The small entrance was drawn to a close and blackness surrounded us. I don’t know why it hadn’t dawned on me how dark it would be. The stifling heat and imposing claustrophobia I had anticipated. But the pitch darkness caught me off guard. I reached for Reece’s arm blindly and gave it a squeeze, while the others began chanting in a language that wasn’t my own. I loosely gathered that I was supposed to be sending good intentions into the universe. Clearing my mind and healing my body and purifying my soul. But the only thought I could muster is “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”
It began with a laugh several hours earlier. “You know, I heard there’s a Mayan steam bath somewhere in here!” “What??” Reece replied. “This whole place is a Mayan steam bath.” We’d left the cool mountain air of San Cristóbal seven hours behind and ventured deep into the jungle, and the damp heat had hit us both hard. Reece overcoming a cold and me coming down with one, we had visited the ruins that morning under the blistering sun in a sweaty haze.
We were staying at El Panchán, a sort of hippie-vagabond-backpacker village whose reputation precedes it. It’s a mish-mash of huts and cabanas strewn about the steamy rainforest, with precarious wooden bridges crossing the many small streams and candlelit restaurants serving the bohemian crowd. Each person there had more tattoos and longer dreads than the last, and each night the bongos beat a little louder to the fire dancer’s show.
We went for a wander through the twisting paths to see what we might discover, and found ourselves seemingly trespassing on the home of a shirtless young Mayan with long dark hair and stretched piercings and arms full of ink. He asked if we were looking for a traditional tattoo. No no sir, don’t mind us, just a couple of gringos wandering aimlessly in the Mayan jungle. We made pleasantries in extremely broken Spanish as we backed away, but before we could make our exit he pointed out the rudimentary bamboo dome he had built and asked if we wanted to take part in a temazcal later that evening. A who?? Ohhh. The Mayan sweat lodge!
Now, I hate small spaces. And I can’t stand sweating. And the thought of sitting on the ground half naked in the middle of the jungle as night closes in is pretty much a nightmare. BUT…
We’re traveling! We’re supposed to come from a place of YES! We’re out here to step out of our comfort zones and try new things and learn and grow from each experience! The guy explained to us how they’d be covering the dome with heavy blankets and sealing it with rope and filling the center with burning volcanic rocks, and that his Aztec spiritual guide would take us through the cleansing journey which would last about an hour and a half. Or so we gathered. Sure! See you then.
Now wait just a minute. When I say “Mayan sweat lodge”, you are probably picturing something like this:
No, my friend. It looked more like this:
You can see why I was apprehensive about crawling inside half naked to sweat with a dozen strangers.
Back in our room, we debated whether we should go back, but ultimately decided hey, why not. I mean, YOLO. Amiright?? (That stands for "You Only Live Once", for those of you over the age of 12.)
We arrived promptly at 6pm and were met by a couple of hippies hanging in hammocks, a guy playing the conch shell, and a girl whose entire upper body was tattooed to look like a cheetah sweeping the space around the sacred campfire. These people were way too cool for us. Even their dog had a mohawk (besides which he was, oddly, completely hairless). Over an hour passed before any festivities began, during which we paced around idly and wondered if we should make a run for it. Nobody there spoke English, and we weren’t really clear how we could contribute to the preparations. At one point a girl went into the hut for a peak and ran out screaming. Apparently, she met a gigantic spider inside. The guys chuckled, and assured us the smoke would scare it away. The only thing I hate more than small spaces and sweating, is spiders. Perfect.
Finally, it was time. Amazingly, we were still present. The Aztec spiritual guide had arrived, and we formed a circle around the fire and disrobed, men to their underwear and women to their bathing suits. He led us through a short ceremony where we lifted our arms to the sky in every direction, conch shell horns and wooden flutes punctuating his chanting. Then he explained the temazcal etiquette and procedure and what everyone should expect. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t understand a word of it. I asked the guy who’d invited us if the heat became too intense, if I could get out. He told me essentially to employ mind over matter, and to “get low” if the heat became unbearable, while he mimicked the fetal position. As we began to file in he mentioned something about asking the guide if I needed to leave, but I was already being doused in sage smoke, kissing the dirt at the threshold as instructed, and crawling inside.
