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Soothed Without Getting Soaked

Think a pampering holiday at a spa is beyond your budget? Try going south of the border.


CUERNAVACA, Mexico — Does a week at a spa--say, Canyon Ranch or the Golden Door--sound good to you?

That's a rhetorical question. Who wouldn't want to get trimmed, toned, polished, pampered, deeply rested and generally improved at either of these high-end spas? But a seven-day program at Canyon Ranch in Arizona costs $3,830; it's $5,250 at the Golden Door outside San Diego. And even less sumptuous health and fitness resorts can set you back big time--about $2,800 for a week at moderately priced U.S. spas, and $1,700 at budget places (according to Spa-finders, a New York-based booking agency).

So maybe the question is, can you afford a week at a spa in any category?

Here's another question: How do you feel about Mexico, particularly the mountainous region around easygoing Cuernavaca, 50 miles south of the Mexican capital, where thermal springs gush and active volcanoes pump clouds of vapor into the sky? In this geological hot spot, favored by Moctezuma I, Hernan Cortes and stressed modern Mexicans, spas abound, from luxurious health and fitness retreats like Mision del Sol, to moderately priced resorts with spa facilities like the Hotel Hacienda Cocoyoc, to rock-bottom budget spas like the one in Ixtapan de la Sal. In all three price categories, rates are much lower than in the U.S. (None of the three was damaged in the earthquake that struck Mexico on Sept. 30.)

For instance, the seven-day Venus Reductive package at top-of-the-line Mision del Sol, a walled adobe compound on the outskirts of Cuernavaca, costs $1,798, which covers accommodations, meals, tax, exercise classes and 13 treatments. The seven-day Revitalizing Week at Hotel Hacienda Cocoyoc, in a historic sugar plantation 20 miles east of town, goes for $995. This includes accommodations, meals, 15 spa treatments, airport transfers and a sightseeing tour; it doesn't include a fitness program, which is why I put Cocoyoc in the moderate category. And at the old Hotel Spa Ixtapan de la Sal, west of Cuernavaca, the seven-day Spa Classic package could take your breath away: accommodations, meals, exercise classes, three golf or tennis clinics, horseback riding, six massages, six facials, a luffa scrub and mud treatment, four hair and nail treatments, a manicure/pedicure and one hairstyling for $1,075. (All rates above are per person based on double occupancy.)

Mike Nelson, who runs an L.A.-based Mexican spa booking service and is the author of "Hot Springs and Spas of Mexico" (Hidden Books, $12.95), says that fitness takes a back seat to beauty treatments in Mexico, with exercise programs relatively mild or nonexistent. On the other hand, facials, massages, body wraps and the like are so plentiful that guests feel as if they've died and gone to spa heaven. Even if you find a U.S. spa package for roughly the same price, you won't get as many services. For this reason, Nelson says, "Packages are the way to go, not a la carte treatments." Still, it is worth noting that spa treatments cost $20 to $60 a la carte in most Mexican spas, as compared to $50 to $150 in the U.S.

Rates and features like these were all the inducement I needed to fly south last month, though I could only spend two nights each at the Mision del Sol, Hotel Hacienda Cocoyoc and Ixtapan de la Sal. Still, that was enough to find out what you get for the price, and how Mexican spas compare to their U.S. counterparts.

Mision del Sol

Built three years ago, Mision del Sol has become the spa destination of choice for well-to-do Mexicans. As yet, few Americans have discovered it.

Nor is it likely that the average tourist would chance upon it, because the resort is in a residential neighborhood about a 10-minute drive outside town on a deeply rutted road that doesn't bode well for a spa experience. But once you enter the front gate and a staff member whisks you to the main building in a golf cart, the charm of the spa is immediately apparent, as is its state-of-the art, ecologically correct New Age philosophy.

The service strikes you first--it's very good, with many English-speakers on staff. Then you notice the grounds. Gravel paths wind through seven acres of orange groves and beds of flowers, herbs, blowzy reed and bamboo. Created by a Japanese landscape artist who employed the Chinese feng shui design system that aims to achieve balance and harmony, the gardens have an unstudied, slightly wild appearance and a culturally hybrid air, with Mexican planters and pots, a long central fountain that wouldn't seem out of place in an Italian villa and a meditation pavilion in a minimalist Asian style.

A walking path encircles the resort, enclosing tennis courts, a small fitness center, the restaurant, a blue-tiled swimming pool and a graceful spa with a large hot tub surrounded by an open colonnade.

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