I’d been told two things before my trip to Rancho La Puerta, a destination spa in Tecate, Mexico: That the food portions were small and I would probably want to pack a few snacks in my bag; there was no wifi and no TV in our rooms.
I arrived at the ranch at lunchtime, mid-week. Most people come for a full seven days, but I opted for a Wednesday-Saturday, not sure what I would do at a spa for seven straight days. I mean, how many massages can one person get? And no internet? What would I do with my time?
I loaded up my tray with slices of gluten-free pizza, a cold cucumber soup, fresh honeydew and watermelon, cottage cheese, and the most beautiful salad I’d ever seen. I knew that I wouldn’t need to take a snack run anytime soon.
The dining room was filled with mostly women, mostly middle-aged, in yoga pants and tennis shoes. Many of them had come from one of the more than 70 exercise classes that are held weekly on the ranch. I was handed a schedule, a map, and a pedometer and told I would probably get lost at least once on the 3,000 acre property, nestled in a valley below the sacred Mt. Kuchumaa. It’s true, I got lost at least once every day I was there, but the property — with its stone sculptures, oak groves and wildflower gardens — is so beautiful, I was often happier where I ended up than where I had planned on going.
I scheduled two spa treatments and looked at the class schedule to see if there was anything more interesting than the hammocks that taunted me from the shady grove just outside my room. I was delighted to learn that not only was it writer’s week, but one of the writing workshops was being taught by an author I greatly admired. I hurried from lunch to her workshop, already in progress.
The 12 women and one man sat in a circle, all already familiar to one another — they’d been attending the workshop all week. We talked about words we liked and disliked and then wrote from a prompt and shared our sentences out loud.
After the workshop, I decided to forgo the options of circuit training, hydro-fit, and the skin care seminar to check into my room, a large studio with cool tile floors and Mexican folk art on the walls.
I contemplated the hammocks, but instead decided to push myself and try something out of my comfort zone: the crystal bowl sound healing workshop. I scrambled my way into class late (I got lost), where 15 or so people were already prone with pillows under their knees and beanbags on their eyes. I tried to stay open minded as the instructor, in a singsong voice, urged us to breathe orange light into our centers — orange light, ripe like a mango — as she softly gonged different tones from the crystal bowls. I tried to breathe and relax, but instead was annoyed with the snoring of the guy next to me.
I left a little more agitated than when I came in and was thankful for my first spa treatment, called Happy Hands and Feet. When I stepped into the spa and breathed in the different massage oil scents and was handed a glass of cold mint water, I immediately began to relax. By the time the foot and hand massage was over, I was happy I’d come all this way, if only just for that.
After dinner, there were only two options, a movie or a lecture by one of the visiting writers. I opted for the lecture and somehow felt immediately welcomed by a room full of strangers. I’d only been at the ranch for a few hours, but I was already beginning to see the magic of the place. People letting their guard down, being open.
Many of the visitors who come to Rancho La Puerta come every year, sometimes multiple times a year. I met a few women who were on their thirtieth visit to the Ranch, which was started in 1940 by now 91-year-old health pioneer Deborah Szekely. Repeatedly voted the #1 destination spa in the world by the readers of Travel + Leisure magazine, the patrons come back year after year for the friendships, the spiritual focus, the fitness and health classes, but also for the culture they’ve created here that encourages personal growth, spirituality, creativity, and healthy living.
I was back in my room and in bed by 9:30. It was very dark and quiet and it seems nothing goes on past 9:00. Which was just as well, because I signed up for a 6:00 am organic breakfast hike, four miles round trip to the organic garden that produces much of the food we ate on the ranch.
I was a little sleepy and running late (lost again) when I met up with the group. It was a beautiful morning and I would have been happy to hike in silence, listening to the birds, but my friendly co-hikers chatted me up about jobs and relationships and previous visits to the ranch. That was one thing I didn’t have to worry about on this trip, feeling alone in a crowd. People were friendly and open and wanted to hear my story and tell their own. It was precious.
Breakfast was delicious and the farm tour with Salvador was inspiring. I’d never seen someone talk with such passion about fruits and vegetables as he pulled a ripe melon from the vine and sliced it open, sharing with each of us a sliver.
“We don’t grow vegetables here, we grow soil,” Salvador told us, explaining the organic farming techniques that he’s developed as head farmer for the ranch.
Attached to Rancho La Puerta is a cooking school, La Cocina que Canta. Although I love to cook, I don’t consider myself a foodie and wouldn’t normally sign up for a cooking class, but a friend signed me up to take an Indian cooking class with visiting chef Raghavan Iyer. After a brief lecture about traditional Indian cooking — potatoes are in everything, cool and spicy pair well together — we divided up into groups and each prepared one part of an authentic Indian meal: banana fritters, tamarind date chutney, potato leek soup, fish fillets poached in chiles, scallions and tomatoes, pilaf, and cashew pistachio bars.
As we sat down to appreciate the meal we’d just created, with local fresh ingredients and a sense of teamwork and bonding with my co-cooks, I took in a deep breath and felt the stress of my outside life start to fade away.
I loved the breakfast hike so much that I signed up for another short, steep hike the next morning. Again, my companions were chatty, but this time, I appreciated that they were trying to make me feel welcome and a part of the community they cherish so much.
After the hike, I signed up for another massage and this time spent some time relaxing in the saunas and hot tubs in the spa. There were so many classes, lectures, and workouts going on, that it was hard to will myself to sit still and relax, but that, too, is something people come to Rancho La Puerta for.
All too soon my visit was over and I boarded the bus to head back to the airport. As soon as we crossed the US border, I pulled out my cell phone to check my email and realized I hadn’t missed the internet connection. Instead, I’d spent time connecting with myself. And that was enough.
Disclosure: This trip was part of a sponsored trip for journalists, but the opinions are 100% the author’s.
All photos are courtesy of the author.