El Tamazcal: Purification Ceremony in Colombia

Ever wondered what it’s like to be cooked alive? Well, this comes pretty close. You sit around steaming rocks in an igloo-like tent while a man yells and shakes instruments at you…for FOUR hours.

A Spanish-speaking indigenous guía (guide) leads the ceremony, which takes place inside a small enclosure with several other participants. Red-hot stones infused with medicinal plants are gradually introduced to the tent to produce steam, while the guía directs chants, meditations and percussions.


The tent

Once every hour, the guía opens the tent door to let in some cool air before it is cruelly snapped shut again for another agonizing hour.

It literally sounds like hell. So why do it?

The Tamazcal purification ceremony is an extreme form of cleansing both body and soul. On a spiritual level, it is supposed to enable participants to experience direct contact with nature. The drums and chants help to encourage wild emotion and creativity.

But don’t worry if you don’t speak Spanish or you’re not a spiritual person because the process also has many physical benefits. These include muscle relaxation, increased metabolism, cleansing of sweat in the body and baby soft skin for weeks!

I first heard about the ceremony while in Pereira, a small city in the coffee producing region of Colombia. It is an eight-hour bus journey from the country’s capital city, Bogotá, and is home to lakes, waterfalls, a zoo and great nightlife.

To reach the tent, I took a bus to the city limits and trekked for more than an hour through a swamp. Eventually, I found a small hut where the guía and his family live. I paid 10.000 COP and they led me to the other participants by the tent, which was covered with a black plastic bag to retain heat. Although I was the only foreigner, they assured me many other Americans and Europeans had taken part over the years. Due to extreme heat, it is not recommended for minors or those with heart problems.

Apprehensively, I took my place on the cool, muddy floor inside the tent. As the boiling stones piled in and steam engulfed us, I dropped in and out of a dream state. Absolutely no hallucinogenic substances were involved – nor is alcohol allowed for 24 hours prior to the ritual – but the intense heat combined with the constant beat of the drums made me lose track of time and reality. This condition relaxed me, although at times it induced anxiety and the heat was unbearable.

But it was all worth it for the moment the door opened and the steam dissipated. Fresh, cool air filled my lungs for the first time in an hour; the relief was blissful.

The four hours passed surprisingly quickly and each member hugged one another upon leaving the tent. Unfortunately, during the ritual, a storm had been brewing overhead and the swampy path had all but turned into a lake. We practically had to swim the whole way back to town! But it only added to the experience.


Andrew (left), Ricky and Becky looking tired and sweaty after the four-hour endurance test.

Although I’m not sure I felt spiritually enlightened or closer to nature, I certainly reaped physical and psychological rewards. There is a sense of triumph as you leave the tent unscathed, as though you’d climbed a mountain or defeated a worthy opponent.

The purification ceremony dates back hundreds of years and is ingrained in Colombia’s pre-Hispanic heritage. It is also still common in Mexico and other areas of Central and Latin America. To try it, just ask locals in any city of Colombia for the nearest Tamazcal ceremony. Even if you have no spiritual side whatsoever, it’s still cheaper than buying moisturizer.

Andrew Gold.

About the author:

Andrew is a freelance journalist who lives in Medellin. He holds an NCTJ qualification and worked as an online reporter for The Sun and several other publications before moving abroad. His passions are travel, football and languages – he speaks French and Spanish. He is constantly astounded at how much Colombia – and Medellin in particular – have to offer.


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