The Steam Room begat a Bar

This is Casa Mexilio’s first bar, created with the tiles of the original 1930s steam bath.

There is evidence of Mayan steam baths and associated rituals beginning in the Classic Period and through the Late Classic times. At Chichen Itza, you can see what it left of the stone building.

Steam rooms in Yucatan always seemed to me an anomaly – a mistake – until I actually entered them and saw for myself.

Yes, I’d personally experienced the modern steam baths in cities of the central highlands, where the air is cool and dry, and in cities where indoor plumbing was scarce, and where everyone really does need a Saturday night bath.

The infamous Ecuador Baths located within the labyrinth of the Lagunilla Market area in Mexico City made for late night fun. Not as stylish as the famed Continenal in the Amsterdam hotel in New York where Bette Midler and Barry Manilow made history. In the city of Oaxaca there were, in the 70s and 80s several steam baths which served the rural and campesino population who just came to town on the weekends, one of the reasons being to take a bath. Attendants were present to actually scrub you with henequen fibers or pumice stones.

Those establishments in the cool, dry highlands where plumbing didn’t exist in the homes, were understandable. But to find one in a private home in Merida, Yucatan, a place where just climbing the stairs to the second floor causes one to break out in a sweat ! But, that is what we found, that first day in the building that was to become Casa Mexilio, when Rosa Maria’s ancient cousin, Don Minoburro, pulled the second floor doors open to reveal three small cubicles made, inside and out, of small white and dark green porcelain tiles. The small tiled rooms contained little glass portholes for windows.

What was this, I asked !

A steam bath ? Left over from that heady period when there was too much money in Yucatan, money for things like stained glass doors and windows and furniture imported from the United States and from Europe. This folly – the modern steam bath – was the newest technology in the 1920s, when it was installed. Above the three tiled cubicles sat a rusty tank and machine for making the steam.

And, I have to admit to having lived through the days of the advent of the jacuzzi craze. In my day (I’m speaking of the 70s, now); Jacuzzis were installed on the back deck, the front porches, and even down a wooded path in the forest. It was the latest high tech in bathroom fixtures, coming right after the touchy-feely, free-love, days of the 60s. After all, we were then in the sexual revolution of the 70s. Everyone had to have a jacuzzi ! And incurable STDs were then a thing of the future.

So it was in Merida, in the age of the flappers, “The Twenties”. There’s a downtown hotel in Merida built during that time with a public steam bath, plus a section of the hotel with private steam baths adjoining guest rooms, completely covered with decorative Cuban tile, and it’s beautiful.


There do exist some famous letters written by Simone de Beauvoir to Jean Paul Sartre while staying in the hotel in the forties. She wrote:

Hotel Colon

Merida — Yucatan — Mexico

“My dear little soul, my heart. It was fantastic, you know, leaving New Orleans yesterday at 8 and disembarking at noon in the heart of Merida: you really do leap straight from one world into another.


Now it’s 1 and I’m off to lunch. At 4 we’re leaving in a tourist car for Chichen Itza, which is an old, dead Maya town which looks astounding from photos: pyramids, tombs, temples. We’ll stay a day or two. Then more ruins, a bull fight here on Sunday, and by next Wednesday I think we’ll have seen Yucatan (what can be seen, since it’s very hard to visit) and we’ll go on to Guatemala, 2 hours by air.

(to be continued . . . )

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