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Time Travel

A visit to Mexico’s Pac Chen is a step back—into tranquility and authentic, Mayan culture

   The monkeys, they told me, were asleep in a cave across the lagoon. But other than that disappointment, my trip to Pac Chen, a micro-size Mayan village in the jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula, was the perfect way to step back in time.
    To get there from Playa del Carmen, we traveled the bustling four-lane coastal highway to Tulum and then headed east towards Coba, one of the many archaeological sites that dot this region where the Mayan empire reigned supreme centuries ago. Northeast of Coba, the road turned into a paved path that seemed in danger of being encroached on either side by the jungle. We passed a smattering of thatched wooden huts, but the villages that we had seen on the major roads had all but disappeared. We had been traveling for two hours and the sophistication of Rivera Maya, with its cruise ship ports, shopping plazas and restaurants, seemed even further away.
    “When you see the tall palm tree, take the first road to the right,” instructed my friend Jeanette Rigter. The road to the right, which rose and dropped through lush, impenetrable forest, took us even further from civilization. There were, I noted, no electric lines.
    “Pac Chen won’t be getting electricity until the end of the year,” Jeanette informs me. Needless to say, my cell phone screen reads no service.
    At first, Pac Chen looks to be almost abandoned; thatched roofs over stick-sided buildings seem empty of people. But after parking and walking a long, narrow stone path, we came to the heart of this village, perched on the edge of a lagoon that is ringed by chit palms with their fan like fronds and jungle growth.
    There’s an open-air eating area with a grill set into stone, and a thatched hut that juts out over the water’s edge is a good place to catch the breeze as it blows across the lagoon. Another open-air structure, topped with thatch, shelters a series of hammocks that sway gently in the wind. In a smaller building, four women mix masa into balls and then flatten them with their hands into perfect circles. They take scoops of mashed squash, dropping the mixture on to the circles and then folding them over to make empanadas.
    One woman feeds wood into the fire that flickers beneath sheets of metal. Set on top are large skillets of bubbling oil. As the women finish their empanadas, they place them in to the hot grease where they bobble as they cook. One woman scoops out glowing embers from another fire and carries them in a shovel to the outside grill, where she places them underneath the comal, a flat cooking surface. Once the surface is hot, she begins placing painted clay pots filled with rice, soup and warm tortillas on top.
    Despite the hot, rigorous work, the women look beautiful in their white dresses with heavily hand-stitched embroidery. As this part of the meal nears completion, the men, many of whom have been playing with the children of this small village (some 100 residents in all), begin to gather around the pib, the deep hole in the ground that was dug the night before. Under the ground is a big metal pan containing a pig, which covered with dirt and banana leaves, has been cooking on the hot embers for the last 12 hours. It is the centerpiece of the meal and the ritual of uncovering the pot begins as the women finish their part of the dinner. The dirt is swept away and then the banana leaves are removed, one branch at a time. The village shaman, an older man in a white cotton tunic and pants, arrives to say a blessing. He waves sweet incense and chants in an ancient Mayan dialect, distinctly different from Spanish, as he circles the pib. We are here during the days leading up to Hanal Pixan, the Mayan celebration of the Day of the Dead, and thus the celebration is geared towards this holiday of welcoming back those who have passed away.
    Once the shaman has completed this part of the ceremony, the pot is pulled from the earth, and it is moved to a small outdoor altar, decorated with brightly colored flowers, that stands next to the outdoor grill. The shaman further blesses the meal and then the food is served by young girls, some looking no older than seven or eight, who carry big platters to the rows of tables that sit under the palapa, or thatched huts. More girls carry large pitchers of Jamaican flower water and horchata. Taking the thick tortillas from the stack, we make tacos from the succulent and tender pork that has cooked in the ground all night and heap our plates with freshly made empanadas. There’s also a vegetable soup containing squash and corn, with a taste that’s delicate and rich.
    Later, after our meal, we can canoe, take a walk through the jungle to a cenote, where we can swim in its deep underground recesses, take a zip line ride or just lay in one of the hammocks with the sweet, hot scent of jungle flowers filling the hot and humid afternoon air.
    “Their life is very simple, but very full,” says Jeanette about the villagers. Indeed, it seems that they, without their electricity and miles from anyone else, have chosen well.
     Alltournative is one company that offers trips to Pac Chen (www.alltournative.com). For more information on the area, visit www.rivieramaya.com.

Published: December 09, 2008
Issue: Winter 2008 - Annual Philanthropy Guide