Hot Times in the Riviera Maya
by Zora O'Neill

Out of her depth in a Mexican luxury resort, Zora O'Neill learns not to sweat the small stuff.

"Welcome home!"

This is what people say to you when you arrive at Burning Man, the annual art confab/drug-fueled melée in the Nevada desert; I've been a few times.

It also happens to be what the guayabera-clad staff of luxury hotels in Mexico's Riviera Maya have taken to saying to arriving guests; as a guidebook author, I've been to these quite a few times as well.

So when I roll up to the front door at one of these beachfront pleasure palaces in my lub-lub-lubbing little blue Bug, with big sweat stains under the arms of my sink-washed shirt, I always think it's gracious of them to go through the motions, and it's nice of me not to say something like, "Last time I heard that from a stranger, he was naked and covered in glitter body paint!"

And the very fact that I'm thinking about this, as I'm handing my keys to the valet, and graciously accepting my tamarind spritzer and my cold towel, only makes me acutely aware that I Do Not Fit In.

Cancun beach
© Zora O'Neill

Not that I should care. As a guidebook author, it's my job to be here. And it's their job to be nice to me. In fact, I have come to care a bit less, even to occasionally take some pleasure in being the worst-dressed person at a five-star hotel.

But for a while I was almost too self-conscious to move. I'd sit around picking at my dinner, smiling too hard at the waiters to let them know I was somehow more on their side, and taking notes that read like the meanest anthropological fieldwork. Quality of tans here very high. Amazing the level of dressiness for dinner. Who packs like that? I never chatted with other guests for fear I'd wind up revealing my professional capacity, and thus my utter lack of worthiness.

Then I went into the temazcal.

A temazcal is a traditional Maya sauna ritual, a sweat lodge with a lot of shamanistic business, and herbs and chanting. Which makes it a rather laughable enterprise when you're in one at a $600-a-night hotel. And every $600-a-night hotel in these parts has one, a random bit of exotica to prove its indigenous cred, even though the people who use it will have no other interaction with the Maya except as people who carry their luggage, and those Maya probably have never been in a temazcal either.

Maroma Resort & Spa temazcal
© Maroma Resort & Spa

I'm really not into the woo-woo anyway, so I could barely keep the smirk off my face as I crawled into the little stone hut along with six other guests - all Ernst & Young employees, it so happened.

About thirty minutes later, I was crying quietly into a grass mat.

Here's what happened. First, in came the shaman (shamaness?), a woman of indeterminate age and ethnicity. She explained that she'd been doing the temazcal several times a week for the past decade. With her wild red hair and her thick yet unplaceable accent, she reminded me of someone I knew in Amsterdam, a woman who painted her houseboat while wearing leopard-print heels and blamed her moodiness on her Gypsy blood. In other words, a loveable kook - although, in this case, a kook with exceedingly dewy skin.

Thanks to this point of reference, I was feeling a bit more at ease as the shamaness set some noodly Indian flute music playing, the sort of thing that would normally make me run screaming. Her assistant lugged in the glowing-hot lava rocks and started piling them up in the center. Finally, he poured on a big jug of water and shut the door.

We were engulfed in blackness. As the shamaness began to intone, my mind wandered, imagining her at her home somewhere in the resort, in some Scooby Doo-y behind-the-scenes apartment, both mysterious and utterly normal, and then remembering some guy I'd met at another resort a few months back, who'd worked there and only there his entire life, and what a strange, fragile flower he seemed to be - and how perfectly capable and normal he was when I ran into him later in Playa del Carmen. And how he didn't even remember who I was at first, which really burst the bubble created within the resort, where I had been the most special and memorable guest of all.

After a bit, while the assistant rewound the flute-music cassette, the shamaness called upon us to shake some maracas, and do a little chanting. I suppose it was meant to call in some great entity, but all it did was remind me of all those group cheers and make-a-rainstorm-by-tapping-on-the-desk exercises we did at the beginning of student council meetings in high school. It was the same ritual, really: something to clear your mind and focus your attention on the present and the people around you.

