Tecate, Baja California - I had signed us up for a cult. On a luxury motor coach, our luggage stowed below, my mom and I rolled away from San Diego International Airport.
Among the about 40 other passengers, who were overwhelmingly women, we were the only ones who hadn't ever been where the bus was headed - to Rancho La Puerta, in Tecate, Baja California, just over the Mexican border.
The pair of women in the seats in front of us had been to “The Ranch” - note the capital “T” and capital “R” - 18 times. Each. When I asked what drew them back time and time again, they, and the half-dozen other guests I asked the same question, said the same kind of thing, “It's not something that can be described. Experience it and you'll see, though.” Of course, this answer reaffirmed my fear that I had just gotten my mom and myself involved in some weird movement, at a cost of many thousands of dollars.
Sitting across the aisle from us was another mother/daughter combo. They had been coming to The Ranch together annually since the daughter graduated from high school. This year was special because the daughter had just graduated from business school and was about to get married.
As word spread that there were newbies on the bus, veterans offered us tips on how to make the most of our upcoming week - guests stay Saturday to Saturday - at the 76-year-old destination spa, including favourite classes and favourite foods.
This was six years ago. Since then, I've been to The Ranch four more times, at high and low points in my life. If The Ranch is a cult - it's not, by the way - I'm happy to be a part of it.
On the drive during that first visit, I planned to look over the week's seven-page schedule, which a Ranch representative gave me at the airport as part of a welcome packet. But between San Diego and Tecate, State Route 94 climbed, descended, twisted and wound through impressively rugged landscape. Snaggly mountains were blanketed in chaparral, with various cactuses and bus-size, quartz boulders everywhere. The drive was beautiful, and made me carsick for the first time in my life.
Crossing into Mexico was uneventful. The welcome packet also had a Mexican immigration form and, during one of the straight-and-flat sections of the drive, one of the three Ranch staffers on the bus used the microphone to talk all of us through filling it out. Crossing the border took 10 minutes. And then we were in Tecate, the home of Tecate beer; numerous archaeological sites with well-preserved cave paintings; roadside stands selling ceramic pottery and tiles to tourists; plenty of traffic; and about 60 000 people. But as soon as the bus made its turn into The Ranch, all of this disappeared. Eden appeared.
I'm not much of a garden or landscape person, but I know beautiful ones when I see them. The Ranch's were the most spectacular I had ever seen. Like The Ranch itself, they're not fancy. They are bountiful, colourful and natural. Although, once I began exploring the campus beyond the entrance - the entire property covers about 3 000 acres - I couldn't help but wonder how much thought and work went into making the landscaping look effortless. (Before I left, I asked about the staff. There were more than 20 full-time gardeners.)
Trellises were everywhere, many abloom with wisteria flowers, each as big as a full bunch of grapes. There were cypresses, live oaks and olive trees among the 200 species of plants found on the grounds. There were grassy meadows dotted with wildflowers. In the middle of a small dirt track was a vineyard. (At this time - 2010 - The Ranch didn't serve alcohol; I wondered what they did with the grapes.)
Through all of this wound paved pathways that connected the various buildings on campus. There were about 70 casitas and villas. There was the lounge, the only place at The Ranch with Internet access and where, daily at 3 p.m., fruit smoothies were served. Most evenings, at least one of the lounge's two fireplaces was going. (We were there in March, and on return visits, I learned that, with the exception of a block of summer weeks, Ranch evenings are almost always chilly enough to warrant a fire.)
There were six gyms. There were spaces for quieter activities, including restorative yoga, meditation, sound healing and Feldenkrais physical therapy. There were more pools than I would be able to track. The Activity Pool had Hydro-Fit deepwater training classes. There was a library, boutique, gazebo, courts for tennis and volleyball, an art studio and a laundry room.
We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at the dining hall each day, except for one lunch when we took a van to The Ranch's cooking school, La Cocina Que Canta (The Kitchen That Sings) and learned how to make mango salsa, posole, tempeh and The Ranch's famous reduced-fat guacamole. (The secret to the guacamole is to substitute pureed peas for about a third of the avocado.)
And then there were four beauty-and-wellness buildings: a salon for manis, pedis, haircuts and styling; the Women's Health Centre; the Men's Health Centre; and the Villas Health Centre.
It wasn't until my fifth day that I made it from our casita to a beginning Pilates class to a group tennis lesson to a bike class to lunch to a writing workshop to a couch in front of the lounge's fireplace to the Activity Pool to the dining hall and back to our casita without getting lost. I both celebrated and mourned this. I liked finally feeling like a real Rancher, but missed unexpectedly stumbling upon a collection of hammocks strung between ancient live oaks, a small pond with big goldfish or a chalkboard with an inspirational quote on it. (“Opportunity does not knock. It presents itself when you beat down the door.”)
I arrived at The Ranch new to The Ranch, but not new to destination spas or their treatments. My mom was new to everything, and enjoyed the fact that there was so much “everything” to be new at. She got the first facial of her life and tried cardio drumming and sound therapy for the first time. She went birdwatching and took a class that trained her balance. We did some of these things together; other times, we went off and did our own things.
