How indigenous wisdom should shape the path ahead

Some 66 million years ago, an asteroid hit Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, unleashing an energy that has been revered by ancient civilizations and transfixed generations of hippies and healers. Now, amid the Instagram shamans and roadside plant medicine, the Maya elders are having to re-emerge to properly enlighten today’s spiritual scene. Tulum-based wellness expert Lola Holmes deep dives...

Photographs by Brad Torchi

I had never wanted to come back to Tulum, let alone live here. I had landed here once before, in the so-called golden days of the late 1990s, when there was little more than barefoot beach huts, fireside drumming and coconut palms curving along the white sand. It was home to giant turtles, local families and the fortunate few, a hodgepodge of hippies and backpackers, bedazzled and bewildered to have stumbled across such a paradise. So when the hype grew and it became one of the hotspots for the global “gypset”, prices skyrocketed for those seaview rooms I’d once rented by the month, and I wrote it off.

But Tulum has a way of drawing you back, if she chooses. When I finally returned two decades later it was for a story, to cover the first year of Restaura, an intimate 200-person festival, which takes place each March. And it was during those nights, stars bright over the rolling ocean and the gentle hum of cicadas on the breeze, that Tulum opened new doorways to her world far beyond the party scene and high-season mayhem.

We gathered for morning yoga sessions in temple shalas positioned to salute the sunrise, followed by wisdom circles from elders. Mayan medicine women, Peruvian shaman and global activists. We closed the festival with a temazcal, a traditional sweat lodge ceremony that is one of the most powerful rituals still practised across Mexico, an ancient way of honouring the elements and the ancestors. I was hooked, captivated by this sense of connection in a land where nature was the ultimate god, leaving with a newfound perspective on the chaos of our times and a sense of community that felt so far removed from London’s “keep calm and carry on” humdrum routines.

But in 2020, when we returned for Restaura’s second year, the prophecies of great change came to pass far sooner than expected and the world went into lockdown. And so it was that in a global game of musical chairs, stranded as the music stopped, we had the chance to live a whisper in our community by the sea, a memory of these lands that had not been seen for decades. People and parties disappeared almost overnight, while wild deer and even black jaguars, the kings in these jungles, were spotted back on the beach. There was enough stillness and silence for Tulum’s natural magic to take over again.

When the world started to open up, Tulum exploded, drawing more mystics, musicians and misfits back than before. And many, like me, never left. Which is what makes it so unique, a multilayered microcosm where you can choose from 50 yoga classes a day, heal just about anything and train with global masters — from 16th-generation samurai Zen Tataki to renowned Kundalini yoga teacher Gurmukh — who call this stretch of the Yucatán peninsula home. Yet discernment is key, for amid the life-changing ceremonies and treatments you’ll find self-proclaimed Western shamans who “took a course” and road signs advertising every plant medicine under the sun.

In part, it was this influx of foreigners that started to draw the traditional Mayan priests and priestesses, the Ajq’ig’, out of their hermetic communities to share the ancient teachings of these lands. In the Mayan tradition, you have to be born on a specific day in the Mayan calendar to be able to even train as a medicine man or woman. The Ajq’ig’ are the astronomers of their people, steering the Mayan calendar, as well as the only ones who can communicate with the ancestors, the gods and the Nahuales (animal spirits), and bring balance and harmony in the community through ceremonies, prayers and guidance.

They start their initiation from birth and only when they have collected 260 of a very rare seed are they deemed ready to work with the specific medicines and elements that the elders grant permission for. Ranging from plants and medicines, to being a birth doula, to using the healing power of water, some Ajq’ig’ receive many tools, some just one. For them, it is a lifelong journey of commitment and devotion, not something that can be “learnt” the way we practise medicine in the West.

Despite many dusty tomes scrolled while studying the colonisation of the Americas during my masters at Oxford, not once did I come across an account more alive than that from Nana Wendy, a Mayan priestess practising and teaching in a native community south of Tulum. Fluent in multiple languages, she is as rare as she is wise, sharing traditional ceremonies at Ikal and Nahual readings, which take weeks to prepare, alongside her services as a medicine woman and guide to her people.

When I ask Nana Wendy why Tulum has this innate power for healing and transformation, why so many are drawn to visit and live here in these times, she explains to me that the energy of Tulum has always been a place of deep soul initiation. “Tulum was a land of so much prayer, because its location is not by chance, but calculated strategically. It has been built on a bedrock of powerful obsidian and Celestún and amplified by the underground water system of the cenotes and the sea. Tulum was never a place of sacrifice, but for studying the cosmos, plants and healing. The origin of its name is recorded in our most sacred of books, the Mayan Quiche, as ‘Tulum-ná — el lugar donde se mama la sabiduría’ — the place where wisdom is nurtured. This is a place where you come to discover who you truly are.”

After three years in Tulum, I have no doubt she is right. This is a place rich with magic still beyond my understanding, quite unlike anywhere I’ve ever experienced in 15 years as a travel writer and healer living between Bali, Rio and Portugal. Thanks to the water at every turn and the consciousness of the jungle, this is a land where everything is amplified. Whether you are ready for it or not, what you need to learn about yourself, to transform, will come to the surface if you spend enough time here. Why? “For the Maya, linear time doesn’t exist,” Nana Wendy explains. “Everything is converging, everything is happening now. If I pray today, some of your future sons will receive those blessings. Our ancestors prayed so much in these lands, that still to this day you can receive blessings and benefits from them.”

“My guidance?” she continues. “Come here with your heart open and ask for truth, and you will receive a lot of the energy and the blessings encoded by our ancestors. If I’m honest, I don’t love to leave my community and bring our elders into this chaos, but if we do not, then who will continue to share the truth of our world, our people, our history?”

This is an abridged version of this article. To read in full, pick up a copy of Mondes magazine at your next stay with Belmond.


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