Rancho La Puerta


Story by Richard H. Shulman
Photos courtesy of Rancho La Puerta and Terry Dukes (Rancho La Puerta Cabbage and Rancho La Puerta Party).

Rancho La Puerta Entrance


Why did Travel and Leisure readers vote Rancho La Puerta the best destination spa resort in the world?   


What draws folks to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, 1,500 feet above sea level, and just across Rancho La Puerta woman facing mtnsthe Mexican border from California?  I came for organic meals, hiking, bird watching, and semi-tropical, natural landscaping presenting a different view at every turn of the path.  We found more activities than we could attend, nourishing body and spirit, almost a way of life.

At first, I thought guests bizarre in exclaiming daily over emotional and physical rejuvenation there.  Then I saw and felt it, myself.  Rancho transforms people’s lives.  Half return for a refresher.  Some told me they have visited more than 30 times.    

Tell people about the trip, and they worry about Mexican drug violence.  In his evening presentation, a jolly Mexican professor explained that the federales squeeze the gangs into an ever decreasing perimeter elsewhere. Guests, on the other hand, bus- ride safely in under two hours from San Diego airport through scenic mountains to just outside the town of Tecate. 

The staff is wonderfully considerate; the guests are interesting, too.  Proceeding from one activity to another, we happily greet everyone we pass – we’re all on the same mission.  Their goodwill helps one learn the resort’s expansive layout, casitas surrounding five pools, gardens, exercise rooms and two extensive spas.


Actually the spa has two buildings.  My wife went to the newer one, an expanded version of the Rancho La Puerta feetmassageoriginal.  Both are equipped with an outdoor whirlpool and extensive treatment rooms.  Here she had a Rancho specialty: the Five Elements massage, which plays off Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal.  The 90-minute massage, using aromatic oils, is designed to rebalance the body and mind and facilitate drainage.

Her favorite treatment turned out to be Happy Hands and Feet, 50 minutes of total relaxation.

Reflexology on the feet and massage of the hands was surprisingly therapeutic.  Then the hands and feet are dipped in paraffin; you relax or sleep until your masseuse comes to awaken you and remove the wax.  That becomes a massage in itself. 


Rancho offers half a dozen activities every hour in an area spread out like a campus whose students travel from class to class.  Rancho pedometers testify that the distances add up, all for the cause. 

Guests experiment with unfamiliar philosophies, therapies, and exercises, such as Yoga, Feldenkrais, Pilates, Tai Chi, craniosacral therapy, meditation, gym exercises, Zumba and Nia dancing, and art.  One might never try them by oneself.  I seized that opportunity of a lifetime; it enriched my life. 

Rancho La Puerta tennisEmphasizing physical challenge, Rancho offers tennis and a tennis clinic.  The running coach got me back to jogging.  Rancho has so many special activities, that the ping pong table and the pool chaises were deserted. 

By being informal, humorous, and accommodating, gym instructors did not embarrass less nimble guests.  Limber, graceful Instructors inquire about our physical limitations and advise which exercises to omit or limit.  Some week-long courses start off easier or instructors illustrate levels 1, 2, and 3, so we can pick what we think appropriate.    

Zumba was too swift for me to learn, though I enjoyed observing its fun and freedom.  The instructor’s marvelous dancing was worth a high ticket price.  But can a man make all the movements she did?

Feldlenkrais demonstrated that some infirmities are habits which we can stretch ourselves out Rancho La Puerta yogaof. Our instructor’s body seemed flexible like rubber.  I didn’t believe it possible to get the whole body, not just prominent parts, to rest on the floor.  Then I emulated her.  And felt better!   

Beginning Yoga taught how to move parts of the body independently of others, and in coordination with breathing.  When I misunderstood, instructors gently corrected me.  (One instructor warned that I had stumbled into an advanced class, over my head.  I left, to avoid hardship.  Yoga is not for sissies.)  Eventually I felt more stable, straighter, and stronger.

The core strength classes, featuring one exercise after another, showed me where I was both weaker and stronger than I had realized.  I shared the instructors’ hilarious amusement over my repeatedly falling off the big training ball (onto a mat). 

Rancho La Puerta hula hoop classWe learned that getting one area of the brain to take over another area’s function boosts cognitive skills.  We replaced compulsion with spontaneity, peeling off layers of social habits.  They claim that when you move differently, you think or emote differently.  You gain more choice.  

