Observing traditions at the Foco Tonal in Guaymas, Sonora
Story and photographs by Andrea Zatarain
In Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico, there is a special place long associated with traditions centered around mystical and cosmic beliefs. Ritual observations of this tradition happen often at Playa Miramar, in the Sea of Cortez’s Bay of Bacochibampo, the site of unique sound phenomenon known as a “foco tonal” (literally, a tonal focus, but perhaps better understood as a “sonic chamber”). Sometimes called the Rueda del Eco (echo wheel) or “The Blue Circle,” this foco tonal is a small vortex, drawn upon a designated spot in the location, that causes the voice to echo as if in a chamber.
I first learned about the Foco Tonal in Guaymas one December while visiting my grandmother. My aunt told me about the site, describing it as a powerful place capable of restoring energy, and that same afternoon we went to see it. As we approached, the air grew even colder, but I was taken by the blue sea, the sunset, and the sonorous atmosphere of echo, silence, and reverberation.
According to the Mexico’s Department of Tourism, a foco tonal is a “center of cosmic energy,” in which different vibrations converge. Others might call it a place “to connect with the universe.” Only a few such places exist in the world, six of them in Mexico—in Aguascalientes, Chihuahua, Guadalajara, Hidalgo, Monterrey, and Sonora. The most famous foco tonal is in Ocotlán, Jalisco, Guadalajara, where ceremonies take place regularly.
In Guaymas, the Foco Tonal is located on a jetty built in the 1990s to stop water currents. It was inaccessible to visitors until 2014, when it was reimagined as a tourist attraction. And attract tourists it does. And while their reasons for visiting may differ, all who arrive have one thing in common—they stand for a moment alone in the center of the echo.
There, they hear a natural reverberation, produced by the structure of the “wheel.” For many, the Foco Tonal holds spiritual significance, since the sound of the echo is associated with a drum, which represents the heartbeat of the universe.
Before I stepped into the circle, I sat nearby to observe other visitors. Nearby, a man fishing with an improvised rod managed to catch a few fish while he waited, anxiously awaiting his turn. Later, a group of children gathered at the Foco for several minutes, playing and singing. I watched three women, standing one behind the other, each with her arms extended over the blue circle. One of them cried after her prayers, though given the smile on her face, I presumed they were tears of joy.
Guaymas residents who visit the site regularly say it became popular as a communication channel and energy catalyst particularly when a group of women started practicing yoga there in the early mornings. In time, beliefs about the spot’s special energy spread among locals, including to holistic and herbal communities in the region. Many of these groups now organize special visits depending on the lunar phases or other astronomical or astrological events.
When it was finally my turn, I went to the center of the Foco Tonal and said, “Thank you” then took a deep breath. I could hear it clearly: the sound of atmospheric silence, as if the air I expelled from my lungs was traveling through a long tunnel. But there is no tunnel here; there are no walls around this space. I felt that I was everything and nothing all at once. The universe gathered up into all my senses. My eyes took in the blues and whites of the sea and the sky, while some sort of invisible wheel held safe the sounds. I heard complete silence. I felt complete presence.
After my first visit, I returned to the Foco Tonal regularly hoping to make sense of the place. Not so much to understand the sound itself, which I let be a mystery, but to learn who comes to experience it and why.
For Alejandro, a 55-year-old fisherman from the town of Empalme, the sound is significant. He believes the reverberation is caused by the construction of the jetty. In ancient temples, architecture sought to elevate sound to create a spiritual atmosphere. Alejandro thinks the same thing happens in the Foco Tonal. “The temple cleans you, cleanses you. It cures and recharges you, and you feel better. You breathe the air and sea breeze, and that heals you. But the focus is not the sensation that the sound produces, or where it comes from, but the effect it has on you,” he says.
Elisa, a 19-year-old girl from Guaymas, told me the first time she discovered the site, she was walking with a friend to the palapas at Miramar beach. A shamanic melody attracted them to the end of the jetty, where they discovered a group of women stretching with an instructor who guided their movements and led prayers of gratitude.
Elisa waited until the women finished then went to the center of the Foco Tonal for her own experience. “We talked and listened to the echo. We felt weird, that feeling like being in a labyrinth, but free—like your thoughts or what you say resonates, even if it happens slowly,” she says.
Since visiting the Foco Tonal, Elisa says she feels better and has less anxiety. She also says she started doing yoga.
I’ve observed that most people visit the site at sunrise and sunset. In the mornings, women and older adults exercise near and within the echo wheel. In the afternoon, families, infants and mothers, grandmothers and caregivers spend a stop in the center, extending their arms, or joining their hands for a moment in prayer. Often, children play in the center.
On Sundays, penacho dancers (feathered ritual dancers) sometimes arrive to perform, families pose for quinceañera celebration photos, and even Franciscan friars perform ceremonies.
Some visitors offer thanks to God, the cosmos, the universe, or “cosmic energy.” Others take part in guided or individual meditations, prayers for physical, spiritual, psychological healing, or just come to hear the reverberations and “feel the connection with the universe,” while looking at the horizon of blues unfolding over the Sea of Cortez.
Tony, a 54-year-old woman from Hermosillo who works with alternative therapies, said she found the Foco Tonal by intuition. One day, she left home driving with no destination in mind but, but followed a feeling that led her to Guaymas, and eventually to Miramar and to the Foco Tonal. The feeling she felt in her body when she heard the sound echoing from the interior of the circle helped recharge her energy, she said.
Tony visits whenever she has the opportunity and considers the Guaymas site particularly powerful, because unlike the others, it is located under the sea, which she believes gives it more power and purity.
Those who pilgrimage to the site believe it serves as a telephone booth that links them directly to the universe, making it a strategic place for communication, an energy receptor to help materialize wishes, aspirations, projections or to annihilate anguish, fears, worries and disease. Others, of course, remain unconvinced of any special powers and simply come to the beach to play.
I’ve noticed that sonic experiences tend to be accompanied by movement, as if something in the space silently invites the body to move. People bow their heads, kneel, extend their arms, bring their hands together, close their eyes, and breathe deeply while standing at the site. Most people stay no longer than five or six minutes. Sometimes, special guides offer blessings inside the circle. Individuals or couples wait their turn to receive whatever special words the chosen speaker whispers to them.
“I speak directly with God,” said a 44-year-old man who visits the site every Sunday. “I thank him, recharge, and clean my interior energy.”
I watched him enter the circle and ask those present to close their eyes and focus on the energetic experience. Four others stood outside the blue circle holding hands. After a silent pause, the man raised everyone’s arms, and told them to open their eyes.
Later, I saw the same man with several children flying a kite that danced freely in the sky. I stood and watched the kite for a long time. Its movements seemed to match the rhythm of the ocean, but as the wind pulled it far away, I couldn’t hear a thing.
Andrea Zatarain is a sociologist and holds a master’s degree social sciences from the University of Sonora. She is a member of the Alianza para el Folclore y el Patrimonio Cultural del Norte (Alliance for Folklore and Cultural Heritage of Northern Mexico). Her most recent publication is “Tortilleras, tamaleras, chanclas y lenchas: Dominant Representations of Erotic-affective Relationships Between Women in Northern Mexico,” from the Journal of Sexual Anthropology Studies.