Would you sit in a 140 degree dark igloo with a bunch of strangers in the middle of the Mexican jungle? Let me backtrack, it was 3:00PM and a white van pulled into the lot.
“That’s me!” I said. Stepping into the van, we were greeted by two other guests.
“Hey, where are you guys from?”
“You’re kidding me–where in Portugal?”
Our journey had just begun and we’d already become best friends. Soon, another woman and her son entered the vehicle. These guys were from Los Angeles (where we’re currently living), so, again, we chatted in disbelief. It was only a matter of time until we were passing around a pack of gum and chewing peppermint in solace.
Upon arriving in the Mayan village, our guide pointed us toward the fresh cenote. We were welcome to wander around or take a dip and cool off while waiting for the other group to arrive and begin the ceremony.
Most of the people went off to use the restroom or change into their swimsuits, but we came prepared. Tiptoeing down the wooden staircase into the base of the cenote, we had the place to ourselves. It was incredible. Imagine walking up to a hidden swimming pool in the middle of the jungle with just you and sounds of nature. Suddenly, something swooped above my head and I screamed, ducking. Then came another, followed by a third.
“Bats!” I shouted running for cover on the side facing the sunset. Soon, more people began trickling down, disbelieving the fact that we saw any bats in the water. Even so, we collectively avoided the darker side. Taking a running start, I plunged into the refreshing blue water and bobbed to the surface.
“I know this is cliche, but it’s really not bad once you get in.”
“Oh my gosh. There’s a HUGE FISH by you,” someone claimed, pointing in the dark water directly to the side of me as I began squirming and splashing around. You see, the fish in these waters are blind from living in the caves, so they will come up and touch you without hesitation to feel around.
“It’s gone, don’t worry,” they told me as I glided toward the edge.
I reached the side and began pulling myself out. Moving my knee to the rock in front of me, something slimy squiggled against my shin. I pushed myself back into the deep end, announcing, “NOPE. STILL HERE. STIIIIILL HERE.” I must’ve unknowingly cornered the giant fish against the side while getting out, giving both of us quite the surprise. Despite this collision, we continued taking turns doing our best jumps into the water and watching the different fish and turtles swim around us.
Before long, it was time for the ceremony to commence. Our guide brought us back toward the igloo and fire, briefing us in English about what was about to happen because, once the ceremony was started, everything would be recited in Mayan.
The Temazcal Ceremony
A large conch shell was blown and we gathered at the fire. A shaman stood at a table across from us and we circled around him. We raised our right arms to the stars, shouting, while turning the four directions: North, South, East and West. Depending on tribe traditions, these may mean different things, but for our ceremony, the representations were:
- North: Our elders, ancestors, traditions and air to symbolize stories
- South: Intentions, manifestation and strength to make things happen
- East: Consciousness, awakening, knowledge and light (where the sun rises)
- West: The dark side to everything (where the sun sets)
After this chant, a basket was brought around the circle and we all grabbed a hardened essential oil (it smelt like cedar), while saying “Dios bo’otik” or “Thank You” in Mayan. After the shaman circled his own table, blowing smoke from his chalice on each corner and surrounding the sides, he walked around the circle of people, blowing smoke from the chalice at each and every one of us. Following him to the fire, we knelt one by one, tossing the stone we were given into the flames, then looping around to the entrance of the hut. Now, wearing nothing but our swimsuits, we knelt again at the entrance, saying, “Mitakuye Oyasin” (For all my relationships), before entering the igloo.
Inside the Hut
Inside, we all sat against the rim of the hut wall as the shaman took scorching volcanic stones from the fire outside and placed them in the pit in the center of us. Once it was filled, he closed the door and it was pitch black. With my eyes wide open, I could not see my own hand in front of my face. Heating the igloo to 140 degrees fahrenheit, we began to sweat. The shaman started to chant a Spanish song verse and we would chant it back loudly. The voices of everyone echoed in the chamber and I could no longer distinguish my own or the people sitting next to me. Now and then, a snarl would come from a wooden instrument in the shaman’s hands.
It was as if we’d traveled back in time to hundreds of years ago. There was no light, no people, just sounds of nature in the dark night. I lost track of how long I had been in there as I began to see colors and shapes flouncing around in the air. Reality did not exist. An echo of water splashing the floor surrounded us and the volcanic rocks sizzled in resistance. Our hut got hotter. The air was thick. Our lungs were open. The purification ceremony was climaxing. Chants kept coming and we kept responding until one final shout sounded in the igloo and everyone joined in. Thirty voices from all different backgrounds streamlined into one loud, booming sound echoing through the jungle.
The shaman invited us to stand up and slick the extra liquid dripping down our bodies onto the hot stones, to rid ourselves of any evils we had been carrying around. The flap on the door flipped open and a dim light poured in on the far side of the igloo. The water vapor in the air was so thick, I could no longer see the shape of the entrance. I was about to go back and sit down until someone pulled my arm and motioned me toward the light.
We knelt once more before leaving the hut and were greeted by a bowl of cool water being tipped over our heads one by one. I grabbed my pile of clothes and shoes and began walking barefoot through the dark dirt path, over vines and under branches until I was back at the cenote. Dipping in the cool stream, I swear my body sizzled just like the rocks had in the dark. My body was so much lighter. Looking up at the sky, the same constellations that the Mayans had studied looked back. I connected the dots and saw Scorpius laid out clearly between the treelines.
A Mayan Dinner
Putting our dry clothes back on, we climbed once more up the wooden steps under the starry sky and over to the orange glow pouring out the screens of a larger hut. Each table was lit with a single flickering candle and a Mayan woman was busy serving plates to each guest that joined.
We sat with our new community, learning more about where the people at our table came from and hearing about their experience at their first Temazcal ceremony. One woman said she didn’t realize the ceremony was over and (like myself) tried to go sit back down. However, no one motioned her to the door so she sat there for a bit until realizing it was too quiet, felt around the walls and to her surprise, noticed the entire hut was empty and then made her way to the exit.
A Temazcal ceremony is different for everyone. For your first time, it is more of a mental test than anything. The igloo itself is supposed to represent a womb. So when you leave it, you will have a sense of rebirth: a purification. Once you let go of that negative mental blockage and let the heat do its work on any physical blockage, you will feel cleansed. This has even been known to relieve any respiratory symptoms, combat mild depression, reduce chronic fatigue and arthritis symptoms, lower risk of dementia and improve endurance. If you have the privilege of attending one of these and being able to stick it through, the benefits are tremendous.
As we left that night, the van was quiet while everyone comprehended what they had gone through. We were creeping down the dark dirt trail to get back to the road when our guide pointed ahead. In the center of the road was a large dark spot, a tarantula. I suppose I should think twice before walking barefoot through the jungle next time…