There is a secret religion here on the Yucatan. It is, unquestionably, powerful.
I am guessing you probably want to know what it is and in what ways it is so powerful. The thing is, some of these powerful things can be a bit…shall we say, dangerous?
This is a story that has been unfolding for a few years now. And even though you will find a couple of past blog posts on it, I am going to start from the beginning because I now have more information and I want to you be able to get caught up so you can follow along with us as this mystery continues to unfold.
It all began in the spring of 2019. We had driven south of Tulum on a mission into the Zona Maya, an area that is one of the last strongholds of the Maya people here in Mexico. The area has its own government, its own laws, and even its own time zone. We were planning to do some extensive exploring into the Maya cosmovision, sacred places, and ruins, and we were looking for the blessing of a Maya priest before we began our journey.
But finding a Maya priest is not an easy thing. They don’t want to be found.
So, we set an intention. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could find a Maya priest.” Knowing full well that it would be about impossible to just run into a real, authentic Maya priest, we added a bit of detail to our intention, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could find his apprentice and that person could lead us to him and speak to him on our behalf.”
Now, let it be known that we did not know what religion this Maya priest might be. Catholicism is the most prevalent religion here in Mexico. It came with the Spanish back in the 1500’s. Much is known about the ancient gods who were worshipped before the invasion of the Spanish, but that was a very long time ago. I had seen some evidence that some of the ancient gods are still venerated today, so I thought there must be some type of organized community of followers. Perhaps they had a hierarchy of religious leaders? In all honesty, that was about as much as we even dreamed of knowing. So, we were looking for a Maya priest of an authentic Maya religion, but we were not even really sure if they existed!
Of course, there are shamans here. But that is a different story.
It was a warm spring morning. We left Puerto Morelos very early and headed south by route 307 down the coast. After you pass Playa del Carmen, the towns thin out and the jungles grow thick. We passed Tulum and things became quiet, wild, with an undercurrent of mystery.
Soon, we passed under a big green sign on the highway saying “Zona Maya” and we knew it was time to allow the magic to flow.
There was a sign suggesting a turn to the Route de Los Iglesias (The Route of The Churches). This seemed to hold promise, so we turned off the main road and began our journey down a road with nothing but palms, wild tamarinds, and moon flowers. We slowed the car since the overgrown greenery was encroaching on the road turning two lanes into one and a half.
After a while, a few small buildings dotted the landscape. They were rustic, cement buildings with grass roofs, some painted bright colors, some just bare cement. Chickens scattered across the road, looking for bugs in the grass on the other side of the road I imagine. We saw a middle-aged couple, small in stature, dressed in semi formal clothing (he in slacks and a button-down shirt and she in a skirt and top). We slowed a bit more as we drove past them.
And then it occurred to me. What if they were the people we were looking for? They appeared to be walking down the road in the middle of the countryside. Perhaps they needed a ride? I stopped the car and backed up. We rolled down the window and asked if they needed a ride. They were surprised, but grateful! Yes, indeed they did!
The two climbed in and gave us simple directions. They were going to a town a few kilometers down the road. The name of the town was Chumpon. Elly spoke reasonably good Spanish. She (his wife they told us) spoke almost entirely Mayan. So, we chatted with him. We made small talk, telling him where we were from and such. Then after a couple of minutes we asked if he knew of any Maya priests nearby.
Well… You are not going to believe this. He was the apprentice for the Maya priest in his village! Yes, he could take us to the priest, arrange everything for us, and speak to him on our behalf!
Soon, we found ourselves parking by the side of the road on a simple town square. There was a huge and sacred ceiba tree and a rusted swing set. Cement paths wound between mostly-dirt grassy spaces. We got out of the car and Elly (the priest’s understudy) politely asked us to stay by the car while he crossed the road to a long white building that he said was the church, although it looked more like an old, one story, cement school building. In fact, he not only asked us to stay by the car, but he also politely suggested that we not look at the building he was headed to!
Apparently, there was a service going on in the “church” and the priest would be busy there all day. Elly arranged for us to come back the next morning for a blessing from the priest, but not at the church. (We were not permitted to enter it) Rather, the blessing would take place at the priest’s home.
Don Damanzo was the name of the priest. Don is a term of respect and Damanzo was his last name. He was the top-dog and we could meet him at 8AM (Zona Maya time) the next morning. Elly would meet us at his home (close to where we picked him up) and take us there. It was suggested that we might bring the priest an offering.
We thanked Elly, tried not to look at the church, and said our good-byes, “Until tomorrow!”
The following morning, we arrived with fresh fish, rice and beans, and fruits and vegetables of all sorts. We found Elly at his home. He enthusiastically jumped in the car and directed us to the priest’s home. It was at the end of a dirt road that became a bit difficult to navigate due to past rains and huge potholes. We were greeted politely, but rather sternly. Don Damanzo was going out of his way to give us his blessing and we could feel that it was a bit of an inconvenience for him. He had important church business to attend to later that day. Of course, we were very respectful and careful to follow his instructions regarding what to do (and not do) while we were hosted at his home.
