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The Spa Solution : Relief for the stressed-out, from low-cost to luxury : Mexico: Calming mineral springs at soothing prices

July 14, 1991|SUE CHASTAIN | Chastain is a features writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — A plume of dust hung over the taxi as it skidded to a halt. Muttering, the driver climbed out. Now what, I wondered.

A heavy iron gate inexplicably barred the way into the Rancho Rio Caliente spa that I'd just spent an hour bumping over rutted mountain roads trying to get to.

It looked possible to squeeze around the gate on foot. But as I stumbled out, suitcase in hand, the driver shook his head. "Caliente," he said, pointing at something past the roadblock.

A river--shallow, but too wide to leap--bubbled and foamed over the dirt path. Wisps of steam curled from its surface.

Of course. Rio Caliente--hot river. Water that gushed from its source, a volcanic spring, at 157 degrees Fahrenheit. A river that gave this out-of-the-way spa, in an ancient valley 20 miles northwest of Guadalajara, not only its name but its magical qualities as a healing place.

Moments later, wobbling in inadequate sandals across a rickety footbridge, I wondered whether I'd gotten myself into more than just hot water with this oddball vacation idea.

I had never even been to a spa. Paying a fortune to be chided by some chirpy aerobics instructor half my age, while subsisting on rice cakes and mineral water, had never sounded appealing.

But this didn't sound like that kind of spa.

And my first glimpse of rancho life last December--half a dozen guests bobbing languidly at one end of a pool, while a dark-eyed donkey and four horses lapped thirstily from the other--showed I'd been right. There was about as much chance of running into Liz or Liza here as of meeting a waiter in a tuxedo.

Rancho Rio Caliente is isolated, unregimented, funky . . . and definitely not for everyone. If you demand Hilton-level comforts, you'd hate it. There's no room service, no telephone, no bar. It's a mean walk up the mountain to the rustic dining hall, and the nearest "town"--a collection of adobe huts and a ramshackle tienda (store) or two--is five miles over dirt roads.

"I know a girl who got here and left almost immediately," said Adriana Acauan-Tandler, 45, a librarian from Queens, N.Y. "At 5:30 she wanted to know where the margaritas were. It just wasn't what she wanted."

Don't come if all you want to do is shed 15 pounds. Nobody keeps track of what you eat, and a few find the vegetarian fare--served buffet-style--so enticing that they actually gain weight.

Nor is it for compulsive joggers--the steep slopes, strewn with chunks of obsidian and pumice, make even walking hazardous. And a slip into the river at the wrong spot can result in a nasty burn.

But if you're aching to retreat about half a century from the tensions of modern living--to soak in hot mineral waters, laze in a eucalyptus-scented steam room designed in the ancient Aztec manner, detoxify by slathering your body with the local mud, visit a primitive nunnery to see age-old techniques of natural healing at work--this just may be the spa that hits the spot.

And all at the price of a facial anywhere else: just $50 to $56 a day (single), $90 to $100 (double). That includes lodging, meals and most activities (massages and beauty treatments are extra)--a howling bargain by any standard.

Add the fact that it's within easy reach of other popular Mexican destinations--Guadalajara, the Pacific Coast resorts of Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan, the colonial city of Morelia--and the rancho becomes still more appealing.

Even the isolation can be viewed as a plus. Caroline Durston, a transplanted Englishwoman who has been owner-manager of Rancho Rio Caliente since 1970, hasn't put in a telephone only because no lines are available. "But a lot of people seem to like that," she noted. "Sometimes women get out of the taxi and say in loud voices, 'He can't get me here!' "

The rancho is so busy during high season--mid-December to mid-April--that guests often reserve a year in advance. But the 5,000-foot altitude guarantees moderate weather year-round, and some actually prefer the summer, with its cooling daily thunderstorms.

Opened in 1962 by a British vegetarian and osteopath as a clinic specializing in obscure health treatments, the spa nestles on 24 hilly acres adjoining a national forest. Its 48 spare-but-comfortable, red-roofed bungalows (accommodating 80 guests) are clustered among banana trees, bougainvillea and other subtropical plants.

It's the site--a protected canyon revered by the Huichol of a thousand years ago as a place with mystic, curative powers--that makes this spa more than just another health farm.

As pennants of steam rise from the river and blanket the rancho every morning (Durston said alarmed guests sometimes run for help, crying that the valley is afire), so do the waters of the Rio Caliente permeate every aspect of life here.

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