- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2006

TECATE, Mexico — The bus from the San Diego airport to Rancho La Puerta winds along California Highway 94, through rugged mountain passes and past gnarled stands of oak trees to a sleepy border crossing here.

The hourlong ride gives a visitor to the spa a chance to shake off some of the stress of daily life, contemplate goals for the week ahead and, inevitably, check out who on the bus appears to be in better shape.

Part summer camp, part luxury resort, part spiritual retreat, Rancho La Puerta is a few miles west of a U.S.-Mexico border crossing. It can be anything you want it to be.

For me, a novice but enthusiastic hiker, it was a chance on two successive visits — in 2004 and 2006 — to sign up for guided hikes that taught me a lot about my abilities and endurance.

For my sister, the “ah-hah” moments came in back-to-back yoga classes in one of the ranch’s serene, light-drenched studios. Some of the sessions were led by a visiting teacher from Los Angeles, Larry Payne, co-author of “Yoga for Dummies.” His classes were so popular that his adoring students and their yoga mats were packed in like sardines.

My mother, meantime, was fast becoming the ranch’s most proficient septuagenarian in the tough but wildly popular discipline of Pilates and — inveterate social butterfly that she is — meeting all sorts of interesting people and lining up dining companions for the eagerly awaited, mostly vegetarian feasts in the communal dining room.

The three of us have been to other spas over the years, but for each of us, Rancho La Puerta is special. Though it offers the same outrageously self-indulgent amenities as other luxury spas — including seaweed wraps and loofah salt rubs — the ranch is just a little different: a bit less glitzy, perhaps a shade more spiritual.

It comes by these attributes honestly. Founded more than 65 years ago by an eccentric Hungarian, Edmond Szekely, the ranch was the subject of bemused articles in the San Diego paper in the late 1940s that dubbed “the professor” and his acolytes a “crypto-religious health cult.”

Even back then, Mr. Szekely was advocating organic food, daily meditation and exercise, a mind-body connection. He railed against commercial fertilizers and pesticides, and he and his wife, Deborah, grew much of the food that their health-seeking guests ate.

Visitors paid $17.50 to erect their own tents on the property, which in the early days had no running water or electricity and nothing resembling a gym or a swimming pool. Everyone chopped wood, worked on the farm and in the kitchen, and tended the goat herd in the rolling hills nearby.

The typical breakfast was raw goat’s milk, bread from wheat grown and germinated by Mrs. Szekely, and wild honey. Most meals were vegetarian — a diet that since has been modified to include daily fish entrees and, occasionally, free-range poultry.

Out in the “real world,” where Americans were just starting to fall in love with whipped cream in a can and cheese in a jar, all this emphasis on natural living was considered kind of nutty. As the ranch grew and prospered, it gradually became more mainstream and the core of Mr. Szekely’s teachings gained widespread acceptance.

Today, the ranch sprawls over 3,000 acres at the foot of 3,885-foot Mount Kuchumaa, also known as Tecate Peak. Guests stay in dozens of charming casitas scattered around the gently rolling property, many decorated with original Mexican folk art and equipped with fireplaces, patios and kitchenettes.

The public buildings and common areas are beautifully landscaped with brilliantly colored beds of flowers and trees and shrubbery specially chosen to thrive in Tecate’s semiarid climate.

Winding paths meander past swimming pools, tennis courts, gymnasiums, a meditation labyrinth and the imposing Spanish colonial dining hall.

Sculptures, including stunning pieces by Mexican sculptor Francisco Zuniga, adorn the lawns and other public spaces, and the scent of organically grown herbs permeates the massage and locker rooms.

Overseeing the operation is a well-trained staff of fitness instructors, massage therapists, cooks, gardeners and housekeepers, many of them Mexican. They tend to your every need, whether it’s lighting a fire in your casita in the cool evenings or delivering a daily newspaper to your door.

Yes, the real world occasionally intrudes into this paradise. When the Szekelys put down roots here in 1940, Tecate was a village of just 400 souls.

Today, the city is home to about 100,000 people and, with Tijuana just 16 miles to the west, part of a region whose population numbers at least 2 million.

Walk around the grounds, and you can hear giant trucks whizzing by at all hours of the day. From the slopes of Mount Kuchumaa, considered a sacred site by the Kumeyaay Indians, you see — sadly — subdivisions and some of the ravages of uncontrolled growth and pollution.

On this hike, you also can round a bend on that magical mountain and feel totally cut off from civilization.

Before you lie vistas of puffy white clouds racing wildly over the mountain ranges and stark boulders lurching up toward the brilliant blue sky.

You discover the wild beauty and serenity that lured the Szekelys here. Others, who don’t opt for the morning hikes, find their bliss elsewhere: in a tai chi or dance class or perhaps on a massage table with hot river rocks on their backs.

Wherever you find it, savor it, because soon, very soon, you’ll have to go home.

• • •

Rancho la Puerta: Tecate, Mexico; go to www.rancho lapuerta.com or call 800/443-7565. Rates for a Saturday-to-Saturday stay begin at about $3,100 a week for singles, cheaper for double occupancy.

Watch for themed events, including couples- and women-only weeks.

The extended hiking program over three days, which culminates in an 11-mile hike that begins at dawn and ends at the ranch’s organic garden for lunch, is offered only from November through March. For all hikes on Mount Kuchumaa, hiking boots or trail shoes are required.

Rancho La Puerta offers transportation to and from San Diego International Airport at no extra charge. If you’re driving, take Highway 94 for about 40 miles to County Route 188, which takes you to the border. The ranch is about three miles west of Tecate.

Beginning Jan. 1, Rancho La Puerta advises U.S. citizens to bring a U.S. passport to ensure smooth re-entry into the States from Mexico.

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