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Rancho La Puerta

One Monday afternoon a dozen perfect long-stemmed roses were delivered to a hacienda at Rancho La Puerta where Sandy E. of Seattle, WA was staying. The gift was sent by a gentleman she met at the Ranch the previous week.

New Gyms
Credit: Vivian K. Fancher

Fast forward 18 years later. Sandy returned to Rancho La Puerta for the twentieth time. Tall, blond, and fit, she sat beside me at dinner on the first night and reminisced about her many experiences during the almost two decades she had been coming to the Tecate, Mexico spa. Among the stories she shared was one about a man whose acquaintance she made during another visit. "We hit it off immediately and went together for several years," she said.

"Did you meet him during the summer of 1988 and did he send you flowers during your second week here?" I asked as I, too, had been a guest that year and remembered some details of a romance that started at the resort. No one at the table was surprised when Sandy answered "yes" to both my questions.

Age had wrought its changes and we did not recognize one another, but the fact that we discovered through conversation that we had known each other previously seemed plausible. To all of our tablemates and especially Betsy L. from L.A. who remarked, “There is a mystique about this place,” the evening’s encounter was completely reasonable.

Deborah Szekely, who with her husband Edmond co-founded a health camp on the site in 1940, would agree. The week I visited she stayed at her on-property home to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the first destination fitness resort ever. During a conversation with guests she said that she feels that camp was struck in this very place because “the mountain" Kuchumaa, whose summit and slopes are sacred to the Kumeyaay Indians "wanted us here.”

Sandy is hardly alone in her attachment to this Baja California oasis. Many guests return annually to the year-round haven and often on the same week. Some book stays several times a year. Duke L., of San Francisco was on his 100th visit and New Yorker Paul G. was back for the 27th time. Shirley M. from Montreal, who was wearing a tee-shirt welcoming her on her 10th trip, said that once you come here you “get hooked” and “this is where you can get off the world.” Eileen S., a Californian and 25-year veteran, “really took the ranch home with her” and became a vegetarian. She goes on the most strenuous hikes and by mid-week had lost 4-1/2 pounds.

Pilates Reformer Class in the Pilates Studio
Credit: Vivian K. Fancher

Every regular has a story to tell about how the retreat affected his or her life. When San Diegoan Allan L. originally visited in 1961 he came for rehabilitation after a plane crash. What he loves most is that “everyone fits in.” Californian Alan W., a nine-time repeater, arrived here following surgery, a divorce, and an earthquake. “This is a place to find solace after a crisis,” he said.

What is surprising about the spa is that unlike so many others, it is not exclusively a woman’s thing. I met three married men who came solo and not for the first time. They all said that the Ranch is their special place and their wives prefer other types of vacations

Arrivals are on Saturdays and for full week stays only. Guests are met at the San Diego Airport and transported by van across the border. During the ride to the fitness resort, a grown-up camp, several vacationers talked of meeting at a central depot to travel in a group to that unique province of childhood, overnight camp. More early memories of summers spent away from the city were awakened at afternoon orientation when programs were distributed and first-time guests toured the exquisite landscaped grounds filled with trees, gardens, fountains, bronze sculptures, a vineyard, and winding roads and paths between tiled-roofed buildings. Initially you might feel overwhelmed like the kid who can’t find his bunk, but soon you put away the flash light, disregard the map, and travel from one activity center to another without losing your way.

Dance Class with Yuichi
Credit: Vivian K. Fancher

If the walk around part of the 3,000-acre desert spread fails to arouse nostalgia, your first early morning glimpse of the setting will. At dawn when the mist rolls off the Sierra Madre Mountains and the setting moon still dominates the sky, evenly spaced lanterns light the tiled walkways that lead to the foothills. As the darkness starts to evaporate the rising sun sends streaks across the rocky elevations and the earth glows in rich brown and sunny orange tones.

