Quintana Roo, Mexico
What makes this site special?
A place OF SOLACE in touristy Playa del Carmen
Xaman Há (present day Playa del Carmen) was an embarkation port for the sacred Mayan pilgrimages to honour Ix Chel, The Goddess of the Moon and Fertility, on Cozumel Island.
It was a market town, a trading port, and a residential fishing community. Trade would come from the northern communities of El Meco and El Rey, carrying salt on to Tulum and the coastal areas all the way from Veracruz to the Caribbean ports and Honduras. They would stop here on the way and exchange products.
There was heavy boat traffic which required a knowledge of navigation as the currents were different when going south towards Central America. Then they had to stay near the coast, as opposed to keeping a distance from the shore on their return. Many pyramids on the coast worked as lighthouses, as was the case in Tulum and Muyil. We can presume that the same applied here at Xaman Há. In my view such a pyramid that worked as a lighthouse was at Group D.
The pilgrims were women from all over Meso-America (which included ancient Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba and Puerto Rico). For some, the pilgrimage journey was for business purposes – to barter local goods such as honey and salt for other commodities. For others, the pilgrimage voyage to Cozumel was a sacred one, necessary in the eyes of the Maya for a healthy pregnancy and childbirth. It has now been re-enacted and the annual pilgrimage takes place from Xcaret every May. La Travesía Sagrada Maya is the re-creation of the sacred journey in canoes, accompanied by rituals, dances and ceremonies.
Cozumel was known in ancient times as Tantun Cuzamil (Mayan for Flat Rock in the place of the Swallows). I will henceforth refer to it as Cuzamil. Another island that had the same worship of the Goddess Ix Chel was Isla Mujeres (the Spaniards found idols of Ix Chel on their arrival and named this place the Island of Women). The pilgrims were going to that island from the Maya port of El Meco (north of Cancún).
Playa del Carmen is currently my home, as I moved to Mexico from England; so Xaman Há of all the Maya places is particularly close to my heart. I sometimes take friends for a walk around its ruins, to share my passion for Maya history. I also offer a walking tour via Airbnb Experience. If you are interested to book, click here: Decoding Maya mysteries. There are only a few scattered ruins within the city but their story is nonetheless interesting.
Xaman Há means Water(s) of the North.
We could speculate (well, I like to do so) why its founders chose this name. Does the water of the NORTH indicate that the founders came from the SOUTH? That would be a logical answer. For example, the port of Muyil (south of Tulum), about an hour's drive south of Xaman Há, was founded by the Maya people from the south (Belize or Honduras), through the migration process (when the south was struggling with droughts or lacked food resources). But that was back in 300 BC. In other words, Muyil is older than even Cobá, which became its trading partner. But Xaman Há is a much younger place; it was active between 1200 AD and 1526 AD. As I could not find any evidence to show whether the actual settlement was originally older, I can't vouch for the 'theory' that the southern people named it the 'Waters of the North'.
In any case, the Maya named their cities very simply, after nature. Along the whole Riviera Maya coast (the coast between Cancún and Tulum today) there were many ancient trading ports named after nature. For example Xel Há means 'Water Entrance', Xpu Há means 'Morning Dew', Xcaret is a 'Small Bay', Xcacel is 'The Place of the Stinging Jellyfish', Xcalacoco means 'Twin Coconuts' and Cancún means 'the Snake Nest'. Those are all pretty generic names. But Water of the North is more specific, geographically speaking.
During colonial times Xaman Há was a fishing settlement, which was frequented by pirates and traders en route to and from the port of Veracruz and the ports of Honduras. Protection was needed and one way of dealing with this danger was spiritual, religious protection. The settlement was renamed Playa del Carmen by the Spanish, after Virgen del Carmen, the patron saint of sailors and fishermen.
