Recently I went with two friends on a cruise of the Western Caribbean. It was my first cruise, and was an eye-popping experience, from the the size of the ship (1,112 feet
long) to the enormous quantities of very good food provided daily, to the variety of entertainment on board (an ice show! imagine!! It was a really excellent one, too!!!), and the variety of excursions we were offered on shore.
Our second stop was in Costa Maya on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.
Recently a port was built to accommodate cruise ships, which includes a shopping village, and which is a jumping off point for excursions to some delicious less-developed Mayan ruin sites such as Chacchoben, which we visited. The Mayan ruins are a subject for several other posts – they are as fascinating as they are ancient and mysterious.
As you can see from the Google Earth screenshot above (thank you G.E.) the area around the cruise port is sparsely developed. There’s been more growth lately, but so far most of it is centered around cruise ship arrivals and tourist dollars. (That off-center T in the water is the cruise ship dock.) I gather when there are no cruise ships the little village is closed up. It does not seem to be much used by locals.
This faux village has a central square, and in the middle of the square is a 30 meters tall pole with climbing rungs. Wikipedia gives a detailed account of the history of the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers). It originated some hundreds of years ago at a time of great drought. The ceremony was developed to appease the gods and bring back the rain.
The dance is usually performed by five young men (the ones we saw were ‘apprentices,’ aged 18-22, but they looked pretty darn professional to us. Six marched in, four climbed the pole). They march into the square, one of them playing a small flute and banging a teeny drum (note the yellow cords hanging down).
Then they begin to climb the pole. This is heart-stopping – it seems impossible that they can climb so high, and that they can perch on the teeny structure at the top, which can revolve.
Once they are at the top they haul up their ropes in a very particular way and wrap them around the pole. Then four of them address the cardinal points of the compass, while the fifth stands in the middle. In our instance there were only four, and they all flew.
The four tied their ropes to their legs and stepped into space, slowly spinning around the pole as they descended in a stately and controlled manner. Impossibly, the drummer/ flute player continued to play both instruments as he flew down.
It is done in a very particular way. They must circle the pole exactly thirteen times. Thirteen times four (number of flyers) = fifty-two, the number of years in the ‘calendar round’ (see the Wikipedia article for more detail). Here they are, gracefully descending.
I apologize for not getting them all the way down for you, my camera ran out of battery (grrrrr).
It was an amazing thing to see, looking far simpler than it is, I think. The Danza de los Voladores has been named an Intangible Cultural Heritage by Unesco in 2009. As a result, the Mexican government has a responsibility to protect and promote the Dance. If you have a chance to see it, don’t miss it.