Steamy Stays

Temazcal rituals heat up the Riviera Maya

By: Laurel Delp

We are enclosed in complete darkness, seated in a circle around an open pit filled with fiery hot volcanic rocks. Our temazclera throws herb-infused water onto the rocks and steam envelopes us. She leads us in a chant, and as I stare at the rocks, I begin to imagine I can see a turtle. The heat is getting to me. After more steam and a few more chants, we call out, as loudly as we can, “Puerta!” Someone opens the door to the temazcal, and we crawl out of the heat into the moonlit night, run down the white-sand beach and throw ourselves into the Caribbean. Above us, stars glitter, and down the beach, amber lights glow from our resort, Maroma. I float in the dark sea, peaceful, without a thought in my head.

A temazcal is a Mexican sweat lodge, a tradition that reaches back to the Olmecs, Mesoamerica’s first great civilization (1,500-200 BCE). There are carvings of temazcalli in the earliest Mayan ruins, and the Zapotecs, who preceded the Maya by 900 years, to this day build temazcalli in their backyards in Oaxaca. The word itself is Nahuatl, from the founders of the Aztec empire temas, meaning bath, and calli, meaning houses. The purpose of the temazcal is dual, for both physical and spiritual renewal, and is meant to ensure balance of body and soul. Every culture has its version of the sweat lodge from the Swedish sauna to Turkish hammam to Japanese baths but few have the spiritual component of the temazcal.

Maroma was the first resort in Mexico to build a temazcal for its guests. Now they are popping up everywhere, but for clients anxious to try this ancient ceremony, there’s no better place to begin than at one of the resorts on the Maya Riviera. Here clients can combine basking on the gorgeous Mexican Caribbean beaches, visiting the awe-inspiring ruins of Mayan cities and trying the temazcal. Most of the resorts on this tropical coast have excellent, unique spas. Already luxurious Maroma recently added spectacular spa suites for the more sybaritically inclined. To the south, at rustic media-and-phone-free Maya Tulum, clients can submerge themselves in a world of yoga and spa treatments as well as temazcal.

Most temazcalli are dome-like adobe structures, often decorated with bas-relief carvings of animals. The door (or puerta) can be anything from wood to a blanket, but the temazcal must be totally dark. It’s a bit like crawling back into the womb. The ceremony is always held at sunset, so that when one re-emerges, it is to dim night, not blinding light.

Every temazclero, or leader, has a different style and way of conducting the ceremony. Generally, there are four “doors,” or divisions in the ceremony, when the doors to the temazcal are thrown open and more volcanic rocks are added to increase the heat. If your clients are lucky, the chanting can sometimes reach Gregorian beauty, but not all resort guests are willing to drop their inhibitions and join in. Before the participants enter the temazcal, there is usually a copal (incense) blessing. Sometimes participants are handed bouquets of herbs with which to gently strike themselves. Some temazcleros offer mud, others aloe vera for rubbing onto the skin. The traditional end of a temazcal is to lie wrapped in blankets under the stars, but on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, it’s too tempting not to run into the sea.

Even for the mildly claustrophobic (but not the severe!) a temazcal ceremony can be completely transporting. And yes, even your most skeptical clients will emerge feeling oddly renewed.


An Orient Express hotel designed by a Mexican architect with a beautiful beach and acres of tropical forest. The spa also offers Janzu, a passive warm-water stretching technique in a pool. 866-454-9351;

Paraiso de la Bonita Resort & Thalasso
All suites, some with plunge pools, some with outdoor showers. The only certified thalasso spa in North America, using marine algae, mud and seawater in treatments. 011-52-998-872-8300;

Ikal del Mar
Individual villas with plunge pools, romantic canopied beds, indoor and outdoor showers. Special soap menu. A yoga studio as well as spa. 888-230-7330;

Opened in March 2005, the property consists of a main house that was the home of an Italian duchess, garden suites with plunge pools and two two-bedroom villas. The spa is completely organic, and many treatments use herbs from the garden. 877-528-3490;

Maya Tulum
Individual villas, yoga pavilion and spa offering a wide variety of treatments, including ayurvedic. Guests are offered visits to Mayan sites as part of the package. There’s a large temazcal led by a third-generation shaman. 888-515-4580;

Ceiba del Mar
Has a meditation palapa at the end of a mangrove walkway. 877-545-6221;

Paradisus Cancun Resort
An all-inclusive featuring Royal Service recognized by Leading Hotels of the World. Good for families. 866-43-6354;

All properties provide 10 percent commission.