06/18/2014 12:49 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2014

The Sacred Side of Cancun

Like many siblings Cancun and the Riviera Maya have a slightly edgy but loving rivalry when it come to tourism. In truth, both have much to offer. Cancun is a wonderful and magical place to use as home base while exploring all that the region has to offer. The days of raucous 'Spring Breakers' have not been fully replaced by chic hotels and restaurants [yet], but Cancun has come a long way in taking the time and energy to offer a new and wonderful array of choices for travelers who may have a desire to do more than visit the iconic strip.

Did you know that each year you can travel back in time and relive an ancient tradition as part of your Cancun experience? This is exactly what happens every summer during the Sacred Mayan Journey. Technically situated in the Riviera Maya (the Mayan Riviera) just an hour's drive from Cancun. It offers the opportunity to witness the annual Mayan spectacle making a Cancun vacation an even better reward. Nestled snugly on the Caribbean side of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, the area is soaked in sun, steeped in history, and surrounded by lush rainforests.

For many travelers today, history is an important part of the experience. More than 1000 years ago the Mayans ventured out in canoes on a pilgrimage (referred to as the Sacred Mayan Journey) from the shores of Xcaret to the island of Cozumel. Xcaret was one of the Mayan' most important ports and a mercantile centers. They rowed to Cozumel to worship and commune with their goddess Ixchel, ruler of health, water and vegetation.

The Caribbean was of great importance because it served as a source of food, transportation, and also as an entry to the underworld. The ritual began in the marketplace where the warriors traded for objects to offer to Ixchel. This was a grand festival as the oarsmen were about to undertake a hallowed journey to request special favors for all their people.

Visitors today can also travel into the past and witness a recreation of this marvelous ancient tradition. This year the opening ceremony took place in the Xcaret eco-archaeological park at the end of May, along with a recreation of the marketplace. Visitors found crafts, textiles, musical instruments, necklaces and seashells, and purchased them with the Mayan currency of cocoa seeds, instead of money. At night, dancers and storytellers transported visitors back to the times when legends were still fresh new stories.

Once a year, at sunrise, some 300 volunteers from all walks of life begin their quest. It takes six months of intense training to be an oarsman, to cross the open channel in traditional hand-made Mayan canoes from Xcaret to Cozumel to present their offerings and ask for Ixchel's message to the people. The return trip begins again at dawn (a total of 38.6 miles), to keep alive the legacy of the great Mayans.

This event was revived in 2007 to renew interest in the Mayan culture and strengthen the cultural identity of the local people. It weaves indigenous music, dance and sport of their ancestors allowing the journey to create an important bridge across generations. For travelers interested in exploring the richness in tradition of past and present Mexico, the Sacred Mayan Journey is not to be missed. Next year, enjoy Cancun fully, but also venture out and embrace her extended family including the Riviera Maya immersing yourself in an experience of the mind, body and spirit of Mexico's indigenous people.

The Sacred Side of Cancun
The Sacred Side of Cancun

Photo Credit: Joshua Estrin

NOTE: In the spirit of full disclosure I have no commercial connection to any entity mentioned in this article nor was I paid to write it.