Story and photos by Lynn DeBruin
As night wore on and our bodies continued steeping in the 104-degree arsenic mineral pool, the quiet conversation shifted to something downright dirty. Soon, it was all we could think about, that three-letter word.
Yep, we had mud on the brain, and by noon the next day, we also had it in our hair, down our backs and covering every visible pore on our faces. For hippies to housewives, rich or poor, fair-skinned or dark, mud proved the great equalizer at Ojo Caliente, an unpretentious resort an hour north of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
It also was the perfect ingredient to an affordable spa day in the desert southwest. “(At other spas), usually you go into a treatment room and somebody brushes mud on you,” Donna Cohen, a masseuse from Redwood City, Calif., said during a short stay last month at Ojo Caliente. “I don’t know many other places where you can stand around an urn and make friends and mud each other.”
Of course, make sure to do it quietly as “whisper” is the operative word in the ten pools and mud bath, which are included as part of a day pass ($16 Monday-Thursday and $24 on weekends) and free to those staying at the resort.
As Cohen soon discovered, mud knows no age, no socioeconomic status, no style, but rather allows folks from all walks of life to blend together in a ritual many felt softened their skin, detoxified their bodies or soothed their arthritis. “No one recognizes you in mud,” Cohen added.
Well, except maybe for the cowboy hat and blue-tinted shades sported by guitarist Tim McCullough, 52, of Corrales, N.M., who says he’s been coming here forever. Then there’s a local artist who shows up regularly and draws paisley patterns and other designs on her skin while coating herself with the runny mud that dries to a chalky, morgue-like finish in the hot sun.
If this sounds a bit strange, a few people sitting in the mudding area, complete with shower and shallow pool for rinsing, acknowledge it took some convincing. One Michigan man practically laughed at the notion – until he tried it. The next day he was the first one back for more mud, which is harvested from an area near Albuquerque.
“It’s probably the most relaxing place I’ve ever been,” added Larry Fujimoto of Pinetop, Ariz., who averages 4-5 trips a year. “It’s the only thing that helps my arthritis.”
Once a legendary oasis where tribal warriors were said to lay down their arms and soak before going to battle, Ojo Caliente rated No. 1 in 2008 among readers of SpaFinder Magazine. Spa Magazine rated it among the Top-10 most affordable spa vacations.
Indeed, Ojo Caliente is the only hot springs in the world with a remarkable combination of four different types of sulphur-free mineral waters in ten different pools ranging from 80 to 109 degrees. The waters, which bubble more than 100,000 gallons to the surface every day, are rich in lithium, iron, soda and arsenic – all in trace amounts. They are believed to have ancient healing benefits, from relieving depression and arthritis, aiding digestion, promoting healthy skin tone, and boosting the blood and immune systems. Which may explain the origin of the term. SPA is actually the acronym for the Latin phrase Salud Per Aqua, which means “health through water.”
Arriving at this outpost, though, with its dusty pathways, adobe buildings and hand-built latias, one’s initial thoughts might be, “Where am I?” and “What am I doing here?” But as our group settled in, sampling fresh vegetable rolls and smoked cucumber filled with red peppers and goat cheese, we began to understand the experience.
While there is The Artesian Restaurant, complete with everything from mouth-watering blue corn and piñon nut pancakes (that can be ordered with bananas or blueberries, or both) to fresh salads and Mayan chicken tacos, and a full-service spa with every service imaginable – it was the pools that beckoned.
First was the arsenic pool, covered by an oversized three-sided tent. It was hot but relaxing, and started to draw the stress from our bodies. From there, it was a short walk to the iron pool, where the loose pebbles on the natural floor allowed the heat to bubble up through our feet. It would be a favorite over the next two days. After that we dipped into a soda pool, whose housing made it feel like a sauna but left the skin feeling smooth and silky and moist.
There also are secluded and private outdoor pools, for those perhaps yearning to bathe au natural – complete with kiva fireplaces and views in the night sky of the Big Dipper. Most recently, twelve cliff-side suites have been built, all with private, outdoor, two-person soaking tubs and fireplaces.
