Religious faith can turn any place or building or gathering into a potential source of healing. But for those who have lost religious faith or never had it the question becomes: What might a spiritually healing spa or retreat look like? What might it feel like?
The answer, as witnessed over the years, includes a wide variety of places and spaces, because what defines a “spiritual” spa is intensely personal. What these wonderful places have in common is a palpable desire to connect to a power greater than ourselves — and a clear intention to serve a higher good. For Spirituality & Health's second Most Spiritual Spa award, we choose to honor one woman’s quest to create a spiritually healing retreat out of virgin jungle and a stretch of beach. The place is the Haramara Retreat Center near Sayulita, Mexico, about 45 minutes by taxi from the Puerto Vallarta airport. The woman is Maria de Guadalupe de la Borbolla Schwedhelm, 55, an aristocrat from Mexico City who began a spiritual quest that would give her the name Sajeela and eventually lead her to build Haramara essentially by hand. The most defining feature of Sajeela’s retreat center is that you hardly know it’s there. Sajeela found her special spot about 15 years ago while walking the beach. It was the low point in her life. She was feeling betrayed and wounded. Sajeela says, “The land took me in like one more tree here.”
Sajeela grew up in an opulent household filled with classical music. Her father arranged concerts for the president of Mexico, and then Sajeela followed her husband to Oxford to study piano. A beautiful and well-connected young woman, her life seemed very well scripted, but then she read a book by the Indian guru known as Osho — and she tore up her script.
She left her husband and moved to Osho’s ashram in India, where she scrubbed the public toilets and ran a sheet metal shop while she learned to meditate. Whenever she got good at something, she says, the guru moved her to something else, breaking down her attachment to her own identity as she moved deeper, both into meditation and community.
When Osho died in 1990, Sajeela’s dream was to recapture the living melody of the early ashram, so she rented land on the beach in Tulum, Mexico, and poured herself into creating a yoga retreat called Osho Oasis. Almost instantly the retreat became popular with celebrities, and she tells of opening her small safe in her small room and spreading $40,000 in cash over the bed. That success was both astonishing and her undoing. In 1995, Osho Oasis was wiped out by Hurricane Roxanne, and the owners took the land back to build their own resort.
Devastated, Sajeela tried to live with her parents, but she no longer fit in their world. And that is how she found herself on a small beach near Sayulita, feeling lost and hurt and sensing that the raw jungle might help her heal. She paid for the property with insurance money from Osho Oasis, the help of two of her friends, and about everything else she had. Once she owned it, she had to live on the property, or squatters could legally take it from her. To create her dream she walked into the jungle and built it.
Haramara Takes Shape
Seen from the beach, the native jungle at Haramara still rises seemingly unbroken up the steep hillside, but if you climb the sand to the edge of jungle you will find a trail leading diagonally upward to a small clearing. From there is another trail leading to a couple of simple, thatched palapas that each house a massage table. These humble spaces constitute the “spa,” where an international group of renowned healers as well as local practitioners come to do their work.
Farther up the hillside off another small trail is the original casita, Sajeela’s home for the first few years after she bought the property. It is simply elegant: a mahogany platform, covered by a thatched roof and mostly open walls, that contains a queen bed with luxury linens and mosquito netting, a dresser, and a nightstand. There’s no TV, no WiFi, no electricity at all. The lighting is confined to three kerosene lanterns lit with matches. The one relatively modern convenience is the bathroom, an adjacent thatched structure with a large outdoor shower, toilet, an expansive sink, and high-end spa products. As one reviewer said, it’s “Robinson Crusoe meets Architectural Digest.”
To stay in the casita is to have the experience of living exposed in the jungle, just as Sajeela did (and still does, in a slightly larger casita up the slope). “It is the land that heals,” she says again. She built the first casita of natural materials carried to the site by hand, and she lived in it on as little as $500 month as she figured out how to finance the retreat center. During those years she says she walked the property at least a million times to learn its contours and special places. When she shows the property, she seems most proud of her trails. Under the dirt are layers of palm thatch and stones that allow even the most torrential rains to flow through without erosion.
Off the main trail are offshoots leading to the other 15 casitas, each one different and situated in a special place determined from Sajeela’s million walks. Once you reach the top of the ridge you will find two large, thatched-covered yoga and meditation platforms with 360-degree views of the ocean and the jungle. The final structure, near the top of the ridge, is the dining area, the place that people see first after a taxi from the Puerto Vallarta Airport. The road to Haramara is dirt and deeply rutted. But the dining area is simply grand, an expansive thatched space in the jungle canopy that feels like a large tree house.
When we first arrived at Haramara — unannounced on a scouting trip — we were invited to lunch. We sat in the treetop dining area, listened to the birds, and ate a masterful, four-course meal that stopped our thoughts. As the meal progressed, our tight schedule evaporated, and then we found ourselves touring the casitas with Sajeela and making plans to return. Most people come to Haramara for yoga or meditation retreats or teacher trainings. We returned for the spirit of the place — land that takes you in “like one more tree here.”