OJO CALIENTE, N.M. —When gray winter skies linger for weeks, I daydream about Ojo Caliente, N.M.
Ojo, as the locals call it, is a little town between Santa Fe and Taos that seems to exist solely to provide a ZIP code for the natural hot springs of the same name.
The first time a friend told me about Ojo, she said, "Go north from Santa Fe to Espanola and take a left." Those directions aren't far off: The town is about an hour and 15 minutes from Santa Fe — and worth every minute of the commute.
Luxurious without pretension, Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa (800-222-9162; ojoca lientesprings.com) has deep roots in the past but has been updated for spa lovers. And everyone who works there seems happy, maybe because they can use the spa for free.
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No one knows exactly how long the springs have been used, but the ruins of a pueblo remain on the cliff above the spa. You can hike up, see the village's footprint and view the petroglyphs that inspired Ojo's concentric-circles logo.
Archaeologists have determined that the Posi pueblo was last active in the 15th century, said Laurie Moreau, executive assistant at the resort. The Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, and though they didn't find their elusive Fountain of Youth, they certainly found the springs. They gave Ojo its name, which means "hot eye."
In 1868, merchant Antonio Joseph, a New Mexico territorial representative, opened the first spa at the mineral springs (said to be the first natural spa in the country), as well as lodging and a general store. An1880 photo of the original mercantile establishment, filled with men surrounding a stove and others in long coats who appear to be packing heat, hangs at the spa. Store ledgers show that explorer and fur trapper Kit Carson bought supplies there.
We purchased a package deal — the High Desert Getaway for Two — in late December for $219. It included a 50-minute massage followed by 50 minutes in a private pool. A large towel is provided. For $15, you get a locker, a plush robe and extra towels. The private waters are open to the sky and surrounded on three sides by adobe walls, with the fourth wall being a portion of the ancient cliffs.
To ensure that we were as comfortable out of the water as when immersed, a lovely blaze was lit in the adjacent kiva fireplace, a common sight in the Southwest with its distinctive arched fire door.
Purchasing a spa treatment gained us unlimited access to communal areas, including iron, soda and mud pools (the mud pools were closed for the winter, but we have seen people slathered in mud on previous visits).
A new entrance building, completed in 2008, enhances the experience; the former entrance was a small shack. Locker rooms have been enlarged and updated. My only wish was for some complimentary toiletries in the locker area.
Pampered and relaxed, we returned to Santa Fe the same evening. But if spagoers prefer to stay the night, there are hotel rooms (built in1916 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and lovely cliffside suites, with rates ranging from $119 at the hotel to $329 for a suite.
The new suites and cottages, built within the last10 years, are designed around a small plaza in homage to the nearby pueblos. Cliffside rooms have private tubs.
If you yearn for a respite from the 100-degree waters, you can always jump into what my masseuse called the "Ojo cold plunge." Yep, it was chilly — 84 degrees is frigid around those parts.