Once packed in like sardines, the conch shell player began shoveling large volcanic stones out of the fire, which the guide would lift and place in the center with actual deer antlers. I shit you not. Each time the group would welcome the stone in unison, and then a guy would use leaves to trace figures on it that would appear with a mystical sparkling glow. With every smoldering rock, the pile encroached further on my feet, and I prayed it was the last addition. “I think it’s hot enough now, folks!” At last the stone shoveler crawled inside, thankfully the only person between us and the door.
I knew at this point there was no turning back and my eyes started to brim with tears, the reaction I’ve come to know for the trapped, panicked feeling in the pit of my stomach. I took a deep calming breath as the door closed and the volcanic heat that hit my face was intense and instantaneous. The spiritual guide began pounding on his deerskin drum, and his voice filled the small dome with the song of a prayer I wish I understood. He splashed water onto the stones from a basin that had been heating up by the fire outside, and with a sharp hiss the scalding steam rose and quickly enveloped us all. My lungs burned as I inhaled it, my heart raced, and sweat rushed down my entire body.
I immediately shifted in the tiny space into the fetal position, my nose to the ground and sarong protecting the side of my face closest to the scalding rocks. I was relieved to find it was in fact easier to breather down there, and I tried my best to focus on the drum and slow my thoughts and let my breath find a rhythm. Just as I began to relax and think “Hey I can do this…” the rocks were doused again and a new rush of fiery vapor burned my back and shortened my breath and I heard Reece gasping for air which made me panic even more. I felt him get into the fetal position and find the same temporary relief that I had, and he asked if I was okay to which I replied “I think so”. Yes. I think so.
A few more rounds of fresh steam and prayers passed while I tried desperately to take shallow breaths in the unbearable swelter, relieve my knees from the rocks pressing into them, keep the constant stream of sweat out of my eyes, not think about the spider that may still be hiding in the bamboo that was pressed against my back. I finally determined that if this really was going to go on for an hour and a half, there was no way I could finish. And if I was going to have to interrupt the ceremony anyway, what was the point of staying any longer than I wanted to?
I’m guessing we’d been in there about 15 minutes, though time tends to warp in a dense black fog of stifling heat and deer skin percussion. I gave Reece “the” squeeze, which he passed on, and was told there would be just one more sequence. Phew, that hour and a half thing must have been a misunderstanding! I mean really, who could stand being in this thing for that long? What a relief. Before long I heard some words I actually knew “…abrir la puerta…” and with a collective sigh of relief the door was opened. Everyone began to chatter in Spanish, and attempt to instruct us on the proper way to exit, but we struggled to understand and pretty much rushed the door. “We did it! It’s over!” We were so proud.
We took a seat by the fire outside, and the spinning in our heads slowed while the sweat began to evaporate from our bodies in the evening air. That’s when we realized that nobody other than the guide was following us. Wait. Did they open the door just for us? But, how would the guy have known it would be “just one more” if this wasn’t the usual door-opening time? And, the shoveler is replenishing the volcanic rocks, this must be normal. But, the guide isn’t going back in. Wait, did we ruin the entire thing??
I looked towards the old wise man expectantly, hoping for some answers. Instead, he dropped the wrap from his waist and walked towards the rudimentary shower stark naked. Add “Aztec spiritual guide’s penis” to the list of things I never thought I’d gaze upon. When he was finished, he motioned for us to do the same, so I rinsed off dutifully (swimsuit ON) while avoiding eye contact.
We collected our things under a cloud of shame and embarrassment and tiptoed off into the dark jungle. We heard the guide’s voice as we passed him, now thankfully clothed. “I think he’s praying for our souls!!” whispered Reece. No, he was just on his cell phone. So back to our cabana we ran, making yet another escape before he could finish.