Seth Wenig  /  AP file
Lissette Hesmadt receives Mandarian Oriental's 'Awaken Facial' during the annual meeting of the International Spa Association July 27, in New York. Today's spas are integrating cosmetic treatments like facials and manicures into holistic approaches to well-being.
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updated 10/10/2006 3:57:33 PM ET 2006-10-10T19:57:33

Acute wanderlust isn’t the usual reaction to a movie. But The Motorcycle Diaries — the cinematic version of the journey that took Ernesto “Che” Guevara from Argentina to Venezuela, and from bourgeois med student to proto-revolutionary — was promptly credited by The New York Times with begetting a boom in tourism. The story “is in itself an invitation not only to travel but also to experience and be changed and transformed,” explains director Walter Salles.

Not one to turn down such invitations, I too headed south to retrace Che’s steps, albeit figuratively, with neither a motorcycle nor eight spare months. But even if “La Poderosa” (the wheezing Norton 500 on which Che set out) was replaced by LAN jets — and his barn lodgings by spas — transformation unquestionably ensued: The combination of endlessly beautiful surroundings and uniquely gifted therapists made any other outcome impossible.

ARGENTINA

After an 11-hour flight from New York where slush and rain delayed my departure, I arrived in Buenos Aires on an impossibly perfect summer day. With its Parisian-feeling sidewalk cafés, boulevards bustling with elegant shoppers and sun-dappled park benches providing refuge for amorous couples, the city held obligingly true to description. The combination made for a strong, citywide buzz — a sort of urban chi that energized everything in its path, including me. I hit the pavement early and often and quickly developed a fascination for the gritty tango street shows that popped up at regular intervals. At the tiny Bar Sur, where I was sent by local consensus, the expressiveness of the dancers’ faces was rivaled only by that of their bodies. Here, the knife-sharp twists and turns that are the dance’s main idiom gave way to an indigenous expertise — the tiniest flinch of a back muscle eloquently conveyed anything from desire to revulsion. In fact, a seasoned milonguera seems to say more with her exposed back than most can say in a dissertation.

Fittingly, the back is one of the city’s most glorified body parts — and the focus of a signature spa treatment at the Four Seasons Hotel, where I stayed. The Porteño Massage, so-named for the locals (porteños), is something of a multisensory cultural primer: With tango music playing softly in the background, a skin-revitalizing, antioxidant-rich local wine distillate is applied to the back before the therapist administers a hot stone massage that eradicates all tension.

Finally able to leave the mesmerizing energy of Buenos Aires behind, I chose to fly south to the Argentine lake region, a grand convergence of lush green forest, shimmering blue water and majestic Andean peaks. Though I never would have imagined snorkeling in a place in the vicinity of glaciers, one look at Nahuel Huapí National Park (Argentina’s oldest — with rivers, waterfalls, mountains, valleys, lakes, ice packs and more) was all I needed to be convinced by a resident guide that plunging into the water was a great idea. (The promise of a wet suit also helped close the deal.) And here’s what I learned: For a taste of the truly sublime, nothing beats kayaking to a rocky beach, recharging with some steamy yerba maté, then snorkeling through a dead-calm, crystal-clear, sunlight-pierced Patagonian lake.

The sublime was also in evidence at my local lodgings: hostería Las Balsas, not far from the Patagonian hub town of Bariloche. A secluded 15-room property set on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapí, the hotel houses a surpassingly beautiful little spa. With its outsized, altarlike circular massage table, the main treatment room seems more like a chapel than a place of pampering. But the building’s most striking feature is the pool used for Watsu. Because it looks out onto the lake, the two almost appear to be a single, watery continuum. Once you’re submerged, though, and in Marisa Trivellini’s calming hands (she’s the lead therapist but could really be called lead magician), the view is beside the point, the Watsu is that good — with unique extras such as Tibetan chimes sounded underwater. Entirely transported, I emerged refreshed and clearheaded.

