The culture of the Maya is rich with religious beliefs related to the cyclical patterns of the earth and a reverence for gifts from nature. The Maya worshipped the four elements of the world — water, earth, fire and air — and believed that a universal force linked all living things. For those looking to connect with these ancient traditions, there are several wellness experiences that should not be missed.
Cultivated for more than 2,500 years, cacao was an integral part of the daily lives of the Maya. It was utilized initially as a sacred food believed to cure sicknesses and foster fertility at weddings. Later, it was used as currency and offered to the gods as a sacrifice. The dead were also buried with small pots full of cacao. The wellness benefits of roasted and ground cacao beans include liver and kidney detoxification, increased blood flow to the brain and lower levels of inflammation. Many spas in the Yucatán incorporate ground cacao into their treatments. Hotel Esencia offers a cacao ritual service intended to soften and nourish the skin. The experience started with a full-body cacao exfoliation that opened my pores and left me feeling tingly and refreshed. A massage followed, employing a paste made from cacao blended with water, cacao butter and a little honey. Described as “an invitation to discover the power of this sacred tropical seed,” this superb treatment left me feeling utterly relaxed.
Ancient temescal rituals were intended to eliminate toxins from the body through intense heat and steam. This purification ceremony takes place in a domed rock chamber and has been employed by Aztecs and Maya for centuries. The low-roofed sweat lodge represents the womb, and participants come out of the bath symbolically born again, with a cleansed mind, body and spirit. There are several wellness resorts in North America that have temescals, but the historical traditions of the ceremony are rarely followed. At Hotel Bardo in Tulum, we sat shoulder to shoulder around a fireplace as a local shaman led us through the ritual. River rocks were heated on a fire outside and then placed in the center of the lodge and showered with water infused with lemongrass, sage, copal and palo santo. Fragrant steam filled the dark space, the rocks glowed orange, and the shaman led traditional chants. Cooling jasmine tea served afterward enhanced my sense of tranquility. These ceremonies are wonderfully intense but not recommended for the claustrophobic.
In several Mesoamerican societies, bees were revered as gifts sent by the gods and as symbols of fertility. The Maya began cultivating the Melipona beecheii species more than 3,000 years ago, long before Europeans introduced honey bees to the Americas in the 17th century. They even had their own bee deity, Ah Mucen Kab. Traditionally, the stingless Melipona beecheii (called xunan kab, or “royal lady,” in Mayan) are kept in hives in hollowed-out tree trunks, jobón, which are closed at both ends by a piece of ceramic or stone; bees go in and out through a central hole. Honey produced by the xunan kab has a more citrusy flavor than most grocery store brands, and as it is produced in far smaller amounts, it comes with a higher price tag. The Maya reserved the sacred honey for religious celebrations and medicinal purposes (it was used to treat cataracts, liver spots and asthma). Though this product is a challenge to obtain even in the Yucatán, certain specialty stores carry it. The Viceroy Riviera Maya keeps its own hives behind the spa and offers a unique wellness treatment called the Hunan-Kab. The 50-minute “honey ceremony” combines fragrant medicinal herbal compresses prepared by the hotel’s shaman with a housemade honey salve. After being coated in this floral mixture by my massage therapist, my skin felt thoroughly revitalized.