This article is from the February 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Temazcal, The Magic of Fire and Water

by Michael Thompson 

Michael Thompson hails from San Antonio, Texas, and travels to Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende, Oaxaca and Morelia. He is the author of “Savoring Oaxaca,” which appeared in the December 1997 issue of The Mexico File.

Amelia Cabrera de Arroyo is a woman of many talents. Restauranteur, innkeeper, gardener, folkhealer and former nurse are just a few of the skills she draws upon for her livelihood. Not only is she the owner of a restaurant and a bed and breakfast establishment, but she also finds time to tend to two gardens on the outskirts of the city of Oaxaca. In one she grows herbs and in the other, flowers. It is in the flower garden that Amelia maintains a very special place called Temazcal.

Temazcal is best described as an indigenous Indian steam bath. Its name comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs — “temaz,” meaning bath, and “calli,” which means house. It is based on traditional healing methods used by the ancient peoples of Mexico in which the properties of fire and water are combined to purify the mind, body and soul. According to Jacques Soustelle, in his classic book, Daily Life of the Aztecs, such baths were quite common in ancient times and can still be found in rural villages today.

After having lunch in her restaurant, my companion Rafe and I knocked on the door of Amelia’s home which was located around back. The young woman who answered invited us in, offered us a seat and then went to find Amelia. After a few minutes a dignified yet unpretentious woman appeared. She greeted us with a big smile and a sincere welcome that made us feel right at home. This gentle woman was Amelia.  Somehow, we felt as if she had been expecting us.

Soon she and Rafe were engaged in a conversation in Spanish, a conversation of which I was able to get the gist, if not all the details. The next thing we knew, we had scheduled an appointment for a steam bath and massage for the following day. We paid a small deposit which was to be used to purchase the firewood for the bath. All we had to do was return the next day and she would drive us to the Temazcal, located in a quiet suburb north of the city.

When we arrived the following day we entered through a gate into Amelia’s own secret garden brimming with flowers. Toward the back, tucked in a corner and almost hidden beneath a vibrant red bougainvillea was the Temazcal. As we stepped into its dimly lit interior, the brilliant Oaxacan sunshine was replaced by the flickering light of candles which surrounded an altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe. In front of the altar two soft pallets were laid out on the reed-mat floor. In one corner dust particles floated in and out of a narrow beam of light which penetrated the space through a small opening in the roof. Soft music played in the background and complemented the serene and sacred nature of the space.

Amelia instructed us to step behind a curtain, undress, and wrap a sheet around our waists. This done, we stepped back out, got down on our hands and knees, and crawled through a small opening to an adobe brick chamber which was heated from the outside by a wood fire. The interior was small, maybe about six feet square and four feet high. Rafe and I sat on the floor along one side, then Amelia crawled in and knelt in front of us. An assistant passed her a lighted candle, some bundles of dried native herbs, and then closed the tiny door through which we had entered, effectively sealing the three of us inside this warm and earthen womb.

With the gentle features of her face illuminated by the single flame of the candle, Amelia gave a brief explanation of what would take place.  Then she began. She placed some of the herbs behind our backs and alongside our outstretched legs. Then, in almost a whisper, she began to chant a melodious prayer in an Indian dialect. While she prayed, she briefly massaged our arms and legs, then took a bundle of herbs and dipped it into some water in a clay pot. She gently tapped our arms, chests and legs with the herbs, then shook out the water from the bundle onto some hot stones. The vaporous cloud of steam, which resulted from the contact of the water with the heat, snaked its way up to the ceiling. We believe that this ritual was intended to draw out any physical or spiritual malaise from our bodies and souls and carry them away with the steam. Our bodies slowly relaxed as our worries melted away in the calming warmth.

After this was done we curled ourselves up with our knees under our chins. Amelia then performed a kind of baptism, slowing drenching us with cupfuls of water. After crawling back out through the small door, we exchanged the wet sheets around our waists for dry ones. Then we laid down on the pallets in front of the altar. We then received a long soothing massage from Amelia and her assistant, after which they quietly left us to relax in a state of bliss for as long as we desired. The only intrusions from the outside world were the sounds of a rooster crowing, the bell of a vendor passing along the street, and the sound of water as Amelia tended her plants in the garden. When we were ready, we got up, dressed, and stepped back into the world, refreshed and renewed.

I have heard it said many times, from many sources, that Oaxaca is a magical place. The spiritual experience of the Temazcal was a confirmation of this. In the hectic pace of our daily lives, it provided a soothing escape and intriguing insight into ancient ways — ways which, to some, may seem primitive or superstitious, but which are perhaps wiser than our own. While Amelia may earn her living drawing on and preserving the ancient traditions of her people, she is also a woman in touch with the technological age. Before leaving, I asked if I could write to keep in contact. She confidently replied...”Of course, just email me.” 

To contact Amelia Cabrera de Arroyo, her address is Calle Reforma #402, Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico CP 68000. Her telephone and fax number is 52-951-611-65.  On the internet, email her at digitek@antequera.com or see the webpage at www.mexonline.com/bugambil.htm

© Michael Thompson, 1999