A young woman leads me down a gravel path in the thick of the Honduran jungle. She’s dressed in something like a white, fleece shawl. Her makeup sticks out like a finely-painted piece of art with blush, red lipstick, and light eyeshadow. She looks the part of a spa manager. Every move seems to be gracefully calculated. Her bright, white smile coupled with her soft voice emanates a sense of calm that blends nicely with the serene surroundings.
We stop in front of a red-ish, brown dome. It resembles an igloo, at least the kind I’d seen drawn up in children’s stories. (Igloos are a bit of a rarity growing up in Ohio.)
“This is the temazcal,” she explains. “The Mayans built it this way to represent the womb of Mother Earth.”
The idea being, you go in and the experience releases you, reborn. (Without the screaming, crying, or smack on the bottom at the end of an actual birth, mind you.)
Out Of My Comfort Zone
The temazcal is a relatively new addition to The Lodge and Spa at Pico Bonito, nestled in the thick green canopy of Pico Bonito National Park in northern Honduras. A place like Honduras would be outside of the comfort zone for most U.S. American travelers, as headlines from mainstream media certainly don’t do the country any favors. But to the contrary, I’m excited to be here. I used to live in Costa Rica, and though I never made it to Honduras, it feels familiar. It feels like Central America with its lively rainforests, rice and beans-based meals, and a similar take on the Spanish language – but not without its own local slang, like catratchos (Hondurans). For me, this is my comfort zone.
A spa, on the other hand, is anything but my comfort zone. I was dreaming of stretching my legs on the jungle trails with a soundtrack of buzzing insects, not silently sitting still, completely alone with my erratic thoughts and anxieties.
So, how does a grown man, presumably capable of making his own decisions, come faced with doing something both elective and something he traditionally despises? Well, I agreed to do it. My personal promise to try almost anything once, especially when a guest in a foreign country, (un)fortunately outweighs those pesky fears of mine. That’s how I found myself standing in front of the temazcal’s wooden door, my bare feet on the comparatively cool stone path, listening to the instructions of my host instead of layering up on insect repellent before getting lost in the woods — the obvious preference.
“Alone With My Neurotic Thoughts”
“Are you ready?” she asks with a smile, looking for some form of affirmation or excitement. I realize I’m a rarity here, traveling to a lodge and spa with a bias against spas — admittedly an uninformed bias.
“Watch your head,” she says, pointing to the low entry as she ushers me through the door. “The Mayans designed it this way to force people to bow, out of respect.”
I bow and step into the darkness, shuffling my feet against the smooth rock floor, removing my robe, and sitting alongside the hot stone pit in the center. She closes the door, shutting out the remnants of the evening light. Usually, this would spell disaster for me – darkness, alone with my neurotic thoughts. Instead, I do as instructed and inhale the vapors rising from the hot stones and exhale through my mouth and nose. I can feel that initial rush of nerves evaporate through my chest. My breaths are no longer shallow and short, but rather deep and calming; my brain finally convincing itself to mellow out and enjoy the experience.
Finding it all surprisingly agreeable, I stand to grab the ladle next to the stones, pouring water over the rocks, and taking my three deep breaths while holding my head over the sizzling steam per my host’s instructions and Mayan tradition. I sit back down and notice the sweat starting to glisten against my skin. This is when I’m supposed to apply the ‘therapeutic lavender-infused mud’ to my skin. I pick up the small wooden bowl next to me and scrape a bit out. It’s like a powder, but coarse enough that I can feel a bit of texture between my fingers. I start rubbing it against my body until it changes into soap spreading smoothly across my arms. Suddenly it feels like I’m “splish-splash, takin’ a bath,” except instead of a tub and rockabilly music, I’m sweaty and layering myself with mud.
I used to get sweaty and muddy all the time as a kid. I guess this is the adult-approved version?
Normally such an experience would prove challenging to my inability to embrace the quiet and let my mind roam free. Somehow it proved rather simple to acknowledge the minutes and allow them to turn into seconds with the whole of the experience coming to a seemingly abrupt end.
“Are you ready?” the manager asks, peeking through the cracked door.
“That was quick,” I blurt out in genuine surprise. I’m not sure how much time truly had passed, but as I step back out through the entrance with my white robe in hand, I don’t care.
Wait a second, I think to myself. Am I really coming out a new person? Am I buying into this?
Whatever blissful realization I was having would soon be washed away as I follow my host again to the outdoor spa showers behind the temazcal hut. The water is lukewarm, the right temperature for the evening Spring humidity of coastal Honduras.
Relaxed, Rejuvenated, Relieved
I throw my robe back on, thank the spa manager, and start my short walk to my cabin across the jungle property over meticulously-placed stone footpaths. I feel relaxed, rejuvenated, and honestly, relieved that the temazcal played nice with me despite my predisposition to blow it off and stick to what I know I like – beating my body up in the woods on a long hike. Instead, I can rest satisfied that I went outside of my comfort zone to try something that, although new to me, has been a cultural tradition of the local indigenous population long before I came around and, hopefully, long after I’m gone.
Now it’s time to shut the blinds, lay back in bed, and let the symphony of chirping wildlife lull me to sleep. I plan to rise early for a full breakfast before returning to my first and forever love — a hike in the jungle.
There are a number of adventures guests can sign up for at The Lodge and Spa at Pico Bonito that take you off-site, including a jungle hike to Unbelievable Falls, a visit to a manatee refuge, birding, whitewater rafting, snorkeling in the Caribbean, and an open-air train ride through Cuero y Salado National Park where you take a boat over to Cayos Cochinos for lunch at an indigenous Garifuna-run restaurant.