Who is this Queen of the Seas? Apparently, it is a derivation of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the title given to the Virgin Mary in her role as patroness of the Carmelite Order. The first Carmelites were Christian hermits living on Mount Carmel in Israel during the late 12th and early to mid-13th century. In Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, there has been particular devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who had been adopted as a patron saint of several places. In addition, Carmen and María del Carmen have been popular given names for girls in Spanish-speaking countries. Veneration of the Virgen del Carmen is particularly strong in the coastal towns of Spain and has also been 'adopted' by the fishermen of Playa del Carmen, where to this day July 16th is celebrated by parading a statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel through the streets of the town and along the coast with decorated boats.
From 1000-1500, the Mayan civilisation flourished in the Yucatán area, building vibrant cities along the coast, with Cobá being the spiritual Mecca.
Xaman Há was a fishing community on the extensive Mayan trade route. It was active from 1200 AD to 1526 AD. As a trading city, it needed protection and a wall was built in that time to protect the buildings located to the east. Made of limestone, the average width reached more than 2m and its length exceeded 360m.
In the 16th century, Xaman Há was part of the Ekab Province until the arrival of the Spanish in 1527. Yucatán was at that time divided into 16 (some sources say up to 24) regions, each ruled by a Maya royal dynasty. The Itzá retreated to Petén (Tayasal, in Guatemala, near Flores), the Cupul dynasty lived in the abandoned Chichén Itzá and the Xiu went to Maní.
At that time pilgrimage and trading centres had relative autonomy. Still, because of the trade, the presence of the wall indicates that Xaman Há needed protection. Playa was not of great interest to the Spaniards. Instead, the location of Xel Há was used more as a base by the Spanish during the ultimately unsuccessful first expedition (1527–28) led by Francisco de Montejo (the Elder). Montejo obtained a charter from the Spanish Crown in 1526 to pacify Yucatán. He crossed over from the island of Cozumel to make landfall at Xel Há lagoons. After Montejo conquered the Maya at the battle of Aké village near Merida (where he killed 1,200 Indians), he returned to the coast. His right hand, lieutenant D'Avila, transferred their Xel Há colony to nearby Xaman Há, which Montejo considered to be a better port. Later on the Spaniards moved inland to continue their difficult conquest of Yucatán and as a result, Xaman Há remained free of Spaniards and runaway Maya settled here. Others fled to Belize and Guatemala (the last Itzá king at Tayasal was captured in 1697 and the Maya kingdom fell).
In more modern history, the Caste War of Yucatán (1847–1901) marked the lives of people in Yucatán. It was the revolt of the native Maya people of Yucatán against the population of European descent (against their ill-treatment of the indigenous Maya). I could not find any evidence that Playa del Carmen took part in this war, while Valladolid (where it started) and Muyil and Tulum (which became the hub of the war) certainly did.
The year 1902 marked the year when Quintana Roo officially became a territory of Mexico. Years later, families would begin to settle in the area and the fishing village was born. The region gained fame in the early 1960s when Jacques Cousteau filmed a documentary on the Great Mayan Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world.
In 1970, Playa del Carmen's first wooden pier was constructed and soon after, a ferry service commenced to Cozumel. Playa then had 300 inhabitants living from fishing. The only purpose of the place at this time was as a landing point for ferries to and from Cozumel. Since then, 45 years later, the town has grown immensely, as a tourist destination. More than 200,000 people live there. Playa del Carmen is the fastest growing city in Central and South America.
The People: The pilgrims
So who were the pilgrims? The custom was to take girls on a pilgrimage to Cuzamil as soon as their blood cycles started, to request fertility, a good husband and ease of childbirth. Couples would also come before marriage.
A second pilgrimage was required after the child-bearing years to give thanks for Ix Chel's blessings.
If fertility was a problem, a woman would return to live out her days on the sacred island in service to Ix Chel and the women and children who lived and visited there. Because childless women were rejected by their husbands and often refused a return back into the parents' home, many pilgrims to Cuzamil were married women seeking fertility treatments from the famous midwives.
Due to the pilgrimages, the island of Cuzamil became prosperous and independent. The rulers of Cuzamil controlled lucrative ocean-going trade routes with traders from Tenochitlán and as far south as Panama. The merchants came to make their offerings, trade valuable feathers and honey produced by the women of the island. The Spanish chroniclers said that long before arriving at the harbours of Cuzamil, one could smell a rich aroma of honey.
