Episode 147 – Cozumel in ruins

December 26, 2021. 82°F/28°C #myvikingstory

Cozumel, so … beaches, right? Cozumel definitely has some of the most beautiful, except that’s not really what this kind of cruise is all about (except occasionally when it is).

In addition to beautiful beaches, the island also has some of the planet’s most spectacular diving sites, brought to the world’s attention by Jacques Cousteau in the early 1960’s. Unfortunately neither Ted nor I are scuba divers, so we stayed on land and focussed on cultural history rather than natural history.

The water really is this blue!

Our included tour today was a visit to a sacred pre-Columbian Mayan religious site, San Gervasio, located on the northeastern side of the island of Cozumel (“place of swallows”). This site is dedicated to Ix Chel, goddess of the moon and fertility. Families, but especially Mayan women, would make pilgrimages here and present offerings to the goddess. It was such an important site that someone from every Mayan would visit it once in their lifetime – no matter where in the vast Mayan region they lived – to give thanks for their own life or the lives of their children. A modern-day equivalent might be the Muslim Hajj to Mecca.

In the centuries since the Spanish conquered the indigenous people of Mexico, and forced them into Catholicism, one of the highest church holy days is December 12th, the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, when people from all over the country made a pilgrimage to Mexico City’s Basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary. You have to stop and wonder just who “converted” who.

If you’ve seen any Mayan artifacts, you might recognize Ix Chel, who is represented as two ages of the female form. As a young goddess, she is depicted as a pregnant woman, in a wide-legged squat stance, ready to give birth. Her alternate depiction is an an old woman, with a snake on her head to signify knowledge, a turquoise belt around her hips representing the Mayan practice of giving birth in water, and emptying a water jug to ensure a fertile earth.

What we toured are the remains of what was once a large glittering complex. Much like the Egyptian pyramids, the Mayan structures would have had smooth exteriors. The stepped stones were filled with a cement-like compound made of crushed limestone mixed with tree resin and honey, smoothed and polished by hand to a marble-like sheen. In the sunshine, it must have looked like gold – the “El Dorado” that the Spanish sought in the 1500’s. In fact, the Maya did not use metals in the way that the later Aztec did. Nonetheless, in the conquistadors quest for treasure, they destroyed the temples at San Gervasio.

The subsequent 500 years of erosion due to annual hurricanes, along with the encroaching jungle vegetation, means that any remaining roofs and upper stone walls are missing, but it’s still easy to imagine that it was very impressive.

Our first stop was at the Royal Mound, a stone pyramid in which Mayan royalty were buried. The access stairs are 7 layers tall, and so shallow that they needed to be navigated sideways, in a serpentine route, ensuring that neither a person’s front nor their back directly faced the entrance in a disrespectful manner.

Our wonderful guide Miguel Sauri made sure we took special note of Las Manitas (“Little Hands”), which was the residence of the Mayan ruler of Cozumel…

… and Los Nichos with its many miniature shrines.

ASIDE – Manuel shared many Mayan words for the things that we saw. He is a “Mestizo”, the term used for people who are a mix of Maya and Spanish. I was immediately reminded of our Canadian Métis, who are a mixture of our Indigenous peoples and the French settlers.

There are important structural differences between temples and homes that allowed archeologists to differentiate between them. Temples always have 2 entry columns, representing duality, and low entryways that force those entering to bow low, and typically have those shallow narrow steps that prevent face-on access. Houses – even royal ones – have regular size steps and full height doorways.

We stopped beside a small cenote – one of the natural wells created when rainwater erodes the limestone to create access to underground rivers.

Ted and I stood under the main arch at the end of the “Sacbé” (white road). Our tour group had been walking on a rocky pathway bordered by square stones, that we learned had originally been not only perfectly smooth, but also made of white limestone that would have shone in the moonlight; an intelligent design for a temple complex that people would have wanted to access in the cool night instead of the incredibly hot and humid daylight hours.

It’s significant to note that the “offerings” made here were not blood sacrifice or lives, which would have been unwelcome to a goddess of fertility and life, but rather semi-precious stones, foodstuffs, or animals (depending on whether a rich person, a farmer, or a hunter was worshipping).

Here at the arch we learned about two separate Mayan calendars: the common calendar of 18 months having 20 days each, plus 5 annual celebration days to create a total of 365, and a “sacred” calendar having 13 months of 20 days each, for a total of 260, which is the human gestation period. It’s fitting that the second calendar was sacred to the goddess of fertility.

At the Central Plaza, celebrations were held every 28 days, matching moon and fertility cycles. The plaza was designed with platforms for dignitaries and priests, seating for the wealthy, and “standing room” for the common folk. It sounds a bit like a modern concert venue!

The Central Plaza “stage”. It may not have been a rock concert, but the monthly festival involved the precursors to the music, dancing, costumes and celebrations for which Mexicans are famous.

It really was a most fascinating morning.

To be fair, we COULD have spent our day on the beach…. OR flying by Cessna to the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá on the Yucatan Peninsula, but we’re wintering in Merida Mexico next year, so we will visit the ruins then, without the need for me to climb into a tiny plane.

Back on the ship for dinner, we opted for the 5-course tasting menu – along with a wine curated for each of the courses – in The Chef’s Table, one of the no-extra-charge specialty restaurants on board. Meals here are a fixed menu, changing theme every 4 to 5 days to allow every passenger who wants to experience it to be able to reserve a table. (Remember, the ship’s maximum capacity is just 930 passengers. With 2 seatings per night and a capacity of 100, everyone could be accommodated in 5 days. Some people, bafflingly, don’t ever take advantage of this.)

It was such an amazing dinner that it deserves a post of its own – next.

On a more sombre note, one more person was disembarked after a positive Covid test this morning, and 5 close contacts isolated in their rooms. Back home in Ontario, today’s case count almost doubled to 10,000. Omicron continues to impact our lives, wherever we are.

6 comments

  1. A wonderful account. How in the world do you remember or acquire all these details and how long did it take to put this post together? I’m going next year, so will look forward to all your posts.

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  2. You write so wonderfully, it is as if I am there with you. I am going to save the excursion information you send thru your posts, if you like the excursion or not, so I can make a more knowledgeable decision in two years when we go. We loved our dinners in The Chefs Table and I still have the menus and photos of some of those meals. Enjoy for me and please stay safe.

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  3. What a great read! You also make me look into things. I have to call elaine and ask her about their Métis son they adopted 50 Years ago. You Know how much I love your food blog!! When 12 – 12 years from now (blog 3 when you’re going to settle) you might want to compile the food blogs, send it to your local paper (wherever you are) and write a local food column! A big city would be more deserving of your talents.

    You two look so happy!! Enjoy! Love you >

    Liked by 1 person

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