Rancho La Puerta, Baja California, Mexico
An unpretentious, first-class health and fitness retreat with magical gardens in the foothills of Mount Kuchumaa
Best for: A far-from-clinical inspiring wellbeing experience.
Not for: Walking phobics. You’ll cover 3-5 miles a day getting around the 50-acre site.
Takes up to 160 guests
Dubbed the ‘original bootcamp’, this joyously uplifting retreat at Tecate in Mexico has been at the forefront of wellness for more than 70 years, inspiring a cult-like devotion amongst its legions of fans, who will welcome you into the bosom of The Ranch ‘family’ with genuine warmth and enthusiasm. The Ranch – as it is commonly referred to – offers a real opportunity to escape the insistent pull of technology and stresses of modern living, midst a fairy tale Eden of tumbling wisteria, scented jasmine and trailing vines in the foothills of the sacred Mount Kuchumaa. The place positively hums with healing energy and it doesn’t take long for the good vibes to rub off.
What makes this place unique is its fascinating culture and history. The Ranch first opened its doors to guests in June 1940, when the founders Edmond Szekely and his young wife Deborah Szekely set up shop with a ground-breaking bring-your-own-tent health cure. The Ranch has been through many incarnations since, which you can learn all about in the Q&A with co-founder Deborah Szekely who, at 95, is still very much involved. There’s also a fascinating insider view with long time staffer Manuelita Ching, who dishes the gossip on the legions of Hollywood stars who have flocked here over the decades, from Burt Lancaster to Lee Majors.
You won’t get the best from this spa if you don’t enjoy group activities. And with the most popular classes attracting large numbers, it’s not always possible to get the individual attention available at smaller fitness retreats. Similarly, on the hikes you’ll usually be in a large group of people chatting, so if total tranquillity is your goal, that might not appeal. Hire a personal trainer at an extra cost and go it alone with a one-on-one session – with nearly 50 acres of grounds it’s also always possible to find a quiet corner.
There’s a smorgasbord of activities on offer here covering all bases for the mind, body and spirit, with up to 60 options a day. You can work with a fitness concierge on arrival, who will help you decide which classes will suit you, or talk to the Ranch team about other classes you’re thinking of taking.
Rancho La Puerta is a hiker’s heaven, with breathtakingly magical morning walks midst the wild flowers and chaparral (the blanket of wild plants and herbs that covers the boulder-strewn slopes of sacred Mt Kuchumaa). The guided hikes are designed for different levels, from a moderate two-mile lowland hike to a challenging 7.5 miles of steep terrain up to the Mexican border, and they kick off between 6 and 7am, with three options daily including meditation hikes and a Organic Garden Breakfast Hike, which concludes with a tour of the Ranch vegetable garden.
Rancho La Puerta is fitness central. The choice is staggering, from Zumba, to Kettlebells, to stability ball, to cardio drumming to the hilarious striptease (don’t worry, you keep your clothes on), and many, many more. Teaching is of a consistently high standard, with plenty of humour to lighten the mood. Classes last 45-minutes each and start on the hour, every hour between 9am and 4pm. You can also sample the Feldenkrais Method, as part of the class programme, with the therapist moving you through movements as you lie fully-clothed on a table.
Up your game in the daily tennis clinics, with beginners or intermediate levels to choose from. Each clinic is designed to focus on a different stroke or aspect of your game and help you build your skillset throughout the week. It sounds serious but it’s lots of fun. Private and semi-private lessons are also available.
The Ranch offers two to four yoga classes daily (with a couple more in yoga-themed weeks), ranging from intermediate, to all-levels classes. Don’t miss the excellent 75-minute intermediate Yoga 2 sessions with Nathan, an exceptional Iyengar teacher who, as one of the staff teachers, is here most weeks.
Other classes can be less consistent, although guest instructors raise the bar. Try Iyengar Yoga with Kim Kolibri, who has been teaching for 18 years and is a Certified Iyengar Yoga instructor with a background that blends East and West and works with a broad spectrum of students from pregnant women to young athletes. Or deeply relax with The Yin Yoga Experience led by Dennis and Kathy Lang, a married couple who integrate sound and vibration into their teaching with Spanish guitar, fusion sitar, crystal bowls, gong, Native American flute and chimes. Their foundations are in Vinyasa Flow and Yin Yoga but are also trained in Kundalini, Chakra Theory and Energetic Anatomy.
