My life is far from five-star luxury.

I live in a rustic cabin built in 1925 at the edge of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. My free days are more often spent running through the foothills and scaling sandstone cliffs than having my body slathered in purifying mud. For better or worse, I have the rugged, callused fingers of a rock climber, not the manicured nails and buffed hands of a spa frequenter.

Did I have any business visiting one of the most luxurious resorts and spas in the country? Maybe not.

But I wasn’t heading off to any typical spa for the usual manicure and pedicure. I was indulging in three days at El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa in Taos, New Mexico—the perfect spot for a rugged naturalist in need of a little R&R. This spa experiment combines environmentally responsible concepts, which appealed to my eco-leanings, with opulent accommodations, which I knew would comfort my aching muscles. And when I arrived, I felt right at home—hangnails and all.

An eco-conscious retreat
The brainchild of Tom Worrell, a devout environmentalist and entrepreneur, El Monte Sagrado, meaning “the sacred mountain,” opened in the summer of 2003 on an expansive plot of land in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Just a short walk to the center of Taos with its shops and famed art galleries, the eco-resort is understated—you could drive by without even noticing it’s there. Once inside the adobe gates, however, you realize El Monte is a standout vacation spot.

The resort features 36 casitas, each decorated in a unique geographic theme; there’s Egypt, Morocco, Texas, and Tibet, where I stayed. My casita was a one-bedroom dwelling featuring many modern-day amenities—a wet bar, gas fireplace, and private back courtyard with hot tub—as well as traditional Tibetan artifacts and art. Inside, I felt transported across earth and ocean to a foreign land, yet the wood-plank floors, fireplace, and hand-painted walls inspired by Buddhist themes made me feel relaxed and at peace. When I entered the bathroom, I couldn’t resist immediately washing away my travel fatigue in the generous rain shower with its rock-crafted mandala floor—a circular Buddhist design used as a meditation aid.

A sacred circle, the grassy center of the resort intended for reflection, yoga, or reading, lay just outside my casita’s front gate. A short walk around the circle took me by one of the resort’s intriguing solar “trees.” This sculpture-esque gadget has mini solar panels that sit at the end of branchlike rods and harness the sun’s energy for a portion of the resort’s power needs (solar panels also sit high above the parking lot near El Monte’s entrance). Farther down the path is the stone plunge pool and hot tub, which border a biolarium, a botanical water garden. Some of the fruit and herbs grown in the biolarium are featured on resort restaurant menus. Other plants help clean wastewater through natural ecologies instead of chemicals. The treated water then runs through the resort as streams or sits in trout-filled wading ponds. You can even take a dip in the water; it’s that clean posttreatment.

Inside the spa
Of course, I had come to El Monte to relieve my overworked body and indulge in a little TLC and was eager to sample a few of the body treatments offered at the Rejuvenation Center, a 2,500-square-foot building divided into four treatment rooms. Setting foot in the spa, I felt my parched skin soak up the humid air, a welcome contrast to the dry New Mexico climate. Tropical fauna and glass ceilings added to the lush atmosphere.

Along with typical spa body treatments—wraps, scrubs, facials, and massages—the Rejuvenation Center offers treatments for connecting the mind, spirit, and body (for a sampling of the highlights, see “4 Alternative Spa Treatments at El Monte Sagrado.”).

I signed up for the elemental healing massage first. Marilyn, my therapist, exuded a rare calm, and I was lucky enough to land the largest and most ornate of the four treatment rooms featuring a flowing waterfall, fireplace, skylights, shower, bathroom, and even a back entrance for celebrities. Marilyn began her work, mostly in silence. How did she know without asking that I liked a gentle touch and recoiled from deep-tissue massages? Marilyn’s hand was just right, though this was not especially different from other massages until, near the end of the treatment, she placed a small amethyst in the middle of my forehead, on my “third eye,” also called the mind chakra or the place of insight. I learned later through my own research that New Agers believe the amethyst benefits those like myself who engage in rigorous mental activity. I’m known to overanalyze and obsess on certain things, which is a great trait for a magazine editor but not such a helpful quality for keeping a balanced mind chakra. Placing the amethyst on the third eye is meant to calm and protect the mind, according to some healers. When Marilyn set the stone on my forehead, it felt awkward, teetering and about to fall off. Soon, however, it found a natural resting spot, and I did gain a sense of peace—as if my mind and body were coming together.

As I walked back to Tibet, my temporary home, my muscles were like putty, yet I wasn’t tired. In fact, I felt a surge of energetic bliss. I looked in the mirror and my skin glowed. It was time for lunch. At the Gardens, El Monte’s casual day restaurant, I feasted on organic, free-range chicken salad on baby greens with grilled jicama, sliced almonds, and fresh grapes. The restaurant bustled with an equal number of resort guests and local Taos residents, but it didn’t break my calm. I sat serenely, watching the fish do laps in the tropical fish aquarium. I glanced at my watch. Good, I had time to enjoy a soak in the private courtyard hot tub outside my casita before my next treatment.


I could get used to this.

The life reading
Although my second trip to the Rejuvenation Center would be for another so-called massage, this one sounded different. According to spa manager Janna Vernetti, the life-reading massage was a very moving experience for many people. The brochure description said I should “remain open to the possibility of receiving impressions of intuitive insight” from the practitioner. I might also discover “how my present circumstances line up in relation to my life’s most joyous path.”

I must confess, these descriptions had me a bit worried. For one, openness isn’t my strong suit; in fact, I’m hopelessly private. And I’m not especially woo-woo. Still, I was willing to try. When the therapist, Lydia, entered the room, she wasn’t the otherworldly being I expected. She was of average height and size and had what sounded like a New Jersey accent. I no longer felt fearful.

Lydia started a basic back massage and began peppering me with questions. The meaning of the tattoo on my shoulder? My family history? Significant life changes? The massage faded as the conversation bloomed. Lydia said that she sees me in a hot-air balloon going toward pure joy—not there, but close. Although at moments I wanted more massage and less talk, I felt able to let down my guard enough to take in Lydia’s insights. No, the treatment didn’t completely transform my life, but I believe I understood the path she was leading me toward, and I was enticed. When I’m ready, I may take it.

Until then, I decided to continue contemplating my destiny as I dined at De La Tierra, the resort’s evening restaurant that serves dishes inspired by the flavors and colors indigenous to New Mexico.

I enjoyed melt-in-your-mouth wild salmon on black beans and organic greens. Although deceptively simple, the dish didn’t seem out of place in the elegant surroundings. Nor did I. When my mind drifted to thoughts of climbing the rock wall that edged one side of the restaurant, I knew I was relaxed, rejuvenated, and at home here. I also knew I would fly back home to Colorado the next day carrying that same feeling with me.