A visit to Mexico’s Pac Chen is a step back—into tranquility and authentic, Mayan culture
By JANE AMMESON
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
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.
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.
won’t be getting electricity until the end of the year,” Jeanette
informs me. Needless to say, my cell phone screen reads no service.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
is one company that offers trips to Pac Chen (www.alltournative.com). For more information on the area,
Published: December 09, 2008
Issue: Winter 2008 - Annual Philanthropy Guide