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It’s a rainy Saturday morning when I arrive at Rancho La Puerta, the picturesque, world-famous destination spa that placed the small town of Tecate (in Baja California, Mexico – just an hour’s drive from San Diego) on the map – over 70 years ago.
After a wearisome plane trip, I am ready for optimal relaxation. And what better place could there be than a spa whose modus operandi is “Siempre Mejor” (Spanish for “always better”), a restorative place whose purpose is to effect change on both a bodily and spiritual level? While the winding drive through enormous granite boulders and the vague scent of wild lilacs and sage have been thoroughly enjoyable, my arrival at Rancho La Puerta is even better. Sprays of cottontail, the occasional glimpse of a quail or fox, and the sight of bees flitting through fragrant rosemary bushes is all part and parcel of the resort’s inimitable beauty. Rancho La Puerta is poetry in motion.
When they founded Rancho La Puerta in 1940, Edmond and Deborah Szekely had a radical vision: combining health and timeless wisdom into a holistic model of life centered on knowing oneself and becoming intimately attuned to nature and both the numinous and corporeal rhythms of life. The ranch has come a long way since its modest beginnings. Now, the family-owned and operated destination spa (often lauded as one of the first outposts to bring the foremost practitioners of yoga and a number of other wellness modalities to the West) is home to three celebrated spas, one of the most innovative fitness programs in the world, and an organic cooking school and garden that offers vital nourishment to all visitors.
Here, you’ll find a place where in the course of seven days and nights, you’ll make lifelong friends, question your assumptions about the human spirit in solitude and among kindred spirits, relax, be challenged, stop to contemplate beneath the stars on more than one crisp silent night, and sleep restfully amidst it all. And given the ranch’s emphasis on health, you’ll also begin to unspool the many marvels of your body and its limitless potential. As Deborah Szekely has noted, “The body is like a universe. Think about it. So many mysteries are just now beginning to unravel.”
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The ranch boasts 87 suites (made up of singles, doubles, triplexes, and quads) that are luxuriously equipped with rustic decor, original Mexican folk art, desks, fireplaces, robes, and sundappled patios. While it’s tempting to cozy up in your room by the fireplace, reading a book or meditating (there are no television sets or radios at the resort, and Internet can only be accessed at the Guest Lounge or computer room), you’ll most likely find yourself emerging from your cocoon every morning with delicious anticipation for the day ahead. Each guest receives a schedule of activities at the beginning of their stay, and by the time my visit was at its end, my own schedule was dog-eared and well-worn with all the decisions that had been enthusiastically made and revised. A scintillating evening program of lectures, films, workshops, and motivational speakers complements the activities of the day—delivered by some of the foremost Tathaastu scholars, community leaders, visionaries, and artists in the world. Luminary lecturers such as journalist Bill Moyers and novelist Erica Jong have entertained and educated visitors for over half a century.
The 3,000-acre property also includes 150 acres of landscaped Mediterranean gardens, native trees, olive groves, herb patches, ponds, and fountains—all of which are so luscious and pleasing to the senses that a contemplative jaunt around the grounds is reason enough to pay Rancho La Puerta a visit.
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Spa cuisine was practically invented at Rancho La Puerta and culinary offerings are an integral component of the entire ranch experience. The emphasis on high flavor and low fat galvanizes resort-goers into action; three meals are offered daily, and the ranch’s dining room is almost always bustling at those times.
The menu at Rancho La Puerta is semi-vegetarian, with seafood options at dinnertime and egg options at breakfast. The catch of the day is hauled in from a local fish market at the port of Ensenada, while fresh eggs hail from the ranch’s chickens. All meals (except dinner) are served buffet-style in the rustic and lovely dining room, whose vaulted ceilings and outdoor terrace and gardens call to mind yet another sacred space in which to contemplate as you nourish yourself. While the cuisine features a hearty mixture of fresh ingredients from the surrounding area, Rancho La Puerta views its particular epicurean penchant as Mexican-Mediterranean. Handpicked organic vegetables and fruits from the vineyards and the six-acre Tres Estrellas (“three stars”) garden festoon all of the plates. You can expect a vibrant and diverse array of assorted green salads, and everything from exotic mushroom soup to delectable Mexican lasagnas.
