Many years ago, I was living in Chicago, immersed in a demanding, high-pressure job, and needed to get away to somewhere quiet and peaceful to replenish my mind, body and soul. A friend mentioned Rio Caliente, a spa in Mexico, describing it as a tranquil, special place.

Plates of Huervos Rancheros for breakfast
(John F. Carafoli photo)
That was all I needed to hear. I was on the next plane to Guadalajara. From the airport, I took a cab to the spa, which is about an hour away. As the cab driver turned left onto a dirt road filled with potholes, sending dust (and me) flying, I began wondering what I had gotten myself into. Too often my spontaneity and enthusiasm have landed me in hot water! This time, though, I had landed in hot water in a very good way.

Situated in the Primavera Valley 5,000 feet above sea level, gets its name from the superheated river flowing through the region. It emanates from the volcano known as Mount Tequila, looming in the distance. From my small room with two twin beds and a little fireplace, I could sense its majesty and power.

Over the next three days, I kept to myself, soaking in the 90-degree waters of the two pools filled from the underground volcanic effluents, feeling the restorative effects of beneficial minerals. Such sensuous soaking, combined with reading, massages, mud wraps and fresh local meals – like Black Bean Soup and Huervos Rancheros – restored me.

Ready for company

After several days, my antisocial tendencies had abated, and I was ready to rejoin people.I agreed to meet a few other guests for a hike in the arid, hilly landscape. In preparation, I gathered my clothing and sat by one of the pools, savoring the warm sun. When the group had gathered, I slipped on my pants, and felt something sharp bite my backside. I immediately took off the pants to see what it was, but nothing was visible so I put them back on. Then suddenly another bite, this one harder. I whipped off the pants, turning them up side down and shaking them vigorously until out fell a scorpion. I shouted, ”Oh my God, I have been stung by a scorpion!”

Mexican meltaway
Rio Caliente, literally “Hot River,” is one of dozens of spas scattered throughout Mexico. Some have natural hot springs and focus on the country’s long tradition of folk remedies – including relaxation and wholesome foods. Others offer a more traditional approach – though generally still more low-key than European spas. To visit several spots, search the Internet with keywords “Mexican spa vacations.”

Immediately I was surrounded by my hiking mates. One man produced a small bottle of a homeopathic rescue remedy for just such an emergency. After a few drops of that, we headed to the office to seek further treatment. This is how I met Alba Lydia Alvidrez, a striking dark-haired woman, wearing a bright red hat, gauchos and a colorful kerchief around her neck. She whisked me to the kitchen. In Spanish, she directed someone to fetch me a glass of milk and pulled a bulb of garlic from the shelf. ”Here,” she said. ”Eat the garlic and drink the milk. It is a natural antibiotic.” I stood there for a minute, then asked if I could at least mince it first. She laughed and said yes. After I downed several cloves of chopped garlic and a large glass of milk, Alba instructed me, ”Now go to the pool and stay quiet. If you were going to have a bad allergic reaction, it would have already taken place. You will be fine.”

I followed her advice, and also took an antihistamine.

Remembering Rio

In the 18 years since this incident, I have thought of it many times and about my otherwise cleansing and restorative visit to Rio Caliente. Scorpions aside, it was time to go back, In late February, I was off for a week at the spa with my partner, John Murelle.

I was glad to discover that my friend Alba Lydia Alvidrez is still there, running the kitchen. This time, I had the chance to get to know her better (no scorpion bites!) and to learn more about her culinary talents.

Alba learned to cook from her grandmother, who raised her as a child in Chihuahua, a town near the U.S. border.

”Growing up, I ate meat because we lived on a farm, and it was cattle country. All meats then were organic,” she told me. Alba first came to the spa 26 years ago to cook and help with the housing. She developed most of the vegetarian recipes that are served at the spa and supervises food preparation.

Light meal at night

A typical day at the spa, run for 30 years by Caroline Durston, begins with a hearty protein-heavy breakfast just after morning yoga and a swim in the pool. The most important meal of the day, breakfast at Rio Caliente consists of fruits, fresh yogurt, granola, and eggs with tortillas and sometimes beans. My favorite was Huevos Rancheros (eggs ranch-style,) a corn tortilla with refried beans and topped with fried eggs and hot sauce.

Lunch one day was delicious Chile Rellenos, cheese-filled, roasted poblano peppers in a spicy tomato sauce and served with White Rice with Corn and Sesame Seeds. There were always fresh greens, grown in the spa’s garden, tossed with tomatoes and sprouts, and a selection of healthful dressings.

Supper consisted of a light soup, mixed green salad, perhaps with lentil sprouts, bell peppers, beans, onions and grated carrots, and luscious rice pudding. At each meal, Alba mixed chilled drinks, such as Jamaica tea made from hibiscus flowers and fresh-squeezed lime juice. .

The activities in which we immersed ourselves were equally refreshing. After breakfast, we typically took a hike to one of the waterfalls, where 158-degree water spouted out of rocks in the hills – hot enough to cook an egg. Then, back to the spa, where a soak in the hot mineral waters was followed by a massage and lunch. The afternoon floated by as we rested by the pool with a good book, or indulged in a mud wrap or a steam in the natural underground steam room.

Each evening, after our light but satisfying meal, (if we could stay up past 8:30) we enjoyed a lecture or writing workshop.

Healthful habits

After a week of eating well-balanced vegetarian meals consisting of whole foods, no sugar, caffeine, or dairy products (with the exception of yogurt and a little skim milk) and no animal products, I could feel my whole system change. The cravings I had had at the beginning of the week were gone. My body felt light. I was calm, happy and at peace. Our bodies react favorably when treated carefully and well, healing themselves when given the chance.

Reminded of the need to care for one’s body and soul, I made the conscious decision to bring a little of Rio Caliente home with me. I have cut down on eating red meat, eat lighter meals at night (like a simple soup and salad), and have introduced more fiber into my diet. I try to eat organic and local foods. This revised way of eating, combined with yoga, frequent swimming and a daily reminder to keep things in perspective, is my recipe for a strong, healthy body and a peaceful soul.

(Published: April 26, 2006)

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