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The International Writers Magazine: Mexico

The Temazcal and the Ceiba Tree:
A Trip among the Maya
• Elizabeth Schotten Merklinger

I first stumbled into the soaring thatched-roof lobby of the Mahekal Beach Resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, some years ago. Could this really be a  hotel? 


A glimpse of the sparkling turquoise-blue Caribbean between the straw huts on the beach made me  realize that this oasis is indeed a hotel, but a very special one with no television or telephone.  Here was the Yucatan as it used to be,  a flash-back to a past age before the Riviera Maya replaced the small fishing villages which formerly lined the shore.  When in 2012 my thoughts next turned to the Yucatan it was for other reasons. The Mayan doomsday scenario made a big splash everywhere on the globe, since predictions expected the Apocalypse before the year 2012 was out. Although to have reached the end of a cycle of creation, to start a new age, is actually a cause for celebration, the impending Armageddon caused consternation everywhere, even in lands far from the Mayan homeland.  In Bugarach in south-west France,  in the foothills of the Pyrenees, for instance,  hopefuls climbed the mountain where they believed they would be rescued by aliens  hidden inside the rock,  who were ready to whisk them off to safer terrain.

Other dates had previously been suggested for the Apolcalypse. The theologian Ian Gurny predicted the world would end in 2023, while the Irish saint Malachy as early as 1143 foretold of it happening after another 112 popes had ruled.  Russian President Putin became  much involved in these prophecies and offered an alternative to the Mayan date for the Apocalypse.  He calculated that the world would end in 4.5 billion years when Mercury, Venus, the Earth and Mars would supposedly be engulfed by the sun.  So, according to the Russian version we still have a few years to go.

Could the Mayans really foretell the future I wondered?  The Mayans themselves didn't really believe they possessed these supernatural powers.  Many texts mention dates thousand of years in the future claimed Nikolai Grube, an expert in Mesoamerican civilization at the University of Bonn.  Caution was proposed in an article in The Spiegel,  the German  political magazine, in regard to buying extra emergency supplies, and to keep in mind that the Mayans themselves were not at all good at making predictions.

Mahekal But, I thought, if the Mayan prophecies whether true or false could turn the world's  head so completely, they must have something to teach us.  I decided therefore to return to that lovely stretch of coastline which caught my eye so many years ago.  And how could I study the Mayans from a 5-star all-inclusive resort? My thoughts therefore quite naturally turned to the Mahekal in Playa del Carmen, that amazing soaring palapa I saw on my first visit to the Yucatan, which so impressed me that after a number of years I still clearly remember it. 

In ancient times the port near Playa del Carmen was  known as Pole and from here Mayan women  and girls set off once or twice in their lifetime on a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Mayan goddess of fertility, Ixchel, on the island of Cozumel.  The ruins of her temple still stand at San Gervasio but the 7-hour crossing from the mainland then made in dug-out canoes is now done by a swift catamaran in just over 30 minutes. According to Mayan folklore, once the visit was over, Ixchel would restore cosmic order and balance and the Mayans could look forward to another cycle of creation.  Few remember any mention of the travesias sagradas,  but a cultural project organized by Xcaret tourist park in Cozumel and Playa del Carmen tries to reenact that sacred journey today (

Cozumel was once restricted to women and over 5000 lived and worked on the island. They learned all kinds of trades including the ancient art of healing massage.  Although there is no masseuse left in the temple on Cozumel,  just outside Puerto Morelos,  a few kilometers from Mahekal, at Ixchel Jungle Spa, a group of Mayan women have established a non-profit co-op to support themselves and their families. Directed by Sandra Dayton (, the Ixchel Jungle Spa was created to allow local women to benefit from tourism.  The four-handed massage  I received here made all  aches disappear completely, and even the  nasty sciatic nerve on my left side was unable to withstand the magical kneading. No wonder the hands of the women were called a 'Gift from the Mayan Gods'.

The ancient Mayans were very keen on all sorts of natural methods to keep their bodies in best working order.  An important method to purify body, mind and soul was the temazcal or sweat bath. Similar to a modern sauna, Mayan sweat baths were igloo-shaped structures constructed of lime-stone walls and ceilings with a small opening at the top.  Water poured onto the hot volcanic rocks and medicinal herbs within created the steam in which to sweat out impurities.  It is essentially a steam treatment using herbs which are infused over heated volcanic rock. The union of fire and water with the herbs supposedly creates a purifying vapour to help rid the body of toxins. And just as incantations are part of the start of every massage (asking the gods permission to invade the body),  prayers are said at the beginning of a sweat bath.  