From 6:00 a.m. until almost 7:00 guests pour out of their rancheras, haciendas, and villas to start their days by climbing the heights. Some say that an early morning trek is the apex of the day and the activity that most exhilarates. Scheduled throughout the week are 11 different hikes varying in mileage covered, time spent, and difficulty of the terrain. The bird walk, woodlands mediation, and rolling hills hikes (really more like a meadow) were designed for novices. Of the five mountain hikes, one was slower paced, another covered seven miles and two were quite steep and difficult. Maryland native Harlyne B. enjoyed Tuesday’s 4-mile, 2-1/2 hour organic garden breakfast hike so much that she signed up for one on Friday. Harlyne noted that the gardener’s love of Tres Estrellas where the spa’s organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs grow was passionate. “He glowed when he talked about the rich soil, recycling, and the plants,” she said.

After hiking most participants are ravenous and hotfoot it to the dining room. Villa guests have the option of eating a poolside breakfast. An old-fashioned big brass bell left over from camp days rings to announce mealtimes. In keeping with the current trend at spas the food police have disappeared, portion size is self-determined, and limitless healthy vegetarian foods are served. The breakfast buffet overflows with fresh, dried and stewed fruit, juice, hard-cooked eggs, yogurt, granola and several other cold cereals, cottage cheese, muffins, orange bread, guava jam, and occasionally scrambled eggs or whole wheat pancakes. Per serving calorie and fat grams are posted at each station. Lunch usually consists of soup, a hot entree, one or two main dish salads and a blitz plate for dieters. At three-course dinners, which are served at tables accommodating up to 10 persons, there are several choices and fish appears on the menu often.

It’s up to each guest to determine his or her own program for the remainder of the day. As many as six classes take place every hour from 9:00 until 5:00 and more than 40 might be offered in a day. With no one looking over your shoulder your degree of participation is your own choice. But guests are enthusiastic and self-motivated and tend to select very full schedules. I rarely saw anyone lying in one of the hammocks that are set up in shady places.

Walking the Labyrinth
Credit: Vivian K. Fancher

Challenging classes include several levels of the usual yoga, pilates reformer and matwork, stretch, water works, cardio cycling, fitball, circuit training, tennis clinic, volleyball, healthy backs, sculpt and strengthen, cardio boxing, body bar workout, and tai chi. A frequent visitor commented that she liked the Ranch because so many of the classes are progressive. I know of no other fitness resort where certain skills are taught on the first day with a follow-through at the same time the rest of the days of the week.

Dance, sometimes referred to as painless exercise, was offered in the form of all that dance, salsa, and ballet. The most popular dance classes are led by Yuichi Sugiyama, an L.A-based performer and choreographer, who teaches routines from Broadway shows and 1930s musicals. He often plays songs by Cole Porter and from Rodgers and Hammerstein collaborations. Even if you have two left feet dancing with Yuichi will make you feel like Ginger Rogers or Gene Kelley. His class is a great morale booster because he is elated and smiling.

There are two changing special presentations every week. When I was a guest, extra movement sessions, Nia, which incorporates dance, were scheduled daily with a visiting instructor. Classes with spiritual or mind-body aspects are as important as exercise. It seems unlikely that rhythm and drumming would fall into that category, but it does along with meditation, labyrinth, inner journey, and the medicine wheel. The design of the labyrinth is copied from the one at the Cathedral of Chartres.


Wine Tasting with Carol Girard,
Girard Winery
Credit: Vivian K. Fancher

Said Manhattanite Carole K., “I entered with a problem, but the labyrinth told me to leave it behind, go forward and journey through to a solution and I did.” Besides using the labyrinth to solve a problem you might enter and free associate as you walk or seek enlightenment.

David Dorian Ross who guided Inner Journey for six consecutive days said that the journey was designed to introduce different kinds of consciousness, to take you on a variety of pathways, and to think about “who am I?” and “why am I here?” Madeleine Randall, M.D. lectured about the Medicine Wheel for Renewal and its place in balancing the mind, body, spirit, and emotions and promoting healing.

Culinary Week was the second specialty presentation. Chefs Michel Stroot, whose forte ia spa cuisine, and Martin San Roman, who owns a Mexican restaurant in Tijuana, gave cooking demonstrations. As part of the program vintner Carol Girard of Girard Winery in Oakville, California led a tasting of Baja California wines. For the third time an optional afternoon and evening wine country tour of Baja California’s Valle De Guadalupe was introduced. Tastings took place on the bus and at three wineries. Dinner was served at the Adobe Guadalupe Winery.

