Temazcal
Credit: Courtesy of Sandos Caracol Eco Resort & Spa

Temazcal

The Mayan word temazcal loosely translates to "sweat lodge," which is why it was rather shocking to find it on the list of activities offered at the ritzy, all-inclusive Sandos Caracol Eco-Resort in tony Playa del Carmen. Then again, unlike other resorts along Mexico's far southern Caribbean coast, Sandos sits on an archeaological site with ruins dating back 2,300 years, making it a fairly logical spot to host a pre-Hispanic ceremony. And, after a few too many drinks by the pool, we were ready to be cleansed.

The sweat lodge itself, a short concrete dome about 12 feet in diameter, sat by the jungle trail a short walk away from the resort. A shaman, dressed only in a loincloth, stood outside, greeting participants and welcoming them into a small stone courtyard. He introduced himself as Yeyi Tochtli, which means "three rabbits" in the Uto-Aztecan language of Náhuatl. With short hair and thick arms and legs, he appeared to be in his early forties. He spoke very little English and seemed more interested in healing than small talk. 

After cleansing our auras by swirling smoke from a stone chalice full of burning resin, Yeyi Tochtli conducted a brief opening ritual and then pointed to the sweat lodge. "Womb," he said. Following his finger, we ducked through a small rectangular hole and took a spot around a fire pit. The shaman used a pitchfork to fill the pit with hot volcanic rocks and then pulled a heavy cloth over the opening. In the dark, we heard him pour water onto the hot stones. The hiss of steam was surprisingly loud and when the first wave of blasting heat struck, a communal gasp followed. Yeyi Tochtli fanned the flames.

Inside the lodge, it was pitch black and melting hot. Sweat all but squirted out of every pore and heat baked eyeballs in their sockets. Oxygen was increasingly hard to come by. The thought that this suffering cost money ran, inevitably, through every participant's head. 

Through it all, Yeyi Tochtli chanted low and guttural vowel sounds: ahhhh­–ayyyy–eeeee–ohhhh–ooooo–mmmmm. Twenty minutes passed slowly. And that was it. The shaman said "Thank you" in English and pulled the curtain back. We emerged, one at a time, blinking in the afternoon sunlight. We shook the shaman's hand and walked further down the trail. The jungle heat wasn't  bothersome any longer and the smell of the mangrove forest was sweet and welcoming. We rinsed off in one of the four cenotes on the resort's grounds. Floating in the cool water, the point of the temazcal became clear: All the resort's comforts had been taken away and then given back. We were ready for more drinks by the pool, but mindful of the peculiarity of our exceptional experience in an ancient world.

More information: The temazcal experience costs $85 USD for guests at Sandos Caracol, where rooms start at $74 a night. Travelers staying elsewhere have to pay for a resort pass.