Beyond the classes, gardens, pockets of hammocks and buildings of adobe and red tiles, The Ranch appealed to us because of its unpretentiousness. Readers of fancy magazines such as Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast have consistently rated Rancho La Puerta the best destination spa in the world, but the casitas and health centres are decidedly not fancy. Everything is nice and clean, but bathroom vanities are topped with painted ceramic tiles rather than marble, and floors are of Saltillo tiles, rather than reclaimed wood. Our two queen beds had locally woven textiles on them, rather than Italian linens.
Food favoured fresh over fancy. Breakfast and lunch were buffets. My mom and I almost always ate these outside on one of two expansive patios. Sure, we had to guard our food against some of the more than 160 species of birds that live on the property, but it was worth it for the colourful, tinkling fountains and canopies of shade trees.
Dinner service was politely informal, and the menu had three entree options, two of which were often vegetarian, the other being fish. We could have requested a table for two, but instead opted for a group table. Our first night, the host randomly sat us with two other parties of two: 40-something sisters and a 60-something husband and wife. We all got along so well, we became a party of six for the rest of the week.
When I initially made my reservation for this week, I was a little put off by the Saturday-to-Saturday stay mandate. (During less-busy weeks, The Ranch does offer stays of three and four nights.) By the time I was leaving, I understood and appreciated this. It gave us the chance to make friends. Six years after that stay, I am still in email contact with some of the dinner crew; we all are friends on Facebook.
I savoured every bit of my last day at The Ranch, from the morning hike to the breakfast muesli and the fire in the lounge. I read a book or napped in three different hammocks. I didn't want to leave. My mom and I took the last available bus back to the airport.
Four months later, I was back. (A benefit of being a travel writer.) Then again 18 months after that. And then two years after that. I was there for the fifth time last October.
For my first three trips there, the fitness - in addition to the landscape of the campus itself - was what I loved most about it. With workout classes including circuit training, spinning, cardio drumming, interval training, hula hooping and yoga every hour between 9am and 5pm, The Ranch can certainly be a fitness boot camp.
During my fourth trip to The Ranch, my relationship with it deepened. While I was in Tecate, my soon-to-be-ex-husband was moving out of our house.
Over that week, when I couldn't hold back tears - and this happened at a spinning class, at a swimming pool one afternoon and several times during a multiday journaling workshop - it wasn't weird because I felt supported, and surrounded by positive energy.
My most recent trip to The Ranch - visit No. 5, nearly a year ago - was my reward at the end of 18 months of cancer treatment. It had been a while since I'd last been there, but meeting The Ranch representative at the airport was the same. The plush motor coach was the same. The drive was the same. There was now a wine bar, and the weekly schedule had changed. I saw numerous new classes and activities: a meditation hike; a stretching class; a bird walk; a labyrinth; postural therapy; craniosacral therapy; and jewellry design. I excitedly pointed these out to my girlfriend, and she told me that they were not new. On prior trips, I had been so focused on the more challenging fitness classes that these mellower options didn't even register. The Ranch was the same; I was not.
But neither was I wholly different. This visit, my morning routine was the same as it had been since the first trip: I got up two hours earlier than I would have at home to hike in the foothills around Mount Kuchumaa, a hulking peak that is a sacred site for the Kumeyaay people just north of the ranch.
I got up so early because hikes at The Ranch aren't just about hiking. I've never seen, or heard, such beautiful sunrises. They start with hooting owls and a green glow in the eastern sky. They progress to croaking ravens and a mix of orange and yellow at the horizon. About five minutes into that, just about when orange and yellow cover the bottom third of the horizon, quartz boulders - and there are thousands of them on Kuchumaa and its foothills - catch the growing light and begin to glow. The colour starts as a light pink and, as the sun gets higher and light hits them more directly, morph into flamingo pink and, finally, gold. They look as if they're lit from within. The whole thing lasts less than 20 minutes. Through it all, coyotes bark, yip and howl.
After breakfast, I sampled classes and activities I hadn't noticed on prior visits. In a group sound-therapy session, I had one of the best naps of my life. A stretching class proved one of my long-held hypotheses: I am astoundingly inflexible. Walking the labyrinth, I was concentrating so hard that I tripped on one of the river rocks in the pattern, fell and scratched my knee. I designed a gorgeous pair of earrings, but flailed in the actual making of them.
It turned out that I stunk at all the new things. At lot. But I didn't care. Each activity - especially that nap - energised me. When I try new things and fail regularly in my non-Ranch life, I am demoralised instead.
Packing up the janky earrings I made, I thought back to the beginning of my first trip, when none of The Ranch's regulars could describe why they loved this place. How would I describe The Ranch now? Coming up with a description after five visits was more difficult than after one. Then, The Ranch was a fitness paradise with delicious, healthy food. Now, The Ranch and I have history. How do I capture a place that makes me feel good when I fail? That inspires me to get up and watch the sunrise every morning? Where I don't feel like an idiot for crying in spinning class?
All those years ago, I thought I had gotten my mom and myself into a cult, but it turns out I instead joined a family. And, like most families, it's special for different reasons at different times.
If you go
Rancho La Puerta
Tecate, Baja California
From $3 200 (about R42 000) per person (from $3 900 for solo guests) plus tax for seven nights. Rates include all meals, daily snacks, round-trip transportation from San Diego International Airport, fitness classes, guided hikes, lectures and seminars. Spa and salon services, as well as personal training, have additional costs.