A Zapotec temazcal in San José del Pacifico
My trip to San José del Pacifico started in the centro of San Pedro Pochutla, the capital of the municipio of which the town of Zipolite is a part. In Mexico, municipios are similar to counties in the US except they have greater governing authority over their surrounding towns. My friend Miguel offered to be my guide for a unique experience with his Zapotec culture up in the Sierra Madre del Sur of Oaxaca. We checked a couple of different transport companies to get the lowest fare and earliest departure. When it was time to go, we climbed into comfortable assigned seats on a 10-seater mini-bus, and we were on our way.
The drive from the coast to the roof of Oaxaca, close to 10,000 ft. elevation took us up curvy Highway 175, a beautiful, curvy stretch of road in great condition. Along the way, we enjoyed the scenery as we passed through agricultural areas in varying climate zones. The flora and fauna changed with elevation from the tropical coast to the more temperate zones at higher elevations.
We decided to get off a little early in a town called San Mateo Rio Hondo. We spent a few hours enjoying beautiful flowers and watching high-altitude summer thunderstorms forming all around us. It was considerably cooler here than on the coast, and I quickly realized I should have brought warmer clothing. It was August in Mexico, quite far south of the Tropic of Cancer, so the cool temperatures surprised me in my beach clothes. After it started to rain, we decided to continue to San José. This time, there was no bus station, so we made our way back to the main highway in a small 3-wheel taxi, where we flagged down a passing camión to take us the rest of the way to San José.
San José del Pacifico is a small mountain town mainly populated by the Zapotec people, one of two main indigenous populations in the state of Oaxaca, who have populated the area for many thousands of years. As it was mid-afternoon, we first checked into a room at Puesta del Sol, a nice bed and breakfast with beautiful grounds and sweeping views. We got a pretty nice room with two (full-size) matrimonial beds, a working fireplace, picture windows that framed expansive mountain views, and a private bathroom.
Once situated, we headed down the road to Temazcal Los 4 Elementos. It is a small place you can easily miss, where a Zapotec brujo lives in a small house next to a series of temazcal structures along the side of the mountain below the road. He had a boiling pot of tea brewing over an open fire when we arrived. In the reception area on the deck next to his house was a prominently placed photo of María Sabina, a famous Oaxacan curandera (Spanish for healer or medicine woman). An authentic witch hat hung from the ceiling overhead. After taking in the view and socializing a while, the brujo led us to a temazcal, which is similar to a sweat lodge, but in a more permanent structure.
The brujo performed the ceremony, which involves setting stones heated in the fire into a central pit and pouring water over them. This caused the heat to fill the temazcal with steam, and then the brujo sealed the door. This Zapotec temazcal was different from a Maya temazcal I experienced in Tulum, Quintana Roo in 2010 in that the brujo did not join us inside. There were no chants, no stated intention, and no instructions to enter and turn one direction to make the full circle of the stones before we exited. We simply sat together in the heat in silent mediation as the brujo returned several times with more hot stones and water. The heat quickly becomes overwhelming, causing the body to sweat profusely, the critically important physical aspect of the ceremony.
After a while, I can’t really say how long, we reemerged into a cold, rainy world, as if we were just born, which was perfect since a temazcal is in fact a ceremony of healing and rebirth. All the same, it surprised me to be so cold in August in the tropics of Mexico, though the sensation was surely accented by the extreme heat inside the temazcal. The brujo invited me to an open air shower, which ran cold mountain water. My skin recoiled on contact and I gasped, but he told me it was necessary to continue in order to close my pours, which were opened by flowing sweat inside the temazcal. He soon brought me a bucket full of lukewarm water, instructing me to scoop it up and run it over my body. I kept doing that for what seemed like forever, as he told me to keep doing more. My Spanish wasn’t completely up to par yet since I had only arrived in Mexico a week or so before, but I trusted him and so I kept scooping. It felt warm compared to the cold water in the shower, so it was a relief in its own way.
