Soak of Ages

Ojo Caliente spa celebrates its 145th anniversary by honoring its past and building a sustainable future.

My daughter and I ascended the winding, rock-strewn path that leads from the Ojo Caliente spa grounds to the Posi-Ouinge ruins, our bodies freshly bathed by three different mineral waters, traces of mud still on our faces, mica from the nearby mine glistening on our arms, courtesy of the spa’s body cream sampled in the gift shop. We were about to see a dramatic display of pottery shards, their colors and striped patterns still vibrant after more than 800 years, and to get a concentrated hit of history.

That trail is not just a way to get from point A to point B—it also symbolizes the unbroken channel of connection to the past, and to the sacred, embodied by Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa.

For centuries, indigenous people of various tribes gathered peacefully to soak, rest, and trade in this neutral territory, even in times of war. According to archaeologist Merrill Dicks, of the Bureau of Land Management’s Taos office, the presence of stray artifacts is evidence of occupation prior to the 1300s, when the ancestors of modern Tewa people began to live on the Posi-Ouinge land. They lived there until the 1500s in a community of hundreds of people; its structures contained up to 3,000 rooms. Tewa oral history tells of an epidemic that caused the community to relocate to the surrounding areas, including Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. Those adobe structures have melted back into the earth; the pottery shards and the hot springs below remain.

This year marks the 145th anniversary of Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa, based on the date, 1868, that entrepreneur and Territorial Representative Antonio Joseph built the first bathhouse. And the spa, after 11 years of renovation and evolution, has a lot to celebrate.

In the last decade, Ojo Caliente has been transformed. The Scott family, fifth-generation New Mexicans, bought the property in 2000 and began their dramatic renovations in 2005. “My family’s been coming to Ojo for a number of years, and we purchased the property because we felt that it was being done a disservice, and that it wasn’t being honored at the level that it should be,” says Andy Scott, General Manager. “We see our role as stewards, making the needed improvements and putting our effort and intention toward preserving its unique character and essence.”

At first, the Scotts focused on fixing all that was in disrepair—plumbing, electrical, and other infrastructure. Enhancements came next: three spacious, private outdoor pools, complete with fragrant piñon-burning kiva fireplaces; high-end lodging suites that face the striking, round Kiva Pool. All of these improvements were guided by eco-conscious principles.

Beauty and highly skilled craftsmanship are evident in the landscaping, the architecture, the interior design, and the food served in the on-site Artesian Restaurant—and being in the presence of those qualities is almost as satisfying as soaking in the hot springs.

Ojo Caliente is the only hot springs in the world that issues four non-sulfur, therapeutic mineral waters: arsenic (for arthritis, ulcers, skin conditions); iron (for blood, immune system); lithia (for depression and digestion); and soda (digestion).

Fifteen miles of singletrack mountain-biking trails have been added, and the spa has partnered with the Bureau of Land Management to actively maintain and preserve the hiking trails that lead to the Posi-Ouinge Ruins, the Mica Mines, and other routes. The property offers a grand total of 1,100 acres for hiking, biking, and bird-watching.

The lodging menu is far from one-size-fits-all, a reflection of the resort’s mission to keep things accessible. “It’s been a gathering place for diverse groups of people for thousands of years,” says Scott. “It’s an important legacy. We chose not to turn it into an exclusive resort and spa.” The most expensive options (the Cliffside, Pueblo, and Plaza Suites) are tastefully, lavishly outfitted, with private patios. Each Cliffside Suite has a private outdoor hot-springs tub and hugs the undulating sandstone cliffs. At almost a third of the suites’ price, the stately Historic Hotel rooms, which don’t have showers, suit budget-minded guests who are fine with bathing in nearby locker rooms. Other options include an RV park and campgrounds, cottages, and private homes, often rented out by groups.

On a summer Tuesday afternoon, the parking lot was full of cars, and a variety of people—from teenagers, to grandmothers, locals to visitors, day guests to overnight vacationers—congregated at different mineral-rich hot-springs pools, as well as the popular Mud Pool, availing themselves of head-to-toe mud masks that dried in the hot sun and were washed off under outdoor showerheads.