On the island of Cozumel,  in the jungle of the Hkan Ha nature reserve, Petrus Temazcalero runs the Mayan Steam Lodge  ( 'The ceremony is supposedly a mystic process focusing on four phases of cleansing and five points of visualization which cleanses body, mind and soul,' he says.   'A temazcal has to be near the sacred Ceiba tree, a symbol of Mayan cosmology,' Petrus stresses, 'for this tree connects the earth to heaven and the underworld'.

Mayan In Mayan cosmology the earth was conceived as a flat four-sided surface lying between 13 heavens and 9 underworlds arranged in layers with the Ceiba tree connection at the centre. A Ceiba tree is also necessary near the underground sink holes known as cenotes frequently found in the Yucatan.  The cenotes form an underground water system on arrid Yucatan where there are no rivers above ground.  These underground caves are considered the entrances to the underworld, the realm of deities, demons and ancestors that the Maya considered sacred and which they used for sacrifical purposes to worship their rain god Chaac.

The American archeologist Edward Herbert Thompson dredged the Sacred Cenote near Chichen Itza early in the 20th century and recovered gold, jade and pottery, as well as grizzly human remains.  

Cenotes are full of exotic geological formations such as stalactites and stalacmites which have always been of great interest to  archeologists and geologists. The German Spiegel On-Line edition relates that German archeologists and filmmakers are currently involved in a project to explore this underwater labyrinth with modern imaging technology to make a 3-D film, The Caves of the Dead.  A film is probably the most effective way to experience this fascinating world on dry land, but there is always the danger of too many tourists eager to carry off souvenirs.  'Of course, this sort of film can increase the temptation,' says Florian Huber, team leader from the University of Kiel, 'but  it can also promote respect for this world and the willingness to protect it'.

The most pleasant healing agent of the Mayas is without doubt dark chocolate. The cacao tree had deep meaning for the Maya and the foamy chocolate drink made from the cacao beans was considered food of the gods.  Cacoa was so prized a commodity that the beans were even used for the exchange of goods. Ten beans could buy a rabbit or a prostitute while 100 were needed for a slave.  The Maya so revered chocolate, but only strictly for drinking,  that they planted sacred cacao orchards hidden deep inside cenotes. Chocolate
A Mayan man of lower rank being denied chocolate

The first chocoholics of  history were in fact the ancient Maya who enjoyed the  pleasures and health benefits of chocolate almost three thousand years ago.  Drinking chocolate was so popular in prehispanic Mexico that the tradition was still strong when the Spanish arrived in 1519. It is commonly known that Montezuma, the Aztec Emperor who learned this habit from the Maya, drank cups of chocolate foam every evening before visiting his harem. 

And best of all, chocolate is good for your health.  Like red wine, pure chocolate (with no additives) is rich in anti-oxidants that fight aging and cancer.  Chocolate lowers blood cholesterol levels and contains many nutrients which supposedly stimulate body and mind.  All this points to the fact that to stay healthy and happy everyone should have some dark chocolate every day. The Maya knew this secret many thousands of years ago and at Mahekal it was also known. And so on arrival I was greeted with a plate of various chocolate delights.... strawberries dipped in a rich dark chocolate, Mayan chocolate truffles, superb chocolate brownies made from at least three different chocolates and pecans, then covered with a bitter chocolate sauce, and Chiapas coffee, chocolate and cinammon brownies topped with a white chocolate sauce.

The next Apocalypse is bound to happen on this wonderful stretch of beach in Playa del Carmen facing the island of Cozumel and the temple of Ixchel.  And as I sit  here on the tranquil beach in front  of my own palapa at Mahekal, in the moonlight I can almost  imagine aliens landing to pluck survivors from the sea.  They appear to be headed for Mahekal, a mecca for learning some of the wisdom of the ancient Maya.  I suggest that you reserve early.

If You Go :  Mahekal Beach Resort, Calle 38, Entre Avenida 5a y zona federal Maritima,
Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico 77710. 
Telephone : 52-984-873-0611  from USA 1-877-235-4452

Mahekal is 4-star beachfront hotel with thatched roof palapas overlooking the Caribbean Sea on the northern end of Playa del Carmen along the Riviera Maya 65km from Cancun airport.   Palapas with two queen size beds and two meals are priced from  $195 to $605 depending on the season and location.

© Elizabeth Schotten Merklinger May 2013
Book Your Vacation here

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