For years I’ve been getting press releases from Sacred Earth Journeys, a company that specializes in trips to spiritual sites around the world. So much about the company appealed to me—its focus on spirituality, its expert guides, and the locations of its trips. But the timing was never right and there was always a good reason I couldn’t go.
But I finally got the chance to travel with Sacred Earth Journeys—and the experience more than lived up to my expectations. A tour called Maya Temples of Transformation immersed me in the culture and spirituality of pre-Columbian Mexico and Guatemala. During the week we visited three major Mayan sites: Palenque, Yachxilan, and Tikal. Along the way we trekked through jungles, took part in ceremonies with ancient roots, and listened to howler monkeys in the treetops above.
I was accompanied on the tour by my intrepid husband, Bob, and our equally intrepid friend Brian. But during the week I also got to know our fellow travelers, who hailed from Australia, England, and Canada as well as the U.S. Some had been part of Sacred Earth Journeys before; others were newbies. All of us shared an interest in the spiritual side of travel, and all of us wanted to truly experience the places we were seeing, not just skip across the surface.
My week with these people made me realize that in all my years of spiritual journeying, I’ve missed one of the classic elements of pilgrimage: being put together in a group with complete strangers, fellow pilgrims who during the course of the journey become friends.
Though we hailed from far-flung corners of the globe, we quickly formed bonds. During conversations over breakfasts and dinners, on bus rides, and walking down forest paths, I heard their personal stories and learned from their insights and wisdom. It was a little like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a moveable feast of spirituality and camaraderie.
Bringing like-minded pilgrims together is one of the missions of Sacred Earth Journeys, according to its founder and owner, Helen Tomei, who also was part of our group. “Traveling solo can be wonderful,” she told me. “But there are things that happen in groups that you can’t get when you travel on your own. When you travel to sacred places together, you benefit from hearing about other people’s experiences, and they can help you process your own experiences. You learn from each other.”
Helen sees many transformations among the groups she coordinates. “Most of us live in a world of endless distractions, especially because of the overwhelming presence of technology,” she told me. “On trips like this, we’re given the chance to disconnect, slow down, and look inward. I think that’s one of the reasons why interest in spiritual travel is growing. My hope is that people will come home from a journey with us changed in some way, and that their lives will be better once they return to their ordinary routines.”
During our week together, we were fortunate to have two leaders with great experience in guiding people through spiritual transformations. Freddy Silva is one of the world’s leading researchers of sacred sites, ancient systems of knowledge, and the interaction between temples and consciousness. His books include First Templar Nation and The Divine Blueprint. Miguel Angel Vergara is a native of Mexico who studied for 17 years with Mayan elder and wisdom keeper Don Vincente Martin. Today Miguel teaches seminars in Mexico and abroad on Mayan shamanism, traditions, and culture and is also the author of The Sacred Knowledge of the Maya.
The two were a powerful combination. Miguel led us in ceremonies and provided a deep background in the spirituality of the places we were seeing. And Freddy was our trickster teacher, making us laugh, inviting us to consider new possibilities, and sharing his knowledge of similarities between sacred sites around the world.
As the week went on, I especially appreciated Miguel’s deep kindness and his unassuming way of teaching profound truths. One day as we entered the jungle on our way to the Guatemalan site of Tikal, for example, he made an off-hand comment that is one of the most profound pieces of spiritual wisdom I’ve ever heard. “You know, the most important part of a ceremony is the love in your heart,” he said. “If you don’t have that, it doesn’t make any difference what rituals you do. And if you have that love, all the rituals will work, no matter how you do them.”
During our trip, Miguel did a masterful job of leading us in rituals designed to open our hearts to the spirit of the sacred places we toured. On our first day, for example, we visited Misol Ha Waterfall, a gorgeous cataract in the forest near the Mayan site of Palenque. On the bus ride there, he told us that many sacred sites have a cave of some sort associated with them. They provide a direct connection to the divine spirit of the earth, the mother who sustains us all.
“Surrender your ego and be humble,” he told us, echoing the message that spiritual teachers of many traditions give. “Ask yourself: what do I need to give up? What do I need to heal?”
At the site, we got out of the bus and walked down a slippery path leading to the waterfall, then passed behind its torrent on our way to the cave itself. In darkness lit only by a few flashlights, we made our way into an inner chamber, where another, smaller waterfall cascaded into a pool.
“Water is a connection to the Spirit,” Miguel told us. “Enter the water if you’d like. Ask for healing for yourself and for others.”
I watched as most members of our group slid into the water. Fighting a cold, I felt it would be unwise to join them, because as much as I believe in the power of the Spirit, I’m also a believer in the power of a virus to make a trip miserable. So I sat there with my feet in the pool, savoring the sounds of the waterfall, watching as my fellow pilgrims immersed themselves in holy waters that have drawn seekers for millennia.
It was one of my favorite moments of the trip. And if I’d had some paint supplies with me, I’d have drawn animals on the walls, just like in those French caves covered with prehistoric paintings. It was that kind of moment, a time-out-of-time when I felt I could have channelled something wild and mysterious.
Let me end with another comment made by Miguel, one that summarizes much of his perspective on the world. He told us that the traditional greeting exchanged by the Maya translates as, “How is your sacred path today?”
That’s a question we all can ask, whether we’re in a sacred cave in the middle of a jungle, or sitting at a desk in Iowa.
Read more about the other Mayan sites we visited on our trip:
- The Mayan Mysteries of Palenque, Mexico
- A Mayan Ceremony in Yaxchilan, Mexico
- Finding the Holy in a Tradition Not My Own
- The Splendor of Tikal, Guatemala