CHILE

Since my own Diaries journey was motorcycle-free, I spent a fair amount of time on this trip traveling to and from various airports, the typical drive being at best unremarkable — and at worst a big drag. Not so the ride from Calama, Chile, to San Pedro de Atacama. Here in the high desert, Atacama’s vast, starkly surreal beauty — with its Dada-esque rock formations, austere salt flats and far-off, snowcapped peaks — lined almost the entire road to Terrantai Lodge, the place that would become my home base for the next few days.

Located in the heart of the dusty yet charming town of San Pedro, Terrantai is a quintessential example of local adobe architecture. And while the property itself has no formal spa, a trip to nearby Puritama provides a spa experience of the highest order, one that only nature can bring: After a brief but beautiful hike, you reach a dramatic, rocky gorge, wherein several glimmering hot spring pools await — each one captured amid the flow of the Puritama River and varied in temperature and size. Their effects on both body and soul are immediate: As the warm, aqua blue water melts your muscles, the surrounding scenery (azure sky, hauntingly craggy cliffs and masses of tall, plumed grasses) induces a let-me-take-this-all-in state. Then a secondary reaction kicks in: Upon realizing how many warm pools lie before you, the inner eight-year-old takes over as you start scurrying from one to another in an attempt to determine which is best. But that answer is not forthcoming. Each is delicious.

In the surrounding area, spiritually rejuvenating experiences are plentiful, too. I was particularly taken with the primordial El Tatio Geysers observed at sunrise and the Moon Valley, a stretch of ghostly dunes, Seuss-ian rock formations and lunar flats that when hiked at just the right hour leads to the most breathtaking sunset perch imaginable. In both of these places, psychic clutter is washed away by the pure, unadulterated spectacle of nature.

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PERU

Further north in the Andes, the town of Cusco is a gorgeous, anthropological layer cake, a study in the strata of ancient empires. Although the city itself is a backpacker’s haven replete with Internet cafés and pizza joints, the city’s marvel of colonial baroque architecture is world-renowned, and numerous religious buildings remain. Among the most famously reappropriated of these is the one where I stayed: Hotel Monasterio, a beautiful 16th-century Jesuit monastery turned luxury hotel. Many of the original details have been left intact — not least of which are the monks’ quarters one stays in. Sure, the rooms have electricity and running water now, to say nothing of the imported chocolate and linens, but the size and shape of each is — by law — unchanged since Jesuit times. Another upgrade the monks probably never contemplated: spa services. I tried the Coca Leaf bath, though it’s just one of the in-room soaks you can order from a resident bath butler. And because the town is 11,000 feet above sea level (I had begun to notice a dip in my energy), there are also altitude-adjusting massages offered in a modest “massage room” (soon to be replaced by a larger spa) as well as oxygen-enriched guest rooms for those feeling fatigued by the thin mountain air. But for me, more than the treatments, the warmth of those administering them is what lingers in my memory, especially at home in New York, where even eye contact with strangers is deemed too personal.

The same held true aboard the Hiram Bingham — a joint effort between PeruRail and Orient Express and the most luxurious way to get to Machu Picchu. Upon learning of my family background (my Cuban father was a Guevara-era émigré to the United States, and I’ve grown up speaking Spanish), the resident musicians thoughtfully proceeded to play every old Cuban standard in the book — basically, the soundtrack to my childhood. Not that the more material aspects of the ride went unnoticed: You’ve got to love a bar car that provides cushy banquettes, free-flowing champagne — and unobstructed views of cloud forests, raging rivers and the occasional herd of llama.

Disembarking at Aguas Calientes, in the heartland of the Incas, I was met by an envoy from the nearby Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, an haute-eco boutique property in the shadow of its namesake (located just a 30-minute bus ride or 45-minute walk away). While the hotel’s natural setting — lush rain forest and streams wherever you look — would alone be worth the trip, there’s no mistaking the vibe that comes from being so close to Machu Picchu. Whether you buy into the local spiritual energy yourself or simply appreciate that others do, you can feel its spark in the air.

I felt the energy carry through to the hotel’s Unu Spa, where the lead therapist — a holistic health practitioner who possessed one of the gentlest, most calming presences I’ve ever encountered — has a knack for reading not only human energy but also that of water, trees, rocks and anything else you might find on one of his guided meditation walks. Also available at the intimate, white scrim-draped spa: unexpectedly fabulous Thai Yoga Massage. The spa’s Andean Sauna, a stand-alone structure that resembles the top half of a coconut, is so small you have to stoop to enter. But once the space filled with delicious, eucalyptus-spiked steam, its coziness was just right.

