ake Chapala has, for centuries, been a meeting place. In the middle of central Mexico, the largest body of water en route to the ocean from the center of the country, it has seen centuries of people, animals, and goods pass through its shores.
For Mexico’s Huichol Indians, Lake Chapala represents the southernmost point of their rhombus-shaped sacred homeland with the community of Santa Catarina at its center. This rhombus-shaped area delineates their yearly pilgrimages when groups from each major Huichol community travel to each cardinal direction of their land and carry out offerings to a pantheon of gods that protect the earth and their community. One of the places where these pilgrims come to lay their heads is the Pakal Votan Spiritual Center run by Andrei Zúñiga.
As I pull off highway 35 into the Pakal Votan center I am struck by its reminiscence to a country restaurant, with lovely views of Lake Chapala from a covered terrace that looks out over a patch of land now covered in cactus, intermittently dotted with temezcal huts and a teepee structure sitting on the edge of the lake. Zúñiga greets me, large Buddhist prayer beads resting on his orange guayabera shirt, an Argentine mate in hand, and smiling ear to ear.
“Welcome,” he says oozing an inner happiness that is hard to ignore, and hugs me as if we’re long lost friends.
The sunshine is beating down on us. In this area of Jalisco hardly a day goes by that isn’t sunny and warm. It’s obvious to see why so many ex-pats have made the area around Lake Chapala their home. Bright white herons stand one-legged in the high marshy edges of the lake and the water stretches so far into the distance that it’s like looking at the ocean, despite the knowledge that the Pacific coast is some five hours away.
Zúñiga started this center almost four years ago with his sister. It was once his family’s restaurant and the land has been in their possession for the past 35 years.
I’ve come specifically interested in a phenomenon called a foco tonal—a place on the earth where you can stand and hear your own echo back to you without any architectural evidence that you should be able to do so. There is another such spot farther down the road that has been in existence for 16 years, but this foco tonal was discovered by Zúñiga and friends just a few years ago when they were carrying out one of their temezcal rituals on the land.
A temezcal is a traditional sweat lodge service performed by many indigenous spiritual traditions in Mexico believed to cleanse both body and spirit and allow the participating individual a connection the Earth’s four sacred elements—earth, wind, fire, and water. Zúñiga admits that the temezcals that he and his friends were practicing were more of a “spa” experience at that time then a spiritual one—a break from city life, a chance to relax and detoxify.
But one night, as they wandered about the property, someone stumbled into the center of a low-walled pool that had been built many years before and discovered that at its center you could hear your own echo. While Zúñiga claims there is no scientific explanation for this phenomenon, some people still balk at the idea that this spot has any specific spiritual power. Regardless, pilgrims come from across the country and across the world to walk to the labyrinth that surrounds the foco tonal and have their inner spirit “read” by Zúñiga himself.
“I feel like my spiritual work on this planet is to open people up to the spirituality within them,” Zúñiga explains. “Part of our work is awakening the séptima raza raíz (the seventh root-race), which is part of everything happening in Mexico and the rest of the world right now.
“These days we call these types of places focos tonales, but that is a modern concept; before, our ancestors called them doorways or passageways or dimensional canals. The Mayas reference a word called kuxan suum, that is like a dimensional canal or resonant canal, that through magnetism you could connect with other dimensions. The place is magic, not because you find it, but because it finds you.”
Zúñiga leads me on a tour of the grounds, a handful of outfitted chalets for out-of-town guests, his Huichol teepee sanctuary where the yearly pilgrims worship, three different temezcal huts built from various materials, even a treehouse. We head for the main attraction, the foco tonal but are interrupted by a mother and grandmother who called earlier about bringing in a very sick child to visit with Zúñiga. He asks if I mind that she enter the foco tonal first and of course I do not.
The child is six, but she has the eyes of an old woman, a barren head that suggests chemotherapy and a tiny body that is so weak she can only stand for a few minutes at a time. Zúñiga has her mother speak the child’s name three times at the center of the foco tonal and we all close our eyes as we circle her at each cardinal direction around the center point. He breathes deeply and says to the child, “Thank you for coming, I love you, I’m glad you are here.”
He goes on to tell the family that the child has been brought into their lives to heal a long line of injured women, that she is full of light, an enlightened spirit. He speaks to them in a language that they understand, one of Catholic saints and virgins and encourages them to celebrate the life of this child instead of focusing on her death. The little girl is silent, with an expressionless face, but the rest of us cry silent tears watching her tired body soak up the sunlight.
My own life’s issues are suddenly put into perspective. I am going through a heart-wrenching break up with a woman that I love deeply and I have come to Pakal Votan seeking some kind of clarity, some kind of sign. What I find instead is the incredible bravery and resilience of this child has shamed me about my own self-loathing and pity. I have a long life of love and loss in front of me and this child will most likely not live to see 10 years old. Perspective is a great healer.
When its my turn in the center of the foco tonal Zúñiga tells me that he has a vision of a hummingbird, like the one I saw earlier today among the center’s many flowering trees. She is constantly moving, he tells me, but she must slow down once in awhile and reconnect to her inner sweetness.
Later, in the quiet of my cabin, Zúñiga and I talk about the girl. “Her heart is already so very tired,” he says, explaining that most families bring their sick loved ones in order to heal them, but more often than not it is the families that need healing, that need to accept the reality of what is happening and embrace what light and life is left in that person.
Zúñiga believes the services they offer, including traditional medicine rituals, can help visitors awaken the spirit within, to encounter their own individual healing powers.
“We all have the same capacity and abilities to connect to our own illumination, and so my work is to awaken that consciousness,” he explains. “I know it’s my mission now; it’s very clear. All of us are doing spiritual work on earth, we can’t say that one person is more spiritual than another.”
The center is ecumenical and all faiths are welcome, despite special attention paid to the local, ancient traditions of various Mexican indigenous groups. For those that come seeking an answer to some spiritual question, the center offers various services—temezcal rituals, ayahuasca and peyote ceremonies, even equine therapy when it’s appropriate—but visitors may often find, as I did, that the answers they seek are not the responses the universe has in store for them.
Instead they find a whole new set of questions and a place where an open heart is the only requirement and a changed spirit the surprising result.
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