Slipping into the gray-tinged waters of the Iron Pool, my feet met with the happy surprise of a natural pebble floor that released a mini reflexology treatment with every step. To my right was the enclosed, grotto-like, stone-walled Soda Pool. Beyond that was the Mud Pool area, where people sprawled on lounge chairs, their brown-clay–smeared limbs drying to a pale gray. Across the way, a large pool’s expanse dominated the view.

It admits children under 13 and, not incidentally, contains chlorine. One of two Arsenic Pools is tucked beside it, small and cozy, stocked with congenial, chatty soakers. Ample red rope hammocks dotted the property, shaded by ramadas.

Eleven years ago, I brought my daughter, then just a toddler, to Ojo Caliente, as part of my 30th birthday celebration. Just two months earlier we’d landed in New Mexico, after feeling powerfully compelled to relocate here during a dreamy vacation stay.

It was our first time at Ojo. We went on the recommendation of local friends who had grown up in Santa Fe. The accommodations were rustic and worn around the edges, rather like an earnest country-road motel. The pools were murky, and algae flourished.

A decade later, my daughter is almost as tall as I am, endearingly coltish, and I no longer have to hike with her hoisted onto my back, safe from prickly pear and cholla. Ojo, too, has metamorphosed dramatically. Remembering how small she was and how green I was on our first visit, and where we are now, released a poignant but pleasant sensation of time passing in a place with such a long history. Countless generations of parents and children have likely felt a similar emotion here.

As an acknowledgment of the land’s long history as a sacred place of the area’s indigenous people, the resort and spa makes the private hot tubs and Milagro Wrap treatments available free of charge to elders of the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos (Nambé, Ohkay Owingeh, Picuris, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Taos, Tesuque). Last year, elders availed themselves of those services to the tune of over $20,000 in value.

Vincent Aguilar and Mary Coriz, of Santo Domingo Pueblo, sell their handmade jewelry on the property most days of the week. “The water is still the same,” Aguilar says. “That’s why I’m here, that’s why my mother was here before me. All this”—he beckons to the new buildings around us—“is not why I’m here. I’m here because of the water.” We discover, during the course of chatting, that my and one of their daughters share an upcoming birthday, which is also Santo Domingo’s Feast Day. Aguilar hands my daughter a pair of delicate handmade amber earrings: “A blessing, my gift to you.”

Just beyond Vincent and Mary’s display, the original bathhouse now contains the Historic Hotel’s rooms on the right, with the clubby, cozy, elegantly casual wine bar and Artesian Restaurant. People in sophisticated dress, who come just for the food, sit near damp-haired folks in the buff-colored robes issued to day visitors and overnight guests. The gustatory offerings really are good enough to lure people who have no intention of taking the waters, and the service is unobtrusively attentive. We enjoyed green-chile fries (strips of green chile dipped in potato flour, then fried); beef medallions stuffed with goat cheese and topped with a savory mushroom sauce; classic chicken enchiladas; and, for dessert, dulcet cinnamon crème brûlée and coconut mango tres leches cake.

After a day filled with soaking, feasting, and an exquisitely thorough Ancient Echoes massage—it focuses on the head, upper body, and feet—we fell gratefully to sleep on high-thread-count sheets, under Pendleton blankets. In the morning, I announced that we were going on another hike—to the Mica Mines, only two miles away.

The old forest-road trail was wide and easy to follow. We’d left without eating breakfast, so when we were three-quarters of the way there, there was a lot of grumbling coming from my daughter and guilt engulfing me. I regretted my ambitious quest. And then we turned a corner. Everything—the road, the grassy, rocky slopes of foothill—glittered with mica dust, mica flakes, mica chunks. It was like stumbling into an enchanted land. Both of us fell to our knees, touching the nearest and most extraordinary examples, but always seeing a more dramatic one just a few feet away. We were no longer hungry, or thirsty, or tired. We were restored, and thrilled, and dazzled. Ojo will do that to you.

NEED TO KNOW

Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa Open 365 days a year. 50 Los Baños Dr., Ojo Caliente; (800) 222-9162, (505) 583-2233; ojospa.com