The shamaness then instructed us to relax and concentrate on ourselves. I snidely imagined my swank Ernst & Young cohorts wouldn't find this too difficult. Nor was it for me, as I'd been driving around alone, in a car with no radio, for the past five days; at least here, I could zone out and not be afraid of running into a ditch full of turkeys.

EcoTulum Resorts temazcal
© EcoTulum Resorts

By the next round of chanting, I was starting to feel really silly - and really hot.

I put my head down between my crossed legs, to get some cooler air, and I suddenly got a whiff of sweet, green grass - the mat that I was sitting on. That brief moment of pure sensation, of the surprise, and realizing that during the next hour, I could always put my head down and smell that smell, if things got too intense and sweaty otherwise - it was just like being on drugs. Which triggered this regret at not having done more ecstasy in those first couple of years, when my body could still bounce back and I had a good crew to do it with.

I doubt that's the emotion you're supposed feel in a sweat lodge, as you're supposed to be working out your toxins, not hankering for more of them. But that didn't stop me from hunching over, pressing my nose into the mat, and weeping over my lost youth.

When we were finally released from the sweatbox, out into the salty breeze, with the Caribbean sea all lit with a sunset glow in front of us, I was feeling pretty wobbly. One of the Ernst & Young-ers told me he liked my swimsuit, and I smiled goofily and clutched my herbal tea. Eventually we all drifted away from the small bonfire, they in husband-wife pairs and me, the solita traveler, on my own.

A few hours later, I was sitting in the lounge writing an email: So right now I'm 'home' in what happens to be an extremely nice hotel. And I'm not just saying that because it's free. I'm saying that because I'm blissed out from having done a cheesy faux-Mayan-ritual sweat lodge. Confronting my own mortality while oozing sweat from every pore hadn't dulled my sarcasm; it did make me want to enjoy the life I had in front of me, however.

jungle road
© Zora O'Neill

I was considering this very thing, when in walked one of the guys from the temazcal. We greeted each other like long-lost friends. There was some small talk, and then he asked, "Hey, uh, do you party?"

I felt like saying, "Funny you should ask..." but explaining my sweaty thought process seemed too complicated. No, I had no drugs to give him, nor, as an ancient Maya ritual had made me so keenly aware, had I had any for years. Just for the ridiculous serendipity of his question, I mustered the energy to have a drink with him.

Half a specialty margarita later, I started to feel the smallest twinge of concern. I have a problem in that my guard is either 100 percent up, or 100 percent down, because I can't ever believe people are going to be quite as predictable and clichéd as they are.

I've forgotten the exact vein of the conversation, but it started with, "You're traveling alone? That's so cool. That must mean you're single? I can't believe you're single. I couldn't help noticing, you've got a really nice body..."

I deal with this sort of thing poorly in the best of circumstances, and certainly not well after having my brain held at melting point for an hour and a half. Before I could change the subject, he'd followed up with, "I'm pretty adventurous-are you?" That, in turn, was followed very quickly by, "I'm pretty secretive-are you?"

That's when I managed to smile sweetly and say I didn't think this conversation was going anywhere. I gave him a little consolation hug, since we're all going to die soon anyway. Then I sent him off to his tax-lawyer wife, who was asleep in the room upstairs from mine.

By the time I'd locked myself in my room, I was back in super-defensive anthropological mode. I scrawled in my notebook, What's wrong with these people?! How can they possibly be so bored with life? And did I mention he showed me a picture of his three kids?

The next day, I woke up fabulously well rested. I admired my dewy complexion in the mirror. I could learn to start living like this, I thought. Then I called to have my bags taken to my car. As I drove off into the jungle, waving to the smiling crew of Maya staff members in my rearview mirror, I remembered what life was like without air-conditioning. My own little ritual sauna, right here in my Bug - where I'd always feel at home.

A New Yorker by way of New Mexico, Zora O'Neill is the author of The Rough Guide to the Yucatán, Cancún & Cozumel Directions and Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque; she maintains the blog Roving Gastronome about her travels, and what she eats while she's at it.

Bookmark and Share

Read this article online at:

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2007. All rights reserved.

Also in this issue:

Books from the Author:

Buy The Rough Guide to the Yucatán at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Buy Directions Cancún & Cozumel at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Buy Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Sign Up