A Cultural and Spiritual Experience
La Cruz de Huanacaxtle definitely holds a special place in our hearts. After all, it was where we spent a good chunk of our 2023 cruising season. Not only does the town offer lively music, incredible restaurants, and a laid back vibe but it’s also incredibly friendly which is how we came to meet Dakota. In our last post, we shared how we had followed Dakota on instagram for a while (and vice versa) and met for dinner when we arrived in La Cruz, where he has lived for half a decade. Over some delicious street tacos, he shared how he recently visited some hot springs near his friend’s property on the Rio Mascota (outside of Puerto Vallarta) and, alongside his friends, partook in a semi-traditional Temazcal ceremony. I was hooked, and thankfully Dakota was able to facilitate another trip so we had the opportunity to experience the ceremony for ourselves.
On the morning of March 11th, we packed up our backpacks and dinghied to shore where we rendezvoused with our friends Jay and Kenna from SV Sitka and Dakota in the town square. From there we hopped on a bus to Puerto Vallarta then were picked up by our new friends Mitzon and his girlfriend Dayana who drove us the rest of the way to the Stone House; a beautiful riverside property featuring the remnants of a stone home and outdoor living space, with the Temazcal proudly displayed in the center.
What Is a Temazcal?
A Temazcal, that is directly translated as “house of heat,” is a traditional sweat lodge with pre-hispanic roots. Some might call it a Mayan sauna, although this would be a gross oversimplification of this intensely spiritual ceremony. The ancient ceremony is led by a shaman (or “temazcalero”) with the intention to purify the body and mind, heal the sick, or provide a spiritual haven for women to give birth. The ritual takes place inside the Temazcal which is generally a small domed structure that represents the womb. Essentially you are supposed to feel like a spiritual and mental rebirth has occurred by the end of the process. The entrence of the Temazcal is opened throughout the ceremony, up to a total of four times, (referring to the four cardinal points) and each time thirteen red-hot stones are introduced to the center while the shaman guides the participants in a spiritual cleansing with the help of Mother Earth.
The preparation for the two hour ceremony – which consisted of heating lava rocks – took hours, so while our gracious hosts tended to the fire the rest of our group hiked to the nearby hot springs – Aguas Termales La Desembocada – where we enjoyed the natural steamy pools and cool flowing river. A man offered healing massages and mud masks in a make-shift hut nearby, and a group of tourists, covered from head to toe in the green mud, said they were on a holistic healing journey to recover from lyme disease and their research led them to the hot springs. They were intrigued to learn that we and the Sitka crew had sailed there and had met local friends who were kind enough to invite us on this experience off the beaten path. It’s amazing what happens when you say “yes” to an unexpected adventure.
Warm smells of smoke filled the spring air and became stronger the closer we got to the Stone House. The sun was getting lower in the sky, and by the time we reached our starting point the Temazcal was ready to receive us. The fire was red hot as Mitzon and Christopher, the owner of the Stone House, continued to carefully feed the flames. Dayana passed out a jar of clay to cover our skin with – not necessarily part of the ceremony, but an added spa treatment that we had fun with. Once our skin was painted in earth, we gathered at the mouth of the Temazcal.
“To enter you must be cleansed, then thank your ancestors as you walk through the door” Mitzon translated. Our Shaman, Juana, held smoldering pieces of copal to cleanse us from head to toe, removing any bad vibrations before we entered into the sacred space. Copal is an aromatic resin that is a very important element in the medical and religious tradition of Mesoamerica, that’s smoke is used as an offering or as therapy for physical and spiritual ailments. Once cleansed, we thanked our ancestors and entered into the dark stone igloo then sat in a circle, leaning on the walls of the enclosure.
Before beginning the ceremony, Mitzon shared that we could leave the Temazcal at any time, which was reassuring since traditionally you are not allowed to leave during the ceremony. According to Mitzon, their Temazcal was “built with love and is really a steam bath with a taste of ritual elements” so we wouldn’t be disrespecting the culture or our hosts by leaving. I had no idea my body could reach such intense levels of heat without being thrown into a roaring fire, so I am thankful we had the option of removing ourselves from the ceremony and jumping back in later. Additionally, we were granted permission and encouraged to take photos and videos to share, which is traditionally forbidden since it is long believed that cameras “capture spirits.”
Finally, Juana entered the Temazcal and behind her the only entrance was covered with a blanket. It was dark and discombobulating, with the distinct smell of herbs, smoke and sweat wafting through the air – but this was only the beginning. After asking if we were ready, the first thirteen of 52 lava rocks were brought into the middle of the room and placed in a pile on the floor. Each one of us marked a stone with copal, sealing our intentions for the ceremony and then our trials by fire – or steam – began.
In her mother tongue, Juana “called to the steam,” and upon the four directions while singing prayers and splashing the stones with a mix of water and oils. She then led us in traditional Temazcal songs about the four elements of nature, calling in positive vibrations – a fundamental part of the ceremony. Together in the darkness we sang, shook maracas and howled as the steam increased and heat surrounded us like an inescapable blanket. I took one last deep breath before burying my face in my elbows to try and remain calm, focused and open to the experience. In my mind I silently repeated the mantra I am tough, I can handle this over and over again. At that stage the heat was comparable to a regular gym’s sauna, only much darker with more claustrophobia.
