My Sad Attempt to Cleanse in a Mayan Sweat Lodge

Sabrina Hoverkamp

The small entrance was drawn to a close, and blackness surrounded us. I don’t know why it hadn’t dawned on me how dark it would be. The stifling heat and imposing claustrophobia I had anticipated. But the pitch darkness caught me off guard. I reached for my husband’s arm blindly and gave it a squeeze while the others began chanting in a language that wasn’t my own. I loosely gathered that I was supposed to be sending good intentions into the universe—clearing my mind, healing my body, and purifying my soul. But the only thought I could muster is What the hell have I gotten myself into?

We had traveled just about as deep as you can into Mexico before crossing over to Guatemala. The 2,000-year-old Mayan ruins of Palenque called us to this sweltering jungle, and a seemingly endless bus ride delivered us to the compound of El Panchán, a hippie-vagabond-backpacker village of huts strewn about the steamy wilderness. Exploring the dark, twisting paths on our first night, we came upon the property of a shirtless young Mayan with long dark hair, stretched piercings, and arms full of ink. He wondered if we were looking for a traditional tattoo. No, sir, don’t mind us, just a couple of gringos wandering aimlessly in the Mayan jungle.

Backing away, we made pleasantries in extremely broken Spanish, but before we could make our exit, he pointed out a small, rudimentary bamboo dome and asked if we wanted to take part in a temescal later that evening. A who? Ohhh. A Mayan sweat lodge! Now, I hate cramped spaces, I can’t stand sweating, and the thought of sitting on the ground half naked in the middle of the jungle as night closes in is pretty much my worst nightmare. So clearly, we said yes.

At sundown, we were met by a couple of hippies hanging in hammocks, a guy playing the conch shell, and a girl whose entire upper body was tattooed to look like a cheetah. These people were way too cool for us. Even their dog had a Mohawk (but, oddly, was otherwise hairless). When the Aztec guide arrived, we formed a circle around the fire and disrobed—men to their underwear and women to their bathing suits. He led us through a short ceremony, during which we lifted our arms to the sky and conch shell horns and a wooden flute punctuated his chanting. Then he explained in his native tongue the temescal etiquette and what everyone should expect. It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t comprehend a word of it.

I asked the guy who’d invited us if I would be able to get out if the heat became too intense. He told me to “get low” when it became unbearable, mimicking the fetal position. As we began to file in, I think he mentioned something about two hours. But I was already being doused in sage smoke, kissing the dirt at the threshold as instructed, and crawling inside. Once we were packed in a tight circle, the guide began shoveling large volcanic stones in from the fire pit using actual deer antlers. With every new smoldering addition, the pile encroached further on my feet, and I prayed it was the last. I think it’s hot enough now, folks! At last the man crawled inside, thankfully the only person between us and the small exit.

At this point there was no turning back, and my eyes began to brim with anxious tears. As heavy wool came down to conceal the opening, the volcanic heat hitting my face was both intense and instantaneous. The spiritual guide began pounding on his deerskin drum, and his voice filled the tiny dome with the song of a foreign prayer. He splashed hot water onto the stones, and with a sharp hiss, scalding steam rose and quickly enveloped us all. My lungs burned as I inhaled, my heart raced, and sweat rushed down my entire body.

I shifted into the fetal position, put my nose to the ground, and attempted a slow, calm inhale. I was relieved to find that it was in fact easier to breathe down there, and I tried my best to focus on the drum and clear my panicked thoughts. Just as I began to relax, the rocks were doused again, and a new rush of fiery vapor burned my back and choked my lungs. On this cycle went, over and over. I’m guessing about 20 minutes passed, though time was muddled by the black fog of stifling heat and deerskin percussion.

There was no way I would last in this inferno for two hours, enduring the rocks pressing into my knees; sucking in pained, shallow breaths; and exchanging sweat with strangers. I finally rationalized that if I was going to interrupt the ceremony anyway, why stay any longer?

I reached blindly in the dark and gave the Mayan’s arm a squeeze. Not recognizing a response, my foggy head became filled with dread. Yet in a few moments, I heard some words I actually knew: abre la puerta. The door opened to a rush of fresh air, and everyone began to chatter in Spanish, instructing us on the proper way to exit. We struggled to understand but hustled to the door, ecstatic for the cool relief. We did it! It’s over! We were so proud.

We took a seat outside by the dwindling fire. The spinning in our heads slowed while the sweat began to evaporate from our bodies in the evening air. That’s when we realized that nobody other than the guide had followed us. Wait. Did they open the door just for us? Someone began to pile more volcanic rocks in, which led us to believe this was a scheduled break. But the guide wasn’t going back in. Did we ruin the entire thing?

I looked toward the old wise man expectantly, hoping for answers. Instead, he dropped the wrap from his waist and walked toward the rudimentary shower, stark naked. I checked “Aztec spiritual guide’s genitals” off the list of things I never expected to gaze upon. When he was done, he motioned for us to do the same, so I rinsed off dutifully while avoiding eye contact.

We collected our things under a cloud of shame and embarrassment and tiptoed into the dark jungle. We heard the guide’s voice as we passed him, now thankfully clothed. “I think he’s praying for our souls,” whispered Reece. No, he was just on his cell phone. So off we ran, making yet another hasty escape before he could finish.

Read all about Sabrina's year around the world and follow her ongoing travel adventures at Those Who Wander and on Instagram: @sabrina_aziza.

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