Letting out – and in – some steam

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After spending about half an hour sweating out life’s problems and taking medicinal herbs into my pores in the temazcal, I received a full-body massage to relieve the physical stresses.

Weary travelers, I have found a relaxation paradise off a dirt road in Oaxaca.

Past the roosters, dogs and bicycling children on Privada Villa Alta, I found a place where my troubles could be pushed from my body – the Temazcal.

Billeted as a cure-all for everything from anxiety to infertility, owner Antonieta Bautista Cruz says the temazcal is a type of dome-shaped steam bath that originated in Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, infusing water vapor with herbs to cleanse the body and spirit.

“Its name comes from Nahuatl,” she says. “Temaz means steam, and calli is house in Nahuatl. Temaz calli.”

Using heated volcanic rocks to create steam, Cruz says the temazcal is good for the mind, body and soul. She says that among many other things, time in the small room relaxes muscles, cleanses the airways and helps women have children.

She adds that because pores open from the moist heat, skin is more accepting to the medicinal benefits of herbs like rosemary, malva, chamomile and zapote dormilon.

“We opened this temazcal nine years ago,” she says, adding she has only seen people react to it in good ways.


My partner and I sat down in the foyer of the temazcal at the beginning of a storm. Growling thunder disturbed our conversation, while ominous clouds darkened the room.

After a few minutes, Cruz and her partner – Marcela Alvarado Juárez – explained the process of the next two hours, with half an hour dedicated to the steam house and the rest of the time taken up by relaxation and massage.

To begin, we took off all our clothes and were given sheets with which to wrap our bodies; this physical and spiritual journey is certainly not for the prudish.

Cruz took us each through a short ceremony, clouding our bodies with smoke and tapping herbs on our skin from head to toe.

When the ritual finished, we each backed into the warm temazcal where we could adjust the steam level, and therefore temperature, by tossing herbed water onto rocks in a pit.

Soft music and the muffled rumbles of thunder kept our ears occupied as our bodies overheated. We threw scoop after scoop of coolly-scented water to sizzle off volcanic rocks into the air.

My mind wandered calmly as sweat and condensation dripped off of my skin. My heart was beating faster and harder than usual from the heat. I sat back on the cool rocks behind me. After about 15 minutes I was given aloe to rub on my body.

The half-hour passed slowly, after which Cruz helped us emerge from the temazcal like children.

“This temazcal is shaped like a bread oven,” she said. “A round style, said to represent the uterus, the womb.”

A cold shower and a cup of lemon tea later, Cruz and Juárez gave us full-body massages.

As my partner said, “I’ve never felt so physically or mentally relaxed in my life.”

The Temazcal is at the corner of Priv. Villa Alta Esq. and Ave. De Las Torres, near the Instituto Tecnológico de Oaxaca.

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