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Man Receiving a Massage, Royal Spa, Hidalgo, MexicoIrma Gonzales, her hands covered with aromatic oil, laid her fingers gently on my forehead and began the long, slow transformation that would take me from the stress of 20th century life to the peacefulness of total relaxation. Little did I realize that in the next 45 minutes Iíd surrender myself totally to her gentle but firm touch. She worked over my head and then seemed to pull the tension out of my shoulders, She moved on down to my feet, massaging them until I could feel my organs shifting around inside me body. As she rubbed and stroked my legs, massaging the oil into them until the friction created a warm glow, I drifted into a deep meditation that brought colors to my eyes--from bright orange and red to blue and purple. I became a prisoner of her decisive touch. Thus began my first-ever massage in a spa at the magic touch of a young Mexican woman.

Spas are sprouting up all over Mexico like beans in a field The cost of a week-long spa package at a Mexican beachfront resort is one-third to one-fourth the price of the same program in the U.S. Those at inland spas are even less.

Mexican spas run the gamut from traditional mineral spring spas to destination spas that are self-contained to European-style spas with facilities for men and women that are part of a large resort. Since the European-style spa is relatively new in Mexico, most offer new facilities and young energetic staffs.

As interest in fitness sails to an all-time high and as a growing number of Americans view exercise and fitness as an integral part of their daily lives, travelers to Mexico are looking for spas and fitness centers both at the beach and beyond. Unlike spa resorts in the U.S., few of todayís Mexican resorts exist solely as destination spas, except for Ixtapan de la Sal in the State of Mexico and Rancho la Puerta in Baja California. Spa Las Quintas and Hotel and Spa Hacienda Cocoyoc, in the State of Morelos, are good examples of inland resort spas. Many resort owners are now looking at spas as an additional amenity, likening them to pools or golf. But a spa is much more and shouldnít be taken lightly. Owners of both the Morelosí spas have taken steps to make sure their spas go well beyond just a resort amenity.

The Fitness Vacation
According to Spa-Finders of New York, one of the largest tour operators specializing in spa vacations, only 10 percent of the market go to a resort just for the spa. Most are looking for a well rounded vacation, including sightseeing, shopping, sports activities, and the like. And because most of Mexicoís spas cater to small groups of no more than 30 persons per week, the spa experience is very personal and allows spa personnel to offer advice on stress management and how to continue living a healthier lifestyle.

Spas elsewhere are generally found in more upscale resorts such as the Palms in Palm Springs and Canyon Ranch of Tucson, Arizona. But in Mexico spas are popping up in a wide range of resorts, making them downright affordable for the average person. And with packages, they can be almost a bargain.

Until now, I never considered going to a spa. I exercise daily and lift weights. My body is probably in the best shape of my life. So why did I venture into Mexico to have one of the most sensual experiences of my life? Spas are for losing weight. Right? Not any more.

"People are tired of going on a vacation where they overeat, overdrink, oversun, and under sleep," said Orlando Hidalgo, spokesman for the Mexican Spa Association.

Hidalgo practices what he preaches. At his spa, Hosteria Las Quintas, guests not only get the full body treatment but lots of outdoor exercise as well, for Las Quintas is the only eco-spa in Mexico, if not North America.

Hosteria Las Quintas, where Spa Las Quintas is located, fits into a small 500-square-meter parcel of land called a quinta five minutes from downtown Cuernavaca, 90 minutes from Mexico City. It began as a modest eight-room home, which has now grown into a 60-room hotel. The hotel grounds are a riot of color. Flowers, all marked by species, are arranged in a tropical wonderland punctuated by a huge old ceiba tree, two pools, a fountain and bronze and terra cotta statuary. Most of the rooms are terrace suites and six have private Jacuzzi.

Spa Las Quintas, which is separately owned and managed, occupies 10 percent of the hotel space. It blends the interior with the exterior through murals painted by Gustavo Morales and Ezmeralda Brito, which integrate earth and man. The whole effect is not only artistic but very soothing. Itís almost like taking treatments in an art gallery. A large open salon on the second level has benches on rollers so guests can look out into the garden while receiving manicures or pedicures The third level features an exercise gym with all the main machines, and the roof will soon be revamped for nude sunbathing of both sexes. Spa Las Quintas has gone one step beyond most spas, it not only recreates and restores beauty and health to its guests, but it does it in an atmosphere of beauty and color.

Here, 90 percent of the guests are women--the much smaller menís spa with sauna, showers, steam room, massage room and hydrotherapy tub attests to that. The womenís section on the second level, however, offers a complete beauty salon plus treatment areas. "We try to do as little with machines as possible," said Hidalgo, co-owner of the spa. "We believe in a hands-on approach."