Rancho La Puerta is unusual in that is has a fully equipped Pilates studio offering reformers, an arc barrel class to deepen core moves and a Pilates Tower or Cardillac. If this means nothing to you, there are mat classes suited to beginners as well as a fast-paced mat class for those who are more advanced. Also look out for the Pilates Speciality Presenters in Pilates-focus weeks.
Hands-on cookery classes with visiting teaching chefs take place in the gorgeous La Cocina Que Canta Cooking School in the heart of the six-acre organic farm. It’s a delightful place to learn – the name means The Kitchen That Sings, called so because of the bird song you hear here alongside the usual happy kitchen nosies of chopping and chatting. The class divides into small groups, each with their own dish to make, and the session ends with a dinner party where you get to try all the dishes. Recipes focus on fresh vegetarian ingredients with a Mexican-Mediterranean twist. There’s an extra $95 charge for the class.
Unplug and tune in with numerous classes designed to help you silence that chattering monkey in your head. The Inner Journey sessions help calm the mind, encouraging you to live in the moment. Use your body as a healing instrument with a chant meditation on sacred songs or discover what it really means to focus on your tastebuds with the Ranch’s Silent Dinner.
An ever-changing rota of guest speakers and entertainers – from authors to musicians, to artists and environmentalists – provide the fun and varied evening entertainment at The Ranch. You’ll also get to hear from Ranch co-founder Deborah Szekely with a weekly Q&A (schedule permitting). And whatever you do, don’t miss bingo with Barry, a hilarious sociable evening where guests battle it out for china cats, chocolate twizzlers and other wonderfully useless prizes.
If you’re a water baby you’ll love The Ranch programme of low-impact aqua classes designed by with HYDRO-FIT® founder Craig Stuart. Sessions range from the soothing Aqua Ease through to the intense H2O Bootcamp using HYDRO-FIT® buoyancy and resistance gear for a challenging, calorie burning work out designed to tone your entire body.
You don’t need be a budding Tracey Emin or Turner Prize hopeful to tap into your creative potential here – anyone can enjoy a class with one of The Ranch’s visiting artists, craftsmen, poets or photographers. The classes are many and varied, with hands-on lessons from jewellery making to landscape sketching, and behind-the-scenes chats with artists about their creative process. Some classes, like jewellery making, incur an additional fee to cover materials.
Rancho La Puerto also offer organic farming days and the opportunity to help out with gardening and to visit gardens.
There are oodles of interesting, inspirational specialist retreats at Rancho La Puerta with guest speakers and instructors that run each week throughout the year, from a cleansing retreat, to a trail running and parkour course, to couples’ weeks, to a child-friendly week each summer during August. Check the events section for full listings.
The Ranch offers a full menu of relaxing and restorative massages, facials, body wraps, manicures, pedicures and make-up makeovers but if you really want a mind-blowing, knock-your-socks off experience we’d recommend signing up with one of the holistic therapies, which include a huge range from ayurveda to reiki. For something unusual, with local roots, try the watsu, a headily relaxing holistic water therapy developed in California.
Villa Studios: Villa Studios are the largest studio units at the Ranch, and most are suitable for three people. You enter a large living area with a sofa and chairs near the fireplace. A writing desk is by the window. Villa Studios are within easy walking distance of the Villa Pool, where it’s convenient to have breakfast in Summer. (You can order breakfast delivered to your room in Winter.)
Two-Bedroom Villa Studios are the largest of the villas, situated at the top of a gentle hill near the Villa Pool. They include two separate bedrooms and two bathrooms, as well as a living room, kitchen sink and refrigerator, dining area and fireplace, and will comfortably accommodate up to four people.
Villas Cielo: These are the largest and most private villas, featuring museum-quality art and handmade furniture. Each has an open master bedroom and a second bedroom that can also be converted into a private gym or office. Each villa has a desk and wood-burning fireplace. Glass doors open onto gardens, mountain views, outdoor showers, fountains, warm salt water dipping pools, day-beds, and hammocks.
