Rancho La Puerta
Nourishing Body, Mind & Spirit at the World’s First Destination Spa & Fitness Ranch
Crisp mountain air fills up my lungs as I breathe heavily in the light of the early morning. As I make my final ascent to the summit of the rocky mountain, my legs burn in the best possible way. I follow the narrow path around prickly shrubs and boulders, striving to pick up my pace as I approach the summit. A few more labored steps and I’m there. My gaze shifts up and out from the path to the infinite blanket of craggy hills that stretches before me and melts into the hazy horizon. Inhaling a deep and invigorating breath, my heart swells with satisfaction as I stand firmly rooted to the top of the mountain and feast my eyes upon the scenery. For a long moment, as I rest in the stillness of the early morning listening to the rhythm of my own breath, it is just me and the earth, alone in a stroke of sacred companionship. Magic.
And so begins my week-long stay at Rancho La Puerta, the world’s first destination spa and fitness ranch located just south of San Diego in Tecate, Mexico, where the resort aims to help guests develop a lifetime of healthy habits. Founded in 1940 by husband and wife duo Edmond and Deborah Szekely, to this day the ranch is still family-owned and operated. Guests are housed in over 80 small “casitas,” or adobe-style Mexican cottages complete with brick patios and scenic landscaping. Most guests stay from Saturday to Saturday at the ranch, enjoying a full week of what I can only describe as a full body wellness immersion.
Rancho La Puerta initiated the concept of the Fitness Week, offering different classes to choose from that take place every hour on the hour with 4 to 10 options each hour of a typical day. Early morning hikes through the rolling hills are one of guests’ most loved experiences (including mine), but in truth, all of the activities are simply unparalleled in the spa and fitness resort world. Offering everything from yoga and Pilates to cardio boxing and water aerobics classes, the program at Rancho La Puerta strikes the ideal balance between physical fitness and spiritual renewal. Classes on meditation, mindful eating, balanced nutrition, postural therapy, and spiritual restoration are offered daily as well.
As a person who enjoys exercise, I could not have been happier with my fitness experience at the ranch. With gyms and other buildings scattered across the property and connected by immaculately maintained brick paths, I walked constantly and had plenty of time to soak in the sights, smells, and sounds of the beautiful scenery. Designed by Deborah Szekely’s daughter, Sarah, the gardens and architecture alone took my breath away. From the hand-carved wooden door of my casita to the intricately painted signs around the property, the accommodations at the ranch held an authentic beauty that swelled with history.
But the most impressive and deeply appreciated aspect of my stay at Rancho La Puerta was not the architecture, the fitness classes, or even the delightful weather I experienced during the week. It was the cuisine. Over sixty years of culinary creativity, research, and experimentation have culminated to form what is now one of the most acclaimed features of life at the ranch: all natural, high quality, nutritious, and tasteful food! The ranch procures as much organic produce as possible from their nearby six-acre organic farm, which is then used in everything from refreshing salads to cleansing soups to naturally sweet desserts. Low in fat, sodium, and refined flour and sugar, Rancho La Puerta’s cuisine is largely vegetarian-based with sustainable seafood options offered on most days.
Meals at the ranch are served at the central dining hall during designated times throughout the day. Much to my delight, the ranch makes a very special effort to meet and exceed the needs of guests with dietary restrictions. Sourcing gluten-free and dairy-free meals when I’m traveling almost always feels like an uphill battle that leaves me tired, emotionally drained, and usually still hungry. Not so at Rancho La Puerta.
I began my days with an energizing breakfast, served buffet-style each morning, of scrambled egg whites, steamed vegetables, fresh tomato salsa, fresh fruit, and green juice. Two buffet lines were laden with wholesome food each morning, one of which was designated as the “Pure and Simple” line and contained no gluten, dairy, nuts, oils, or sweeteners of any kind. Breakfast varied slightly from day to day, often including cooked quinoa, corn tortillas, gluten-free oatmeal, pancakes or French toast, and muffins in addition to the eggs, fruit, and vegetables. Yet another area of the dining hall was the “Gluten-Free Station” with additional options such as gluten-free cereal and granola, almond and coconut milk, chia seeds and flax seeds, dried fruits, and more. Needless to say, there was never a lack of breakfast choices for me!
After a morning of fitness classes and lots of walking, I welcomed the sound of the noon lunch bell, which beckoned me into the dining hall once again for a beautiful buffet-style spread of fresh salads, soups, and open-faced sandwiches. If ever I felt that I needed more food to keep me fueled and going strong, I simply asked the kitchen staff for extra almond butter, fruit, avocado slices, or tuna and they were more than happy to grant my requests.
As I sat down to meals each day in the dining hall, it was an unexpected pleasure to meet so many warm and wonderful fellow ranchers throughout the week. We quickly learned each other’s names, home towns, and family backgrounds as we savored our meals. Sharing meals in a communal setting was an unexpected and very enjoyable aspect of the trip. By the week’s end, I felt like many of the guests were old friends.
Dinner in the dining hall was served plated at the table every night. I simply placed my special name card in front of my plate so that the server knew who I was and what my food allergies were, and the chef took it from there. I was certain that as I ate four-course dinners every night over seven days, there would surely be a day where they would “slip up” and give me cheese on my salad or croutons on my soup. But I was wrong. Not once was I served a meal that didn’t meet my needs. Every plate was a work of art at Rancho La Puerta, styled in a simple but sophisticated way.
During the middle of my stay, I attended a hands-on cooking class at the ranch’s nearby cooking school, La Cocina Que Canta, which translates to The Kitchen That Sings. Nestled in the center of Rancho La Puerta’s organic farm, the cooking school brings visiting chefs in every week of the year to instruct guests in various types of cuisine. All of the recipes, no matter the chef, focus on using fresh produce and seasonal ingredients whenever possible. As Chef Denise Roa, executive chef and director of La Cocina Que Canta, spoke with me about her love for nutritious and fresh-picked ingredients, her passion for food swept through the kitchen like a warm gust of summer air, breathing inspiration into the deepest part of me. As I savored the fruits of my labor with the other guests, I found myself satisfied by not just the meal itself but also the sensory, cultural and culinary experience of the evening as a whole.
Throughout the remainder of my week at the ranch, I continued to seek balance between physical activity and spiritual restoration. Reclining on the patio provided rest for my sore muscles, while strolling through the grounds to breathe in the warm scents of rosemary and lavender helped to clear my mind, settle my spirit, and energize my senses. All in all, I found the entire experience at Rancho La Puerta to be thoroughly relaxing, but stimulating enough to satisfy even an adventurer’s roaming spirit.
On the final day before my departure from the ranch, I arose early in the morning to tackle the challenging Coyote Hike, a trek I had heard other ranchers describe as stunningly beautiful. Ten minutes into the hike, I pulled off my jacket as my body grew warm beneath the sun’s first rays. As I gained elevation step by step, I looked up from the path at one point to see red-tails and ravens soaring at eye level. I paused to let my gaze rest upon the sea of textured greenery that cloaked the mountains.
There in that magical place, with its rustic beauty and rugged charm, I forgot the struggles of life in my day-to-day world and let my mind take an interlude of rest. On an exhale, I slowly released the tension from my rigid neck and my tight shoulders. As I did on the first hike, I sought stillness as I listened to the rhythmic cadence of my breathing, soft and airy like the voice of the breeze in the oak trees. I filled up my lungs with one last salubrious breath, drawing the peace and stability of the earth—the magic that all of us seek, but few of us find—deep into the memory of my soul.
Written by Hallie Klecker