In addition, Spa Las Quintas does have ecotours, something which none of the others do. "We donít have aerobics classes," he said. "Unlike many other spas, we stress ecofitness, meshing natural tours with spa treatments and activities. We offer a different tour each day, and combine them with walking, meditation, buying oils in the market, etc. to give our guests a well-rounded program."

Spa Cuisine
Food at Mexican spas has come along way from the bland and sparse diets many spas had become known for. Mexican cuisine, although normally rich, can be made into delicious entreeís at the hands of creative chefs like Alejandro Lemus Gutierrez of Hosteria Las Quintas. A typical dinner entree from the spa menu, such as requeson crepes with zucchini and mushrooms or chicken breast with huitlacoche (corn fungus) had little more than 300 calories.

Breakfast at Las Quintas began with a magnificent buffet featuring many Mexican dishes. One of the favorites among the chilaquiles verdes, municlores al chipotle, plantanos fritos and huevos al guston, was quesadillas served on a variety of tortillas. While some of these dishes were high in caloric content, the exercise of day touring burns them off.

Spa Hacienda Cocoyoc
Morelosís other spa, Hotel Hacienda Cocoyoc, 30 minutes from Cuernavaca at a subtropical 4,000 feet above sea level, is built around an original Dominican convent, the first in the Americas. Originally, this fine hotel was a hacienda built by Cortesí son to raise sugarcane and process sugar. Its many buildings lie in a lush garden movie-set-like setting surrounding the ruins of the sugar mill. An 18-hole golf course now winds its way through the original mango grove and part of the old sugar mill has become the disco.

Named the "Paradise of the Americas" by Viceroy Mendoza in the 16th century, Hacienda Cocoyoc was among the twelve most important sugar plantations in the country. It was burned to ruin during the Mexican Revolution and after many years of neglect and several owners, Don Paulino Rivera Torres bought what remained of the it and made it into a hotel. His son, Paulino, runs the hotel today.

"Weíre surrounded by lots of interesting things to do," said Don Paulino. "This is the real Mexico. "We not only offer a relaxing spa experience, but an educational one, also."

Spa Cocoyoc lies at the heart of Hotel Hacienda Cocoyoc, a modern resort with two golf courses, three tennis courts and four swimming pools, restaurants and bars. Housed in a building constructed around an existing arch, it consists of a Jacuzzi, juice bar, beauty salon, three rooms for facials, two for massage, a hydromassage room, herbal wrap room, workout center with Nautilus equipment, and two "wet" areas, one for men and one for women, including dressing rooms, showers, saunas, steam baths, pressure showers, Swiss showers, loopha scrub rooms, and sunning areas. Designed and outfitted by Romanians, it offers the ultimate in European spa services, including an Alpha Jet capsule, just one of several state-of-the-art pieces of equipment. "Though our spa is Romanian in concept, itís definitely American in spirit," said Don Paulino.

A typical day at Spa Cocoyoc begins with a medical checkup, followed by a walk or a game of tennis, then a loofah scrub, massage, mudpack or seaweed wrap to relax, then water treatments. After a leisurely lunch and rest, guests can take another spa treatment followed by dinner.

I chose to go horseback riding in the early morning through fields of sugarcane and corn. The peacefulness of the fields, dotted here and there by campesinos beginning their daily chores, and the jovialness of my guide, Bernadino, set the pace for a relaxing day of mud wraps and hydrotherapy back at the spa.

After my ride, I sat down to a served breakfast, beginning with a refreshing blended drink made of Nopal cactus, pineapple and celery. This was followed by homemade yogurt with granola, chopped fruit and honey, and finally an omelette made of egg whites and mushrooms.

While Mexican spa packages and even a la carte prices are reasonable, the hidden cost of any spa vacation comes in tipping. Unfortunately, with so many services being taken, tipping can get out of hand. This is probably why spas have traditionally attracted the rich. Middle-market guests, however, may find the 20 to 30 percent tips that most spa personnel expect a little pricey. True, if the service is done well and warrants it, then a good tip should be given. However, if guests are required to tip to offset the salary paid to spa employees, then thatís another matter.

Hidalgo has his own solution. He charges all of his guests a flat percentage payable at their departure. This amount he divides up among all of his employees, much the way hoteliers do in Bermuda.

All in all, a Mexican spa vacation, especially at these two Morelos spas, is like no other. Unfortunately, the relaxing effects of spa treatments are short lived, even if the spa goer follows a healthy lifestyle. But that makes it even easier to book a spa package the second and third time around.

The full version of this article first appeared in Spa Management Magazine.

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