Ojo Caliente makes the world go away

Story by Linda DuVal, Photos by Rick DuVal

OJO CALIENTE, N.M. – In the arid, cactus-strewn hills of northern New Mexico lies Ojo Caliente, an isolated hot springs resort where the rest of the world fades to distant memory. For years, it was a rustic retreat where pools were carved out of rock and people walked around in their ratty bathrobes and flimsy flip-flops from home.

When I heard new ownership and management renovated it a few years ago, I was apprehensive. Would it retain its rough-hewn appeal? Would TVs and cell phones now get actual reception? Would I have to buy a big white fluffy spa robe and matching slippers?

Andy Scott, the owners’ son and on-site manager, loves to show what the Scott family had done to improve the place, while retaining its beloved character.Renovated “Round Barn.”

One dramatic improvement is in the Round Barn, which he calls the “crown jewel” of the property. It’s likely the last remaining round barn in New Mexico, and it had become dangerously decrepit. The Scotts sank several hundred thousand dollars into a total renovation. Once ramshackle with a caving roof, it now is fully restored, its fragrant wood floors just begging for a barn dance or other activity.

They’ve also revamped the resort’s infrastructure. The pipes from the hot springs to the pools needed replacing, among other things.

New Southwestern-style stucco cottages replaced the old ones – originally barracks for the 1930s-vintage Civilian Conservation Corps.

The chic new cottages have private tubs, for those who like to soak alone, or au naturel. Steam rooms and a sauna also were added.

“We’re trying very hard to keep the essence of the place intact,” Scott says.
These efforts paid off when Ojo was named one of the nation’s top 10 mineral springs by SpaFinders.

Long-time patrons also agree they’ve succeeded.

Sam Maestas of nearby Espanola languishes in the iron spring, eyes closed. A retired building contractor, he’s been coming here since he was a boy. “This place is a jewel,” is his opinion. “They can make all the improvements they want, just so they don’t change it too much.”

Then he admonishes: “Don’t tell too many people about it.”Arsenic pool.

Beatrice Martinez, a retired nurse from Colorado, had heard about Ojo from her friends for years. On her first visit, she lets the warm waterfall of arsenic water pour over her shoulders as she talks. (Yes, arsenic. It does fabulous things for the skin!)

“I can see where it would be good for a body,” she says. “I think it’s also may be good for the soul.”

Jennifer Davis, who owns her own graphics design business in Boulder, Colo., brings staff members and clients with her for a relaxing retreat. “They all love it,” she says. “They like that it’s not pretentious.”

But then, how pretentious can you be, slathered with mud and baking in the sun?Mud baths are right next to the main spring.

Don’t be surprised to find a number of Europeans and Asians enjoying the pools – this place is actually more famous overseas than in the states.

After all, this probably is the most diverse hot springs resort in the Americas. Yet its atmosphere remains decidedly casual.

Josephine Garcia hands out towels and attends guests who choose the resort’s signature Milagro Wrap: First, you soak in warm mineral water; then she takes you to a quiet, darkened room with rows of tables. She helps you onto one and wraps you like a mummy in soft cotton blankets, topped with a wool one. Faint music helps you relax – occasionally, you hear soft snoring from a nearby table.

After the wrap, you feel peaceful, cleansed and ready for an afternoon nap (if you already haven’t taken one).

Her husband, Archie Garcia, works in the men’s bath house. He grew up in northern New Mexico and has been coming here all his life. His mother was the cook here for many years. Ask and he’ll share stories of the waters’ healing powers.

There’s a small restaurant in the hotel that serves good, moderately priced meals ranging from healthful to decadent. If you crave some dining variety, or a taste of town, either Taos or Santa Fe is just an hour away. Espanola’s stores are a half-hour’s drive, if you forgot something essential. Or hop down to Rancho de Chimayo for an excellent meal of Mexican food, famous in these parts.

The resort has just introduced its own line of personal products, such as lotion and shampoo, all made from organic, indigenous materials. You’ll find them in your room and can buy them in the gift shop. Word is, the mica crème will make your face sparkle!

Should you be inclined to get some exercise, there’s hiking on the mesa above the resort. Hundreds of pot shards litter the ground along the trail. It’s forbidden to remove them, but many previous hikers had left them displayed in groups or on rocks for others to admire. One trail leads visitors back to a mica mine, where taking samples is allowed.

Some things at Ojo have changed for the better; some remain refreshingly the same.Soda springs pool.

The lodging’s gone upscale, with kiva fireplaces and lush bed linens, but the rustic rock-walled pools remain. You still can meditate in the buoyant soda springs pool undisturbed. You still can drift under the star-studded New Mexico night sky.

Though they provide complimentary robes for spa-goers, you still can wear your old bathrobe and flip-flops from home and nobody bats an eye. They have WiFi and satellite TV now, too – but there are no phones in the rooms and your cell phone might not work.

How cool is that?

About the pools: There are two arsenic pools, about 103 degrees; one iron springs pool, at about 109 degrees; and a soda spring pool, slightly cooler than the others. Arsenic is said to be beneficial to those suffering from skin problems, arthritis and ulcers; iron is said to benefit those who are anemic; and the soda springs supposedly help digestive problems.

Visitors also can drink from the lithium spring, said to promote mental well-being and digestion. There’s also a pool of mixed water separate from this enclave where families with children can swim. Children are not allowed in the mineral pools. All areas except the parking lot are non-smoking.

Services: Massages, facials, herbal wraps and other spa treatments, plus yoga classes, are available.

Rates: Lodging prices vary widely by type and season, but high-season rates (double occupancy) generally start lower in the hotel and run higher in the Cliffside Suites (with a semi-private pool for overnight guests only). Rates include use of all pools, steam room, sauna and mud baths. If you’re not staying on property, day rates are available.

Getting there: Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs is about an hour’s drive north from Santa Fe, or about an hour’s drive southwest from Taos. The nearest major airport is in Albuquerque. (Best time to go is in the spring and fall, when days are sunny and nights are cool and there are few pesky insects.)

More info: Visit the resort at  ojospa.com or call
(800) 222-9162.

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