A sweat lodge in the city of Tepoztlan, Mexico // © 2014 Mexico Tourism Board
Feature image (above): The sweat lodge at Ceiba Del Mar Beach and Spa Resort is located on the beach. // © 2014 Ceiba Del Mar Beach and Spa Resort
The growing interest in experiential travel in Mexico has resulted in several unconventional activities going mainstream with visitors, including everything from eating roasted grasshoppers to taking a dip in a “cenote,” a natural well used by the Maya in ceremonies.
Another Maya activity that has grown in popularity over the last decade is the “temazcal,” or Maya sweat lodge. The word temazcal roughly translates to “house of heat.” Once shrouded in mystery and available only to intrepid travelers, a temazcal experience is now an optional part of the resort experience at many properties in Mexico, especially in the Riviera Maya.
What exactly does a temazcal experience consist of? I’ve done it twice and both times found it a rewarding and challenging undertaking.
The Traditional Temazcal
The purpose of the temazcal is to purify the body, mind and spirit. The first time, the other participants and I gathered around a circular stone hut with a small opening — almost like a stone igloo. Crouching low and dressed in bathing suits, we all passed into the hut and found places on benches positioned against the walls of the hut. In the center was a pit of glowing red-hot stones. The entrance to the hut was closed off, and we were plunged into darkness.
A Maya shaman conducted the session over the course of two hot and sweaty hours. He told us Maya folktales in English, and, at intervals, would dip a leafy branch into a bucket of herb-infused water before flicking drops of water onto the stones, which hissed and sent up clouds of fragrant mist.
Up to now, the experience is somewhat akin to sitting around a campfire telling stories. But something inexplicable began happening. I began to feel restless and acutely aware of the blood pressure in my body. It was only 10 minutes or so into the ceremony, but I was beginning to feel anxious — as though I wanted to bolt out of the hut. I willed myself to breathe more slowly and to let the experience flow through me, instead of trying to control the experience.
By the end of the session, when we emerged, we were all directed to lie down for a few minutes on mats under a palapa canopy. As I lay there, I felt a tremendous sense of peace. My sense of hearing was heightened, especially to the sounds of birds singing in the trees. I also felt a great sense of connection with the people who went through the temazcal experience with me. What had at first been a physically and emotionally difficult experience had ultimately become a rewarding one.
The second time I experienced the temazcal was with my wife, at the Zoetry Paraiso de la Bonita resort in the Riviera Maya. The steam and heat from the rocks proved to be too much for my wife, and only a few minutes into the procedure, we requested to be let out. There wasn’t the slightest attempt to dissuade us, and the whole process of us exiting the temazcal was completely professional.
Travelers thinking of participating in a temazcal ritual should always remember this important element of the experience: At any time if the experience has become too much, don’t hesitate to make a request to leave the temazcal. It’s unlikely that the shaman or those assisting him outside the hut would object to this, especially at a temazcal that is part of a resort.
It’s also important to note that there are some medical conditions that would make a person unfit for the temazcal experience, chief among these being diabetes, heart disease and claustrophobia.
Those who want to have an even more authentic temazcal experience can opt for the one provided by Dos Palmas Ecotours. Visitors are invited into an actual Maya community, where the temazcal ritual is conducted by an authentic Maya shaman.