Why This Mexican Steam Bath Ritual Is Making a Comeback

Incense chalice
Incense chalice | © Steven Zwerink / Flickr
Photo of Stephen Woodman
21 August 2017

Being locked into a dark, stone structure and sweating in intolerable heat may not sound like your idea of fun, but the Mayan practice of steam baths is growing ever more popular with tourists. Hotels and spas throughout the country are reviving the ancient ceremony, which takes place in an igloo-shaped structure called a temazcal, or “house of sweat.”

The temazcal is much more than a place to cleanse your pores—the ceremony represents a return to the womb, allowing you to separate from the outside world and reconnect with your inner self.

Ancient Mayans performed the ritual long before the arrival of the Spanish. Temazcal ceremonies were typically used to revive soldiers returning from battle or comfort pregnant women. Hallucinogenic drugs such as peyote or psychedelic mushrooms were often taken to enhance the experience.

Temazcal depicted in an Aztec codex | © WikiCommons

Scorching volcanic rocks, which are known as abuelitas (grandmas), help heat the dome. The shaman pours scented water onto the rocks, filling the structure with steam. This steamy ceremony, said to cure both physical and spiritual maladies, is typically accompanied by chanting and drum beating.

Because body temperatures can rise to 40°C (104°F) during a temazcal, the experience can be overwhelming for newcomers.

“My heart was racing the first time I entered,” said María Arreola, who has taken part in several temazcal ceremonies. “I panicked and felt a desperate urge to leave. But after that initial shock, I began to relax and even enjoy it.”

The temazcal practice has taken off in the traditionally Mayan Yucatán Peninsula, with its major resorts such as Cancún and Tulum.

Some purists have been critical of this revival, arguing that the tourist industry should not profit from spiritual practices. However, Greg Roach, the founder of Spirit Quest, a company which organizes trips to spiritual sights in Mexico, is pleased that the practice is now receiving more attention.

“This ‘commercialization’ helps to support indigenous traditions and keep them alive in the face of what is an otherwise inevitable decline,” Roach told Culture Trip.

He also welcomes the fact that the temazcal experience is reaching a broader audience.

“I see little harm in a resort like the Hard Rock or Club Med offering a watered-down or commercialized experience… clients of places like that might otherwise be gambling or drinking rather [than] doing something healthy.”

Temazcal spas

El Chante

You can participate in a temazcal ritual in many different locations. For western Mexico, El Chante, in Jocotepec near Guadalajara, is one of the top spa destinations. The establishment offers a group temazcal service for 500 pesos per person or 2,320 pesos for a private temazcal for couples.

Yaan Wellness

In the Yucatán Peninsula, the temazcal takes center stage at Yaan Wellness in Tulum. The Mayan-themed resort is an excellent place to immerse yourself in the ritual and offers a 150-minute ceremonial temazcal for 500 pesos per person.

Spa Xbalamqué

It may not have a name that rolls off the tongue, but the Spa Xbalamqué in downtown Cancún is a first-rate place to relax and unwind. The spa offers a 120-minute temazcal for 500 pesos per person.

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