Xaman Há was located strategically opposite the island of Cuzamil and it is believed that the Maya used it as a shipping port. It was one of three embarkation points for the pilgrimage journey, the other two being Xel Há and Xcaret (called originally Polé, which means 'treatment of merchants').
As a ceremonial centre, the town was a hub for all the services required for this spiritual journey. The pilgrims would need accommodation, food, drinks and religious idols. They would need to bathe and purify themselves before sailing to Cozumel. There was a lot of work here for the priests and priestesses, midwives, merchants and oarsmen who undertook the sacred journey across the ocean. Market days were set and merchants traded for the different objects that were to be offered to the goddess. In Cuzamil, the workforce included priests, highly specialised midwives, therapists (for a special abdominal therapy), herbalists, merchants etc. Maya women learnt midwifery techniques along with general care of women and children. It was particularly compassionate that childless women were charged here with raising orphaned children who might otherwise be likely victims of human sacrifice. Here, in peace and safety, lived abandoned childless women and orphaned girls.
And who was the goddess that was worshipped by so many across the Maya lands? Ix Chel (The Rainbow Lady in translation), was the goddess of the Moon, love, midwifery, gestation, medicine and the textile arts. She wore a serpent on her head (symbol of life and rebirth), and the pattern on her skirt was of crossed bones (symbol of the sky and deity).
Ix Chel was represented with the characteristics of the Moon: as a young maid corresponding to the Full Moon, as a mature woman in the Waning moon, or with one eye closed, lying dead, representing the New Moon. The equation of the triad maid, mother, and grandmother with the three basic phases of the moon seems to be quite common among cultures around the world. In the Dresden Codex she is depicted as an old woman emptying a jar. This could be a reference to the waning moon being emptied, diminishing fertility and dryness of old age. However, she was dedicated to rain deities and therefore the jar could have contained rainwater. The image of the jar filled with rainwater may be derived from the sac holding the amniotic liquid; turning the jar would then be equivalent to giving birth. Others view this scene as the Flood bringing about the end of the world and the year's end; it might also represent the onset of the rainy season.
Ix Chel was married to Itzamná, the God Creator, ruler of sky/heaven. Together they had 13 children. Itzamná also invented and gave humankind writing and the calendar.
Her symbol was the rainbow; her totems were the snake (for wisdom, medicine and intuitive knowledge); the rabbit (for abundance and fertility) and the spider (for weaving). You can see her image in the full moon if you look closely for a rabbit or a young woman kneeling at a loom. She protected the pilgrims who visited her sacred island of Cuzamil and Ix Chel temple. She gave prophecies from inside a seven-foot clay sculpture of herself. Well, it was a priestess standing inside the sculpture, of course. I find this technique a bit cheap. Were the people really so stupid that they thought the goddess was speaking to them from a sculpture? This reminds me of the cult of the Speaking Cross in Chan Santa Cruz in Yucatán during the Caste War, where the leader was a ventriloquist or had arranged some sort of speaking tube to create the illusion that the cross could talk, delivering oracular messages and prophecies to its followers. It's straight out of The Wizard of Oz.
The Focus: THE scattered ruins
For ease of orientation, I have labelled the ruin groups on the map and marked them A-G. This is a suggested route for you from the town centre. The walk instructions are under the section How to Get There.
The whole circle walk from point A to point G takes about an hour. If you stop here and there, it will take a bit longer. Please note that you will start at point A, then go to point B, then C, D, E, F and back to point G.
The buildings have architectural traits known as the 'East Coast Style'. Small temples have vaulted or flat roofs, inset lintels and are slightly slanted on the outside. The masonry is rugged. Most cities had white roads (elevated roads made of white crushed limestone with a smooth cemented surface). Such a road was called sacbé. We can't see such roads in Xaman Há. They would have been much smaller here than in large cities such as Cobá or Chichén Itzá.
The temple doors are always low. This is because whoever was entering the temple had to bow to show respect to the ruler or the priest inside.
