Before dawn on a cold winter’s morning in a field outside of Guadalajara, a row of young people file past a bonfire and throw tobacco into the flames. The women wear long flowing dresses, while the men are shirtless and shiver silently in the dark.
The shaman then pours a bucket of scented water onto the rock. A loud hiss sounds, and steam pirouettes from the flaming stone, filling the structure.
“Do not be afraid,” the shaman says, “Feel the steam touch you. Let mother earth embrace you.”
The heat is almost overpowering, filling the nostrils and burning the ears. The scalding vapor hits the back of the throat and the lungs are filled with every breath. The shaman speaks over a penetrating drumbeat, giving an impassioned and commanding sermon on nature and the oneness of all. He even meanders into current events, explicitly referring to the disappeared students of Ayotzinapa.
“We call for a response to the violence in our motherland, to the bloodshed in Michoacan and Guerrero.”
“We need to organize!” a female voice shouts over the hissing of the rocks.
“We do,” the shaman agrees, “but we call for a response free from violence, with no anger or arms.”
The temazcal ritual dates back to the ancient Mayans, who performed sweaty ceremonies for the sick or for soldiers returning from battle. Sometimes hallucinogenic drugs like peyote were taken to enhance the experience. The ritual represents the return to the womb, allowing the individual to separate from the outside world and reconnect with the inner self.
“The first few times I felt like I was drowning,” says Jose Soler, who had his first temazcal experience three years ago. “The heat was so intense. With time this sensation left and I began to enjoy it. It’s a moment of stopping and listening, of cleansing and rebirth.”
Body temperature during a ceremony can rise to 40°C (104°F) resulting in an increased heartbeat that promotes the release of toxins from the body.
However, the temazcal experience can be unpleasant, especially to newcomers not used to such heat. In the United States, where sweat lodges are traditional among Native American communities, there have been reports of deaths when improperly trained outsiders have attempted to organize them.
Three people died in 2009 in an overcrowded temporary lodge near Sedona, Arizona when self-help guru James Arthur Ray called for his followers to abstain from food and water for 36 hours.
In Mexico, permanent temazcal structures are likely to be far safer and better designed. Nowadays, spa-hotels frequently offer some version of the ceremony, with very little risk to the participants.
However, the popularity of the ritual has left the tourist industry open to accusations of cultural appropriation. Critics say they employ ancient indigenous practices to make a fast buck.
“When they are saunas it seems like a good idea,”says Ana Mar Osuna, who was 12 when she first participated in the ritual. “It’s a good space to relax. But it doesn’t seem respectful to call them temazcales, because a temazcal is much more than a steam bath.”
Fernando Cabello, who has been regularly taking temazcales since 1997, believes it’s inappropriate to run the ritual for profit. “This ceremony is for the people, we all have the right to enter,” he says.
Yet Barbara Varicchio, the head of sales for Dos Palmas Eco Tours, welcomes the opportunity to work with local indigenous communities. She argues that outsiders partaking in the experience are helping to develop tourism in the most positive way.
“By keeping the ancient steam bath practice alive, we are encouraging sustainable tourism and enabling traditional communities to earn their livelihood bydoing what their ancestors did.”
–Anyone with diabetes or heart disease should steer clear, as should those susceptible to claustrophobia.
–Prevent dehydration by drinking a lot of water the day of the ceremony.
–Clothing requirements vary. Men generally wear shorts, and women long dresses. Hotels may provide the appropriate clothing. Be aware that you will get dirty.
–The cost of temazcales can vary wildly. The annual Raices de la Tierra festival in San Isidro Mazatepec covers costs with a 150-peso contribution for multiple ceremonies, while El Chante Spa hotel in Jocotepec will charge 2,320 pesos for a private two-person temazcal.