Aztec surroundings inspire peace of mind

Pyramid fountainThe 60-year-old Spa Ixtapan offers great
value and a comfortable environment

IXTAPAN DE LA SAL, Mexico — In my quest to find the perfect spa, I've experienced more massages than Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw had shoes. Spa sampling is a hobby and nothing thrills me more than discovering one without the name recognition or price tag of a Canyon Ranch or Golden Door.

My latest discovery is Hotel Spa Ixtapan, located not in the Pacific coastal resort of Ixtapa, but rather in one of the country's sleepy inland towns. After flying into Mexico City, the 1½-hour drive from the busy capital, through the mountains and into the town of Ixtapan de la Sal, eases one into spa mode.

Perched on a hill, the 60-year-old spa is surrounded by meticulously manicured grounds and adorned with Aztec inspired fountains. The pink, six-storey hotel is the town's highrise.

After check-in, my first stop is the 5th floor spa. I arrive mid-week, rather than Sunday with the majority of guests, so the routine is a bit different.

"Bienvenidos," I'm greeted. "Let me explain the program," says Magdalena, our therapist.

After the explanation, my worry becomes fitting three massages, two facials, one reflexology treatment, fango (mud) wrap, loofah, yoga session, nail treatment, manicure, pedicure, hairstyle and hair treatment (amid golf/tennis lessons, aerobic and aquatic classes) into the next four days.

You see, the program is inclusive; the $600 (U.S.) per person price tag (based on double occupancy) covers room, food and treatments for the spa's four-day program. (Less than $1,100 U.S. buys a week of spa fun.)

Satisfactory completion of my schedule warrants a celebration. I make a toast, not with a margarita, but a glass of the spa's signature fuchsia-coloured drink (specially brewed hibiscus tea to combat water retention).

After altering this schedule many times over the next several days, I learn that nothing is written in stone; every request is accommodated with a smile and a gracias.

The day starts at 7 a.m. with a brisk 50-minute walk. We meet in the lobby. I arrive sans makeup in a hand-me-down Gap T-shirt and frayed leggings, feeling comfortable in the laid back, casual environment.

Some of the dawn patrol sip water and there's a bit of chatter. But when three men dressed in warm-ups walk through the room and outside, all follow. "Uno, dos, tres . . ." the trainers begin counting the warm-up exercises.

Off we go - in two groups: the difficult walk and the less strenuous one. Although I walk daily, I wimp out, opting for the easier trek since I'm dealing with jet lag at an altitude of 1,600 metres.

My spa experience begins. Dressed in pink tops and white skirts, the technicians are top professionals who simultaneously respect your privacy and pamper your body. Most speak English much better than my Spanish.

Silencio signs adorn closed doors, indicating a treatment is in progress. Behind one of those doors, a masseuse named Hilda gives me a firm, deliberate, no frills massage and I feel my upper back tension evaporate.

"You can trade treatments," I learn over a spa breakfast of eggs (cooked to order), fruit, yogurt and a slice of dark bread. So I whip the tattered schedule from the pocket of my white terry robe and proceed to trade a facial here and a massage there in order to accommodate a daily dose of my favourite treatment - an herbal wrap.

I call it body sculpting because it seems to minimize my body's problem areas. Most testify to its miracle results.

"My body's retaining ice cream, not fluid," laughs Linda from New Mexico.

I note the guidelines followed by spa repeaters. Request a room on the 5th (women's spa) or 6th (men's spa) floors, pack flip flops (footwear's not provided), bring your own nail polish (salon's colour selection is limited), schedule morning appointments (freeing afternoons for shopping, golf, excursions, etc.) and, most importantly, use pencil when making your schedule (for obvious reasons).

In the beginning, I devise my own spa rules: eat all meals in the spa restaurant, walk each morning and drink eight bottles of water daily. Do I follow my rules? Yes. . . in the beginning.

But my challenge becomes dining on the 900-calorie-a-day spa cuisine.

Free time activities can include a visit to the nearby public bathhouse and its thermal mineral spring pool, the town's festive Sunday market, a horseback ride through town, local shopping (my recommendation is Plateria Mary's silver shops), even a day trip to Taxco, Mexico's silver capital (where it's rumored Tiffany-quality jewellery can be purchased at bargain prices).

While the furnishings of the recently renovated 220 rooms are modest, they're comfortable and clean. The clientele is predominately female but more men are expected with the completion of the final six holes of the 18-hole golf course at year's end.

My initial impressions are repeatedly underscored. "Relaxed" and "good value" are descriptions I hear again and again.

Owner Roberto San Roman says 55 per cent of his guests are repeat visitors, 45 per cent are first timers and 98 per cent leave satisfied. Count me in that 98%.

Spa packages of four-, seven-, 21- and 28-day programs are available to accommodate any schedule or fitness goals. One of the most popular is the seven-day Spa Classic at $1075 (U.S.) per person/double occupancy. The weather is temperate year around. Because of the high altitude, days are rarely hot – about 20C.

* For more information on Hotel Spa Ixtapan, go to www.spamexico.com.