I could have spent the whole day in that sauna. But then I would have missed Machu Picchu. And no one should, really. With its ever-shifting mists, Middle Earth–like structures and legendary energy fields, the atmosphere of the place is decidedly otherworldly. No matter how many times you may have seen its photograph, stepping into the reality feels strange and transcendent. The atmosphere among the ruins seems custom-designed to help you regain your perspective on life. My transformation was taking hold.

ECUADOR

Several days later I arrived in Quito, a great destination in and of itself, with its generous endowment of colonial architecture, imposing mountains and city bustle. Here I was met by an emissary of Luna Runtun, an adventure spa near Baños, in the Sangay National Park. Though long, this was another drive I didn’t mind in the least, its scenery ranging from rolling green hills to firmament-piercing volcanoes for the entire four hours.

When I got to Luna Runtun, a mountain- and mist-surrounded hot spot that attracts both sybarites and adventurers, I sat down with a guide to go through the menu of eco-excursions. We settled on Pailón del Diablo and headed out the next day. After hiking briefly through some rocks — and taking a suspension bridge across a rainforest-flanked gorge — we got to the furious waterfall, which produces a constantly evolving mist. Having been baptized there by his shamanic grandfather, my guide had an unmistakable connection to the place that enriched my own experience.

At Luna Runtun’s spa, I was able to sign up not only for treatments but also where I wanted to have them. Oozing the same rustic charm that pervades the entire property, each treatment room is decorated with element-themed frescoes. I liked the Water and Air rooms best but suspect I’d have been happy at the hands of my therapist no matter where we were. Clad in traditional textiles, she gave me a massage that erased the stiffness in my body (as much as my eyes were enamored with the ride to the spa, my body was not as happy), then set up a local specialty: a rose petal bath. Soaking in the petal-packed, rose oil-laced tub, I was in olfactory heaven.

With far too much unseen and untried, I had to hit the road after two days. But this time, I had some amazing stops to make on my way: Ingapirca, one of Ecuador’s most important Incan sites (the surrounding hills — bright green and llama-studded — are as worthwhile as the ruins themselves); and Cuenca, a Spanish colonial architecture-lover’s mecca and home to the most beautiful cupolas I’ve ever seen. (Dazzlingly tiled in multiple shades of blue, they clearly helped earn this city its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.)

VENEZUELA

Wanting to finish my own journey in the same place as Guevara had, I made my last stop Venezuela. Though I found traveling here profoundly difficult — layers of bribes were often required, and there were abundant instances of misinformation and scams — this last stop proved worth the effort. Renacer Spa Center is perched in the gorgeous, if quirky, setting that is La Colonia Tovar: Imagine Bavarian architecture in a landscape of palm trees and hibiscus.

However odd this aesthetic pairing, one local spa makes you feel immediately at home — in part because you are. Renacer founder Madeleine Duyos turned her own weekend house into a healing retreat and now, years later, it is where she still spends her weekends. Familiarity is the leitmotif and can include having unexpected treats delivered to your room (I learned not to be surprised to find thick, steaming hot cocoa and a generous slab of cake by my bed after a hike or treatment) as well as hugs and kisses from the owner. The spa is equally pampering (though quite rustic), offering hearty treatments like the oatmeal-and-honey facial and a chocolate body wrap.

Yet for all my trip’s admitted pampering, there was an equal if not greater measure of spiritual and sensory recalibration that even Guevara himself might have condoned. I went — if only temporarily — from harried New Yorker to thoroughly nature-addled nomad. A revolutionary change? Perhaps not. But a worthy one nonetheless.

Spa Magazine  portrays the full-depth of the spa experience and ways to live it every day. Dedicated to providing the information and inspiration needed to pursue health of body and mind, Spa Magazine  presents a contemporary view of spas worldwide. © 2006 World Publications, LLC

© 2013 World Publications, LLC

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