Guests who’d like a bit more exposure to the clean, uncontaminated soil from which their food grows can pay a visit to Tres Estrellas, which is about two miles up from the resort. An early morning guided hike through meadows culminates in a welcome breakfast, as well as an informative tour of the gardens from head gardener Salvador Tinajero, who will astound you with the many different varieties of lettuce and squash that emerge from the earth here, as well as the aromatherapeutic and herbal uses inherent in the garden’s offerings. Cooking classes at the ranch’s cooking school, La Cocina Que Canta (“the kitchen that sings”) also bring guests directly into contact with the abundance of pure, fresh ingredients plucked straight from the garden. Esteemed guest chefs will aid you in whipping up a feast within a couple of hours.
While weight loss can be a byproduct of visiting Rancho La Puerta, take heed – during my stay, I routinely found myself reaching for generous seconds.
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Rancho La Puerta is a place that exhorts mindful activity, so even if you find yourself sweating after a particularly vigorous circuit training class or tennis clinic, you’ll find yourself doing so with alertness and poise that make you fully aware of your body, spirit, and surroundings. Transitioning from exercise to pure indulgence isn’t such a far stretch. The three spas at the resort promote tranquility, relaxation, and a surrender to beauty that complements the exhilaration of your day.
The Men’s Health Center and Women’s Health Center each contain clothingoptional lounge areas, locker rooms, showers, sauna, steam room, an outdoor whirlpool and patio, as well as an assortment of personal services to mollify the senses and soothe the mind and body. The co-ed Villas Health Center, which also offers an outdoor sunbathing area and whirlpool bath, similarly provides various treatments; these include nine different varieties of massage, purifying organic facials, herbal body wraps, manicures and pedicures, and makeup consultations.
Rancho La Puerta utilizes Amala and Primavera Life Skincare, which hails from a German-based wellness company that focuses on green practices; all products use 100% whole plant ingredients that are sustainably sourced, organically grown, and custom-distilled to provide full therapeutic value. “Amala,” which translates to “most pure” in Sanskrit and “revered mother” in Tibetan, is a suitable name for the choice blends administered by the spas’ knowledgeable therapists.
While many visitors swear by the herbal wraps and four-hand Abhyanga massages, I was particularly taken by the Five Elements Body Treatment, a proprietary service that addresses the body’s many vital organs and tissues, each of which has similar properties to the five “elements” of Chinese medicine: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. This comforting and restorative 90-minute treatment begins with a full-body dry brush and includes a variety of essential oil applications and massages that aim to release blockages in the physical and energetic body. It is a deeply relaxing service that exemplifies the ranch’s holistic approach to health and nature, wherein the microcosm truly is representative of the macrocosm.
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Perhaps one of the most aesthetically and spiritually rewarding activities you’ll partake of at Rancho La Puerta is one of the many hikes that leave from the Guest Lounge each day at dawn. While the hikes range from strenuous to moderate but my favorite trail was the two-mile Woodlands, which meanders through the river basin among a grove of meditative oak trees. As I wound through the grove with Phyllis, our intrepid hiking leader and a seasoned meditation teacher, I marveled at the peak that juts out so majestically from this terrain, the 3,885-foot Mt. Kuchumaa. The peak sits right below the U.S.-Mexico border, and the native Kumeyaay tribe who lived on the land for hundreds of years viewed its slopes and summit as a sacred and exalted “high place.” The Kumeyaay considered Kuchumaa a wellspring of energy, the very womb of creation. The summit was such a powerful spot that only initiated spiritual shamans were permitted to ascend to that level. Other people in the tribe gathered regularly in the valleys and oak woodlands.
Indeed, the serenity that permeates the entire region makes it a magical place – one where the sinuous Kumeyaay Creek flows quietly into the Tecate River. The low cries of ravens, golden eagles, and red-tailed hawks fill the sky, and the scampering of cottontail rabbits pierces the hush of the land. It’s not difficult, hundreds of years in the wake of the Kumeyaay people, to understand why the land itself was a metaphor for the very life force of its inhabitants. While I watch the sun rise over the frosty peak of Mt. Kuchumaa on my final day at the ranch, I listen wistfully but with appreciation as Phyllis recites a poem by the ancient Indian bard, Kalidasa:
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Look to this day!
For it is life,
The very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities
And realities of your existence,
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendor of beauty.
For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision,
But today well-lived
Makes every yesteryear a dream of happiness,
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day!
Such is the Salutation to the Dawn.