Nude Spa of Ancient Mexico

Over the last few years, Mexico’s clothes-free tourism industry has steadily increased in quality and quantity of venues. There are now a half-dozen or so official clothing-optional or nudist sites, mostly along the Riviera Maya (see here for a recent list of Mexico’s nude beaches and resorts).

It’s interesting to note that at several of these nudist resorts and beaches, an ancient Mexican form of communal nudity is making a comeback: the temazcal.

Example of a temazcal

The temazcal is a round earthen structure akin to a sweat lodge. Although many well-to-do citizens of pre-Conquest Mexico had their own, the most common ones were public. Taking a sweat bath was a communal part of daily hygiene for the ancient Mesoamericans, who were famously fastidious about their hygiene. So much so that there were many more among them who considered the newly-arrived Europeans to be fetid devils than gods. This was because the Spaniards seldom bathed or shaved (their beards reeked of repasts past), and would wear the same heavy clothes and boots for weeks on end!

But the temazcal could also be used for therapeutic purposes. In addition to controlling the temperature inside the temazcal, skilled bath attendants chose from a variety of kindling, logs, and herbs in order to produce a steamy smoke best suited for a given patient’s particular ailment, whether muscle aches, infection, rash, etc. Modern-day reinterpretations of the temazcal as a place of healing are popular in Mexico as well as the southwest US and are not limited to nude recreation areas. In fact, the modern-day non-nudist temazcal unfortunately (in my opinion) tends to focus less on the benefits of sauna-like relaxation, and more on the alleged spirituality of suffering for as long as one can tolerate inside the small, cramped, asphyxiating space in order to then experience a “rebirth” upon leaving the “womb.” The best documented, specifically nudist temazcal I could find is in Argentina.

Because the Spaniards destroyed indigenous Mexican documentation and art with such great zeal, we don’t have nearly as much information as we could have about other contexts for nudity in pre-Conquest Mexico. But a name that comes to mind in that regard is Nezahualcóyotl (Fasting Coyote, 1402-1472), a leader of the Acolhua people in Texcoco in central Mexico and ally of the Aztecs. He was renowned as a man of great culture who not only composed lyric poetry and compiled a new code of law, but also designed aqueducts, gardens, and other landscaping projects including a royal retreat he maintained on a hillside called Tezcotzinco, now a ruins conservation site in Mexico state. Tezcotzinco was an open-air spa where Nezahualcóyotl would bathe with great spiritual ceremony, in the tradition of the Toltec leader Quetzalcóatl from centuries previous.

Bath of the exalted leader

Today’s ruins site features one stone bath basin in particular that has a glorious view of the surrounding valley, apt for inducing the meditation of a head-of-state. The site is popularly known as Baños de Nezahualcóyotl, which is also the title of a wondrous re-imagining of the bath by Mexican painter Daniel Lezama. In Lezama’s vision, modern-day Mexicans convene at the spa site in an oneiric atmosphere (a fiesta? a sacrifice?) featuring bodypainted nudes, non-painted nudes, and other subjects in various stages of dress.

Daniel Lezama, Baños de Nezahualcóyotl

This mingling of nude, clothed, and painted subjects is characteristic of Lezama’s beautiful and richly symbolic allegories. The brightly painted bathers also bring to mind a recent Mexican bodypainting festival in which the participants became fanciful human alebrijes (the original alebrijes are fantastical, multicolor creatures made from papier mache by the family of Mexican artisan Pedro Linares). Perhaps, when the festival was over, the human alebrijes all scrubbed each other clean in the Baños de Nezahualcóyotl.

Further information on contexts for nudity in Mexico, in a continuation of this post here.

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