When you are walking about the ruins, try to imagine them painted red. Even today you can see a little bit of red here and there but mostly it is iron within the stone. If you want to see the remnants of red paint, you would have to find it on the smooth part of the wall, as the ancient Maya used plaster on the stones and then they painted it.
This ruin sits outside the ancient wall. It is right by the sea, so in my imagination this is the point of embarkation, the shipping port and certainly a place where the customs or military staff would have been placed. A sort of a watch tower. I presume this is where they registered the visitors to the city.
This is the ancient wall that surrounded part of the city for protection. The wall is by the gate entry to the hotel zone in Playacar phase 2 (see the section at the end How to Get There). You will need to get here from group A before you can cross to group B, which is in Playacar phase 1 (there is a path between the two Playacar phases).
This is a cluster of small temples, sitting on a raised platform. Ix Chel effigies and idols were apparently found here. These temples would have been the main ceremonial temples of the city. There is a stela standing by one of the temples, but it is too eroded for us to read the name of the ruler. This would indicate that this place was the most important in the walled ceremonial city but the stela could have been brought here from elsewhere (just for display) so we can't take it as evidence. A stela is a stone slab, often of human height, which has reliefs that portray the local ruler and give the dates of his ascension to the throne and war victories. Sadly, the stela here can't be read.
Yet another temple, built in the same style as all the houses in Xaman Há in the Post-Classic era. It was built from a mix of stone bases and wood. Dry palm leaves protected the small temples on top of the small pyramid structures. In ancient times, there was always a strong religious and astrological connection to the buildings; often they would be aligned with he sun's path during the winter and summer equinoxes. Or they might build a temple in a specific location so that if you face the front you would be looking south to see the path of the Jaguar. This does not apply here. Here the door faces south-east (to Cozumel and the sunrise) so we face north-west when we stand in front of it. Islands in Maya belief are considered navels of the world and associated with creation, renewal, fertility, female gods and ancestors. The pilgrimages were made in the direction of the rising sun. And so the temples of Xaman Há were built in the same direction.
Group C could have been where steam baths took place. Or the market place? Or the residence of a noble family? Too much was destroyed when the hotels were built over these ruins so we can now only guess.
This is the largest pyramid in Xaman Há, with several platforms. The pyramid has a temple on the top. You can see through both doorways the sea behind. Given its height, it is possible that in the past it served as the main pyramid temple and a lighthouse at the same time, in the same way as El Castillo (the Castle) in Tulum. There they put fire in two rooms with windows to indicate safe passage for canoes through the coral reef. Here in Xaman Há the reef seems lower and therefore less dangerous for canoes but in the past they may have used the doorway for fire signals to seafarers and all pilgrims coming back from Cazumil.
There are jungle plants around this ruin section, try to spot fiddlewood trees, red gumbo limbo, black poisonwood trees, ceiba, banyan and, of course, palms.
Groups E and F have three small pyramidal bases with temples on top and one ceremonial platform. These buildings stand on top of an elevation. They are slightly further from the sea (well, a one-minute walk). Such platforms and small pyramids were often used for holding sacrificial rituals. The staircase on the pyramid is in the middle. During their rituals, the priests would ascend the pyramid from the earth to the sky by means of staircases. They believed that this brought them closer to the gods (despite the fact that these pyramidal platforms are not very tall). Just try to imagine the rituals, the dances, the performances, the music, the costumes, the fire burning, the smell of copal incense. All the ceremonies before the pilgrims took off for their journey. The pyramids in this group are clearly considered sacred even today as the Maya place stones here on top of each other in their private prayers.
The Mystery: The Maya rituals
The intriguing question in this context is what rituals were used in the process of blessing before the pilgrims set off on their journey. A whole army of priests was required for this. I looked for an answer from a shaman from Cozumel, Jesus Eduardo. Well, he is not a shaman. That is the word we use nowadays but the Maya wise men don't call themselves shamans. Instead, they are called Ah Men. There is a complex hierarchy in the Maya priesthood, which I explain in detail my post San Gervacio.
