Long before the words vegan, gluten-free and organic were on the tongues of mainstream America, there was Edmond and Deborah Szekely, healthy lifestyle pioneers. In 1940, these brave explorers founded the 3,000-acre Rancho La Puerta, (Ranch of the Door) located 45 minutes from San Diego, California, in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico. What started as an escape from World War II, evolved into a summer health camp where the Szeklys’ guests paid $17.50 a week to sleep in tents and experience the mud and seaweed baths, work the vegetable garden, attend exercise classes and experience a communal lifestyle. By the 1960s, guests were drawn to Rancho La Puerta (fondly nicknamed ‘The Ranch’) for Edmond’s health lectures, and the roster included author Aldous Huxley, and many actors such as Zsa Zsa Gábor, Kim Novak and Jim Backus from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Today’s star list includes Kate Winslet, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Moyers. But the star power isn’t what attracts guests to The Ranch.
An activist and volunteer at heart, (she started the Szekely Foundation for American Volunteerism in 1982), Szekely continues her mission toward wellness initiatives in Washington, D.C., as she has for decades. Currently she and Wellness Warrior are building Policy Well, a scorecard tool that will hold Congress accountable for votes on National Wellness policy for all Americans.
Deborah, 94, remains hands-on at the oldest destination spa in North America, and is the heart and soul of this thriving Spanish Colonial spa, which now hosts about 140 guests per week with rates starting at $3,900 for a single traveler and $3,400 for double occupants.
Upon arrival, I discovered a freestanding villa (there are 86 garden casitas in seven different sizes and rates to choose from) decorated with authentic Mexican folk art. The colorful tile and handmade furniture eased me into the transition from the hectic day of travel. I flung the patio curtain open to reveal a private patio and view of Mount Kuchamaa, (which provides 25 miles of hiking trails) and is rumored by Native Americans to produce powerful dreams and is a Kumeyaay Indian sacred site.
On the bedside table was a small ‘sleeping bag’ that encouraged me to slip my cell phone inside and start enjoying my surroundings. The Ranch is a digital, noise-free environment, which can be a struggle for guests who are tethered to their devices. I found the rule refreshing, and after a few days didn’t have the automatic need to check my email the minute I awoke. According ranch staff, the digital-free concept is the most challenging issue at the facility.
While the luxury resort serves a different purpose for each guest, many visitors come for the exercise opportunities. The schedule can be overwhelming, depending on how your brain works. It’s easy to glance at the brochure and feel the need to book every single hour with a different class. The week that I visited was Pilates and Water Week, but that didn’t mean a plethora of other fitness classes weren’t also available. I sampled a variety of classes, including hiking, martial arts (fitness and self-defense), The Wave (water aerobics that’s way more than arm circles at the YMCA), yoga and meditation. My schedule contained many more checks and intentions to attend classes than actually happened, but I found that that is the joy of The Ranch, allowing you to achieve goals while lowering expectations at the same time. The water classes draw a big crowd, so get there early. And since there is no shade at the activities pool, don’t skimp on sunscreen. The cool temperatures (even in July!) can be deceiving and you don’t want to spend your glorious week at The Ranch disguised as a lobster.
Classes are taught by expert instructors and encourage muscle endurance, flexibility and balance. There were even Cardio Drumming, Hip Hop Body Rock, Feldenkrais (increases range of motion), TRX Basics and more. This was a chance to audit a class that I might feel intimidated to try at the local gym without the fear of failure.
The cuisine at Rancho La Puerta (whose tagline is ‘Embrace Your Life’) is primarily vegetarian, (fish and eggs are served) so if you’re a meat and potatoes eater, be prepared. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style, offering a large assortment of delicious foods. Dinner table service offers two entrees, and I learned to order the ‘combo’ in order to sample both choices. The staff pays attention to allergies, and guests can be added to the allergy list so that the cooking staff is aware of any food restrictions. A six-acre organic farm named Tres Estrellas serves the culinary needs for The Ranch. After the organic garden breakfast hike, we toured the garden and learned that they farm without chemical fertilizers. That must be the secret to their food, because everything simply bursts with flavor. I attended a cooking class at La Cocina Que Canta (The Kitchen that Sings) where Chef Raghavan Iyer taught us how to cook an amazing Indian dinner. I learned that a coffee grinder can be used to grind spices; the origins and history of various spices; and most importantly, that cooking can be creative and relaxing. My group concocted anasi curry, which consisted of sweet pineapple with coconut milk and coffee powder and served it at the end of class at a meal where nine dishes were consumed. We were definitely the “I Love Lucy” group, as none of us (three females) really cook, but thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the shared meal.
