back to the ranch

Looking for a vacation that you can take alone, with your spouse or a few girlfriends? One where your biggest worry will be what spa treatment do you want today? Where you can take in exquisite natural beauty and do nothing or work your buns off rejuvenating both body and soul?

Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico is your place. I just returned from my 3rd visit in as many years. And before you think that’s crazy, by comparison to other guests who are on their 20th or 30th visit even, I’m a newbie. There is just something about this place . . .

First of all, it couldn’t be simpler. The week begins when you are whisked away from the San Diego Airport over the border and onto the grounds of a beautiful mountain retreat. All meals are provided — breakfast and lunch are buffet style and dinner is serviced. There are an array of exercise classes going on every hour of every day from 9 AM until 5 PM — all you need to do is show up. There are guided hikes, hikes and more hikes. Or chill out meditating, doing an art class, bird watching or any number of activities on the agenda. Again, just show up . . . or not. Your vacation. Your choice.

I go to spend the week working out, getting motivated for the coming year and a bit of pampering. With every visit, I have learned a few more tips and tricks on how to make my week as enjoyable as possible.

Here’s how I Ranch:

I start every morning with a hike. I like to hike solo which is frowned on so I’ve taken to starting out about 30 minutes before the morning guided hikes. That way should something happen, the group will be along behind me. Staying on East Coast time helps me be up and out by 6:15 AM.

First to hike, first to breakfast. It’s my favorite meal of the day at the Ranch and I’m not afraid to admit that I eat a lot in prep for the day ahead. Fresh fruit, oatmeal, home made bread and some sort of hot entree are usually on the buffet but what I do, is ask for a custom made omelete — super thin with cheese and fresh vegetables. Special requests are no problem at any time. Just ask.

After Breakfast it’s a quick trip back to my room to gather everything I’ll need for the day.  The grounds are big so you don’t want to be running back and forth — you’ll never make it anywhere on time. The Ranch supplies you with a bag to carry around extra shoes, a sweater, a fresh shirt, a book, whatever you might need. You also get a water bottle when you check in so you stay hydrated — and yes the water is safe to drink. The Ranch uses a reverse osmosis system assuring safety regardless of where you fill up.

Next it’s off to 3 back to back classes from the morning line up. I’ll usually take 2 aerobic classes of some sort that can range from spinning to hoola hooping, to ethnic dance, or even a pool class and one stretch class or a Pilates mat class. Classes start on the hour and run for 45 minutes giving you plenty of time to get to the next. With each visit, I’ve branched out and tried new things. My motto is I can do anything for 45 minutes so why not? The only thing I stay away from is the weight room. Just not my cup of tea but there are plenty of circuit classes and such if you like.

Come noon, it’s time to eat again. There is always a wonderful fresh salad — most of the organic produce is grown right on the grounds and is amazing — and some sort of hot entree being served, vegetarian in nature. Portions are smallish but filling and there is nothing saying you can’t go back for seconds. Your week, your rules, remember? In addition there is always home baked dense breads, cut fruit, cottage cheese and some sort of soup on the side. Trust me you can’t eat too much with all the exercise your doing.

In the afternoon, I take one or two more classes, attend a talk on nutrition or head to a pool for a swim. But the highlight of my afternoon is the spa. I schedule a 90 minute treatment everyday at 3 or 4 PM. The spa is the only thing that costs extra and tipping is the only thing you’ll need cash for all week. I recommend buying a series, it’ll run you from $399 for 5 x 50 minute treatments or $575 for 5 x 90 minute treatments with many other bigger and smaller package options to choose from. Those are pretty great prices when you break it down. Not all treatments are created equal and there are both good and not as good service providers. You’ll compare notes over meals with other spa goers and find what’s right for you. I am partial to:  reflexology, I always get a facial and scalp massage, and the treatment I do multiple times during my stay is the Energy Balance Massage — 90 minutes of sheer bliss mixing massage techniques and reflexology, plus a little woo woo for good measure. Just do it, you won’t regret it — and while you’re at it request Luz Esther as your therapist. On my first visit I did massages in my room instead of the spa and I’ve also tried some of the extras (not part of my package) like acupuncture, Watsu and even Craniosacral Therapy. And I always start out my week with a manicure & pedicure right when I arrive — the best mani/pedi you’ll ever have.

