People have gathered around the mineral springs at Ojo Caliente Spa and Resort for hundreds of years.
The springs that offer relaxation and pleasure are open daily year-round — Santa Feans like to reminisce about sitting in an outdoor hot pool with snowflakes gently falling around them, back when Ojo wasn’t as well-known — but summer is high season at the spa.
About 5,000 people visit each month during summer, says spa marketing director Wendi Gelfound.
The mineral springs that are about an hour’s drive north of Santa Fe have been a commercial operation for more than a century, but the reputation — and the resulting upgrades — really took place in the late 20th century and early years of the 21st.
Ancient pueblo people knew about the springs, which flow in four types — more than 100,000 gallons daily of hot water with concentrations of lithium, iron, soda and arsenic.
The archaeologists Adolph Bandelier and Edgar Hewitt showed that there was a busy residential center around the springs in the 15th century. Ancient people believed to be the ancestors of today’s Tewa-speaking pueblo people built large pueblos and terraced gardens overlooking the mineral springs. They called this place Posi, or Posiuinge, the “village at the place of the green bubbling hot springs.”
Spanish explorers and settlers happened upon it in the 1500s. One explorer reported that the chemicals in the water were so powerful that the native people believed they were a gift from the gods. The explorer named the place Ojo Caliente — hot springs.
In 1807, the American explorer Zebulon Pike was marched past the area to Santa Fe; he was under arrest for entering Mexican territory without permission. He spotted the hot springs and noted that they were a great natural curiosity.
The Joseph family, which had migrated to Taos from Missouri, had a son named Antonio, born in Taos in 1846. Antonio Joseph grew up to be a power in New Mexico’s Territorial political and mercantile circles. He was educated by Archbishop Lamy in Santa Fe and at colleges in St. Louis.
In 1868, he moved to Ojo Caliente and opened Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, reportedly the first natural health spa in the country. He also provided overnight lodging, a post office and a general store, the ledgers of which show that Kit Carson often stopped by to purchase supplies for his wanderings around northern New Mexico.
During the 143 years since Joseph opened his spa, the fortunes of the resort have, well, ebbed and flowed.
It bubbled along as a littleknown but much-loved rustic place for the first 100 years or so, enduring economic upswings and downturns. In the latter years of the 20th century, entrepreneurs began upgrading the buildings and the mineral springs themselves, a process that survived a neardisastrous fire at the turn of the century.
The past decade has seen quite a few enhancements and improvements.
Gone are the circa-1930s South Cottages, replaced with 11 new Plaza Cottages completed in 2008. Adjacent to the Plaza Suites, these cottages overlook a central plaza and each has New Mexico-style furnishings and a kitchenette.
The North Cottages had been refurbished by 2006 with plaster and tile showers, hardwood floors and eclectic furnishings and finishes.
The original old hotel and the round adobe barn have been restored. The Artesian Restaurant, wine bar and lounge are in the old hotel.
A spa lounge and four new treatment rooms are in the historic bathhouse, and the owners have mapped more than 12 miles of single-track mountain biking trails on the mesa top behind the resort, including a two-mile Bosque Loop that bridges the Rio Ojo Caliente and more than 1,100 acres of river landscape.
Perhaps the most important enhancements to the spa are the ones that can’t be seen: They include a new filtration system that uses ozone and UV light to maintain the natural integrity of the waters without adding chlorine or other chemicals and an in-house wastewater treatment plant that recharges the local aquifer with high-quality treated water.
Ojo Caliente Spa isn’t just a place to soak in warm water.
A range of auxiliary treatments is available, from a variety of massages and facials to body wraps, all of them augmented by the chance to return posttreatment to the pools.
What is most popular seems to vary with the visitors, Gelfound says. “Last week we had a lot of people wanting the More Mud Wrap,” she says. “As for massage, that seems to go back and forth between the deep-tissue massage and the hot stone massage.”
There are yoga classes of different levels of difficulty. The resort is non-smoking and called a “whisper zone”; that is, guests are encouraged not to speak above a whisper while in the pools or spa. Alcohol consumption is discouraged — it really doesn’t mix with hot water and high altitudes.
Ojo Caliente Spa is a grown-up place, with children under age 14 required to have an over-18 escort, and smaller children not really encouraged. Adult or not, clothing is optional only in the private, reserved pools. Otherwise, you’ll be expected to wear a bathing suit.
For information and directions, call 800-222-9162 or go to ojospa.com.