Louise Hutchinson, 59, of Corrales, N.M, has been coming to Ojo Caliente since the late 60s. “People used to come here, rest their feet and drop acid,” Hutchinson said of the hippie lifestyle. Now, they find a healthy way to get high on life.
Cohen clearly was, as she slathered mud across her body for the fifth time in two days. “I’m a mudaholic,” she quipped. Why not?
If You Go
You can fly into Albuquerque Sunport, rent a car and drive about two hours north to get to Ojo Caliente. See below for the many things to see and do while staying in the Land of Enchantment.
Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa
50 Los Banos Drive
Ojo Caliente, NM 87549
One hour from both Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico.
Pools: Open every day from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Rooms: $119 from historic hotel to $329 for Cliffside suites.
Extras: Private outdoor pools are $40 for 50 minutes, $120 for half-day,
Lithia Spring: The historic pump has been dispensing water since the 19th century. Lithium is believed to produce positive effects in mental balance, relieve depression and aid digestion.
Iron Spring: The warm, iron-rich water bubbles up from the natural pebble floor. Iron is considered beneficial to the blood and immune system, prevent fatigue and promote healthy skin tone.
Soda Spring: The rock walls in the enclosed soda “steam” pool create a soft echo to promote relaxation. Water from this spring is believed to relieve digestive problems and symptoms of arthritis.
Arsenic Spring: Arsenic water is believed to help relieve arthritis, stomach ulcers and a variety of skin conditions.
Mud Pool: As the special blend of clay dries, toxins are released from one’s pores, leaving a refreshed, clean feeling.
Black Mesa Golf Club
115 State Road 399
La Mesilla, New Mexico 87532
Black Mesa was voted Golf Digest’s top new affordable course in America in 2004, and features one of the top pros around in Tom Velarde. The entire course is built with a degree of visual intimidation, making for spectacular scenery while demanding good course management. The 7,307-yard layout snakes through craggy sandstone ridges, along arroyos and over bluffs, with plenty of blind shots to test one’s faith.
The par-5, No. 16 has been dubbed “Stairway to Seven,” with lush green fairways contrasting the stark hills and arroyo that surround it.
Daily fees range from $62-$67, but pay the extra $20 for the cart.
The charming capital city, situated an hour to the south, is renown for its distinctive adobe buildings, art and clothing boutiques, as well as some of the world’s best hotels and restaurants. Cultural treasures include the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, Santa Fe Opera and Canyon Road galleries. July features the long-running Chamber Music Festival as well as the New Mexico Jazz Festival on the Plaza. Around Labor Day, check out the Thirsty Ear Festival, a three-day roots-music fest that takes over Eaves Movie Ranch, filming location for many Westerns.
More laid-back than Santa Fe, it, too, has been a magnet for artists and art lovers for more than a century. The Plaza boasts more than 40 galleries, boutiques and several restaurants.
Don’t miss: If coming from Santa Fe, stop at the legendary Sanctuario de Chimayo Church, where there is a well from which visitors can take a handful of dirt believed to be blessed with miracle qualities.
Puye Cliff Dwellings
Santa Clara Pueblo
On the Santa Clara Pueblo near Los Alamos northwest of Santa Fe, these “winter” homes were carved out of a 200-foot high cliff ridge, and extended for more than a mile along the south face. The ruins only recently reopened to the public.
What: There are two tours, one of the cliff dwellings, which involves a quick, moderate hike, or the Mesa Top Trail, which leads to the 740-room pueblo ruin where natives spent summers.
Don’t Miss: Petroglyphs can easily be spotted on the cliff walls from below.
Say what: Guide Porter Swentzel is a colorful character not afraid to use humor to transport visitors back in time when living in or atop the cliffs was a way of life for some 1,500 Native Americans.
Buffalo Thunder Resort, the state’s largest gaming complex (1.5 acres), includes a 395-room Hilton, 13,000 square feet of shops, 200 pieces of art by nationally renowned native artists, and a 36-hole golf course. Big Rock in nearby Español is much smaller, with 765 gaming machines and eight tables.
Lynn DeBruin is a freelance writer/photographer based in Denver and former sportswriter for the Rocky Mountain News. She is an 8 handicap.