While Internet access is purposely restricted, there are several locations on The Ranch where guests can hop online to check their messages. These lounges also offer healthy snacks and beverages (the water is treated by reverse osmosis!) such as water with lime, herbs and cucumber. I learned new ways to serve hot tea, such as with fresh ginger and stevia with hot water, or a few simple sprigs of mint.
Art, Workshops and Lectures
Getting in touch with your inner artist is another important aspect of The Ranch. In an hour and a half, Jose Ignacio (Nacho) Castañeda taught my small group of six how to shape a head out of a lump of clay. Castañeda’s uncle, sculptor Victor Hugo Castañeda, created most of the life-size bronze sculptures at The Ranch. Nacho teaches his sculpture classes with a light-hearted attitude, encouraging his students that art is truly for everyone. By comparing the clay to Monsanto tomatoes, olives and carrots, soon my clay morphed into a decent bust that made me proud. If sculpture isn’t your thing, there is jewelry making, watercolor, landscape sketching, as well as an art walk to learn about the various Mexican folk art that decorate the grounds. Additionally, there is an extensive list of guest presenters and workshops offered each week on topics including health, spirituality, art, writing, relationships, education and astrology. This is a vacation centered on discovering self-identity, gratitude and connecting the mind, body and spirit.
Without getting too ‘woo-woo,’ The Ranch is the ideal place to find peace and breathe. Not only by unplugging from technology, but also by enjoying nature with a purpose. Set amongst an ancient oak grove is a labyrinth designed to quiet the mind while simultaneously seeking answers. The meditation classes taught by Phyllis Pilgrim were the most transformative part of my time spent at The Ranch. Pilgrim began teaching yoga at Rancho La Puerta in 1981 and has been an integral part of the facility ever since. The civilian Japanese internment camp survivor (I’m reading her book: The Hidden Passport: Childhood Journey Through Japanese Concentration Camps in Java and wish I had had more time with this incredibly soulful teacher. She represents the rich collection of knowledge and experience that thrives at this spiritual place.
The Ranch Spa’s approach to wellness supports the natural healing system, and encourages guests to schedule cleansing and detoxifying treatments at the beginning of the week, continue mid-week with relaxing treatments and ending the week with energizing ones. I enjoyed the Ranch Remedy Wrap Herbal Wrap with Massage during my stay. The herbal wrap, inspired by a Bavarian priest named Father Sebastian Kneipp, who was known for his water baths. Rosemary from The Ranch’s gardens relaxed the muscles as well as decreased inflammation and purified the skin.
While trekking uphill through a desert landscape to H20 Boot Camp, strangers pass and a shared appreciation for the overall experience is felt. As a solo traveller, I was prepared to meet new people, but also to spend a majority of my time alone. I was okay with that idea, but felt lucky to befriend a group of dynamic women in a nearby casita who became my camp buddies and wouldn’t think of me spending the week alone. This collection of a comedian and musician, arts and crafts teacher retired fashion executive, doctor and an insurance company vice president are really what made the experience worthwhile. Although each woman varied in age, we related to each other and spent the majority of the time swimming in deep laughter. Their colorful stories and thoughtful conversations restored my faith that women can support each other and strangers can share meaningful advice from their mutual experiences. Those are the kind of people you will meet at The Ranch: creative, caring, funny thinkers. But don’t put them all in the NPR box yet; it’s a great mixture of personalities who deserve an introduction.
Rancho La Puerta reminds me of awakening from a meditation. It offers a serenity that can only occur with concerted effort. The Ranch is a place where time and the modern world can be suspended in a dreamlike state. Whether you’re into logging 20,000 steps per day, consuming copious amounts of kale or slipping into a weeklong meditative state, Rancho La Puerta offers a little escape for everyone.