After surviving a winter for the record books, I needed to un-wind, de-stress, and re-charge my batteries. I'd been to the Caribbean before and while you can't beat its sandy beaches and crystal clear waters for clearing away the last remains of cold weather woe, I was looking for something different. And boy, did I find it... about twenty miles outside of Guadalajara, Mexico in a most unusual spa called Rio Caliente.
You probably won't find Rio Caliente in the guidebooks. Frankly, I didn't find it at all. My girlfriend, Susan, first mentioned it after an offbeat masseuse friend of hers raved about the place. She had loved its unassuming attitude ... a modest place for folks who sometimes wanted to be left alone as much as they wanted to be pampered. We called Rio Caliente's booking agent in California for a brochure. (The spa itself has no telephones... our first sign of what lay ahead.) The price, $670 dollars each, for a ten-day stay which included three vegetarian meals a day, plus spa activities seemed too good to be true. When we factored in that we could fly to Guadalajara for free on our Continental frequent flyer miles, Rio Caliente it was.
We flew out of Newark and picked up a connection in Houston. From Houston we flew to Guadalajara. The entire journey took six hours including a half-hour layover in Houston.
Getting off the plane in Guadalajara, it was easy to forget the winter we had just left behind. The temperature was a spring-like 78 degrees and flowers were in bloom everywhere. A taxi ride to Rio Caliente would set us back 90 pesos each. We calculated quickly and figured the 20-mile trip would cost us about 24 dollars. We threw our bags in the trunk and headed towards our destination.
This was my first visit to Mexico. Susan had been here once before, but only to the Yucatan region. As our taxi turned off the main highway and continued up a small and very bumpy dirt road, we felt that we were in the Mexico we had only seen in movies. Stopping frequently to make way for livestock and caballeros on horses, our driver seemed to know everyone and waved frequently. However, while this countryside possessed a certain rugged beauty, it wasn't quite like the lush green pine forests we had seen in the brochure. As we moved deeper and deeper into the rural and poor outskirts of Guadalajara, Susan and I stared silently out the window, each wondering what we had gotten ourselves into!
Suddenly, we saw Rio Caliente up ahead! A large gate swung open and we drove in. It seemed we were transported into a magical paradise! Everything seemed lush and green, with beautiful, colorful flowers dotting the grounds. The road leading to the office is cobbled and lined with a large garden of vegetables on one side, (which are served at meal times) and the hot river, (Rio Caliente) running under a small bridge. We paid the driver and went into the office to register.
We had sent them a five hundred dollar deposit. The balance of the bill would be due when we left. The office manager, a very friendly Mexican man who spoke excellent english, gave us the keys to our cottage. He told us when supper would be served. He then smiled at us as if the rest was up to us. We signed up for massages and mudwraps. Both which cost us extra but were very inexpensive.
We walked up a long winding path towards our cottage and immediately felt the difference of the 1600 foot sea level we were now at. We passed people coming and going, all who seemed to be in different stages of relaxation. We found our cottage and entered. Inside, we found a working fireplace, two comfortable beds, a clean bathroom, and two glass pitchers filled with the lithium base water, which the spa is famous for. We threw our bags in the corner, and had a glass of the magical brew. It tasted clean and rich. Almost sweet in a good way. It had an immediate relaxing effect. We did a quick unpack and found our bathing suits. We were going to scout out the place to see what we had gotten ourselves into.
Our cottage was at the highest part of the spa. We followed a long, winding path down to the pool area. The brochure had given us a pretty good run down on the place but to see it for the first time is something else. Rio Caliente is situated on a 36 acre terrace in a national pine forest. Rio Caliente, which means "hot river", sits on a ancient Indian healing ground. The entire area rests on a deep underground volcanic lake which supplies numerous springs and waterfalls along three sides of the spa. The water rises out of the ground at temperatures as high as 157 degrees. The waters are then purified and fed into the four pools, steam room, and the bedrooms of the spa. The mineral content of the water is particularly beneficial. The combination of salts and minerals, including lithium is wonderful to soak in, and even more soothing to drink when cooled. The temperature of the pools are usually around 100 degrees; after cooling down for a day or two. The pools are completely drained, cleaned, and refilled every seven days.
On our walk down to the pool, horses came up to us to see if we had any food. They were quite tame, and very beautiful. They are used for horseback rides into the surrounding mountains. The place was magical! Everywhere we looked exotic flowers and plants grew. There were about 70 people staying at the spa when we were there. As the days progressed we were amazed by the variety of people: A couple from the Arctic Circle were there to warm their bodies. A group called Zero Balancing were there doing some type of deep massage on each other. (All I know about them was that they kept to themselves and laughed a lot.) A wonderful older woman by the name of Anne came one day with her male friend who had to be ninety. She told me she had been a set designer for Balanchine, had lived in Spain, and had been very close friends with the poet Robert Graves. She winked at me when she said very close. She was the best story teller I had heard in a long time.
