Ancient Aztec steam baths are part of a revival of traditional medicine in Mexico.
Mexico is famous for many things — glorious sunshine, white sandy beaches, breath-taking archaeological sites, and mouth-watering food, but new-age therapies and purifying steam baths are probably not the first things that come to mind.
Today’s clued-up visitor to Mexico goes back to the past sampling a healing treatment known as a temazcal: an ancient Aztec steam bath.
Banned as idolatry by the Spanish Inquisition under the iron rule of the Conquistadors, this native ritual is part of a revival of traditional medicine in Mexico.
There has been renewed interest over the past few years in the temazcal treatment. Prince William and Gwyneth Paltrow are alleged to have tried this ancient ceremony.
This trend sprang up in Mexico as part of a movement toward natural healing practices and preserving traditional medicine. The ceremony has been used in Mexico for thousands of years and is based on a ritual that combines herbs (sage and copal), music and massage with a cleansing sweat in a brick hut; the aim is to renew the body, mind and soul, making it the perfect detox for stressed-out travellers.
The longevity of the temazcal has much to do with the fact steam baths have long been known to relieve the pain of aching muscles. In today’s anxiety-filled world it’s being used as the perfect antidote to stress, to soothe headaches and eliminate toxins from the body.
The word itself comes from the Nahuatl language used by the Aztecs, temaz meaning bath and calli meaning home, although the Mayans, Zapotecs and other indigenous groups have also used the ceremony throughout history.
These days it’s practised all over Mexico, although the application varies from city to city and shaman to shaman... also known as a temazcalera. Locals go to traditional healers, shamans, for the ritual, which is usually carried out in a small, dark, dome-like adobe hut accessed by crawling through a small door.
Once inside, the process becomes less formal. The steam itself is hot but not over-powering and it’s only when the outer door is closed that the atmosphere becomes primal and more focused.
Within, hot rocks centrally heat the special temazcal chamber. Boughs of herbs are laid over hot rocks, and when the rocks are doused with water, a richly scented steam rises.
In Oaxaca, shaman Mariana Arroyo offers her temazcals on a one-on-one basis using individually prepared herbs. This ritual is unique because it takes place in Arroyo’s private garden, where the temazcalera makes full use of her freshly grown herbs to detoxify the bathers as they sweat out toxins; she describes a temazcal as “a womblike place of rebirth”.
During the ceremony, Arroyo places fresh herbs on hot rocks, which when doused in water create a pungent steam that detoxifies and cleanses lungs and skin. The bather’s body is gently pummelled with bunches of warm herbs to soften the skin and to brush the steam around the head, encouraging deeper breathing and relaxation.
Water may also be poured over the person, either to cool the body quickly or to encourage sweating. The ceremony lasts one hour and is more authentic than some other temazcals, with the emphasis on client involvement, purification and spirituality. The sweat here is also more vigorous and ends with a 45-minute massage in the open air or inside on a dedicated floor space.
If fear of claustrophobia holds you back, it’s worth noting the chants of Mayan songs from Arroyo are there not only to help you relax but to take your mind off the anxiety of being in a hot, dark room. It is important to drink plenty of water before the temazcal because sweating out toxins will dehydrate you.
The power of the temazcal lies in the steaming process itself, rather than the chanting and visualisation, meaning you’re free to join in wholeheartedly with the process or simply lie back, relax and let your body cleanse itself of all its stress.
Experience a temazcal steam bath and ceremony in these luxury Mexican hotels:
Palmaia House of Aia in Playacar, Playa del Carmen, Mexico (thehouseofaia.com).
One&Only Mandarina, Puerto Vallata. The spa, set in a natural volcanic-rock garden, is based on ancient healing practices and offers temazcal sweat-lodge rituals (oneandonlyresorts.com/mandarina).
Etéreo, Auberge Resorts Collection, Riviera Maya. Offers a less-intense version of a temazcal (aubergeresorts.com/etereo/spa/healing-energy-rituals/).