When most people think of New Mexico, Breaking Bad is probably one of the first associations that come to mind. But for me, it’s Ojo Caliente. It completely epitomizes New Mexico in my mind and has since I started visiting the area as a kid. The place just gives me life. So when my mom and sister offered to take me to Ojo for my birthday a couple weekends ago, it was a no-brainer.
The main draw of Ojo Caliente is, of course, its namesake hot springs, located about an hour north of Santa Fe. While the privately owned spa itself opened in the late 1800s, it had been in use by ancient peoples in the area for hundreds of years prior. Ancestors of the Tewa people, a Native American tribe in Northern New Mexico, first called the area home around the 14th century, constructing a large and vibrant pueblo community on the mesa above the mouth of the springs.
“The Tewa Indians have a story about their origin. It is a tale of a long journey. They tell about the beginning when the Tewa were one people. Dividing themselves into two groups called the Summer People and the Winter People, they traveled along the sides of two big rivers: the Rio Grande and the Rio Chama. They made many stops along the way, building a village at each location. When the Summer People and the Winter People reunited, they built one village together. They called this place Posi-Ouinge (po-see-o-wing-gay).” Source: BLM
Spanish settlers attempted to colonize the area in the in the 17th and 18th centuries (surprise, surprise) but were largely unsuccessful due to conflict in the area. It’s thought that the Tewa people relocated their village due to an epidemic, and then again relocating it across the river after the Spaniards began encroaching on the area. In 1868, New Mexico’s 1st Territorial Representative to Congress, Antonio Joseph, built the first bathhouse at Ojo Caliente, and thus the tiny village of Ojo Caliente came to be.
Amazingly, the Posi-Ouinge pueblo ruins remain largely unexcavated, and anyone is welcome to walk independently through the pueblo ruins. Managed by the BLM in partnership with the current owners of Ojo Caliente, a short hike up a rocky hill behind the hot springs leads directly to the mesa top where the pueblo once stood. All that can be seen now, however, are thousands upon thousands of potsherds, and some ambiguous dirt mounds. This might sound boring at first, but POTSHERDS, PEOPLE!
Have you ever plucked a 600-year-old artifact up out of the dirt beneath your feet? No? Well, believe me when I say that it’s an incredibly unique experience that will simultaneously make you feel like a badass archeologist and a very inconsequential blip in the massive expanse known as history. Picture the pueblo that once existed here; full of people living their lives webbed with the drama and love and heartbreak, similar, in some ways, to the feelings we experience in our own lives today. A woman sat here 600 years ago, forming by hand a beautifully decorated pot that held maize, water or who knows what else, for years. When the village relocated, that pot was left behind. Over the course of HUNDREDS of years, the elements, or pothunters, or both, reduced it to pieces. And now, you’re holding a piece of that pot in your hand! What even is life?
Broken pieces of pottery are scattered all over the mesa top, impossible to miss.
I’m sure you already know this, but the potsherds and any other artifacts you might discover must stay where you found them, lest some angry spirit will haunt you for the rest of eternity, or something. But really, this place still feels alive, and it would be incredibly disrespectful to remove any of the magic that still remains on the mesa top. It’s just bad form.
After we spent some time wandering around the ruins and taking in the views of the valley below, we decided to climb to the top of a high, rocky hill to the west of the ruins. After a scrambling climb up a field of scree, we were treated to 360-degree views of the juniper-dotted hills, river valley and distant ranges of the Rocky Mountains.
On our way back to the spa, we found ourselves winding through a shadowy canyon, where the earth had been eroded away by flash floods for hundreds of years. The steep walls were made of composite rock and looked and felt like poured concrete. I always imagine finding dinosaur bones in these types of exposed walls! Alas, no dino bones this time. I probably wouldn’t recommend this detour if you’re claustrophobic, or on a day when you see distant thunder clouds, because I bet the flood of water that flows through tight canyons like this is FIERCE and you will probably not fare well.
Back at the spa, we purchased our guest passes, changed in the bath house, and then headed out to the pool area. Ojo has undergone several face-lifts in the 10+ years I’ve been coming. It’s survived a fire and used to have one grimy bath house, sparse landscaping, only three soaking pools and a swimming pool. Today, however, it feels downright luxurious! It’s been featured in several popular magazines, so it’s definitely been “discovered,” and no longer feels entirely like the hidden hot springs it felt like when I was a kid. But to change in a spacious bath house with showers, and then waddle from pool to pool in a cozy robe, enjoy the sweltering tea tree scented steam room, mud bath, and any variety of spa services offered, is pretty wonderful. And despite the larger crowds, it’s still managed to maintain the authentic New Mexico vibe that I’ve always felt when visiting.
I don’t have any photos from inside the hot springs because it’s creepy to photograph strangers in their swimsuits, but their website has lovely pictures if you’re dying to take a peek!
After a couple hours of soaking in the different pools (which are of varying temperatures and mineral contents), I felt completely relaxed and rejuvenated – the signs of a good hot spring! We left the spa and headed into the historic hotel and home The Artesian, Ojo’s on-site restaurant. The Artesian is one of THE BEST restaurants in New Mexico, as far as I’m concerned. It feels fancy but not stuffy (you can sit down with wet hair and not feel like a hot mess), and every meal I’ve eaten there over the years has been freaking phenomenal. If you go to Ojo Caliente, you must plan for dinner at The Artesian. And get dessert! After a fantastic day and delicious meal, we drove back to Albuquerque feeling very, very full.