Always Leave Room for Magic
San Cristobal de las Casas sits like a secret in the highlands of southern Mexico. Blanketed in sage-smelling mist that is a mix of incense and cloud, it is reminiscent of a spiritual Alpine village. 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 outfront 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 that is buried deep in the steamy jungles of Chiapas. San Cristobal was quite a difference, both in looks and feel. The temperature plummeted as we 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, adding to the Alpine vibe. 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 was a reminder about why we should always leave room for magic.
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 this shaman, telling me he had done so before and it was one of the most evocative and mystical experiences of his life. Being the polite traveler I am I did not want to knock his experience with my skepticism, so I wrote down the name of the shaman he visited with 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 had asked if she had time to see me. It was in the hands of the universe.
Once in San Cristobal, I set off on nearly three days rafting through canyons, eating locally made chocolate, and drinking wine. No word from the shaman. I considered it a lost cause.
Until the last day, that is, when she responded saying that she could see me that afternoon if I was still interested.
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.
The taxi took me about 20 minutes outside the city, up into the surrounding mountains. It is here that the Tzotzil Maya people predominantly live. This indigenous group lives in the highlands of the state of Chiapas. Their beliefs today are a fusion of ancient mysticism and Catholicism, and they still very much rely on shaman culture.
The taxi driver left me in front of an address on an abandoned street. Doors were shut. I found the number of her house and knocked on the 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.
She led me through her kitchen and into a back room with a thatched roof and slatted 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.
I climbed on the table as she lit the incense and the smoke started to fill the room.
“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.
It started like any other massage as she rubbed my body with oils working on kinks and knots. But it took a very decided turn shortly after.
“Tell me about your mother,” she said, as she dug her hands deep into pressure points. I let out a scream. It was physical pain like I had not felt before. No, this was not like any massage I've ever had before.
I had only so much time to recover until we started talking about love. I told her about my last great love, and loss, which had happened the year prior - a complicated story that ultimately ended with heartbreak and ghosting. 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 win that what you shared was not real. It still was,” she said. Not once did I tell her that was my fear - but it absolutely was.
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. Well, minus the pain and the emotional scarring.
“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.
When I woke two hours later, tired and woozy, I glanced at my phone to see the time. What I saw took the wind right out of my lungs. It was a text from my ex.
“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.”
My jaw dropped to the floor in disbelief. That tale is another story for another time. But you can bet your ass that I now have a soft spot for a little bit of magic.