Susan and I found two chairs around the pool and ventured into the thermal waters. We slowly lowered our winter bodies into the hot water up to our necks. In the other pool a water aerobics class was taking place. They were doing some kind of stretching while they sang, "Somewhere over the rainbow." All around us beautiful mountains rose. The sun was hot, but with no humidity, it was very pleasant. Thirty miles away a volcano loomed. The city of Tequila was situated at its base. This is where most of the tequila in Mexico is made. Susan and I smiled at each other and laughed. It was only day one of a ten day vacation. Our initial impression of the place was that it was funky, very low-tech, and a great place to relax.
Meals were fantastic. They were mostly grains, fruits, soups, and vegetables. They were all delicious, and I managed to lose a few pounds even though I ate a great deal each meal. The dining room was where all the guests came together. It was a gathering place to talk about how you were feeling, how your massage went, or what you bought on your trip to Guadalajara. This is where you met people from all parts of the world. There seemed to be more women then men when we were there. There were couples like Susan and I. But mostly, there seemed to be single or married woman in their thirties and forties. They were all professional, and were getting away from their jobs or families for a while to detox, de-stress, and just enjoy the exotic surroundings.
After the first few days, one got a great sense of community about the place. Even though people were constantly coming and going from the spa, there always seems to be a general feeling of friendship and well being among the guests. Some guests were staying there as long as a month. And many of them had been to the spa two or three times before.
By the forth day, Susan and I had started to mellow considerably. (The first three days we were de-toxing, and our systems were trying to align themselves to the healthy food and change in climate.) We were both taking hikes into the surrounding mountains each morning. Susan was doing the before-breakfast hike. This hike lasted about an hour and a half, and was a great way to start the day. I was doing another hike after breakfast. This hike climbed a few thousand feet up and was more advanced, taking about four hours to complete. My hike was lead by an ex-army ranger/Episcopalian Priest by the name of Lou. He was a man in his sixties who had moved to Mexico right after the assassination of John Kennedy. He was a wonderful story teller who had the ability to make you feel good about yourself. The hikes themselves were spectacular and at times quite hard. There were paths all through the surrounding mountains. One had to keep their concentration while walking these paths. The sheer drops off of the sides of these paths were a thousand feet down at times. Each morning we would take a different route, always seeing something wonderful and mysterious. One morning, we hiked to the mouth of the hot river, which steams out of the earth. Another time, we hiked to a very deep hole where Indian women, hundreds of years ago, sacrificed the most worthless man from the tribe into. I didn't get too close to the edge.
One night, the Academy Awards were on. (There is only one TV in the whole place.) A group of us made popcorn and watched the show. Another night, a young actress from Los Angeles, and Anne, the older woman who told great stories, did a Spring dance in honor of the Earth Mother and the first day of Spring. Thirty of us stood around a blazing fire while poems were read, and then we all danced like pagans. At the same time a major comet was moving across the sky. I had brought my binoculars and we could see the comet quite clearly in the bright Mexican sky. Another evening, a woman who worked as a nurse in a small village above the Arctic Circle, gave a talk on the area. The spa has its own energy, and moves to it.
One of the nicest things about the spa was that you could do as much as you wanted when it came to activities...or do nothing but sit around the pool and bake. There are a whole host of therapies from mudwraps to Chinese acupuncture to partake in, if you so wish. I had a wonderful massage that lasted an hour and cost me twenty-five dollars in American money. I also had a mudwrap which cost seven dollars and was simply incredible.
Susan and I took two trips to Guadalajara when we were there. The peso was incredibly low against the dollar and Guadalajara is a beautiful city. The historical section of town is stunning, with its museums and cathedral. We did some shopping and were delighted with the bargains. One thing we noticed was that there were not a lot of tourists in Guadalajara. People either go to Mexico City, or the resorts on the coast. Guadalajara is a well kept secret.
Towards the end of our vacation we both found that we had reached a deep level of relaxation. Almost as if sinking into a state of restful meditation. Between the food, hikes, thermal baths, people, and the wonderful weather, one could not help but rid oneself of the stress that had built up. The true beauty of the place I found was just to learn to relax again. If you wanted to take a nap...take a nap!
When our last day rolled around, we were sorry to leave. We truly wanted to stay longer. We now understand how people stay there for thirty days, and how people keep coming back. Our stay seemed to be more than a wonderful vacation. It seemed to be a window into a new way of living. A better way of eating, a more calmer way of living in the world.
One small side trip we took one day was to a small rural hospital that was down the road from the spa. It was run by a holy sister who had the ability to read your eyes and tell you what was wrong with you. The sister stared into our eyes with a large magnifying glass and then told us what she saw: She immediately picked up my bad New York City stomach, that had turned a corner from too much coffee and rich food over the years. She told Susan she had to watch her stress level connected with her job, and pinpointed other physical ailments. We gave a donation and thanked her. She gave us some herbs to take when we got back to the states. What was amazing about this person and her hospital was how hundreds, maybe thousands of Mexicans came to her every month and were treated entirely by herbs.
On our last day we said good-by to our new friends, and headed down towards the airport. The ten day vacation had opened me up to a new country. It had allowed me to relax more than I had done in years! Susan and I would go back to Rio Caliente in a New York minute. We recommend Rio Caliente to anyone who is looking to truly relax and get healthy. The price is right, and the place is magical!
back to the Short Story Page.Rio Caliente, Mexico, 31 October 1997