He led us to a small, traditional Maya “stick” building behind his residence. Inside, it was dark and a bit cooler than the hot springtime sun that bathed everything outdoors. There was a plastic chair and a hammock. Near the chair was a small table with an odd assortment of things on it; some candles--mostly already partly burned--some jars of liquid, fresh herbs, and feathers.
One by one, Don Damanzo had us sit in the plastic chair. There were three of us, Noe, Jen, and me. Noe went first. He is a native Spanish speaker and explained why we wanted the blessing from the priest. Don Damanzo agreed it was wise to seek his blessing and proceeded to cleanse and bless Noe for his mission into the Mayalands. The ceremony included copal incense, lemony and wafting throughout the scared space, waving of feathers, and lots of chanting, in Mayan of course. Each of us had a turn. Then we were politely shown around the compound. Huichols (Maya flowered dresses) were hung on a line to dry, sparkling white in the sunshine. A raised vegetable bed was beginning to flower. Grandchildren ran underfoot. It seemed like a happy place . . . sort of.
We finally left, still having Elly with us. He asked if we would like a tour of a nearby town and cave. That sounded awesome. So, we piled back in the car and drove out of the small pueblo and farther down the narrowing road. After a few kilometers, we came into another tiny town. This one also had a small central park. It is traditional for Mexican towns to have a central park, and, in the Zona Maya and most Maya communities, these parks also have a ceiba tree and usually a well (cenote) for villagers to have access to fresh water. This one had not just a huge tree, but also a cave!
A fruiting avocado tree stood at the mouth of the cave, which we had to climb down into. The roots descended into the opening in the rock, looking for water. Elly’s friend who lived across the street came over and helped us climb down into the mouth of the portal. Because that is what it is, a portal to Xibalba, the Maya underworld.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t go in very far before the cave ceiling became so low that we would have to crawl to make any head way. Elly explained that the cave runs all the way to the ruins of Chichen Itza (over 100 KM away!), but the conditions are deplorable; muddy, stifling hot, difficult to breathe. And so, we decided just to appreciate what we had seen already and enjoy listening to the stories Elly regaled us with. They were stories of ancient Maya and modern. In particular, there was a heart wrenching story of his grandfather fighting invaders in the Caste Wars around the turn of the 20th century, a hundred years ago. Elly told us of how white men came to take their land, of how his uncles and cousins died, of how the wars (skirmishes) lasted for more than 50 years. And he did so with tears in his eyes. I was surprised by the intensity of his emotion. The wars were not in his lifetime, nor his father’s, but his grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s. Yet he spoke like it had happened only weeks ago.
He also told us a very supernatural story about a speaking cross! (More on that to come)
While Elly was sharing, Jen was playing with the two young girls who lived across the street. They had followed their father over and were curious about us. Jen, seeing that we not going any father into the cave, climbed out and entertained the girls who were about 9 and 12. She practiced her Spanish with them, and they showed her around the small park.
A stone’s throw from the cave entrance was a round “stick” building (nah in Mayan), painted a pretty blue and sporting a tall palm-thatch roof. Since the sticks were natural and not completely aligned, you could see a small amount of flickering light inside, perhaps from candles. Jen asked about the curious structure, so the girls took her over to see. When she asked if she could see what was inside, they opened the door so she could peek in.
Elly, Noe, and I clambered back out of the cave entrance just in time for Elly to see Jen peeking inside the door of the blue building. All of us were shocked at his reaction! Immediately he broke away from us and ran to where Jen and the girls stood, yelling, as he did, that she should NOT enter the building. We were all quite confused at this commotion. He apologized for his severity but said that it was necessary and immediately instructed Jen to give the girls ten pesos to RUN down the street and buy candles, which they must hurry back with. He closed the door firmly, asked us to move away from the building, which he said was a church, and instructed the girls to light the candles and place them in front of the door as soon as possible and to pray and pray fervently!
He was so very polite to us, but obviously quite shaken. He steered us away from the simple round edifice, left the girls to their task, and told them that if they prayed hard enough, perhaps nothing bad would happen to them!
So, what was in the building? Why did Elly have such a strong reaction?
As we left, I tried to peer out of the corner of my eye at it. I could definitely see light flickering inside.
Later Jen said it just looked like a simple church, dark and empty of people. Candles were burning. The pall made it hard to make out the details, but it seemed like there were a few rows of pews, a simple altar, and a cross surrounded by a few other things on the altar.
That was all. But what kind of church was it? Elly said it was beautiful and very special, but he would say no more. Why it was so important that we not even look at it much less enter it, we had no clue….yet!
More to come!