healing apprentices Pati and Daniela conduct a smudging ceremony with smouldering lemongrass and rosemary. Then we meet our Shaman, Paco. He’s older, short, stout, with a broad disarming grin. Outside our meditation room, he tells me to smile, then repeats this, eventually making me understand that I need to unfurrow my almost permanently knitted brow (the Botox needed here would surely exceed safe dosages). He’s right, I do carry the weight of my world there.

Next to him, beautiful Pati speaks volumes with her warm gaze but not a word of English. Young Daniela, in a feathered headdress, body paint and bright orange robes, keeps a slow beat with her shamanic ankle rattles. One by one, we settle on our yoga mats.

In Lak'ech Ala K'in is the living code of the heart. It’s a greeting but also a guiding principle of Maya spirituality—basically, it means we’re all the same, we are all one. Words to live by in these wonky times. And it’s also a call to action, meaning give good energy, and good energy will be returned to you.  Paco is living proof of this through the week.

In Placa del Carmen, at a restaurant set within an actual sinkhole known as a cenote, Paco shares how the Maya believed the rain god Chaak resided in such caves and how local farmers here, in some measure, still do today. At breakfast, he describes the meteor strike of the Yucatán 66 million years ago that scientists now acknowledge likely extinguished most life on earth, including the dinosaurs. Smaller pieces of the meteor punched holes through the Yucatán’s limestone cap to form the region’s many cenotes. No wonder the Maya revere both these mystical waterholes and the stars above them. Here and at every other meeting, we begin and end with In Lak'ech Ala K'in. And each time it rings truer.

Later, a guided swim deep into a cenote cave exhilarates but exhausts us. Afterwards, Paco rides shotgun next to the driver back to our hotel. He starts delving deeper into archaeological insights of this sacred landscape—until Allison whispers from behind that the entire van is asleep. He chuckles, goes silent. For sure, over the week, Paco, Pati and Daniela become more like friends, sharing their love of their home, their roots. It’s a frame on everything that prepares us all for one particularly special evening.

Our drive inland extends over an hour. Truth is, I’ve come to enjoy these group rides. They create space for conversation—I’ve explored with Susan the uncivil bits of political correctness that maybe helped create Trumplandia. Deb and I unpacked staying connected to our grown sons. On this trip, Nancy and Terry share more about some of their worldwide spiritual pilgrimages.

Finally, the van slows and a young man opens a nondescript gate. Here, we turn onto a dirt track. The jungle scratches at both sides of our van. If the window could open, we could touch these big X’s hacked into tree trunks 60 years ago by local workers. They were harvesting chicle gum for the Wrigley Gum Company—yes, for Chiclets.

So all we’ve been told is to bring a bathing suit, a cover up and bug spray. Far from our pampering digs at the coast, and just when the track ahead seems it can’t get any narrower, we arrive.

On the far side of an arch made of chicle branches, a throng of young children of Mayan descent greet us. They wear white outfits with colourful embroidery.  Without prompting, they embrace us, kiss our cheeks then scurry off to play. This is their community ceremonial ground, off the grid in every sense.

As a warrior protector in full ceremonial garb and body paint stands guard, we surround a stoked fire warming large lava rocks. Our female Shaman begins.

Soon, one by one, we enter the temazcal—a low, igloo-shaped structure. The narrow entryway denotes birth and death, good, evil and other elemental opposites. We find our places on the curved bench inside, filing in left to right, as the planets move. The rocks from the fire, called grandmother knowledge, are placed in the centre. We rub cleansing sprigs of basil on our bodies. Finally, the hole at the top is covered and the door closes. It’s smoky, but that passes. There’s total darkness except for the glow of the stones.

Perspiration flows as our Shaman helps us purify physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. Surrender kinda feels involuntary. Still, there’s no over-emoting when we all emerge. Just an otherworldly swim in a small nearby cenote lit by tealights. 

It’s quite a thing to sweat almost naked with near strangers for an hour, facing into the messy stuff of our humanity—an elder sidling up to her mortality, a wife with an ill husband, a sister with broken sibling relationships, a single mom healing from divorce and on. Still, the true telltale of this connection, for me, comes later.

Festivities the next evening could not be more contrasting. Amid the long shadows of a cloudless twilight, our chic Venetian-style boat cruises the mangroves, stocked with select vintages and scrumptious nibbles. After two and a half chardonnays, I hold forth with a confession. It begins something like this:  

“When I was 14, I used to wrap my thighs in Saran wrap at night, figuring I could sweat them down to look like those of Farah Fawcett (I already had good hair).” The group looks on, puzzled, wondering where this is going. I continue. “Today, in that searing midday sun at Tulum, hiking around those ruins…” I take a sip. “My jeans felt a lot like that Saran wrap.” The cackles burst forth.

“What do you not understand about the instructions ‘wear loose, light clothing’?” says Shiona.

“We thought you were nuts,” says Elaine.

“Recycle, recycle,” adds Allison about the lure of unworn but impractical items in our suitcases. And the playful pile on continues.

The thing is, finding a way into deep meaningful conversations has always been kind easy for me. But being surrounded by those who will joyfully mock me, now that’s the sign of true intimates.

Later, we step out of the busy resort bar into the still night. Two musicians begin playing dueling guitars. Our one man, Terry, and his partner Nancy have opted for an evening alone. Deb and Donna create a pop-up dance floor on this sweeping patio under the Yucatán stars. I’m not normally a group dance gal, and less so in my middle years. But this night, I just let go with my girls.

I guess it is as Deb promised. At one with this lush, resonant place, we have indeed entered a whole new level of bonding.

Go figure.