In between the workouts you can attend Spanish and arts and crafts classes and create Mexican-style yarn paintings, jewelry, prayer arrows, wreathes, and more. You can also slip off to town to sit in the plaza and soak up some of the local atmosphere. Some of the lectures and discussions about health and well-being take place during the day as well as in the evenings along with entertainment that includes games in the recreation center, music, movies, and bingo.

Medicine Wheel, Madeleine Ran-
dall, MD. Credit: Vivian K. Fancher

After viewing a video about the history of the Ranch and looking at the memorabilia in the recreation center, the next step in learning about the origins of the spa is a visit to the adobe residence where the Szekely family lived from 1940-1950. One of the army crates, which was purchased for $125 each and used for guest accommodations after the war, still stands in the front yard. Two cement blocks form the Sumerian baths, which interested Edmund so much. Inside the old homestead are some of the old-fashioned items that were needed for everyday living back in the 40s—a coal stove, coffee grinder, iron kitchen utensils, and a manual typewriter and sewing machine.

Starting in 1983 the Ranch began an ambitious renovation of all major facilities, transforming them to a more elegant, yet still rustic Spanish colonial style. Profits were put back into the property as it was Deborah’s wish to create employment for local artisans and craftsmen participating in the on-going construction. The gyms were redone. The ones that were open-air are now enclosed. The new Mexican colonial dining room is a handsome two-story structure. Access to the second floor is attained by a grand spiral staircase encircling a fireplace. Balconies, terraces, and arbors are set with tables for those who wish to dine outdoors.

The design principle is that nothing is mismatched. All edifices on the property shine with happy hues. Some interior walls are hand-painted with smiling flowers. The more colorful and the brighter, the better. Brilliant reds, oranges and, pinks say “south of the border.” Accommodations are individually decorated, but all have tiled terrazzo floors, woven rugs, ceramic pottery, folk art, paintings, and sculptures. In other buildings you find woven straw chairs, carved and painted wood, and embroidery. In a sense Rancho La Puerta has resident artists as the work of James Hubbell, executed in several mediums, is present and rotating collections of yarn paintings by Timothy Hinchliff hang in the dining hall.

Friday Night Outdoor Dinner
Credit: Vivian K. Fancher

Treatments are offered at the women’s, men’s, and villas health centers, comfortable, attractive buildings that did not exist at the time of my long ago visit. The house massage and therapy rooms, lounging areas, hot tubs, saunas, and private spaces for nude sunbathing. Personal services have been upgraded. In addition to the garden variety of massages, wraps and facials, five new Yon-Ka, a high-end French product line, body and facial treatments have been introduced along with three specialized massages.

In a 90-minute energy massage the therapist determined my ideal level of pressure. With a goal of restoring energy and balancing the chakras she massaged every part of my body including toes, fingers, and temples. Then she sprayed me with an herbal mixture of rosemary and eucalyptus. She finished by lighting candles and walking around the table many times while waving a candle over me to discover my aura. The Ranch’s hot riverstone massage is different from other stone massages. Stones are laid on the stomach, back, and palms and they are used along with the hands to rub hot oil on the body, particularly the hands, neck, and limbs. Le grande classique facial left me with cleansed pores and glowing skin.

After such a jam-packed week, Friday, the last complete day, came quickly. It was filled with special treats like chocolate chip cookies at lunch, wine in the evening and a great big outdoor dinner party with lace cut paper banners for decorations. The super special evening took place on my birthday. Harlyne, my pal of 50 years, ordered a cake as a surprise. My new week-old friends sat at our table and sang “Happy Birthday” before I blew out the candles. The ever tireless Yuichi danced up a storm and the Fiesta Band never stopped playing. It felt like the other 125 people who danced and partied were also guests at my celebration. I had never before had such a big birthday bash.

Rancho La Puerta, Tecate, Baja California, Mexico. Tel. 800-443-7565. http://www.rancholapuerta.com

Fall, 2005