Savoring the Mindful, Masterful Renovation of a Natural Treasure
by Kimberly Damon
World Class Spa….Not the first thing that crosses the mind when turning off US Highway 285 onto the aged two lane drive by the peeling painted sign announcing “Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs.” A few small adobe houses and a trailer or two along the quarter mile to the resort entrance hardly seem a fitting pathway to serenity and improved health.
Don’t let it fool you.
Ojo Caliente, literally “warm eye” but often interpreted as “hot spring,” is actually the name of the small town located between Taos and Espanola in northwest New Mexico. The town was once the central trading post and stopping point for travelers through the old west. Its favorite son, Antonio Joseph, is a significant figure in New Mexico history, having served as the first territorial representative.
Joseph also opened the country’s first medicinal spa and sanitarium at the site of an ancient Tewa Indian village where natural warm and hot springs, laden with a variety of different minerals, flow steadily from deep aquifers below the earth’s surface. Even a century and a half ago, people traveled to this remote location both for tourism and the treatment of illness.
Eight years ago, I spent an afternoon at the spa while on my way from Taos to Albuquerque. My mom recalled her father visiting the area in the 1950s, and I remember an old family photo, faded to sepia, of Grandpa “Red” grinning at the camera, submerged to his shoulders in a pool of water with high desert shrub-covered hills in the background.
I found a peaceful, picturesque oasis loaded with history and southwest spiritualism. Back then, the resort remained much as it had been throughout the 1900s: small, unique, and well maintained. The original bathhouse dates to the 1860s, and by early in the 20th century the hotel and small cottages were built. The Hotel, Main Bathhouse, and Adobe Round Barn are all on the National Register of Historic Places.
So, I approached my recent visit with both nostalgia and a little trepidation. The website tells the story of “upgrades and renovations” over the past three years with obvious pride. I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is it better? Does it still have the mystique of the Tewa spirit? Or, sadly, has it become just another indulgent pretender to enlightenment?”
Much to my delight, the improvements have elevated the spa without sacrificing its historical significance or the atmosphere of tranquility and relaxation. The new rooms have been constructed in the adobe style, and they blend naturally into the small property. A yurt has been constructed for the thrice-daily yoga classes, slightly away from the pools, to provide sanctuary for both practitioners and other resort guests.
I arrived just before sunrise on a chilly November morning. Prior to the upgrades, business fell dramatically through the off-season. But this morning there are many cars in the lot, and people are beginning to stir throughout the property. The pools don’t open until 8AM, so I headed up one of the hiking trails to take advantage of the views and evaluate the conditions. I was rewarded over the next hour with the sliding wall of morning light creeping across the valley. When the sun finally crested the peaks to the east, the hillsides began glowing a brilliant orange. This trail, about half of the Mica Mines route, is wide and gently rising. It is suitable for most walkers.
The resort offers five distinct hiking trails appropriate for various abilities and moods. Four of the five paths rise into the hills behind the resort. The fifth is a flat two-mile walk around the gurgling Ojo River.
Back down the hill, steam rises from the pools while instrumental music selected by the resort’s therapists provides background. At the offices, the staff speaks in hushed tones, honoring the soothing peace of the surroundings. Here you can sign up for the various services as well as rent a locker and robe. You don’t have to stay at the resort to partake of the full range of spa services, and a day pass is available if you just want to soak in the pools.
Each pool is maintained separately, and is labeled with the temperature of the water, the predominant mineral, and its believed medicinal benefits. Most of the pools are open air. The spa requests guests keep a “whisper” zone throughout the pool and the treatment areas. Meticulously maintained, the pools are each drained twice a week for cleaning. Stone bottomed and shallow, they are meant for soaking and rejuvenation, not exercise.
I tried all the pools over the course of two hours, particularly enjoying the Soda and Arsenic ones. Soda is the only enclosed and covered pool and is marked as a “quiet zone” by hand painted signs hanging on the rock walls. (A fact unfortunately ignored by the chatty older couple who entered the area about ten minutes after I did. I must admit it took immense restraint not to “shush” them while I tried to meditate.) There are actually two Arsenic pools, but my favorite was the 110-degree hot tub style one located next to the main pool in the courtyard.
The old hotel building is still there and in use. If you prefer the rustic aspect of the spa history, you’ll have a small room retrofitted with a sink. But you’ll still travel down the hall for showers and bathrooms. The old cottages offer similar amenities.
If you want to truly indulge, request one of the new Cliff Rooms. These suites include large ensuite bathrooms, a sitting area with a kiva fireplace, and a partially covered patio with a private multi-person tub that you can fill with hot mineral water whenever you desire. The high adobe walls face a canyon wall, so your privacy is assured. Well, no one can SEE you, but your voice may carry, as the patio is open to the hillside. Enjoy yourself…quietly!
The restaurant is excellent, with a diverse selection fusing traditional southwestern and spa fare.
Along with the newly constructed rooms, locker, and treatment areas, the resort now offers a variety of deals including Girlfriend’s Getaway, Romance, and Birthday packages as well as treatment combos. You can come and just enjoy the rejuvenation of the spa or take advantage of the many shopping, dining, and outdoor offerings of nearby Taos or Santa Fe. Other activities available in the area include hot air ballooning, white water rafting, a historic railroad, and numerous outdoor hiking options.
Oh…the peeling sign by the highway? It’s been kept deliberately in homage to the resort’s history and significance to the area.
A Few Tips:
Day trippers should bring an extra towel or two, flip flops, sunscreen, and a hat.
Call ahead to schedule any massages or treatments to ensure availability.
The Posi Ouinge hike has one steep, stone-filled climb of about 50 yards that I don’t recommend for anyone unsteady on his or her feet or who needs assistance.
Finally, this locale would neither be of interest nor suitable for children or teens.
Destination: USA/New Mexico/Ojo Caliente
Special Interests: Spas
Photos by Kimberly Damon