When I was done, my friend Miguel had his turn. Eventually, we dried off and joined the brujo back on the deck. The rainy mountain air was cold, so we went and stood around the fire. Before long, he offered us some tea, which he had been brewing over the fire. I drank it down to warm my shivering body, and he gave me a refill. The tea was warm and earthy. After another half hour or so, we decided to head back to Puesta del Sol, as the weather was not getting any better. As we were about to leave, the brujo gave us each a four-leafed clover, a representation of the 4 elements. On the way back, Miguel informed me that the tea contained the mushrooms that made San José del Pacifico famous in the 1960s. Though we had intended to find mushrooms to enjoy back at the hotel, it was a surprise to me that we had already drank them, but by then I was already committed.
My experience over the next 4-6 hours was challenging, yet profound. While my friend Miguel had a typical, happy “magic mushroom” experience, I went deep and dark. I was struggling and crying, cold and afraid. I didn’t have any kind of visual experience, but I felt a physical sensation of the fungus moving up my spine from my tailbone to my brain. Once fully seized by this powerful medicine, I encountered my darkest fear, the fear of being alone. I had struggled with family issues in the years before I moved to Mexico, going as long as 2 years without talking to my parents, and ultimately letting go of my sisters for good after suffering extreme emotional abuse and abandonment by them. All of this came forward in my experience, which I had not expected. I also experienced anxiety before leaving the US to live in Mexico, realizing I would be alone in Mexico without any family, though I was comforted by the many friendships made during my travels before my move.
In a transformative experience with different ceremonial medicines a year before at a spiritual retreat in Zipolite, the shaman had taught me that the medicines will only show me what I need to see. He taught me not to think of an experience as good or bad, but rather to simply ask what it had to teach me. While that experience had been full of love and light, this experience was heavy and intense. I felt like I needed help, but didn’t want to interrupt Miguel’s experience with my darkness, so I decided to reach out to my healer, who had since become a good friend. Thankfully the wifi at Puesta del Sol was good enough for me to contact him on Facebook Messenger.
He told me exactly what I needed to hear in that moment: “What can I say to you my friend … we really are alone. It is a solitary path. We must start from the monastic theory of the universe where there were not two. Only he is and he is all that is… (a third-person expression similar to how God identified himself to Moses, ‘I am that I am.’) But only for you to understand that external reality does not exist, that you are alone in your existence, and that is where you should project it if you want, and how you want it from there from nothing. Really It is a profound experience that you are having.” The translation from Spanish is not perfect, but I understood it perfectly in that moment. I responded: “Yes, thanks for answering. Everything is all right, this is exactly on time because I have not allowed myself to feel these feelings because I was simply trying to survive until I finally went to Mexico. I deeply love you my brother. Thank you.”
Comforted and ironically feeling less alone, I put the phone down again and sat in front of the fire. I allowed all that fear to surface and flow in tears of healing and thanksgiving. It was the spiritual equivalent of the profuse physically cleansing sweat I experienced a few hours earlier in the temazcal. I wept and sobbed in front of the fire for what seemed like forever, only speaking to assure Miguel I was okay and not to worry about me. And really, I was okay, for the first time in a long time. This experience has had a powerful resonance in my life. Having exposed my greatest fear to the light of my consciousness, I emerged feeling cured and restored, no longer afraid to be alone. It was the right experience for me at the right time. I moved forward from that cold afternoon into the new life I created for myself in Mexico, free from the fear that controlled me for so much of my past. It was a challenging experience, one of the most profound experiences of my life, but one that finally set me free.
Finally, Miguel asked me if I was hungry. We compared our experiences for a little bit, then went to the restaurant at Puesta del Sol for a simple dinner, and back to the room to go to sleep. We got up before dawn out on the highway to flag down the colectivo heading back to San Pedro Pochutla. I enjoyed the sunrise as we descended back to the coast, enjoying the sites of nature and the sensation of warm sunshine, as if I was seeing them for the first time.