In early August, Due North Digital/James Netz Photography teamed up with Superior Sauna & Steam to travel together to four Latin American cities on a quest to film ancient Mayan steam rooms. On August 2nd, the team began their 10-day expedition with one primary objective in mind – to research and document the techniques that were once used in ancient steam rooms in Mexico and Guatemala. Due North Digital, a photo and video production company based out of Hayward WI, was hired to capture the events and put together a mini-series that will be released later this year. The sauna crew has since brought back what they’ve learned and have started to incorporate these ancient techniques into their current cutting-edge sauna building technologies.
The crew consisted of six individuals: owner and founder of Due North Digital, James Netz; owner of Superior Sauna and Steam, Chuck Porter; investor and part-owner of Superior Sauna & Steam, Colonel Mark Follett; blogging expert from North of Eight Design & Marketing, Kassie Dalsveen; sauna technician, Elliot Wood; and on-screen talent and Mexico native, Olga Vargas.
“My goal is to tell this story in the most unique way possible. What the Superior Sauna & Steam crew is doing is an incredible feat that I am just excited to be a part of,” says Netz.
The Road to Palenque
The journey began with an 8-hour shuttle from Veracruz to the Mayan treasure of Chiapas known as Palenque. The first day of filming included visiting one of the most important ruins in Mayan culture – the Palenque Archaeological Zone. There they met their guide, archaeologist, and translator Alfonso Morales who led them through the historical site. Morales has dedicated his life to researching Mayan culture and received his Ph.D. in Archaeology from the University of Texas in Austin. Netz and his team set up their equipment inside the ruins and started interviewing Chuck, Alfonso, and Olga; capturing incredible footage of the ancient ruins along the way. The structural designs and artwork that is seen on film were inspired by the individual ruler’s physical features, helping archaeologists determine what each king looked like.
Boat Ride to Yaxchilan
Day two consisted of a short boat ride to the ancient Mayan city of Yaxchilan. This site is located on the border of Mexico and Guatemala along the Usumacinta River. As you enter the city plaza, one of the first ruins you’ll spot is the steam room – also referred to as the house underground. Travelers would stop there to bathe and cleanse their bodies and souls before entering the holy land. This steam room was believed to have been built for religious ceremonies, hygiene, and to enhance one’s overall health and wellness. Netz and the crew were able to capture an incredible interview of one of the team’s guides for the day, Albero Gomez-Cruz. Gomez-Cruz is of Mayan descent and was able to give an interview in both English and in his native Mayan tongue.
Busted at Bonampak
The next stop on the Superior Sauna expedition landed the crew at the ancient Mayan city of Bonampak, located near the Usumacinta River. Upon arrival, the team was greeted by security guards who refused to allow them to bring in their camera equipment. They were still able to take a quick tour through the site so they captured some photos and video clips on their cell phones before heading back to their van. The purpose of their trip to Bonampak was not to see the steam rooms (there actually aren’t any at this location); rather, they were seeking the famous murals that were found inside these small chambers near the acropolis. It had just so happened that Alfonso had copies of the artwork available to film so Netz and his team shot the interview just right outside of the ancient ruins.
That night, the team settled into a small hostel right on the border of Guatemala and Mexico where they partook in their first temazcal ceremony. This cleansing ritual was used to purify one’s body and soul – spiritually and physically. Netz captured the shaman leading the ceremony through guided prayers. Prayers of protection, rebuking bad energy, and boisterous shouts of praise to the gods thanking them for all they’ve done. As the ceremony came to a close, the team then went to sit inside the steam room where they retreated to sweat out negative energy and harmful toxins through the use of steam (produced from volcanic rocks) and a mixture of various plants and herbs that were added to the hot rocks.
Guatemala for Piedras Negras
The last Mayan city on their list is known as the king of all Mayan steam rooms – Piedras Negras. The historical site is nestled into the jungles of Guatemala and is only accessible by a three- to four-hour boat ride or a 16-mile hike through difficult terrain and dense rainforest. On average, Piedras Negras only receives eight visitors per year due to the challenging journey and dangerous surrounding areas.
The journey began with the crew loading into the boats surrounded by darkness, where all you could hear were howler monkeys chattering in the trees above. The sky painted a beautiful sunrise for the team as they traveled downstream to the site’s entrance. The site itself is not maintained and didn’t have facilities, making it the true definition of a jungle adventure. Due to the potential danger, this trip requires an experienced guide, who has the right connections, to lead the way. Less than five miles from the site, lies drug country and travelers crossing the border illegally seeking refuge from their homeland. The crew arrived onsite to two Guatemalan guards who briefly glanced at their passports before leading them into the dense jungle, clearing the path with machetes along the way.
This site was mostly swallowed up by dense rainforest but yet turned out to be one of the most beautiful places the crew had visited along the way. The site is famous for housing 60 steam rooms. 53 of which were used by the common people and seven sites that were reserved strictly for royalty with each ruler having their own steam room. Netz captured some incredible drone footage as they explored the largest steam room on site.
The Tezmacal in Palenque
The team’s last day in Palenque was spent making memories that will last a lifetime. They kicked off the morning with a phenomenal interview from Olga Garcia Vargas. She walked the crew through her collection of dried herbs and plants that are commonly used in steam rooms across Mexico. It was shortly followed by Rosa (one of the team’s guides), offering to take the team to her grandfather’s house up in the hills of Palenque for a traditional temazcal ceremony that would include a Mayan lunch. The team jumped at an opportunity to experience another temazcal, so they loaded up and headed for the countryside. The beautiful temazcal ceremony was one of the most unique and exciting things to take part in. The room was filled with singing, dancing, instruments, mixtures of plants and herbs, fragrant aromas filling the air, and an incredible sense of peace throughout the experience.
“At the end of the day, we were completely exhausted and ready to head home – but just to say we were able to play a small role in a project of this scale is truly incredible. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity,” said Netz.
The videos will be released sometime before the end of 2021. The team made it home safely and at this point, they are all just looking forward to seeing how the video comes to fruition.
Due North Digital is the premier midwest commercial videography and photography company. With decades of experience, their goal is to help bring your idea to reality. They serve clients throughout the midwest and across many different industries by providing customers with a true “full-service” video production company. From small businesses looking for a leg up on the competition, to international sporting events, people and businesses from all over the region trust James and his Due North Digital team of experts.