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[Image: Grand Solmar Land’s End Resort & Spa]

Mexico will forever hold a special place in my heart because it introduced me to the pleasures of the spa. I was a broke 20-year old on a girlfriend getaway to Ensenada in the country’s Baja California peninsula, a two-hour drive south of San Diego. Our budget beachfront hotel featured 50-minute palapa massages for $19. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and the experience hooked me for life… even if I’ve never again had it so good for so little. I’ve been exploring Mexico’s tantalizing variety of spas ever since, from the lavish Pacific resorts of Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta, to the Yucatán peninsula gems such as Merida and Tulum, to the numerous inland, colonial-era pueblos mágicos (magical towns) such as Comala and Tequila. My most recent foray took me to four destinations to experience the most authentic spa journey this incredible land has to offer.

Rancho La Puerta, Tecate

Tecate, Baja California, is home to Rancho La Puerta, founded in 1940 by wellness pioneers Edmond and Deborah Szekely. At the time it was meant to be a no-frills “health camp” based on the couple’s then-radical ideas regarding mindful, biogenic living. To this day it’s a must for wellness-focused spa fans, who come to immerse themselves in an all-inclusive holistic experience (provided by a doting staff of 400) and even find inspiration from Deborah herself, now 94 and a regular speaker at “the Ranch.” In addition to partaking in the resort’s 70-plus fitness classes, holistic therapies such as Watsu and Feldenkrais, and a comprehensive mindfulness program highlighted by reflective walks in a replica of the classic labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, guests are encouraged to bookend their visits with add-on spa treatments. On the recommendation of spa director Tere Ochoa, I received the new Xocolatl Skin Replenishment body treatment (90 min./$160). Xocolatl is Aztec for “bitter water” and the origin for the word for chocolate. Sure enough, I was given a clay bowl to mix my own body butter scrub from organic Mexican cacao, oatmeal and sea salt, plus avocado, vanilla and jojoba essential oils. My therapist used the scrub for my full-body exfoliation, which was followed by a chocolate, honey and yogurt mask, a cocoa-infused oil massage and a bite of organic chocolate to impart an appropriately sweet ending. “Our motto at Rancho La Puerta is ‘siempre mejor,’ which in Spanish means ‘always better,’” says Ochoa. “It has a double meaning because we’re always striving to do better for our guests—and we’re always inspiring our guests to better care for their personal well-being.”

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Sea Spa at Grand Solmar Land’s End Resort & Spa, Cabo San Lucas

At the southern end of Baja California lies the resort-filled corridor of Los Cabos. This region features dozens of world-class luxury spas that hug the scenic coastline, including Sea Spa at Land’s End, the new luxury facility at Grand Solmar Land’s End Resort & Spa in Cabo San Lucas. Built on the peninsula’s southernmost point, Sea Spa boasts four open-air cabanas with wraparound verandas, set high on stilts above the property’s private beach. “The cabanas offer pure luxury yet connect guests to the land and sea,” says spa coordinator Albino Bautista. “It’s like being on your own island.”

My spa service, the Embracing Life Experience (110 min./$297), began with hibiscus iced tea and cucumber gazpacho served on a cabana balcony, which I enjoyed while my masseuse Nataly provided a foot soak, bamboo scrub and reflexology treatment. I was then escorted to the adjacent treatment room—a fantasy “tree house” constructed of twig walls, wood-plank floors and a palm-frond roof—to receive my body massage. A sliding wall offered the choice of natural sunlight or filtered darkness, both allowing the soothing entrance of a warm breeze and the live soundtrack of ocean waves and seagulls. Although guests are encouraged to select one of five massage treatments, I asked Nataly to choose her favorite. She opted to apply a heated bamboo roller to soothingly knead my knots into submission. “Bamboo has good energy and can go deeper than the hands,” she explained. This bliss was followed by a gentle 30-minute facial. The pièce de résistance is Sea Spa’s policy of allowing guests to use their cabana as a private retreat for an additional 60 minutes. I clocked some sunbathing time on the veranda’s daybed and relished a cold beer and sea bass ceviche. Toward the end of my hour, an attendant gently woke me to serve peach crumble à la mode and a glass of dessert wine.

