When we talk about beauty treatments of long ago, for some reason the Romans and Egyptians hog the spotlight. Sure, Cleopatra, with her milk baths and kohl eyeliner, was a nice poster girl, but early civilizations here in the Americas had a few tricks up their sleeves, too. Between saunas, herbal soaks, massages and facials, the ancient world on this side of the Atlantic didn’t slack in the wellness department.
Today, Mexico’s top spas are taking note. From jade facials and chocolate massages, to shaman blessings, classic rituals rule the treatment menus at even the most elegante resorts. Take a look at these throwback treatments from pre-Hispanic times.
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Bath blessing with a shaman
With so much beachfront property along the Caribbean Sea, is it any wonder the Mayans practiced hydrotherapy? Nowadays you can still visit a shaman—a traditional healer—who will lead you in meditation and a soak. He’ll bless a batch of fresh botanicals and add them to a small pool. Then, once you settle in, his helpers will drizzle water over your head and scrub your skin with the sacred blooms (so much better than a loofah).
Where to get it: Casa Itzamná in Cobá
Just minutes from a pre-Columbian archeological site, you’ll find a small home that’s essentially a hub for all things Mayan medicine. Here your bath will include the super-curative honey of the Melipona bee. Keepers raise the endangered insect right on the property. They also grow healing herbs and offer massages, curative teas and some of the most scrumptious pork tacos in town.
“Magic” tree bark wrap
The Mayans had a leg up on Proactiv with their prized tepezcohuite or “skin tree.” This local evergreen produces some mighty bark. Used primarily for burns, its powder extract can be used as a painkiller that soothes skin for up to three hours. Because of its regenerative properties, it’s also used to treat acne, scars and stretch marks. Salma Hayek even put it in her AM/PM Anti-Aging Super Cream.
Where to get it: Aurora Spa at Las Alcobas in Mexico City
Put down your bottle of Banana Boat. The ultimate in after-sun healing is the Skin Soufflé at Aurora. You’ll get a healthy dose of tepezcohuite, plus some cooling mint lotion.
In the States we tend to think Swedish, Thai and Japanese (shiatsu) when we think massage, but Mexico also has a strong tradition with touch. Visit a sabrador, or massage therapist, and you’ll get a head-to-toe treatment, including abdominal work, which is the Mayan specialty. Traditionally, the belly massage was used to help digestion and aid reproduction. At the very least, it will alleviate any bloating from lunch. Local herbs are par for the course—expect eucalyptus and lavender among them.
Where to get it: Azulik in Tulum
To get to the thatched-roof massage villa, you’ll make your way through winding jungle paths and emerge onto a cliff that overlooks the sea. Just miles down the beach sit the Tulum ruins, once inhabited by people who (fortunately for them) could never have fathomed a motorized massage chair in a mall nail salon.
Here’s the ancient world’s answer to fillers. Jade stone, which is believed to be anti-aging, was a hot commodity among Old World leaders. The most powerful were buried in masks made of the stone as a symbol of immortality. Unfortunately therapists these days can’t promise you everlasting life, but they can help you prevent wrinkles. Not too bad, eh?
Where to get it: Grand Velas Riviera Maya
Stateside, it’s not too often (or ever) that you start a facial relaxing in a chair as a therapist pours tiny millet seeds over your bare feet. It’s a tribute to the earth and it feels phenomenal. At Grand Velas, the Mayan ritual that takes place before your skin treatment—including the seeds, hot obsidian stone, rose water and seashells—is almost half the fun.
There was a time when the hottest Hollywood accessory was a grouping of round welts across an actress’s well-toned back. The culprit? A stress-relieving treatment called cupping that was embraced by celebs like Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow. Centuries before any starlet walked the red carpet, the Mayans practiced their own version of the seemingly of-the-moment cure. The Mayans call it ventosa, which means “to pull out the wind” and they used it (and still do) to heal achy muscles.
Where to get it: The Spa at Viceroy Riviera Maya
Ask for the Wayak Ritual, which includes gentle cupping (no welts!), plus a massage with rosemary and an egg. Don’t worry about a yoke-y mess—the egg stays intact as the therapist rolls it over your skin. Some believe the egg can absorb bad energy.
Volcanic rock sauna
Fancy yourself a warrior because you’ve survived a Bikram yoga class? Take a tip from the Aztecs of yesteryear—temazcal is where it’s at. You’ll experience just as much sweat, but much, much less Lululemon. The ritual, which includes a series of songs and prayers, takes place over two hours in a clay dome that’s heated by volcanic rock. They say that the process is so cleansing that you’ll emerge a new person.
Where to get it: Pueblo Bonito Pacifica Resort & Spa in Cabo San Lucas
You’ll find temazcal all over, but if you’re going to endure hours of sweaty rebirth, make sure there’s a beautiful pool nearby. The two at Pueblo Bonito more than suffice.
Herbal steam bath
If you’re not quite up for the full temazcal (we repeat: two hours), go for the abridged version, which is simply called a pre-Hispanic bath. In half an hour you’ll still feel the heat. You’ll also breathe in herbs, like basil and spearmint, which help ease muscle pain, asthma and digestion.
Where to get it: Playa Grande Spa in Cabo San Lucas
Once you’ve settled any digestive issues, you’ll be in perfect striking distance of the hotel’s restaurant, Brigantine. Try their famous molcajete stuffed with lobster.
He may be known as the last Aztec emperor, but Montezuma was also a raging chocoholic. Allegedly, he’d drink 50 cups of frothy cacao before having a rendezvous with his harem. Even when Cortés got wind of the precious bean, he was impressed by its energy-enhancing properties. That’s why, when in oil form, it’s the perfect ingredient to massage into jetlagged muscles.
Where to get it: NIZUC Spa by ESPA in Cancun
As a bonus, every treatment here starts with a foot ritual and an organic tea ceremony—that’s one glass of tea, though, not 50. Cool your jets, Montezuma.