Rancho La Puerta may well be the original wellness destination, a resort and spa in Tecate, Mexico, just near the U.S. border. It is, and has been, where well-heeled hippies go, ever since it was founded in 1940 by Hungarian philosopher Edmond Szekely and his young bride, Brooklyn-born Deborah Szekely. Dr. Szekely studied ancient cultural traditions, and through these, he established his own principles of a vegetarian-based cleansing diet.
Dr. Szekely had many far-out (for the time) ideas about health. Smoking might be bad. Raw-food diets were good. Exercise is important. Many countercultural luminaries of the 1940s and ’50s, including Aldous Huxley, would go for his lectures, and Hollywood stars such as Kim Novak and Burt Lancaster visited to get in shape for film roles. Edmond died in 1979. Deborah is still bumping around, though she doesn’t live on property. Their daughter, Sarah Livia (Szekely) Brightwood, is still the president.
When the Szekelys founded the place, they asked guests to bring their own tents. It cost $17.50 a week, and there were only 37 guests. Though Edmond’s utopia was more austere, Deborah’s vision of Rancho La Puerta involved equal parts health, community, and pleasure. All activities, therefore, encourage healthiness, group interactions, and fun. These days, up to 150 guests arrive on Saturday and are strongly encouraged to stay the week. There’s an orientation, a personal consultation, and then over 50 classes a day from which to choose, including Pilates, yoga, painting, cardio drumming, tennis, and Broadway dance.
Eighty-three casitas are spread over the 3,000-acre property. Spartan they aren’t. Most come with fireplaces, terracotta floors, and open-beamed ceilings. To get to them, one wanders through grounds bursting with wildflowers.
I was new to the idea of group experiences at resorts. Usually when I go somewhere, I want to be left alone. But the idea of Rancho La Puerta isn’t solitude in nature but communion amid it. So we did yoga together, we did aqua aerobics together. One morning, we met at an ungodly hour for a hike up Mount Kuchumaa.
At the end of the week, all guests at Rancho La Puerta gather for one festive meal, the only one with wine. Numbers are exchanged and plans are made to meet in a year’s time. I didn’t get any numbers, but I did make a few friends. And this connection was, for me, the best part of Rancho La Puerta. Being surrounded by the gentle, often philosophical, voices of the others stuck with me long after I returned home, to eat poorly, live amongst concrete, and trust no one over 30.