I THINK MY AIRLINE CONSPIRED TO heighten my appreciation of Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, a venerable resort between Taos and Santa Fe. After a roller-coaster flight through turbulence east of Albuquerque, the loss of my baggage, and the always-ego-boosting search for an emergency swimsuit, I was more than ready to get into some hot water. Ditto for my frazzled husband, Richard, who breezily survived the crowded mall but eventually cracked while navigating the endless road construction north of Santa Fe. When we finally rolled into Ojo Caliente six hours after our plane had landed (in a perfect world, it's a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Albuquerque), our jaws were clenched and evil hedgehogs had taken up residence in our shoulders. Yet after a mere fifteen minutes in the healing waters of Ojo, we were transformed into seriously overcooked pasta. We had found bliss.
And we weren't the first. Native Americans soaked in waters here some seven hundred years ago. Stressed-out settlers opened the first spa on the site in 1880. Although a fire destroyed the old bathhouses several years ago, the handsome adobe hotel, built in 1916, and a mercantile building dating from the 1860's were relatively unscathed. The subsequent restoration gussied up the place a bit, but not too much. It has that ramshackle appeal that comes from gradual growth rather than grand planning. Modular buildings are stuck here and there. Piles of construction materials lurk around corners. You'll find no plush monogrammed robes here, no nightingale-poop facials, no piped-in underwater harp music. Ojo Caliente is a retreat for those who prefer their relaxation and rejuvenation served up Birkenstock- rather than Prada-style. I mean, what other spa would welcome a luggageless woman running around in her husband's boxer shorts and a two-day-old T-shirt? Pretensions, it seems, don't mix well with the plentiful geothermal waters here, the only place in the world where 100,000 gallons from five mineral springs—each containing lithium, iron, arsenic, or sodium—bubble naturally to the surface every day. Who needs hot-rocks aromatherapy or botanical-collagen lip treatments?
The accommodations at Ojo are as no-frills as the spa. You won't find a shower or bathtub in the homey rooms, but the bathhouses are just steps away. And I can't say that we've slept any better in a five-star hotel than we did in our "cottage" (really just a room with a kitchenette in an motel-type building), lulled into wet-noodle unconsciousness by our soak, the drone of the swamp cooler, and complete freedom from all telecommunications. While such peaceful slumber is alone worth the price, the cost of lodging includes a carte blanche pass to play prune for a day in all of the pools, from the steaming iron bath tucked against a rock wall to the tepid outdoor mineral pool big enough for serious swimming. Overnight guests also get a thirty-minute parboiling in one of the private arsenic tubs inside the smaller bathhouse, where the atmosphere is more clinical than sensuous, followed by the devilish "milagro relaxation wrap." This treatment involves having your arsenic-dipped body swaddled tightly—very tightly—in towels and a woolen blanket. You and your fellow mummies are laid out side by side on separate tables in a quiet, dimly lit room like coma victims waiting to have their organs harvested. If, as promised, Richard and I did indeed sweat out toxins during the treatment, our wraps probably had to be hauled off to a hazardous-waste disposal site.
Although we did our best to gag down a few swallows of arsenic and lithium waters, reputed to relieve arthritis and depression, respectively, we much preferred to replenish our toxins with a couple of microbrews that evening at the delightful Artesian Restaurant, in the resort's hotel. Dinner entrées at this simple but stylish cafe range from the portobello napoleon, a plate-licking combination of roasted veggies, chèvre, balsamic vinegar, and tomato-garlic sauce, to lavender-encrusted pork loin. We returned for breakfast, when you can get— surprise!—granola, but it comes in parfait form, layered with yogurt and fruit. At lunchtime we took a short stroll through the cottonwoods, across the bridge over the river, and up to the tiny town of Ojo Caliente—a few restaurants, a church, a bed-and-breakfast, a motel, and a couple of interesting gift shops. We sampled organic pizzas and Greek salad at Casa Vieja, a local hangout with progressive periodicals and a huge collection of percussion instruments, where our inner hippies could groove. On our second night, after nixing the idea of having dinner in Taos, an hour or more away, we idiotically wound up driving almost as long to Rancho de Chimayó, which had changed a bit from the mom-and-pop place we stumbled upon almost twenty years ago. But despite its transformation into a sprawling tourist destination, the margaritas were still perfect (fresh lime juice), the guacamole was classic, and the sunset was stunning.
Next time, I think we'll make dinner reservations at Rancho de San Juan, a swank but supremely friendly inn and restaurant just fifteen minutes south of Ojo, where the menu features the likes of grilled ahi tuna with apple-apricot chutney. With four rooms and a collection of adobe casitas scattered across 225 acres of dramatic desert, this is a luxurious alternative for those who want to partake of the waters of Ojo without giving up creature comforts like private patios with a view, in-room fireplaces, mini-refrigerators, and Frette bed linens. Guests can explore the inn's "Windows in the Earth"—an astounding cathedral-like chamber carved inside a nearby sandstone mountain by artist Ra Paulette, who worked alone for more than two years using only simple hand tools to create these soaring vaulted ceilings, massive columns, and intricate details.
We broke up our rigorous schedule of eating and soaking and soaking and eating with such demanding activities as breathing deeply at an early-morning yoga class, rediscovering long-forgotten muscles during a deep-tissue Swedish massage, watching the play of light on the flesh-pink desert cliffs, and marveling at the river's resident frogs and tadpoles, the biggest we'd ever seen. (Hmm, is