Cleanse your life of excess at Rancho La Puerta

Better health is the root of the philosophy at this world-renowned spa

Five years ago, a friend of mine disappeared to a ‘spa’ in northern Mexico. No big news there. However, when she returned she couldn’t say enough good things about the place. I filed the information at the back of my cluttered mind, waiting for the opportunity for this kind of break.

When I called her to remind me of the name of the place, she said, “If you’re going, I’m coming too.” Less than two days later, we’d booked flights to San Diego and a week at Rancho La Puerta in the desert hills of Baja California, wedged up next to the U.S. border and miles from any ocean. It turns out that Rancho La Puerta is one of the world’s top destination spas, consistently making Top 10 lists compiled by Travel and Leisure Magazine and Conde Nast Traveller. Who knew?

I discovered why while on a week’s stay, during which time my body was pummelled into impressive shape, both through endless, brutal exercise and also numerous, perfect massage treatments. “Health spa” with its images of spoiled pampering is a bit of a misnomer, because Rancho La Puerta is many things, and while better health is the root of the philosophy at the place, “boot camp”  was a better description of my experience. Self-inflicted, admittedly.

As we should all know by now, good health is all about life balance. A little bit of this and a little bit of that daily and we should be glowing from every pore — slim, fit, bright of eye and brain, eating healthily. Unfortunately, that’s not how life is for most of us and excess tends to tip the scales — an excess of stress, food and work being the usual suspects.

Excess is what I found as soon as I got on the shuttle bus at San Diego airport, too. A rag-tag bunch of people clambered on; some very large; some very loud; some very determined; some wearing just a little too much glitter, and most with a strange glint in their eye. I wondered what on earth I’d signed up for. “Is this your first visit?” many asked, before eulogizing the ranch. Irritated, I whispered to my friend, “Will I too, have drunk the Kool-Aid by week’s end?” She simply smiled.

Founded in 1940, Rancho La Puerta covers over 1,200 hectares of beautiful lush landscapes with ancient oak trees, meandering paths bordered by fragrant herbs such as rosemary, lavender and thyme, stunning landscaping and arid semi-desert terrain up in the mountains that surround the property. It also features its own impressive organic farm, which supplies the kitchen with most of the produce served to guests and used in the on-site cooking school.

Food is at the centre of much of the experience. At least it was for me. I exercised so intensively – one day I climbed a mountain and had covered 13 kilometres on foot before breakfast – that all I wanted to do was eat, all of the time. In this place, you can eat very well, all the time. Meals are taken in a lofty dining hall with a lovely log fire and a terracotta-tiled floor, or on the beautiful surrounding terrace in the dappled sunlight of pergolas and trees. Breakfast and lunch take the form of buffet spreads, and a dinner of four courses is served at the table. All food sensitivities and allergies were happily accommodated without fuss. Should you get hungry in- between mealtimes, tea and coffee were constantly available, and fruit, cheese and nut trays were to be found in the on-site library lounge, as well as piles of oranges and bananas at the entrance to both spa buildings and the beauty salon.

Meals were primarily vegetarian with a small amount of fish also served.

Breakfast was a daily treat of soft tortillas with scrambled eggs, Rancho salsa, sliced fresh fruit, oatmeal, freshly squeezed juices both green and fruity, tea, coffee and fragrant, cinnamon-infused hot chocolate. Lunch featured a daily soup and special, such as small slices of vegetable pizza, devilled eggs or a cheese board, as well as small bowls of tuna and a huge salad bar, groaning with fresh leaves, roasted vegetables, perfectly steamed broccoli, nuts, seeds and a delicious, ever-changing dressing. Dinner trotted out soup, salad, a choice between two main courses, and dessert daily; all good, but none as inspiring as the lunchtime salad buffets.

For those really interested in food, La Cocina che Canta (The Singing Kitchen), presented the on-site opportunity to attend a cooking class for a night. Set in a beautiful building with soaring ceilings and huge terracotta tiles underfoot, surrounded by the property’s organic farm, it was a foodie experience aimed at noncooks, but fun nonetheless.

And so, to the point of the place; spa and exercise. Two spa buildings — both offering a sauna, steam room and hot tub, and a beauty salon — offer a long list of treatments from various forms of massage, body wraps and other relaxing treatments, to facials, pedicures and waxing. Without exception, all of my massages were excellent and really got to the heart of the discomfort. There was plenty of that.

I arrived at Rancho La Puerta in reasonable shape, capable of a decent game of tennis, say, or an hour-long intense exercise class, or a two-hour tramp in the Gatineau Hills. But here, the opportunity for exercise is as good as the extensive  lunchtime buffet. Each class lasts 45 minutes, and takes place in one of eight beautiful workout spaces or one of two swimming pools. From tennis and pickleball to Pilates, circuit training, trampolining, yoga, stretch, cardio, dance, drumming, BOSU, gyrokinesis and more there were classes at every level of intensity for every level of fitness, taught by motivating and fun instructors. Days could begin with a sunrise mountain hike, ranging from a gentle walk in the hills to a testing climb, and end with guided meditation as the sun set behind the hills. I did all of this and more.

My body complained. But my spirit rejoiced. It turns out that great healthy food, plenty of exercise and an almost complete disconnect from the outside world (computers and cell phones are only allowed in bedrooms and certain designated buildings on the property) is the recipe for boundless energy. This, combined with flawless, authentic rustic design, both inside and out, rooms that are supremely comfortable but not over the top, friendly staff, a blissful lack of flash and an interesting series of evening lectures on photography and music, made for a very complete experience.

I’ve sipped the Kool-Aid, but a return visit might be necessary to see if I really like the taste.

How to get there

Fly to San Diego
Contact Rancho La Puerta to book a complimentary bus transfer. The first one leaves at eight on the Saturday morning, which gets you on-site by lunchtime. The last one leaves after lunch the following Saturday, which means you can eat and exercise before leaving. However, there are multiple transfers daily to fit flight schedules.

Best times to visit
With a Mediterranean climate, it’s never really cold at Rancho La Puerta. But it gets very hot in mid-summer. April, May and October are the most temperate months.