Other spaces to be: There are plenty of delicious nooks and spots on this vast campus to grab a moment of quiet reflection. From the pockets of hammocks strung up in the shade between trees to the Labyrinth meditation circle where the twists and turns represent the path of life. Then there’s the Reflexology Path with its pebbled circle of stones to massage your soles. Or retreat to the Milagro Meditation Loft, where some of the meditation classes are held, but which is, for the most part, empty.
There’s a real danger of over-scheduling and dashing around like crazy trying to squeeze in all the classes. Don’t forget to relax and take some time out. Aim for balance in your day. So if you start the day with a seven-mile hike followed by a high-intensity cardio session, pick Pilates or something low key and bendy later.
At present the clientele is weighted heavily towards women, around ten to 1 on the week we were here, so men could feel outnumbered, though the Ranch is starting to include more activities, like the new Trail Running and Parkour Course, and couples’ weeks, aimed at redressing the balance. There’s also a child-friendly week here each summer during August.
When to Go
April, May and June are mostly dry with temperatures ranging from 18-22 degrees C on average and highs in the early to late 20s and very little rain (13-17mm per month).
Many people prefer this time as everything is in bloom. Late Sept and October are also dry with warm, sunny days with temperatures in the mid-to-late twenties. October and November are also very pleasant with highs of 20-25 degrees C and not too much rain (19-23mm). July, August and September are hot, hot, hot with temperatures climbing to thirty degrees.
The Ranch is open for both Christmas and New Year, where in addition to interesting speakers and instructors, they celebrate with a special dinner, a beautifully crafted Christmas Tree and a New Year toast.
Meals are served in the cavernous Dining Hall, which, like the rest of the Ranch, is Spanish Colonial style with terracotta floors and heavy wood furniture. At breakfast or lunch you can sit outside on the terrace surrounded by flowers and plants. Dinner is served inside until about mid-June, then outside on the Dining Hall terrace or by the Villa Pool as evenings become warmer. Breakfast is served outside by the Villa Pool three times a week.
The Ranch’s meals use mainly seasonal, locally sourced, organic and plant based ingredients, with much of it grown in the Ranch’s own organic vegetable garden, which you can visit if you sign up for one of the Organic Breakfast Hikes or one of the hands-on cookery courses. Expect fresh and healthy rather than gourmet spa meals, with fish as an option in the evening four times a week and a protein portion of tuna available as part of the buffet-style lunch. Gluten-free options are available at every meal.
Lunch and breakfast are a help yourself buffet and breakfast wins hands down as the best meal of the day, especially for the freshly made omelettes with quesadillas or tortillas served by the Villa Pool. Dinner is a four-course set menu with a choice of two main dishes one of which is usually fish. Expect dishes like mushroom and chile soup, pear and blackberry salad, with a main course of Greek spinach and goat cheese samosa with sweet potato and banana pie for dessert.
There’s a Juice Bar which offers free organic cold-pressed juices and smoothies. Coffee (regular, strong, decaf or vanilla nut) is served at The Lounge and freely available throughout the week. Wine is served for those who want at The Bazar Del Sol, a pretty wine bar (or ‘pub’ as the American guests referred to it) where you can watch the sun set behind the mountain views with a civilised glass of wine, to the accompaniment of live music, or you can have wine in your room or on your patio. Wine is also served at the welcome reception and on the last Friday night farewell dinner.
The Ranch is huge on sustainability. A portion of the income from your stay will go to support an environmental school, built by the Ranch in the local town of Tecata, which gives talk to local elementary school children.
It practices organic gardening methods to conserve water and reduce chemicals in line with its sustainable ethos. Its incredible gardens use plants that thrive in the dry “Mediterrannean” climate and they recycle grey water into a drip irrigation system and grey marsh, with the resulting clean water being returned to the creek. Natural alternatives are favoured over chemical insecticides and fertilisers, with garden trimmings and composting toilets waste recycled in the grounds.
At Christmas Rancho La Puerta even take a wood chipper into town to collect the old Christmas trees which are made into mulch to be used in the gardens. Showers and toilets use “low flow” water conservation technology.
All staff are given a four per cent pay rise every year and many have been here for many years – which can only be a good sign – and the list goes on.
Rancho La Puerta, Tecate, Baja California
Transfer Time: 1 hour