Jesus Eduardo, 'my' Ah Men, has done a few cleansing rituals for me during the time I have known him. Let me describe one of them, to give you a more concrete idea about what a pilgrim going to ancient Cazumil would have experienced in Xaman Há.
This particular ritual was based on the Maya belief in ch’ulel or life-force. It is everywhere and everything; mountains, animals, plants, buildings and people for example, are all connected in this divine force. If one thing is off or wrong, it throws off everything else in the universe. It is the Ah Men’s job to keep it all in balance. To tune me up, to balance me, the ritual included calling all my ancestors and family members and thanking them for giving me life or being in my life. Then I lay down and the Ah Men felt the vibrations in my body, by passing his hands over me (without touching). Then he felt the inside of my elbow, where he was receiving signals from my brain (hypothalamus) and heart and every time he received a signal, he identified a flower needed for my balancing process.
My main flower was fleur-de-lis (flor de Quetzalcoatl). We know it as the flower in the coat of arms of the Kingdom of France, kings of England, also Florence and Bosnia. The Olmecs, Toltecs and Mayans knew it as Omexóchitl. For them the flower symbolises the union of heaven and earth, honour, royalty, purity, generosity, perfection. By placing it above my heart he was erasing 'me' and directing me towards 'us' (sharing with others). Throughout the process the Ah Men was placing other flowers over my body, on my forehead, chest, hips, knees and ankles. These included Percival rose, to rid me of the fear of making mistakes, being honest with myself and forgiving myself. Forget-Me-Not indicated to him that I was a nomad, a persona capable of carrying all responsibilities on my shoulders. The rain tree plant was used to balance my self-esteem (not too high, not too low) and my 'sacred' (faith) memory. The silk cotton-tree flower was used to give me confidence in my abilities, give me energy and beat tiredness, Matthiola to help me make decisions, Cayenne Pepper to bring flavour in life, to fully enjoy life.
Interestingly, Eduardo did not use real flowers, but photo slides (placed inside cardboard). He had a full bag of them, ready to use the relevant ones, depending on what signals he was receiving from my body. He said the slides contained metal, which is a good conductor of energies. Admittedly, it is practical, and carrying a sack of real flowers would also be costly.
Apart from the mental or spiritual cleansing, his hands paused over my liver, to tune it, to balance it (I presume I can continue happily with drinking wine, ha ha).
On different occasions I also experienced cleansing with eggs. Once by a healer in Chiapas, in the extraordinary village of Chamula. I say extraordinary because this village practises indigenous rituals in a Catholic church, in a unique religious fusion. Inside the church we witnessed the cleansing ceremony k’eex ('exchange' or 'transfer'), a complex healing ritual in which the underworld and evil winds are transferred from a person to the earth and the jungle. A chicken was killed (by breaking its neck, although until the recent past blood was required) and alcohol was consumed ('pox', a liquor made of corn and sugar cane). The village has over 100 spiritual leaders who are appointed for a year to look after a particular saint. They have to maintain a shrine for the whole year. I imagine it was similar in the old Xaman Há city. In Chamula my spiritual leader was a woman (women in such clerical positions have to be married) and in her personal shrine she pinpointed specific areas to allow the egg's sponge-like properties to absorb my inner energy. Apparently, eggs can take on negative vibrations. The negativity, stress, curses, whatever bothers you, then transfer from you to the egg and the egg traps the energy. I had this cleansing ritual done on another occasion at my home town, Playa del Carmen. Here the curandera (healer) was able to tell me my health history, the troubled areas and the egg that was shown to me at the end of the cleansing was completely black.
