Sibyl Alexander, of Childress, Texas, reported having a small, mole-like growth on the inner rim of her eyelid. She was advised to remove it with surgery. There was apparently no need for surgery, however.
“I took 14 baths in the arsenic water of Ojo Caliente and bathed my eyes in the water for a few minutes each day,” she reported. “I suddenly discovered that the growth had disappeared entirely from my eyelid. I was not deliberately trying to treat my eyes with the water when I noticed the growth had gone.”
Accounts like Alexander’s dating back more than 100 years can be found in the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library. They all tell a similar story: New Mexico’s hot springs—pools of water heated by geothermal energy—healed a variety of ailments like ulcers, gall bladder infections, arthritis, rheumatism and alcoholism.
One man in the same advertising brochure, likely from the late 1940s, said he had been on a four-year journey to cure his “severe” spinal arthritis.
“I could no longer care for my home, dance or engage in many normal functions,” claimed Louise W Morgan, of Denver. Three days after his arrival at the Ojo Caliente springs, he could use his arms and hands freely. Seven days later, he ran a quarter mile. “So far as I’m concerned it proves that there are miracles,” he beamed.
Of course, when considering the veracity of these accounts, one should also consider their sources. The local tourism braintrust of hoteliers and railroad men, to name a few, had every incentive to engage in hyperbole to attract ill— and in some cases terminally ill—easterners who happened to have some money to spend. One Ojo Caliente brochure, created shortly after 1916, espoused the health benefits of the springs through more than a dozen testimonials of people, some who claimed to have been “completely” cured of their ailments after soaking in and drinking the mineral water.
On the last page under the testimonials, it offers the rates: room, board and baths for $29 a week or $120 a month. Even back then, health care came at a cost—various inflation calculators indicate that $29 in 1916 had the buying power of more than $650 in today’s dollars. Currently, the one-day cost of admission at Ojo, about 50 miles north of Santa Fe, is $28 on the weekends and $18 on weekdays.
Records in the Chávez Library indicate that the public relations pitch for the hot springs as a cure-all started to die off after World War II. And it’s difficult to find current peer-reviewed medical research on what effects, if any, soaking in New Mexico’s geothermal waters might have on someone’s health. From the ’60s onward, accounts about the state’s hot springs centered on recreation and featured debates on whether nudity should be allowed.
That doesn’t mean people don’t still seek out hot springs for therapy, like Anthony Gonzales, a retired construction worker in Las Vegas who says he goes to the nearby Montezuma hot springs nearly every day to alleviate headaches and pain. He’s seen an elderly couple in the Montezuma springs soak in the warm water and jump in the cooler river before returning to the springs. He says the hot springs, which anyone can access for free between 5 am and midnight, make his nerves feel like Jell-O. “Your aches and pains go away,” he says.
Manuel Gonzalez Cuervo, a doctor in Las Vegas, is another local who soaks in Montezuma hot springs in the mornings. On a recent 6:30 am trip, the sun peeked over the United World College’s campus where Cuervo was relaxing in one of the hot springs’ three tubs, and water temperatures felt somewhere between 90 and 100 degrees.
Cuervo says he’s read about the healing powers of different kinds of hot springs. In Mexico, his home country, he says people with skin conditions like psoriasis look for sulfurous waters, which can clean the skin. The practice also helps with aches. But Cuervo’s morning hot spring routine is more mental. He likes the peace of a warm soak in nature with the bald eagles he sometimes spots.
“It’s kind of healing,” he says with a laugh. “Just being alone or reflecting, thinking—or trying not to think.”