At the base of a remote mountain in the colonial highlands of Mexico, we were introduced to Galo Hernandez, a master of temazcal, the sweat lodge of the ancients.
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Up the dirt road from Teacalco, past the ruins of old haciendas and at the base of Cuatlapanga, a mountain in the altiplano or colonial highlands of central Mexico, Galo Hernandez has built his temazcal, or sweat lodge.
The location is critical for him. As a temazcalero, he prefers to host his guests in the solitude of nature, an escape that no car horns can ruin.
This mountain—it might as well be his, for he has no other neighbors—is also his medicine cabinet. The fields and valley are rife with wild flowers, herbs and plants, which he boils into tea for the ceremony and bundles into a bouquet for use in the temazcal, a dome that resembles a monster-size pizza oven and serves the same purpose: to reach and maintain high temperatures.
We found Hernandez during Dia De Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, one of the holiest weeks of the year in Mexico. We’d gone to Tlaxcala for the bullfights and made plans to stay at Hacienda Santa Barbara, a renovated sixteenth-century old palace. Javier Zamora, the owner, was a frequent guest of Hernandez, learning the art of temazcal. He invited us to join him and after stuffing a box of supplies in his truck—it contained a fan of feathers from a guajalote, or turkey, a small drum called a panhuehuetl, two moroccos, a stick string with ojos de venados, or seeds called deer eyes, a pipe to blow rapé or medicinal plant abstract up our noses, a jar of sananga or liquid herb extract to clear our eyes from smoke—we left the hacienda for a noon arrival.
“The temazcal is alchemy,” Javier said, suggesting that nearly two hours in darkness at two-hundred degrees has been proven to reduce stress, improve focus and uplift spirits.
At the base of the mountain, Galo Hernandez had also made his home alongside his temazcal. In the back fields, against an azure sky and view of the valley below, a pair of horses snacked on grass. Roosters and turkeys scattered around and across the concrete patio at the center of the place.
Hernandez had created his own handmade hacienda here—a small dwelling to sleep, another for a kitchen, all revolving around his temazcal, which he also built. When we arrived, he was gathering dried up pine cones to ignite the fire under his coals, which were placed in a back area of the hut. He sealed them off with rocks and packed them in with mud he made and dug out of a nearby ditch.
“Here there is saying, ‘Wherever the problem, there is the cure,” Hernandez said in Spanish, referring to the bounty of wild herbs and power of the heat. Often, the temazcal was compared to a womb, a return or re-birth, buried in darkness where troubling thoughts, issues or feelings can be left behind or absolved in the suffering, only to be re-born with fresh air, light and pails of cold water that he’d dump over our heads.
“It changes your emotional perspective,” he said. “If you arrive sad or stressed you enter here and lose that feeling.”
Hernandez did not look like a shaman.
He did not have long hair or wear robes, necklaces or ornaments of any kind. He wore blue jeans and boots, beat up from wandering around the fields to gather herbs and the hard work that comes from running a self-sustaining home. He instructed us to remove our clothes, put on bathing suits, and began the ceremony.
“Let’s start to the east, where the sun is born,” he said, praising the direction and elements. From the south, he asked for strength and stability. From the north, guidance. Soon, a bed of hot coals appeared in a clay tray. Hernandez snapped off a few pieces of copal, or hunk of resin from a tree, spreading them around the hot coals and waving his hands in the incense.
Soon, we were escorted to the door of the temazcal, instructed to get down on our knees and scurry inside the hot chamber. Behind us, a wool blanket was placed across the door.
We were now consumed in darkness, ready for the heat.
“Don’t fight the heat, the heat is the medicine,” Javier said, filling a bowl of water and splashing it on the coals in the back, raising the temperature.
To keep from scalding our heads, we kneeled down against the floor, where the air was slightly cooler. After rising, Javier dipped his bowl in the bucket again, pouring cold water over our heads to regulate our body temperature.
The initial feelings of claustrophobia subsided, as Javier led us in folk song and we scrambled around the wet floor for the instruments.
The ceremony had rhythm, pace and objectives. Just like the earth’s elements, Javi had designed our temazcal in four phases, each containing a dramatic rise in temperature and cool down period, which consisted of opening the wool blanket for fresh air.
Soon, we’d have that cold water dumped on our heads, and Hernandez would serve us his own mole and local honey and wrap us in blankets to nap in the sun. After an hour and a half inside Hernandez’s dark oven, our bodies would be drained and minds would need to rest. Until then, we had four elements to cycle and sweat through.
Javier dipped his bowl into the tea Hernandez had made for us. Splashing the water down into the coals to raise the heat, we kneeled to the floor again.
“The heat is the medicine,” he said, and started to sing another song.
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