Rancho La Puerta

Just south of the border is an oasis of well-being for body, mind and spirit.

By Leslie A. Westbrook


irds sing on a beautiful spring morning as I stroll to a lovely casita at Rancho La Puerta.

I am returning from a pre-dawn hike that culminated with an amazing breakfast buffet and a tour of the retreat’s spectacular organic vegetable garden that provides much of the bounty for guests’ daily meals. Here, in this moment, life is good.

Post-fire and -mudslides, my suitcases for once were packed for travel, not evacuation. A friend and I headed to Tecate, Mexico, home of Rancho La Puerta, a world of exercise, healthy organic food and spa treatments . . . as well as mentally stimulating and soul-stirring offerings. Suffering from the winter doldrums and a severe case of “evacuation head,” it seemed the ideal spring destination.

Passports in hand, we drove five hours south to the California border and crossed into an oasis of health and wellness known as Rancho La Puerta, founded in 1940 by Edmond and Deborah Szekely.

After parking our car on the U.S. side, Rancho staff whisked us and our bags across to Mexico. A 10-minute drive took us to the resort, where we were warmly greeted at the front desk and handed welcome packets that included the schedule of events for the week, profiles of the amazing guest lecturers/artists/teachers, spa offerings and more.

We were escorted via lovely pathways and verdant natural landscape to our suite, beautifully decorated with tile and Mexican folk art. We took delight in mountain views, a fireplace and outdoor patios in our spacious casita nestled into the 4,000-acre resort.

A walking orientation tour of the grounds and an explanation of the schedule followed. Our stay would clearly include a dizzying array of choices, five offered each hour, on the hour. Nia, Feldenkrais, crystal-bowl sound healing, cooking and Spanish classes and much more.

Our delish first dinner — the resort’s high-fiber meals are mostly vegetarian with fish offered several nights; no meat is served at the ranch — was at a shared table that included a couple from Martha’s Vineyard and two sisters, one from Santa Fe, one from Santa Cruz. At every meal, you have an opportunity to sit with other folks from all points of the globe and walks of life. Many are repeat guests, such as one gentleman from Connecticut who told me it was his 53rd visit!

The menu included tlalpeño soup with fresh mozzarella cheese, guacamole, green salad, vegetarian enchiladas and grains with black lentils and a roasted bell-pepper sauce. For dessert: corn cake with cajeta Kahlua.

After dinner, resident artist for the week Lynda Reeves McIntyre presented an informative, sophisticated lecture on art and nature. I enjoyed two of Lynda’s engaging drawing classes during my week’s many activities.

Experiments in Movement
I planned to begin my first day bright and early with the 6 a.m. organic breakfast hike, but pooped out at the last minute. I needed to “ease” into the week and perhaps temper the overwhelming number of classes I’d ticked off on my list.

Instead, I enjoyed a wonderful meditation session followed by a lively salsa dance class and then Nia, a practice that includes martial arts, dance and yoga. Soon it was time for lunch, a wonderful salad and carrot ginger soup made from the bounty of the ranch’s organic garden. I found Feldenkrais, a form of movement that claims to reorganize the connections between brain and body, interesting. Sound healing involved huge crystal bowls used to “vibrate” through our chakras. At day’s end, I felt like a human tuning fork.

Meanwhile, my friend had played two hours of tennis and swum. We met up at the Bazaar del Sol cantina for a glass of wine from the nearby Valle de Guadalupe, trying to decide what to do next!

Chocolate Indulgence, Spa-Style
On my third day, I indulged in a 90-minute xocolatl skin replenishment treatment. I felt like a chocolate tamale as I was scrubbed with a cacao body butter and then coated in a yogurt honey mask and wrapped up in a Mylar blanket to “bake” before rinsing off and emerging with skin as soft as a baby’s bottom. There are two spa facilities for women and one for men. At the Women’s Wellness Center, guests can sunbathe and soak in the outdoor Jacuzzi au naturel.

Kindred Spirits
One of the highlights of the ranch, in addition to the guest lecturers and teachers, are the many amazing guests. I met a delightful couple from Colorado and several mother-daughter configurations on spring break. At a lively cooking class taught by Jan Buhrman at the retreat’s charming La Cocina que Canta, I teamed up, and had a blast, with a Silicon Valley attorney and her college-aged daughter.

The history of the ranch is fascinating and worth a Google. Guests have included Aldous and Laura Huxley, Barbra Streisand and Gov. Jerry Brown.

Evening respites included concerts and lectures. During my stay I heard clarinetist Julian Milkis (who studied with Benny Goodman) and composer/pianist Ilya Dimov perform. It was also a treat to hear (and see in classes and lectures) Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame in an intimate performance with his daughter, Bethany, and her cellist partner Rufus Cappadocia.

Changing Times
Co-founder Deborah Szekely, at 96 years young, spoke one evening and encouraged us to remain as digitally free as possible. Without television or Internet in the rooms, the “old reality” before constant connectivity seeped in. Even so, Rancho La Puerta offers several Wi-Fi spots for checking in, and quiet booths to make phone calls.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the lovely local Tecate staff. Many have worked at Rancho La Puerta for decades, and some are the children or even grandchildren of former employees. Deborah often hears, “Mi abuela digas hola” (“My grandmother says hello”) from younger staff.

Until five years ago, the retreat eschewed alcohol altogether . . . although heedless guests would often sneak libations in. After decades of cleaning up spent wine bottles, Rancho La Puerta embraced an “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” philosophy and opened the Bazaar del Sol, a lovely meeting place to admire the landscape and mingle with other guests over a glass (or two) of local vino.

I could have gone home satisfied — physically, emotionally, spiritually — with all I’d experienced just on my first day at Rancho La Puerta. I felt as though I had packed an entire year’s worth of wellness into one memorable week. Given the chance, I’d return in a California second.

Rancho La Puerta is an amazing, magical place and words don’t really do it justice. I highly recommend indulging in the magic of this transporting retreat.

You can thank me later.

From Ventura, it’s about a five-hour drive to Tecate. Once you are about 20 minutes from the U.S./Mexico border on Campo Road, phone the resort. Staff will meet you at the Payless Shoe Store and guide you to the outdoor car park ($5/day), take your luggage and negotiate the short walk across the border. Stays longer than six days require a Mexican visa ($32). A Rancho La Puerta van whisks guests on a 10-minute drive through town to the retreat. Four-, five- and seven-night stays are available; stays longer than six days require a Mexican visa. Rates $3,700 - $4,400, double occupancy. Once-a-month Saturday day visits ($330 per person) offer a taste of the ranch.

Rancho La Puerta
Tecate, Baja California, Mexico


The “Hacienda” casita offers a fireplace and sitting area, making it perfect for quiet contemplation after an activity-filled day.

Gardens, hiking trails, several pools and even an organic farm reside on the rancho’s 4,000 acres, which lie in a broad valley at the foot of Mount Kuchumaa.

Produce grown on the premises is used in the resort’s cuisine, such as this vegetarian oyster mushroom paella, (inset) bursting with farm-fresh color and flavor.
All photos courtesy of Rancho La Puerta.


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