It’s easy to understand why the Viceroy Riviera Maya has ranked among Mexico’s top hotels for the past decade, with 41 private villas located between dense jungle and picturesque beach – each villa with its own pool, outdoor shower and personal soap concierge. At the Viceroy, the attentive staff can meet a traveler’s every desire. Even the desire for spiritual wellness.
In addition to fine dining and luxury spa treatments, the hotel offers a number of ceremonies and rituals steeped in Mayan culture, the highlight being the Viceroy’s Temazcal ceremony. The traditional sweat lodge experience takes place in a dome-shaped building symbolizing the uterus and dates back thousands of years to the pre-Hispanic indigenous people of Mesoamerica, who’d partake after battles and sporting events and even during childbirth. The Temazcal is run by the hotel’s in-house spiritual advisor, Julio Cesar Morales. Online reviews and social media posts boast about the Viceroy having an “in-house Shaman.”
The whole process – the wealthy paying a premium price for an authentic spiritual experience with locals at a hyper-luxury hotel chain – seemed like it could be a White Lotus B-plot. I was there to participate, but I was worried about the potential ramifications of commodifying the traditional practices of indigenous communities. A kind of speedball Eat, Pray, Love for those existentially empty and short on time.
On the other hand… who was I to tell indigenous communities how to make their living? By working with tourists, they’re both sharing culture while offering potentially life-altering knowledge. Shouldn’t they be adequately compensated for that work? Considering whether or not to do it, I floated the idea to my peers. Close pal Latinx playwright Christine Quintana, who recently penned a hit show about misguided tourists in Mexico, offered a smart suggestion. All I needed to do was engage the experience with respect and an open mind. That and tip the staff really, really, well.
Upon arrival, Morales’ influence can be felt throughout the property. Guests are blessed with smoke made from copal, an aromatic tree resin, meant to keep negative emotions at bay and open visitors to a world of tranquility. Staff are free to liaison with the advisor for advice and recommendations. For guests inclined to go deeper, Morales offers personalized consultations followed by specialized treatments, including healing herbal baths and a couples massage meant to balance the chakras.
Luxury comes with an itinerary. During our stay, the Viceroy packed an impressive number of activities and meals highlighting the absolute best the hotel had to offer, with the Temazcal ceremony planned for the final day of the trip. We drank the country’s best tequila, Clase Azul bottles worth hundreds, paired with fresh ceviche. We ate inventive tasting menus, offering dishes like a white mole with scallops and suckling pig tacos. Later we were offered options to kayak, snorkel or take a private cenote tour.
While the experiences were top-notch, I struggled to piece together how the Temazcal – the reason for my visit – fit into the context of my experience. During lunch with Tulio Baruch, the silver-haired George Clooney-esque sales director overseeing our stay, I thanked him for the hospitality and congratulated him on the luxe nature of the property.
Then I asked whether the Shaman experience was another box to check for visitors alongside ATV tours and in-house yoga. The director patiently explained that Morales is decidedly not a Shaman. His role is much more specific than that. He is a Máak Bacab, roughly translated to “Guardian of the Stars.”
Morales comes from a long lineage of healers and puts extensive study into Temazcal, massage techniques and cosmetology. The intentionality of his work underpins the tranquil vibe of the hotel, creating the overall experience for the guests. It’s built into the atmosphere, part of the whole experience. Baruch was adamant that the place would not be the same without the spiritual advisor. I nodded and thought it was over. A waiter came and offered a drink. Local small batch mezcal with freshly squeezed lime juice.
The next morning just after sunrise, we stumbled across the staff performing a sacbé walk, a stroll with drumming and music meant to open thoughts of gratitude and prosperity. It wasn’t on our itinerary or advertised on the website. With hardly any guests awake to witness the excursion, I got the sense that the walk wasn’t about performance.
In preparation for the Temazcal experience, I started to do research, browsing through online reviews and recaps of the experience, before digging into scholarly articles on the subject. Participants enter a small hut with a low ceiling. Hot stones and a mixture of plants – sage, basil, rosemary and eucalyptus are commonly used – are placed in the center and cold water is poured over the stones to create steam.
From there, participants are guided through the extreme heat with a series of chants and songs. The process lasts roughly 90 minutes and is supposed to symbolize a spiritual rebirth. While scientists point to the medical benefits of steam rooms for circulation and blood pressure, the purpose of the Temazcal is more ethereal than physical. I was in it for the self-reflection.
The day of the ceremony I was full of nerves. After a few days of decadent food and finely aged alcohol was I really game for a spiritual awakening? For all my apprehension about the context of the process, there isn’t a way to fake your way through the ceremony. There is the heat of the steam and wherever the process takes you. On the verge of taking the leap, I truly started to wonder if I was ready to let my guard down to go inside my brain and poke around. I thought about bailing, going back to my room and looking for the big answers in a great tequila rather than an ancient spiritual ritual.
Perhaps sensing the hesitation, Baruch offered to join me and my plus one in the ceremony. After being brushed down with rosemary, we entered the hut. The steam started, blurring my vision in a cloud of vapor. There was a heavy scent of tea as my heart rate doubled. Someone outside let out a loud chant, the flap to the hut closed putting us in darkness, and the Temazcal began.
Describing the ceremony would sort of be like describing a Dali painting. The Máak Bacab began to rhythmically bang a drum and call out to the ancestors. My pores leaked, nostrils flaring in an attempt to breathe through the heat, reaching above 40 C.
In the darkness of the hut, I began to see colors. My mind sped through a Rolodex of memories, images and feelings. The way my father looked when he was young. An embarrassing moment in elementary school. Love for my friends. Pangs of romance gone awry. A hospital. A bedside. A forest. At the moment when I thought I couldn’t take anymore, the stones were covered with more and we went deeper both into the humidity and into ourselves. I took a deep breath and winced as my lungs burned. Baruch laughed quietly and reminded us all that this was something people had done for thousands of years.
That night sitting at the restaurant by the ocean I hardly spoke to anyone. For a while, I looked at the jungle and the water. Then I went to bed and slept without dreaming at all.
Later, waiting for a delayed flight at the Cancun airport, surrounded by screaming children and novelty shot glasses, I reflected on the Temazcal. The invitation to participate in traditional Mexican culture, even through the lens of a luxury hotel, felt surprisingly meaningful.
The insights I gained into the culture paint a portrait radically different and infinitely more real than the souvenir sombrero version of Mexico tourists are usually fed. As part of my work, I’ve been lucky to visit a lot of hotels in a lot of different countries, and eventually high-end accommodations can start to seem like they’re all painting on the same exquisite canvas.
The Temazcal felt like something entirely different, a vantage point decidedly outside of anything I’ve experienced before, and a small taste of a practice created long before the concept of luxury hotels even existed.
The writer was a guest of the Viceroy Riviera Maya, who did not review or approve this story.