I’m not sure how long it was before it happened, but Christopher waved a towel over the stones to disperse the steam, then opened the entrance, marking the end of the first round. The clay we dawned on our bodies now puddled on the floor as we carefully exited the Temazcal for a rewarding drink of water. “That wasn’t too bad” Chris said in between sips. The clay I had painted on his chest melted in streaks down his sides. I agreed, secretly hoping the next three rounds would be as tolerable, but tolerance is not the point of Temazcal.
We funneled back into the Temazcal and patiently awaited the next round of steam. Juana added more oils to the new thirteen rocks that were introduced to the pile and the smell of citrus was ever present in the steam that flooded my system. The beat of the drums matched my heart that pounded inside of my chest. I could feel my anxiety rise with the heat, and the sizzle of rocks competed with the songs of the ceremony – all of my senses were stimulated, and my fight or flight was telling me to run, but instead I consciously stayed. With my head low to the ground I let the steam smother me, silently repeating my mantra while my hands kept busy shaking the maraca along to the song. I couldn’t tell if it was vapor or sweat pooling on my skin and rolling off in consistent drips onto the cool concrete floor. The heat continued to increase alongside our voices as we howled into the void. Then, it stopped. The door was opened and the heat escaped into the world with our group not far behind, reacquainting ourselves with the temperature outside that was still in the high 70’s fahrenheit, but to us felt like the arctic.
As soon as our core temperatures returned to “normal” we entered the Temazcal for the third round. Thirteenmore rocks were added to the still-smoldering pile, and the process began again. Only this time, right when I thought it couldn’t get hotter, it did. Chris’s hand found mine on the wet floor; his presence anchoring me in the moment, reminding me I was not alone. The singing continued and got louder as the heat increased. We were engulfed by plumes of copal-infused steam and clouds of shamanic smoke, and with no ventilation it felt like a human pizza oven. My insides were on fire, and with that realization my brain served me memories of the 2020 Creek Fire that ripped through Chris’s hometown of Shaver Lake, the flames feasting on over 80% of the Sierra National forest. That’s when the panic set in. I had to leave. The steam was so thick I couldn’t see in front of me, so I carefully crawled towards where I thought the exit was, thankfully finding the blanket that covered the entrance and parting it open where I was greeted with a gentle breeze.
Feeling defeated, I sat outside and gazed up at the stars, some of which fell across the sky with long beautiful tails that disappeared into the night. Chris joined me, sweat glistening on his skin as he reached for our water bottle that was now down to the last drop. The singing that echoed from our friends still inside was soothing and ethereal; my racing heart slowed down and my panic was subdued – and in that moment I felt like everything was going to be alright.
Round Four – the Finale
At the start of the final round, I did my best to mentally prepare for the heat we would endure and silently repeated my mantra: I am tough, I can do this. I laid down in the fetal position, suddenly understanding why the Temazcal is referred to as the “Mother’s Womb.” Although at the time I was more focused on surviving the intense rounds of heat, I look back and can see that I was secretly healing. Inside the stone dome when faced with the feeling of controlled danger, I was forced to confront my anxiety head on and coach myself through the unfamiliar that made me want to flee. I was triggered by the loud singing in a foreign tongue, the pungent smell of sweat and herbs, and of course the overwhelming awareness that my body temperature felt like it was inferno incarnate.
The fourth and final round was the hottest of them all, and although I couldn’t make it to the end of the ceremony I was at peace with my progress. I didn’t need to prove to myself that I could withstand the heat. Temazcal is not about punishing ourselves with extreme endurance to repent for our sins and shortcomings; it is about being vulnerable and willing to move past the point of resistance, bringing all the things we’ve spent our lives suppressing to the surface and offering it up to the universe for release. It is about stepping out of comfort and forward into growth, and allowing our fears to be lifted from us with the steam that rises.
The Long Ride Home
We were physically filthy, covered in dirt, sulfur, and sweat but we were spiritually cleansed – even though our neighbors on the bus ride back to La Cruz probably only identified the prior. As the bus full of strangers rattled along on the highway I couldn’t help but think how it was a contrast from the journey we had just been on. Although I still struggle with anxiety, I have added the memory of the Temazcal to my arsenal of anxiety-relief, remembering that I can face my fears and choose to let them go. Anytime we experience a hot day, we are also reminded that all heat is now relative to the Temazcal, and will never challenge the element of fire again.
Our Temazcal experience was honestly one of the most beautiful things I have ever had the honor of participating in. I am eternally grateful to our new friends that made our time at the Stone House so memorable and am pleased to share that you can now experience the Stone House Temazcal for yourselves by reserving a guided tour with Mitzon. Text Mitzon at +3 221-755-7912 or hit him up on instagram (@mitzonvazquez) for the details! One more HUGE Thank You to Dakota for facilitating the experience, to Mitzon for helping me write this piece accurately and to our new friends at the Stone House who welcomed us to participate in their cultural ceremony.
We were refreshed, inspired and ready for the following weeks that unbeknownst to us at the time, would be full of fun. Stay tuned for more!
Sending all of our love,
Marissa (and Chris and Cleo)