Shaman in Mexico
San Cristobal de las Casas sits like a secret in the highlands of southern Mexico, blanketed in a mist that smells like sage. Low-rise colonial buildings flank cobblestone streets, while backpackers in ponchos eat at organic cafes serving huevos a la Mexicana alongside vegan burritos.
A canary yellow cathedral stands boldly facing the valley below, with a massive cross out front acting as a shield against outside evil, while Tzotzil Mayan women parade their dyed skirts on the plaza. I’m not one to believe in magic, but there is something about this place that feels like there’s more going on behind the scenes than we realize.
I first visited San Cristobal de las Casas on a solo backpacking journey across Mexico. I arrived by bus from Palenque, one of the most impressive ancient Mayan cities, buried deep in the steamy jungles of Chiapas.
The temperature plummeted as the bus climbed up to more than 7,000 feet above sea level. I shivered in a cold drizzle as I checked into my hostel, which looked more like a ski chalet than a Mexican hostel. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my time, but I had a short list of things I wanted to see and do. Anything related to mysticism was not on my list. Like I said, I don’t believe in magic.
Little did I know that this three-day visit to a backpacker town in the mountains of Mexico would lead to some major life lessons — and a reminder about why we should always travel with an open mind.
Talk to Strangers
While I was in Palenque, another backpacker told me that when I arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas, I absolutely had to seek out a massage by a local shaman.
Shamans, thought to have access to the spirit world, often perform rituals to communicate with good and evil spirits, and practice divination and healing. My friend told me that seeing a shaman during his stay had been one of the most evocative and mystical experiences of his life.
Not wanting to appear skeptical in front of my friend, I wrote down the name of the shaman he visited and cast the thought out of my mind.
That night at dinner, he and I were sitting in our small jungle compound drinking a couple of beers. “No, really,” he insisted. “Here is her email address. Message her right now. You won’t be sorry.”
Under his watchful eye I sent the shaman an e-mail (the very fact that she had an email address didn’t do much to assuage my skepticism). Regardless, I asked if she had time to see me. It was in the hands of the universe.
I love traveling by myself because the time is entirely my own. If I want to hike, I hike. If I want a glass of wine, I have a glass of wine. If I want to curl up in my hostel and do nothing, so be it. Traveling alone is the best way to get to know yourself and to get outside of your comfort zone.
I had spent nearly three days rafting through canyons, eating locally made chocolate and drinking wine. No word from the shaman. I considered it a lost cause.
Then, on the last day, I received an email response. The shaman could see me that afternoon if I was still interested.
Always Push Yourself
I really wasn’t interested to begin with. And I was curled up nicely under my fuzzy blanket with a book. The idea of venturing back out was not one that excited me.
Still, I told myself, when was I ever going to be in San Cristobal de las Casas again? And I’m always preaching local experiences.
So I accepted her invitation, put on my pants and got in a taxi.
It’s Okay to Feel a Little Uncomfortable
The taxi took me about 20 minutes outside the city, up into the surrounding mountains, where the indigenous Tzotzil Maya people predominantly live.
Like most other cultures that believe in shamanism, the Tzotzil Maya rely on shamans as something like priests and medicine men/women. By communicating with good and evil spirits, shamans help locals understand the problems of this life, while providing guidance for the future. They are also known as healers to help with ailments, both physical and emotional.
The taxi driver left me in front of an address on an abandoned street. Doors were shut. I found the number of the shaman's house and knocked on her door. No answer. So I sat and waited on the curb, wondering if I should turn around toward the main road and hitch a ride back into town.
But after a few minutes of deliberating, she answered the door. “Meagan?” she asked in a heavy Spanish accent. I nodded, and she motioned for me to come inside.
Nudity Isn’t That Big of a Deal
She led me through her kitchen and into a back room with a thatched roof and wooden walls that allowed natural light to come in. There was a massage table and two cabinets with jars filled with herbs and oils.
She told me in Spanish to take off my clothes and lie on the table under a mound of blankets. I’m not a stranger to naked massages, but usually the masseuse leaves the room. She did not, so I undressed myself while she readied the incense. She didn’t watch me undress; she was just there. And while I thought it would be uncomfortable it felt entirely natural.
I climbed on the table as she lit the incense and the smoke started to fill the room.
Learn to Let Go
“This is not going to be a massage like you’re used to,” she explained, again in Spanish. “I am going to read your body. It is going to be psychological, as well. I will ask you questions and you answer. If you need to scream, scream. If you need to cry, cry.”
I clenched in fear. I wanted to say, “um...what?” But again, I was in her home experiencing her culture. So I braced myself.
Prepare for the Unpleasant
It started like any other massage as she rubbed my body with oils, working on kinks and knots. But it took a turn shortly after.
“Tell me about your mother,” she said. Instantly she felt my back tighten, and she dug her hands deep into pressure points. I let out a scream. It was pain like I had not felt before— physical and emotional. Show me a New Yorker who doesn’t cringe when talking about their mother.
I had only so much time to recover until we started talking about love in general. I told her about my last great heartbreak — David — which had happened the year prior. I loved a man who was ultimately a good person, but who was riddled with many, many issues, a man who ultimately ended up ghosting on me after I found out that he had a girlfriend on the side. That’s when the tears came. Uncontrollable waves of tears.
“Your love was real,” she said to me. “You think that he did not love you, but he did. He might still. Do not let the fear that what you shared was not real win.”
Not once did I tell her that was my fear — but it absolutely was.
Prepare for the Worst
After the tears and the screaming and the deep dive into my untouched neuroses, she handed me my clothes to put on.
“When you came here your body was hunched. Now you stand tall,” she said. That may have been true, but I felt no different. Just a painful, emotional massage, I thought to myself.
“You might be sick tonight. There was a lot of negativity holding you back,” she added. I felt fine.
I found a taxi on the main road and took it back to my hostel, where I happily got back into bed with my book.
About an hour or so later the chills started. My temperature rocketed up to 100 degrees, while I shook feverishly, and in disbelief, under my blanket. I fell into a sick sleep, sweating and freezing from the fever.
Leave Room for A Little Bit of Magic
When I woke two hours later, tired and woozy, I glanced at my phone to see the time. What I saw took the wind out of my lungs. It was a text from David.
“Meagan, I have been wanting to write to you for a long time. I am sorry for hurting you. I know you think I don’t think of you, but I think of you all the time. I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”
The ending to that tale is another story for another time, with its own set of lessons. But at that moment, I had what I'd doubted was possible: a truly emotional epiphany.
Never again will I roll my eyes at any part of a culture — especially one so deeply rooted and around for centuries. Never again will I be a hypocrite, urging others to try something new while holding myself back from doing the same.
Most importantly, never again will I shy away from the possibility of magic. Because sometimes, in the most unlikeliest of places, it's possible to discover that magic is real.