Maya Grobel Moskin re-discovers the restorative powers of Mexico’s original destination health spa… My husband Noah and I like to travel. When we got married, we made a promise to leave the country at least once a year, and so far we’ve been successful. We kayaked in Canada for our honeymoon. We got lost in the outdoor markets of Cusco, Peru, and hiked Machu Picchu to watch the sun rise over the ancient city. We ate cured meats in Barcelona, stayed at an agriturismo in Italy, and bought a cowhide rug in Argentina. We’ve been lucky.
This year, we started to plan a trip to Iceland to drive and camp along the Ring Road, when it dawned on me that we needed a different kind of vacation. We’ve both been working non-stop for the past year (Noah’s a TV producer; I’m a clinical social worker) and we needed a real vacation. Just the thought of booking hotels and mapping out our route felt exhausting. We needed the kind of vacation that didn’t require a guidebook, a phrasebook, or a currency conversion calculator. We needed the kind of journey that would revive our mind, body, and spirit. We needed Rancho La Puerta.
Rancho La Puerta is a 3000-acre fitness resort and eco spa about an hour’s drive south of San Diego in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico. It was the world’s first destination health spa, opening its doors in 1940, and was voted world’s best destination spa by Travel + Leisure’s readers poll in 2010 and 2011. It offers the perfect mix of hiking, fitness classes, relaxation time, organic cuisine, and spa treatments, and always has interesting guest presenters and fitness instructors.
My family visited the ranch often when I was a teenager in the 90’s. It was the one place where we could all do our own thing: mom in yoga, dad in a hammock, sis on the tennis court, me in cardio hip-hop class – and yet be together to share the stories of our day over a delicious Mexican inspired organic meal. The last time I went I was a chubby teenager laughing inappropriately through a Feldenkrais class. Back then, I knew the ranch was fun. I knew it was special. But I didn’t know that, years later, a visit to the ranch would feel necessary.
When I made the suggestion to my husband I was met with a definitive “No.”
“I’m going to be bored sitting around a health spa eating rabbit food with a bunch of ladies,” my baseball-watching, hamburger-eating, iPhone addicted husband declared.
He was right: there are no televisions in the room, wifi is limited to the lounge area, and there are no burgers (but often fresh seafood at dinner). And he was also right that the men-to-women ratio leans in favor of the ladies. But he was wrong that he would be bored.
I got more information about the fitness activities of the week, the nearly perfect weather, and the morning hikes up the sacred Mt. Kuchumma. I showed him pictures of the three pools, the basketball court, and the food, but I didn’t expose him to the extensive spa treatment menu or the dance classes (those were for me!) By week’s end I had him convinced. He agreed that it would be nice to be somewhere all-inclusive and completely focused on helping over-worked, mentally-physically-emotionally exhausted souls press their reset button, far above a cheesy tourist pit package in Cabo.
We headed south on Saturday morning and I could tell Noah was a little unsure. He’d wrapped shooting late the night before and his eyes looked droopy, his skin a little dry and pale. “I booked a hot stone massage for you,” I said as we passed Target and Walmart and McDonalds along the 5-freeway. He rolled his eyes. Noah is not one for massages.
Driving through the shabby town of Tecate, it’s impossible to imagine the slice of heaven that exists beyond the decorated gates of Rancho La Puerta. After parking our car, we never saw or heard another for the entire week.
The ranch was almost exactly how I remembered it as a teen: long stretches of grass dotted with sculptures and squirrels, serene fishponds, hammock coves, and individual terracotta-roofed villas with views of oak tree groves and mountains. Some of the same staff members still worked there, remembering me and asking about my “hermana.” Once you are part of the ranch family, it seems you’re always part of the ranch family. It’s a five-star spa resort without the pretension.
Noah settled in quickly. The next day he woke up early for a 5.5-mile hike, did circuit weight training in the gym, and took a boot camp class followed by a cycling class. All before noon. I did pilates, yoga, and bar method, and then we ate a three-course lunch of black bean soup, salad, and a potato quesadilla.
“Are you bored?” I asked, as he wolfed down his food, having burned more calories that morning than he probably had in the last month. “No. It was awesome. I met a guy who has been here 47 times. Travels all over the world and always ends up back at the ranch,” he replied. And then he went off to his massage while I sat in on a life coach talking about “inner fitness,” and followed that with some pool time.
We took a partner Thai-massage class and a short siesta before dinner of organic broccoli soup, salad with gorgonzola and walnuts, and Moroccan spiced tilapia with almond couscous and chocolate flan with guava compote for dessert.
That night we made a fire in the room and read. We discussed the different people we had met and planned our schedule for the following day. The lights were off by 10pm and we slept more deeply than we had in months. The rest of the week progressed in much the same way. Classes changed slightly: boot camp became cardio boxing, cycling became hydro-fit deep water training, partner Thai-massage became guided meditation – that’s where Noah fell asleep so deeply he was open-mouth snoring.
By mid-week we both felt calm on a cellular level, as if our anxieties had been wrung out like a wet towel. We’d checked our email once and had been eating only healthy, organic food, most of which came from the garden on site. We were going to bed early and waking up to the sound of birds, rather than an assaultive alarm. I had a Healing Trigger-Point therapy massage that turned my chronic lower back pain into a distant memory and Noah admittedly enjoyed a body treatment called Brighten the Mind, which involved an energizing body exfoliation and light massage with ginger and lime essential oils.
By Thursday I hardly recognized him. Who was this tan man wandering around the premises in a bathrobe, heading towards afternoon smoothie time at the gazebo? Who was this smiling, veggie-loving dude, chatting it up with gals he met on the hikes, talking excitedly about doing a cooking class and listening to a live Spanish guitar concert that night? Who was this hombre willing to give me a foot massage after a late night dip in the jacuzzi, where we sat against the jets eating oranges under an indigo star-filled sky? This man was the better version of my husband.
On Friday we both felt a little sad. We’d gotten used to having everything we needed and spending all day relaxing and doing things we wanted to be doing, and didn’t want to give it up. But we had made new friends and felt reconnected to each other. “How are we going to take the ranch home with us?” I asked on the drive home. Swerving through traffic I already felt my chest tightening and my to-do list accumulating in my head.
Noah didn’t seem stressed at all. He breathed deeply and smiled at me. “Just take deep breaths,” he said nonchalantly, as if somewhere at the top of Mt. Kuchumma he had unlocked the secret to a calm and peaceful life.
“That’s it, huh?” I said. “Deep breaths? And what happens when the deep breaths aren’t a match for impossible shooting schedules and difficult talent?” “Then we go back. We know the ranch is always there. And I never got to take a restorative yoga class. I’d like to check that out.” Maya Grobel Moskin