Spa at Rancho la Puerta in Baja California, Mexico
Remember the vibe from summer camp? Relieve the experience as an adult with pampering, fitness and spa thrown into the mix at Rancho la Puerta. At the end of the week you’ll leave relaxed, happy and with several fast friends you’ll be sad to leave.
“Take my sweatshirt,” Faye offers, taking it off as I’m protesting that then she’d be the one cold without it. “No,” she says, “It’s fine.”It’s not often that you meet someone on holiday that will literally give you the shirt off their back, but it’s typical if you vacation at the fitness spa Rancho la Puerta in Baja California, Mexico. “The Ranch,” as devotees call it, is known as the world’s friendliest spa and it’s easy to see why during my week here. Named the top spa in the world last year by Condé Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure, Rancho la Puerta isn’t the most luxurious place for pampering in the spa world, but the positive energy buzzing through the 3,000 acre compound and the down-to-earth vibe more than make up for it. “I think of the Ranch as a person; it developed its own personality,” said Deborah Szekely, the 93-year-old who founded the Ranch 75 years ago with her husband. “This wasn’t a planned venture. The aura it has comes from thousands of happy guests. It happened on its own. Somehow we were just meant to be.”
SUMMER CAMP. The camaraderie starts the minute the bus picks you up at the San Diego airport to drive to Mexico. I think to myself, “I feel like I’m going to summer camp,” and that feeling is echoed throughout the week. Think summer camp meets Dirty Dancing meets spa and you have Rancho la Puerta. Many of the more than 150 guests become fast friends and you’ll never lack for a dining companion or someone to chuckle with during the legendary “Bingo with Barry,” a PG-13 version of the game. Twice daily, a bell rings to signal breakfast and lunch are ready. If this is camp, I may have been wrong to swear off it years ago. By no means am I roughing it at camp. I am in the Villa Sol section of the Ranch. I prefer this part of the property because it is very quiet. Other areas pick up road noises and dogs barking that would have made it hard for me to relax. I have a large studio villa complete with bedroom, living area, fireplace, and expansive patio with views of Mount Kuchumaa. There are no TVs (no problem) and no Wi-Fi (adjustment required) in the rooms. At night, I find myself curled up by the wood-burning fire, book in hand and some spa music setting the mood.
COOKING SCHOOL. Days start early at the Ranch because the hiking program is one of the most popular activities and the latest start time is 7 am. Needless to say, I don’t make any official hikes, other than the organic breakfast walk that I was told was so iconic that I wouldn’t get my Rancho la Puerta merit badge without it. Despite the 6:10 am start time, the two-mile walk to the Ranch’s cooking school and organic gardens was worth it. Garden master Salvatore’s passion for the produce we were eating that morning was infectious as he showed off his six-acre garden. Healthy eating is a hallmark of the Ranch. Szekely has advocated organic plant-based diets for 75 years, and one of the goals of the Ranch is for people to start to understand the tainting that has happened to the food supply and to feel the difference that eating fresh, organic and seasonal produce has on how they feel while they’re here. Breakfast and lunch are buffet affairs, while dinner is a sit-down, multi-course feast. The menus are vegetarian, though there is a seafood option, and food allergies can be accommodated. Alcohol isn’t offered in the grand Spanish Colonial dining room (other than for the last night) but you can do as I did and make your way to the wine bar, Bazar del Sol, and try some surprisingly good Mexican wine. As a bonus, there is Wi-Fi here too.
YOUR INNER CHILD. Fitness classes are another main focus of the Ranch. Each day, upwards of 40 classes are offered in everything from the common body bar, core, Pilates and yoga classes to the more interesting Feldenkrais method, cardio drumming and hula-hoop. Just like camp, the idea is for you to connect with your inner child and see what speaks to you. Of course, this being a spa, there is also a strong focus on the mind and spirit. Since my physical fitness is pretty good and my stress response less than good, I try to attend the morning and afternoon meditations. I do find myself being able to channel my type-B self more during the week, owing to a combination of the meditation, overall environment and being free from the things that bother me at home. The week I’m there, life coach Emily Boorstein is giving a talk every day on “inner fitness”. I love the term. I’m a fitness freak and, like most people, neglect the internal work, preferring to focus on getting a six-pack. In the sessions, Boorstein shows how to create a better internal dialogue, become more powerful and take responsibility for yourself, your actions and your interactions. A strong speaker programme is another hallmark of the Ranch. Throughout the week there are topics ranging from astronomy to politics to sensuality and sexuality. I was surprised and happy to see a spa branch away from the standard programmes you’d expect.
VARIOUS TREATMENTS. What you do expect at a spa are spa services and there are plenty to choose from at the Ranch. Unlike some destination spas, there is no allotment included in your stay. When scheduling treatments, it’s best to do cleansing treatments at the start of your week, relaxing services mid-week and energising ones a day before heading home. Choose from offerings like the rosemary loofah salt glow, the four-hands massage, the Japanese restorative facial or energy work. I did the obligatory standard massage, but it was the more specialised work that stood out. The week I was there, Pete, a visiting specialist who was the former dive master for Cirque du Soleil, was the Watsu therapist. The treatment was in the outdoor heated pool and, like my past experiences with Watsu, Pete guided me in a series of motions using the entire pool. Unlike in the past where I felt it was womb-like, this time it felt like flying. Pete also guided me underwater, which tends to make a person let go and relax even more. The other service I really enjoyed was craniosacral work. I was hoping this energy treatment could help balance my go-go-go personality. Clearly I was a challenging case as the therapist asked if he could work a few minutes longer because my adrenals wouldn’t stop racing. That can’t be good, right?
THERAPEUTIC ART. They say art is therapeutic, so I take my racing adrenals over to the art studio to try one of the clay classes being offered. Full disclosure: I love painting, drawing and sculpting and I have the talent of a four-year-old so I was expecting the bust I sculpted to look more Picasso than Rodin. The instructor, Jose, broke down the process of creating a face into elements I could do: “Make a ball the size of an orange. Make a ball the size of a golf ball,” he instructed. From these basic shapes, he showed me how to sculpt a face and by the end of the class I was awestruck. I loved the sculpture I had created. Loved it so much that I elected to pay to have it bronzed. You can’t beat that kind of souvenir! Much too soon it was time to leave the Ranch and I felt like a kid heading home from summer camp, sad to say goodbye to the new friends I had met. During my week, I had met a group of about of 50 women who had all met at the Ranch and now come back the same time every year together. After a week here, I can see how that could happen, and I’d be happy to return annually for a Ranch reunion with the friends I’ve made this year.