An original article published for the first time in Provenance Web Magazine by: Teresa Murphy
If you're like me, you probably think tropical health spas are for the wealthy or Hollywood movie stars. And maybe, like me, your idea of a vacation is hitting the road or the airport for a reasonably priced, slightly off-the-beaten-track adventure, where exploring along the way is as important as the destination.
Then like me, you're in for a surprise if you're prepared to try something new.
An acquaintance had raved about a place in central Mexico that offered the amenities of an exclusive spa at such an affordable price that even on my travel budget I could vacation in style. American Airlines had a seat available, and the Rio Caliente Spa had room. With no more than a brief, second thought, I booked.
I arrived in Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city, on a hazy winter afternoon. Within 30 minutes, my taxi had left the dizzying traffic generated by the city's 6 million residents far behind.
Soon, at the village of Primavera, the usual jumble of open-air vendors and a church by the highway, the taxi turned onto a deeply rutted road which seemed, at times, to resemble an empty river bed, and began a whirling ascent through the Sierra Madre mountains.
"Rio Caliente" I repeated over and over to the driver, certain that my high school Spanish had somehow resulted in a ghastly miscommunication, as we climbed through what the signs said was the Primavera National Pine Forest.
My panic mounted and was about to erupt into a full blown attack, when in a spray of gravel we were through a gate and Rio Caliente's 30 acre grounds lay ahead - a collage of vivid colors - pink, rose, purple, and salmon colored bougainvillea, all framed by tall, gently swaying palm trees, and other wondrous foliage I didn't recognize. Instantly I felt my stress begin to leave.
At the front office, I discovered that Rio Caliente is named after the volcanically heated 69c degree Rio Caliente River which flanks the spa. The river feeds the spa's four swimming pools which are kept at a comfortably warm 35 C degrees. I also learned that some guests claimed to feel happier after spending long periods of time floating in the pools - perhaps because there are minute traces of lithium in the water, which is used by physicians worldwide to treat depression. Maybe it was the power of suggestion, but after throwing my bags into my room and having a swim, I felt better than I had for a while.
My cozy room, which was one of 50, was basic, with one double and one single bed. But like the others I had a chance to see, it was decorated with creative, local crafts, had a fire place to ward off the evening chill of the 1,700 foot altitude, and seemed roomy enough for two people. It's best feature to my mind, was the little tiled bathtub.
Since there are no radios, TVs, telephones or Internet connections, it was cold turkey for me. That first night I sat on my terrace listening to exotic birds and the mournful wails of coyotes, gazing up at the heavens filled with more stars than I could remember seeing since childhood. The clumping sound I occasionally heard were the spa's friendly horses and pet donkey, which roam freely over the grounds.
The next morning I knew why this area of Mexico is known for its perfect climate. The sun was so bright against a brilliant blue sky, it made my eyes water, as I headed toward breakfast, up a fairly steep trail which had benches strategically placed to offer solace for the out of shape.
Clearly one of the main social activities at Rio Caliente is eating. Entering the slightly ramshackle dining hall, whose massive, bookshelf-flanked fireplace looks more like it's from a brochure for a ski lodge in Northern B.C., I eagerly joined a line of guests inching along toward the self-serve buffet.
Like other meals I was to have, breakfast was a wonderful, sensory experience of high-fiber, low-fat, lacto-vegetarian fare (dairy products are used), all with subtle Mexican flavors.
The range of juices was spectacular - from biting grapefruit to a soothing banana/pineapple. All produce is safe to eat - most of it is grown at Rio, and the water is purified.
That first morning I sat with a friendly bunch that included Sylvia, an energetic octogenarian from New York, Steve, a veterinarian from Phoenix, Helmut, a Vancouver economist, Sonja, a Vancouver stock broker, and a San Francisco area psychologist.
Of the six of us, two had vacationed at Rio at least once before, and Sylvia had wintered there each year since the spa opened. Her reasons? "It beats an apartment in New York in the middle of winter, and I can see a doctor right away if I need to."
For the next few days, I rose at dawn, took yoga classes, went on low aerobic walks, one aerobic hike, and took my first tai chi class. (No one laughed).
For a nominal fee, I visited one of the spa's two doctors (stress will kill you, he told me), had a complete body massage from one of the spa's four masseurs, a facial, and a mud bath.
I also went horseback riding through exquisite mountain terrain - the kind of countryside that made me think Clint Eastwood would ride up at any moment, and I went with a group tour to see crafts in the historic Guadalajara suburb of Tlaquepaque. Guests can participate in whatever activity they like, or they can lie around the pools and read from Rio's well stocked library.
Rio's staff are a pampering group of middle aged or older, very knowledgeable, healthy living practitioners. Consider aqausize class. Instead of the usual iron-bodied instructor jumping to a disco beat, our instructor, Esther, who had us sing while we exercised, looked to be about 60 years old. . "I'm seventy-five and holding thanks to Rio," she told us.
It was Esther who created one of the highlights of my trip, by taking a group of us on a short hike to a tiny hospital, run by nuns. In the hospital's postage stamp sized church, set against the backdrop of high mountains, a children's choir practiced, their sonorous voices echoing through the pine trees.
For a small donation, a nun give us iridology readings - by looking into our eyes.
With Esther interpreting, the nun told me, "You have nothing wrong with you a rest won't cure." Interestingly, she was dead on accurate on when she told one of our group that he probably suffered from a nervous stomach, caused by stress. (Canadian doctors had previously given him the same diagnosis). She gave him some herbs to make into a tea. He later reported that the tea was bitter, but his stomach ache had disappeared.
British born owner, Caroline Durston, has purposely created a friendly, gentle, refuge for people who want to learn about a healthier, stress-reduced lifestyle. Her staff, like the tranquil atmosphere, encourage guests to go on a different kind of journey, where the destination is an interior one of reflection and introspection. For me it was much being much more revitalizing than a holiday at the beach.
Rio is a safe place, particularly for women vacationing alone. Dress is casual and notebook computers are allowed.
IF YOU GO
Rio Caliente is an hour by taxi from the Guadalajara International Airport.
American Airlines has daily flights from Vancouver to Guadalajara via Dallas. Canada 3000 and Fiesta West fly direct from Vancouver to Puerto Vallarta, where flights leave almost every hour via Aero Mexico or Mexicana for a 45 minute flight to Guadalajara.
For as low as $499 (US) per week guests get accommodation, all meals, and a variety of daily activities including yoga, tai chi, low aerobic walks, hiking, and pool exercise. Free lectures by visiting experts are also offered on topics as diverse as nutrition, stress reduction, and healing touch therapy.
contact Marion Lewis,
Spa Vacations Ltd.,
P.O. Box 897,
Millbrae, CA 94030
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Copyright © 1996 Teresa Murphy and The Provenance Electronic / Web Magazine
Updated December 24, 1996, March 15, 1997 web master