As for specific treatments for fertility that the pilgrims received on the other side, in Cozumel, massage of the lower abdomen was used to cleanse the organs and discharge stagnant energy (emotional stress from the past is held in the womb, which decreases free energy flow). Toning the pelvic organs through contracting muscles was another exercise to increase sexual potency. Medicinal practices included drinks made of wild yam and senna roots soaked in fermented liquor, to increase fertility. For the birth itself, the midwife would have rubbed peccary fat mixed with white sapote (known to the Maya as yuy) around the belly in circles and bay cedar roots and bark were mixed together to ease childbirth. After delivery, the mother was given a yoni steam (vaginal steaming with nine herbs). Midwives would also deal with contraception. Roasted and ground papaya seeds, dissolved as powder in warm water, were taken before the menstruation cycle. For newborn babies, midwives used the water of the wild grape vine to bathe their eyes and umbilicus. The diluted milky sap of the breadnut tree (ramón) was fed to newborn babies for a few days when the mother's milk was not available.
At the other end of the spectrum, the female vine of the bull hoof (bauhinia divaricate) was used as a birth control agent. It was chopped and boiled in water and drunk in the dose of three teacups for three days of the menstrual cycle, which would provide six months of infertility. If a woman used it for another cycle, she was left infertile for one year.
Don't Miss: The temazcal ritual
To get close to the Maya ritual, you could try a temazcal (sweat bath, from the Nahual language 'house of heat'). Most hotels offer this experience. The one I recommend is the ritual that I experienced personally by the shaman in the Maya village in Dos Ojos park (just after the Xel Há ruins). You pass Dos Ojos cenote and after a couple of minutes' drive along a dirt road you will arrive at a village with a sign Dos Palomas cenote. Here the shaman offers a wonderful temazcal at a very good price. You will need a small group of friends as they would not do it for one person. The temazcal ritual is to prepare you to harmonise your inner-energy with cosmic influences. It is still used for healing the sick, improving health (also for women to give birth).
Our Ah Men first addressed his gods and ancestors and the cardinal points. Then we drank a honey drink and he cleansed our bodies with Siipilche plants (passing them over the body). Then we went inside an 'igloo' (built from cement). Outside there was a bonfire and the rocks heated in the fire were thrown into the igloo by the assistant. We were a group of ten people sitting inside and getting pretty hot. We spread sap from the aloe vera plant on our bodies and listened to the chant of the Ah Men. He was even singing and we had to repeat his songs and chant. I can imagine that in the past hallucinogenic substances were also used. Well, we did not need them. I felt as if I was in a trance even without them because of the combination of the heat, the chant and the echo in a small place (I don't recommend this if you have heart problems).
You will never forget this experience; you will feel very pure, both physically and mentally. Afterwards, you can cool down in the village cenote. An affordable and unforgettable experience! If interested, contact me and I can give you a contact for a nice temazcal ritual in the jungle.
How to get there:
Start at point A in street 2 where you will find one ruin. The ruin is on your right hand side if you are facing the sea, opposite the hotel Sian Kaan Posada.
Then continue along the 5th (or 10th) avenue to Paseo Del Carmen shopping mall street until you reach the gate to Playacar Phase 2. This is a hotel and residential zone. The guards may ask you where you are going; they are pretty strict. Just name one of the hotels inside, e.g. Riu or Reef Hotel.
Once you pass the guard, you will see on your left the ancient wall, marked on the map as point G. Follow the wall and after a few metres turn off the pavement and follow the path into the jungle, along the wall (towards the sea). You will come to the back of the ruin marked as B Group. These ruins sit on the street called Bahía del Espíritu Santo in the residential zone called Playacar Phase 1 (both Playacar phases are interconnected). You will see a large condo right next to the ruins. The condo is also called Xaman Há.
Keep going along this street to the ruins marked as C and D. At Group D, by the Fishermen's Beach Resort, turn back towards the main pavement of Playacar Phase 2, through the small jungle path (it takes one minute to get back to the pavement). You will reach ruins, the pyramid bases, E and F. In reality, there are three ruins here but the city marked them as E and F only (so on my map they are marked as E1, E2 and F). From here follow the pavement all the way back to the entry gate (point G, the wall). The walk from ruin F to the gate takes about 15 minutes.
The whole walk will take you an hour and a half at a leisurely pace.
Mix & Match
I would not come to Playa del Carmen specifically for the ruins (as there are many other ruins which are better preserved). However, this walk around the ruins is great if you are already in town.