Grand Velas Riviera Maya, Riviera Maya

Many of Mexico’s resort and destination spas consistently rank among the most impressive in the world. Case in point: The Spa at Grand Velas Riviera Maya, located just south of Cancún. Opened in 2009, the $15 million showplace has become one of Mexico’s most lauded spas, having scooped “Best Luxury Resort Spa: The Americas” by the World Luxury Spa Awards in 2014, as well as other accolades.

Set in the Yucatán peninsula jungle, the property plays host to wild spider monkeys and coatis, often seen playing in the spa grounds’ trees and viewed from the windows of its showers and treatment rooms. The facilities complement their setting by including a 40,000-squarefoot Water Lounge that delivers a multiphase Hydrothermal Experience, enabling guests to experience water in every possible permutation from thermal bubble beds to an ice room. “The different water elements help our guests release their emotions and tensions,” says spa director Leticia Fernandez. “We try to offer ‘wow points’ throughout the spa.” Well-hydrated and warmed by a cup of Tea Forte Honey Yuzu, I was ready for the new Bacal Massage (50 min./$236), a unique native corn treatment (bacal is the Mayan word for “cob”) on the spa’s Flavors and Traditions of Mexico menu. “We incorporate a lot of Mayan heritage into our spa elements,” explained Fernandez. “We start treatments with the welcome ritual, based on the Mayan four elements. The therapist then says a Mayan prayer to ask permission to the gods to work with the guest’s energy.” My welcome ritual involved a dry buckwheat foot massage, hand cleansing, hot rocks, and the burning of copal tree resin incense to purify the air. Therapist Maria Cora then used a hand mill to grind dried corn into a gritty powder before mixing it with Mayan Melipona bee honey and copal oil to create a body scrub enriched with anti-inflammatory sesquiterpenes.

Post-exfoliation, I soaked in a soothing bath while six ears of corn were steamed in preparation for my essential oil table massage. The warm cobs were covered in copal oil, then used as tools to work on trigger points. The sensation was unique, the experience uplifting.

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Hacienda El Carmen, Ahualulco de Mercado

The Mexican state of Jalisco is the birthplace of mariachi bands, charrería horsemanship and tequila production. Hacienda culture is also alive and well in the rural communities near Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city. It’s within this rustic, architecturally colorful, colonial setting that the historic Hacienda El Carmen is located.

Set on the edge of a small village adjacent to fields, the Hacienda cultivates crops as it has done for four centuries, but today it also serves as a tranquil hotel and spa retreat that provides economical and traditional spa experiences to those seeking an authentic healing experience. In this only-in-Mexico spirit, I chose the Temazcalli Ritual (3 hrs./$25), a traditional Mexican American group purification ceremony conducted in a temazcal or adobe sweat lodge.

Hacienda’s temazcal is built inside the ruins of an 18th-century aqueduct, and its rituals are led by Juan Lopez, the property’s resident Huicol Indian shaman. Lopez heats volcanic rocks in an outdoor fire pit to symbolically welcome the four classical elements—fire, earth, water and wind—then moves them into the center of the temazcal. My group of eight guests entered through a low doorway, signifying a return to the womb (specifically that of one of the Aztec mother goddesses, curers of physical and spiritual ills). Seated on a floor mat surrounding Lopez, we were led through a multi-sensory “bath” of heat, steam, vapors, chants, feathers and herbs. Eucalyptus and pirul branches were used to “brush away” bad spirits.

“Ever since ancient times, this powerful, curative ceremony has been performed to purify the body and soul, and free the mind,” says Monica Baeza, CEO of Hacienda El Carmen. And indeed, although the dry, detoxifying heat was intense and profusely sweatproducing, the low light and Huicol chanting made the process mesmerizingly serene and surprisingly emotional.

– by Vicki Arkoff

  • Rancho La Puerta

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