I like to be refreshed and dressed in real clothes for dinner. So after the spa, I shower and throw on something simple like jeans and a sweater, maybe even a little lip gloss. No one will notice if you wear the same thing every night so keep your packing to a minimum. Unless you are traveling with friends or family (Christmas week is a big family week) or request to eat at one of the two top tables, you’ll be seated with a different group of people at every meal. Dinner starts at 6 PM, show up whenever you want thereafter. Dinner always starts with soup and salad followed by a choice of two vegetarian entrees (fish is served every other night) and a dessert in the perfect tiny portion. You can always order a “combo” plate if both entrees sound good to you or large family style portions of the vegetable side dishes to share at the table. Or eat in your room if you prefer. Did I say this is your week, your rules?

After dinner there are evening activities. I honestly have participated in very few as I usually crash early so I can rise early the next morning. Visiting musicians, talks and lectures, art classes, book discussions, bingo, star gazing . . . The Ranch is just as good at mixing these activities up as they are the exercise classes. The one thing not to miss is a talk by founder Deborah Szekely (pronounced zay-kay). At 90 years young she is a real treasure. While The Ranch is her first baby, started with her ex-husband as a pack your own tent almost cult like health retreat, she is also the founder of the uber expensive, ultra plush, Stateside big sister spa The Golden Door and a host of other ventures. She lives in San Diego, does Pilates 4 days a week, is sharp as a tack and looks amazing. Among her advice — an hour a day of exercise isn’t that much to ask in the scheme of things, having younger friends in your circle keeps you young, follow your passion and make sure your week consists of work, fun, attention to your body and improvement to your mind. I like her.

More tips:

Also an extra cost is taking a class at the cooking school. Located a few miles away on the grounds of the garden where all the produce you eat is grown, this is the one evening activity I do partake in. Every week there is a different visiting chef who leads the group in a hands on participation class consisting of multiple courses of healthy and yummy food. There is wine and great camaraderie. I like to take the Tuesday evening class so I meet people and get to know them a little better at the beginning of the week. Classes are also offered Thursday evenings and and lunch both days. Book in advance, space is limited.

The breakfast hike takes place once a week. You walk with the group from the ranch to the cooking school (they call it a simple rolling hills walk, I call it a healthy and challenging walk) but the pay-off is a tour of the garden and a freshly prepared meal that consists of hot chocolate, banana bread and a few other treats. Worth the crazy early morning start.

If you are so inclined, any of the instructors are available for private classes. You simply arrange it with them directly and it will be added to your bill. Each has specialties and sometimes a little individual attention assures you are doing things correctly.

Book your spa treatments online in advance. You can change anything once you’re there but if you know what you want to do and when you want to do it, it’s nice to have it booked so you are sure there are no disappointments.

Made some good friends and want to have a nice meal off campus complete with a Margarita or glass of wine? The staff will take care of all the arrangements, even transportation to and from. A nice break from the regular meal cycle but certainly there is no reason to leave the Ranch if you don’t want to. Most people don’t even know you can venture out. Note: Other than the cooking classes and the final night wine or beer, no alcohol is served at the ranch but you can order a bottle of local wine for your room.

Lastly, don’t worry about traveling to Mexico. The Ranch is supremely safe. It is one of the two largest employers in this small town — the Tecate Brewery being the other. The staff ushers a new group of spa goers in and out of the country every week and have the process down to a science. It is the best run establishment you’ll ever come across and I promise you’ll want to go back again and again.