Return to the Ranch


THE FIRST THING I DID when I got to my casita at Rancho La Puerta last month was take off my clothes. All of them. Outside. That’s how private the patio was at my villa-for-a-week, below, at the 70+-year-old wellness resort in Baja California. I lowered a chaise and stretched out flat on my back, staring into the cloud-swirled blue sky like the kid in the opening shot of Boyhood. I smelled bougainvillea, heard distant traffic on the Tecate-Tijuana Highway. My long day of travel, and my real life in New York City, receded. A formation of turkey vultures soared above, scouting for carrion. “Hey, don’t look at me, guys,” I said. “I’m alive.”

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In fact. I rarely feel so alive as at Rancho La Puerta, which explains why I’ve been 11 times and am looking forward to making that an even dozen at my next opportunity. The lynchpin of their program is daily hiking in the Sierra Juarez mountains, a 3-5 mile group exercise that’s the best way I know to start a day off right. Yep, the hikes are scheduled before breakfast, partly because it’s cooler then, and partly because, as the Ranch’s 92-year-old founder Deborah Szekely said in a talk she gave one evening, “We know we wouldn’t get you out for a mountain hike at 4 in the afternoon.”

Certainly not after a day such as the ones I scheduled for myself, which typically included — after a fortifying breakfast in a brick courtyard — Sculpt and Strengthen at 9, Abs and Cycle at 10, Wave (water aerobics, no laughing matter) at 11, then lunch and perhaps a mini-siesta or soak in a hot tub. Then on to dance (Zumba, Hooping, Cardio Drum) at 2, and a stretch or yoga class thereafter. These were some of my choices, of at least five options offered every hour at a dozen gyms and studios.

I tried a few things I’d not done before, including Foam Roller and Crystal Bowls Sound Healing (which I could do without). I didn’t make it to Design Your Own Jewelry or Sketch the Landscape, as I had in previous years, or Feldenkrais, or cooking classes, and I can never be bothered with meditation while I’m there. Too much else to do! I even missed Popcorn Bingo, though I attended a travel-photography talk, an astrology workshop, and wouldn’t dream of skipping the ever-popular Organic Garden Breakfast Hike, a 4-miler to and from Tres Estrellas, the Ranch’s 6-acre organic farm, where the buffet is as spectacular as the scenery. (A few images from that hike, below.)

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At Rancho, you’re never without a view of Mt. Kuchuuma, top, sacred to native peoples and Ranch guests alike, and 32 acres of exuberant gardens, which blend at the property’s edges into the surrounding scrubby chaparral. The exquisite surroundings are, for me, one of the chief pleasures of the place. As always, I enjoyed the Landscape Garden Walk with botanist Enrique Ceballos, who is responsible for the management of the gardens, and the Chaparral Walk, with the Ranch’s resident naturalist. I missed the Arroyo Walk, however — it probably conflicted with a massage or facial.


At Rancho, people walk around looking at their schedules instead of their cell phones. I met nice people and made new friends, though Rancho La Puerta is an excellent place to visit solo. You’re seated at dinner, served in the grand Spanish Colonial dining hall or on one of two glorious patios, at a different group table every night, so there’s little chance of feeling lonely. Of my 11 visits, this was the third on my own, and I don’t mind not having conversations like one I overheard: “So we’re both gonna do Foam Roller at 4?” “No, I was thinking of trying Kettlebells… if I’m not too tired.” (For that very reason — late-day fatigue — the Stretch and Relax instructor got a big laugh, after a shocked pause, when he arrived at 4PM to find his class already laid out on their rubber mats in Montana gym, practically snoring, and announced in a loud, cheery voice, “Welcome to Cardio Muscle Blast!”)

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Every time I go to Rancho, there are new classes, new buildings, maybe a new swimming pool. Rancho La Puerta is not a place that rests on its considerable laurels (it’s often been voted #1 spa in America by major travel magazines). This time, there was something new, surprising, and very much to my liking: a wine bar. Since I first visited Rancho in the mid-1980s, the only wine available was a glass at the festive farewell dinner, bottom, on the final night. But guests often brought their own wine or went into town for it. Against the wishes of Deborah Szekely, who wanted to keep the Rancho booze-free, employees (and presumably Board members) prevailed to convert a casita near the edge of the property, one with a particularly stunning mountain view, below, to an indoor/outdoor gift shop/bar serving wines local to the Valle de Guadalupe, Baja’s wine region. Every night at 6PM then, it was off to the Bazar del Sol with new friends to taste every white, red and rose they had. All were good, and I enjoyed this new aspect of the Ranch immensely.


IMG_4830The wine didn’t wreck my fitness goals. I got back to Brooklyn on a Saturday night, and Sunday morning I was at my usual Y for a reputedly brutal class I’d always hesitated to take. I’m here to report I sailed through it.



To read about my previous visit to Rancho La Puerta, with more photos of the gardens and the grounds, go here.

About cara

I blog (for fun) here at casaCARA, and write (for money) about architecture, interiors, gardens and travel for many national magazines and websites.
This entry was posted in LANDSCAPING, TRAVEL and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Return to the Ranch

  1. Joe Kunkel says:

    Great story, Cara. Glad you enjoyed! You look radiant, as always.

  2. Mary-Liz says:

    What an evocative post with beautiful photos! Makes me want to go back!

  3. What a life! Sounds divine!

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. Norma Rosenthal says:

    I’m a friend of Caren’s and I went to RLP in June (my 4th trip). She forwarded the post. You described everything so evocatively that it made me “homesick” and wanting to go back even more than I normally do. I can’t believe you missed “Bingo with Barry” – always a highlight. And because I broke my shoulder last Oct. I didn’t do many of the classes I normally do and instead did Feldenkreis for the first time (and did it for 3 more classes). Next time you really need to try it. Did you do returnees update with Phyllis, where she calls “kettleballs” cannonballs – because she insists that “kettleballs” are just cannonballs with handles, and she doesn’t understand why anyone would want to throw around cannonballs (her words, not mine). Her update was hysterical (particularly the founding of the Wine Bar).
    I am already planning to go back next June, and am booking with a friend before Oct. so we get the 20% percent.
    Perhaps we’ll meet there at the same time – if I win the lottery I’ll be going more than once a year!

  5. Elke says:

    Divine in every way!!!

  6. swbolle says:

    Thanks Cara. Your beautiful glow in the last picture sums it up. I could almost smell the fragrance of the desert flowers, and trees. I can vividly remember various landmarks of the hike, which is a combination of sheer athleticism and serenity, as is each day. I yearn for those views, the best yoga, the sweetest siestas. Yes, you inspired me to make my plan–especially now that there’s a wine bar!

  7. cara says:

    Hi folks, glad I could give you all some vicarious Rancho thrills. Norma, after 11 visits, I felt I could give Bingo a miss, though it is always good for laughs. Blew off the returnees’ update on the first day because I was lying on my patio recovering from my travels, and it was so therapeutic I decided not to move. As a result, I didn’t find out about the new wine bar until Day 2! Advance booking is a great idea. I’ve been to Rancho in fall, winter and spring, but never before in summer. I was concerned beforehand that it might be very hot in July, but the weather was perfection — a whole lot pleasanter than NYC.

  8. Diana says:

    As my one and only time at RLP was with you, I have many wonderful memories and long to return one day soon. It is heaven on earth for me!
    Thanks Cara, a wonderful review of a wonderful place.

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