How one New Mexico hot spot pays homage to its ancestral roots

Ojo Caliente

One of the oldest natural wellness resort destinations in the country, Northern New Mexico’s Ojo Caliente is a secluded oasis comprised of historic adobe buildings housing inn rooms, spa facilities and eateries; 100,000 gallons worth of mineral hot springs for soaking; and 1,100 surrounding acres of undisturbed Southwestern forestland.

Situated halfway between Santa Fe and Taos in the shadows of a stunning desert mesa, Ojo Caliente (which, in Spanish, translates roughly to “hot springs” via “warm eye”) has attracted outdoor adventurers, curious travelers and seekers of holistic healing since its inception as a health spa back in 1868. But the Native Americans who originally inhabited the property considered Ojo Caliente a sacred gathering and healing place for hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years before that. Pueblo ruins rest just above the cliffside resort (legend has it that a disease epidemic caused the Natives to migrate further north in the mid-1500s), and shards of ancient tribal pottery are still scattered throughout the grounds.

According to oral history, the original inhabitants, members of the Tewa tribe, believed that the chemicals contained in the water were so powerfully healing that they had to have been made that way by the gods.

Honoring its rich Native American legacy is central to Ojo Caliente’s mission, according to spa director Jeannine Dolan. “We try to promote cultural awareness and observe our roots as an authentic healing center,” she says.

And that’s evident in everything from the guided guest hikes through the ruins and the resort’s decorative displays of Native American artwork, to the spa and restaurant menus (both embrace indigenous ingredients such as blue corn and prickly pear) to Ojo’s logo—a spiral that was used by the Natives as a symbol for the mineral springs and also as a focal point for producing trancelike meditation during healing ceremonies.

“I really think the waters help keep them lively and engaged with their history. We see folks who are still pretty nimble at 90 years old.”

But the tribute doesn’t end there. On many days, spa guests and soakers are privy to the arrival of a van load of Native American senior citizens, come to spend the day soaking and being treated to an ancient wrap ritual—all for free, thanks to Ojo’s Eight Northern Pueblos program. The initiative is named for the eight participating pueblos, or local reservation municipalities, each of which houses descendants of the many Indian villages that originally lined Ojo Caliente’s valley.

“[Most elders] have been soaking here for generations. To continue that legacy, we welcome them 50 weeks out of the year to the springs and to receive Milagro Wraps, our signature offering, which are based on a Native American sweat purification ritual,” Dolan says. “We see lots of returning faces. This place is important to them for health and spiritual reasons.”

Although the elders are encouraged to enjoy any of the geothermal springs (there’s a lithia-rich pool that’s believed to aid depression and digestion; an immune system–boosting, iron-based spring; a rock-enclosed soda spring said to provide a sense of calm; and the arsenic spring, foreboding in name but strongly recommended for relief of arthritis and ulcers), Dolan says most opt for the Ojo Private Ritual Herbal Bath, which takes place in sequestered stations in the property’s historic bathhouse. There, elders can don chamomile eye pads and soak au natural in arsenic waters spiked with wild native herbs. “It’s like floating in a vat of Sleepytime Tea,” Dolan says.

Afterward, most opt to head down the hall to a group chamber room for the Milagro Wrap, where they’re enveloped in a light cotton blanket, followed by a heavier wool blanket, and left to relax or nap in a detoxifying cocoon. (Soaking, which increases core body temperature, is recommended first for maximum body purification benefits.) Many elders then enjoy picnics in Ojo’s rock garden and spend the afternoon relaxing.

No one at Ojo is sure when the program began, but most can’t recall a time when elders weren’t welcome for complimentary outings. “Back when I started they’d just show up and we’d scramble to accommodate them,” Dolan says. Today, it’s a much more organized operation.

In 2008, Laurie Moreau was hired as Ojo’s group coordinator and assumed the role of pueblo liaison, reaching out to the various reservation site coordinators to plan regular elder outings. That’s when the initiative took on its official title of Eight Northern Pueblos.

“With planned outings, we know we’ll have enough attendants on hand and that the elders will be accompanied by their assistants and caretakers to help them get in and out of the tubs comfortably,” Moreau explains. “We structured it for safety reasons.”

“They’ve seen their culture become misappropriated and misrepresented and so are wary, but we do know there’s a spiritual aspect and that this environment really suits that.”

Dolan and some veteran spa attendants say visiting elders often share that their parents and grandparents used to love coming to Ojo. “I really think the waters help keep them lively and engaged with their history,” Dolan says. “We see folks who are still pretty nimble at 90 years old. It just feels good to see them coming and going.” She adds that while the elders communicate to spa staff in English, they tend to speak their own language amongst themselves and remain private about their spiritual reasons for visiting.

“They’re not going to discuss that aspect with us and we respect that,” Moreau says. “I think they’ve seen their culture become misappropriated and misrepresented and so are wary, but we do know there’s a spiritual aspect and that this environment really suits that.”

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