CLINTON — In my travels, I’ve come across the Native American sweat lodge ritual at far flung places like Jamestown, Va., and New Mexico. But I recently encountered one of the most elaborate of them all in Cancun where I learned about the temazcal ritual at the Westin Resort and Spa.
Native Americans from Alaska to Mayans in Central America and places in between used the sweat lodge to remove toxins from the body, but some went much further by seeing it as a way to cleanse the mind and spirit.
Besides relieving aching muscles and curing certain diseases, some Native Americans believed this "ritualized sauna experience" could purge evil accumulated during wartime and the killing of one’s foes in battle.
In Central America, the temazcal (house of heat) ritual was practiced by the Mayans for hundreds of years and is recorded as hieroglyphics on stone carvings in their native lands.
Recently, the ritual has become popular in the Yucatan and has found its way into the menu of spa treatments available at many Riviera Mayam upscale resorts.
The Westin Cancun has created a typical but beautiful rounded temazcal that resembles a downsized igloo on its white sand beach just below the hotel. Made of stone, the structure and its entranceway is deliberately low so that people have to crouch over to enter.
For the Mayans, the low entrance is symbolic of one’s reentering the mother’s womb. The roof does get higher as you move to the center, but the overhead space is never large enough to let an average sized person stand upright.
The ceremony, available to four to 10 people at a time, is presided over by a shaman who uses herbs, flowers, singing, prayer and music to purify the body and uplift the spirit.
Vapors from the herbs are believed to benefit the respiratory system, and a tea, prepared by the shaman, is said to help cleanse the body.
Because the temazcal was unavailable the time of my visit, I opted instead for an in-spa purification ritual that started with my attendant, Raniro Poot, a full-blooded Mayan, handing me a small basket with the instructions to place all my worries and woes inside.
Ramiro then began brushing me lightly with a wand of dried herbs and flowers while I stood and went along with his advice by transferring all my troubles into the basket, which he promptly removed from the room.
The treatment began by massaging an exfoliate made with products from the region such as yucca and jojoba over my skin, which was then wiped off with a cloth. As I began to relax, my attendant applied a lotion over my torso, then wrapped me in a thin plastic sheath and placed a cold cloth on my forehead.
Next came a gentle head massage that lasted for minutes "to stimulate the chakras," Ramiro said. At the end of the 80 minute ritual, I showered and returned to the real world, one where cares and concerns were sure to cross my path again.
That evening, mellowed by my spa experience, I dined with friends on the patio just outside the elegant Arrefices (the reef) restaurant, where the Caribbean waves rhythmically beat against the Westin’s shoreline just feet away.
Crashing against the sand, they glittered with silver-edged foam by the light of the moon. For the moment at least, cares and woes seemed miles away.
For more information on Cancun, log on to cancun.travel/en.
To extend your Mayan experience, dine at La Habichuela Restaurant, Blvd Kukulcan Kn 12.6, Cancun, where the sculpture garden recreates the look of a Mayan ruin and a Mayan floor show is offered Wednesday and Friday evenings at 10.
The Mayan inspired food is delicious and there’s plenty to choose from, including many seafood selections. Visit www.lahabichuela.com.
Dave Zuchowski is a travel writer for CNHI News Service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.