Of Screams, Sweat & Shamans: My Experience in a Temazcal Ceremony
At PlayaDelCarmen.com, we recently got invited to participate in a temazcal ceremony on the outskirts of Tulum.
Of the three of us who had the honor of assisting this ceremony, two of us were temazcal virgins.
For the other, it had been a long time since the last good sweat in an earthen dome.
Here’s what we experienced.
What is a Temazcal
But before I get into all the tantalizing details about our temazcal ceremony, perhaps an explanation is first in order.
For those of you who don’t know what a temazcal (pronounced “temasˈkal”) is, think of the sweat lodge of the North American indigenous nations.
A circular, enclosed space with a sacred center which is filled with burning hot volcanic rock in the center.
In Mexico, these sweat lodges are known as temazcal, which comes from the Nahuatl language of Central Mexico and translates as “house of heat.”
Since ancient times, a temazcal ceremony is considered to be a healing and purification ceremony that cleanses the mind, body, and spirit.
The temazcal ceremonies are led by local healers, known as shamans.
When A Sceptic Visits a Temazcal
I’ll be the first to admit. I’m not one for esoteric stuff.
For me spirituality is something personal, not to be worn or displayed on the outside but internalized and improved upon from within.
In other words, you’ll never smell patchouli on me nor will you see a mandala painted on a wall or a dream catcher over my bed.
So, as you can probably imagine, I was skeptical of a temazcal ceremony.
Not so much the ceremony itself as the idea that a shaman would be presiding over it.
Because in today’s world, shamans are a dime a dozen and mostly full of intergalactic doo-doo.
There are some genuine people out there with the wisdom, knowledge, and connection to whatever natural, animal or extraterrestrial spirits that exist out there, but I think the charlatan shamans must outweigh them by at least 10 to 1.
The Community of Dos Palmas
We departed for our inward journey from Playa del Carmen about 5:00 p.m.
The drive to the Dos Palmas community, which is located about 15 minutes north of Tulum just past the entrance to Dos Ojos cenote, takes about 45 minutes from Playa del Carmen.
Just off the highway heading south to Tulum is a small dirt turn-off.
The unpaved road continues through the jungle about another 10 to 15 minutes before reaching the small community of Dos Palmas.
The Mayan village has just 30 inhabitants, and a large part of the community’s income seems to come from the charm of its people and its natural attractions.
In addition to a cenote, Dos Palmas also has several temazcals set up for groups of about 8 to 10 people.
Preparing for the Ceremony
Upon arrival, we were greeted by Norma, who welcomed us with a refreshing drink of hibiscus water served in small cups made of gourd.
Following a nice welcoming, Norma took us to the town’s mini-museum, which displays some of the utensils, clothing, furniture, and architecture found in a typical Mayan home.
From there we went to the area of the temazcals, where each of us was given a large conch. The idea is that we blow into the small hole at the apex in order to make a deep, trumpet-like sound.
From my own personal experience, it’s not as easy as you think. And then once you think you got it, you don’t.
Rather than sounding like some kind of trumpet, mine sounded more like the amplified babble of a baby trying to blow bubbles.
While our group practiced calling to the ancestors, the shaman’s assistant prepared the volcanic rocks in a small fire pit directly in front of the temazcal.
May the Ceremony Begin
Once everything was set up, the shaman called us over to a small altar set off to the side of the temazcal.
Decorated with palm leaves, volcanic rock, a couple of Mayan ceramic figures, and a large cup filled with copal incense, the altar served as our official beginning of the ceremony.
The shaman welcomed us with kind words in both Spanish and Mayan, blessing us for our participation in the ceremony and praying for our purification and safety.
He then approached each one of us with the cup full of copal, which he moved in the four cardinal directions in front of us while saying a personal blessing.
Our response, both to the shaman and the gods, was a simple “Yum bo’otik,” or thank you.
Then, we walked around the circular formation in front of the temazcal in whose center the fire heated the stones, separated in small groups in the four cardinal directions.
Once again, we had the opportunity to show off our conch-blowing skills before stripping down to our bathing suits and being invited around the fire following a short cleansing using local herbs.
Here, each was given a small piece of copal and asked to make sincere wishes for those we love as well as forgiving ourselves for whatever needed forgiving.
Inside the Temazcal
According to the shaman, to enter into the temazcal is to step inside Mother Earth.
The small, rounded entrance of the temazcal leads into the structure in whose middle is the pit where the fired volcanic rocks will be placed, with blankets for seating are arranged in a semi-circle around the entrance.
Once everyone was seated, the shaman entered the temazcal, welcoming the “warriors” into the ceremony.
Using a pitchfork, the shaman’s assistant passed the burning hot volcanic rocks into the center of the temazcal.
With each new rock, the shaman welcomed the “abuelita” (grandmother).
Meanwhile, each of us was given a piece of Aloa Verde to spread out over our skin, which during the ceremony would help open our pores.
Following a brief explanation that a temazcal is not a resistance test put a purification ceremony, and that anytime someone doesn’t feel well they can go outside, the temazcal part of the ceremony began.
The Temazcal Ceremony
“U’pe, ka’ape, óox’pe!”
“One, two, three!”, shouted the group in Yucatec Mayan, signaling to the shaman’s assistant that he could place the thick blankets over the entrance to the temazcal.
As he did throughout the experience, the shaman spoke comforting and inspiring words as he slowly placed water and herbs into the fire.
In total darkness, with only the fading glow of the rocks to provide any kind of luminance, the shaman guided us through the approximately 30-minute ceremony.
At times inviting us to speak, sometimes singing chants, other encouraging us to breathe slowly and allow ourselves to be purified and healed, the shaman made sure the experience was safe, enjoyable, and invigorating.
Toward the end, two collective screams made sure that any negative, pent-up energy had a release — far away from our bodies, minds, and spirits.
Cenote Swim & Dinner
Once all our demons, self-inflicted and otherwise, had been sweated out of all our pores, we stepped outside the temazcal and received a final blessing with lukewarm water from the volcanic rocks before heading off to the community’s cenote.
In fact, Dos Palmas actually derives its name from the two palm trees located in the center of this semi-open sinkhole.
Following a brief descent of about 20 feet down a flight of wooden stairs, we reached the natural platform around which the water formed a sort of a “U” shape.
The cenote is fairly deep but if you don’t know how to swim you can still stand on the small wooden platform that extends down into the cenote.
As could be expected, especially following drenching ourselves in our own sweat, the cenote water was the perfect end to the temazcal ceremony.
Finally, we all headed to a communal dinner of delicious Yucatecan cuisine prepared for us by Norma and her aunt.
Purified and healed, we then took the 45-minute van ride back to Playa del Carmen.
A Few Thoughts on the Temazcal Experience
A temazcal is not necessarily something for everyone. While it is a healing and purification ceremony, pregnant women and people with chronic health issues such as high blood pressure or respiratory issues should not participate in a temazcal.
When in doubt, consult your doctor.
For a non-mandala believer like myself, I admit that I went in with quite a bit of skepticism, especially in terms of a shaman.
However, I felt entirely comfortable during my entire experience and found the shaman to be an extremely nice, caring, and experienced person.
Not one for group chants either, I never felt like the experience was kitsch or fake but genuine and heartfelt.
In fact, I left the temazcal ceremony feeling more at peace with myself and the world.
How long that lasts is another issue, but in the meantime all I can say from the bottom of my heart is…
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