The Eastern exercise and nutritional programs’ mystical language could put off some guests.  Ancient scholars knew much we don’t, but the instructors can cite Western research confirmation for their principles.   I was skeptical, but it works!

Exercise more, inhale more oxygen, produce more endorphins, and relieve stress.  Organized Rancho La Puerta tai chiexercise and massage in a pool reduced physical strain.  (Four of the five pools were heated, none crowded). 

Also calming are slow, deep breathing, wholesome food, green tea, happy cuddling, belly laughing, and avoiding sugar, alcohol, fat, and re-living prior stress. 

Exercise director Barry P. Shingle devises new programs and fine tunes them to suit changing styles.  Barry selects staff for a sense of humor and harmony with the Rancho philosophy that makes them “caring people.”   


Unlike cruise passengers, we did not have to fear overeating on Rancho’s lower calorie menus.  Rancho La Puerta CabbageBreakfast and lunch are buffet.  Special dietary needs met, choices considerable, calories limited, seconds -- even thirds -- available. My wife chose half-portions and felt satiated and full at every meal.  Rancho puts this together and adds up the calories for you.  At one meal, she ended up with enough calories for a delectable dessert: Mexican “sand cookies” with a cup of hot chocolate. “Brilliant!,” said she.

All is organic: whole grains, many vegetables, salads, fish, fruit, seeds, nuts and no problematic sugars. Although guests can imbibe alcohol in their rooms, none was served except at the last, “party” night.  Neither was meat and poultry. After all, most guests come to detoxify and de-stress.   

Rancho La Puerta PartyRancho pioneered in nutrition.  Nutrition director Yvonne Niestadt presents the rationale behind food balancing.   She scours research reports for new ideas and does original thinking, which can be controversial.  Rancho’s high fiber diet along with exercise make people function better. It’s what the doctor ordered.

 At Rancho’s altitude, I ate and drank more low-calorie servings –- smoothies, miso soup, and fruit between meals.  Being so active there, many people lose weight, most feel better, and some lose their taste for soda, liquor, and meat.  What guests had supposed to be firm addictions turned out to be breakable habits.


 I thought I couldn’t do the hikes, because they start before breakfast.  However, a small snack sufficed, with the help of Rancho trekking sticks.  Breakfast is served on some hikes, such as the popular one to the organic garden, source of most of our dining and site of a cooking school.    

The enthusiastic head gardener let us sniff aromatic leaves.  He explained how he selects and Rancho La Puerta hikebreeds varieties, mulches the organic soil, and deals with the climate.  I never before saw such deep, rich black soil, so organic it could burn!  His crops surely are more nutritious than sprayed commercial ones grown in depleted or over-fertilized soil.

All that activity requires sleep to restore oneself.  Sitcom humor pales before that of the presenters on topics such as sleep and speech.  The sleep psychologist gave us the benefit of standard research, his clinical experience, and his daring hypotheses.  It is shocking how difficult society and individuals make sleep.

Having learned the importance of breathing for proper speaking, singing, whistling, and exercising, my throat was less sore and I was able to keep up with fast hikers.  Breathing deeply at home, I now can do my stair-climbing exercise without heart-pounding breathlessness.

Afternoon and evening brought a variety of self-help workshops and talks. The speech teacher, also a composer and conductor, prompted us to communicate better.  He moved a couple of us to tears, getting me to shed some inhibitions and another to shred the psychological wall she had put around herself.      

A children’s book illustrator attributes her creativity to tapping her childhood imagination.   As it was mother-daughter guest week, another author described daughters’ teenage rebellion.  Other weeks bring special guests (well-known commentators) who discuss politics or play music. Members of the Cleveland Symphony visit every year, for example.


Can you learn all that in just one week?  No, you sample and evaluate what to pursue later.  One can buy CDs of the exercises and dances and hire Instructors for private lessons.  The trick is to carry home what we learned.  They had a class on that, too!  We were paired with buddies for a month of e-mail monitoring of our resolutions.  My resolutions were to stop worrying about petty schedules, stop tensing muscles, and keep smiling.  It takes work to reform old habits.


At Rancho the real luxury is in learning how to live healthier and with better relationships.  It sure worked for me.  What is that worth?  Well, we’re starting to save…and plan… for next year.

Editor’s Note: This is a rather unusual story as it portrays a spa from a male’s point of view.




© February 2012 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.


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