"I don’t think I’ve ever hit my 10,000-step goal before breakfast,” my friend Caroline says on Day One of our stay at Rancho La Puerta. We were up before the sun, watching the day break as we ascended Mount Kuchumaa on a guided hike with a group of 30 other guests. Now, we’re digging in to a breakfast we feel we’ve earned – eggs with homemade tortilla, avocado and salsa alongside bowls of mango, yogurt and bircher muesli. I feel hungry, exhausted and energised all at once.
Rancho La Puerta has been purposely laid out so even without tackling an early-morning hike, guests will get their exercise in throughout the day, walking from one of the 86 casitas to the dining hall, spa or a fitness class. Edmund Szekely, who founded the Ranch in 1940 with wife Deborah, had a simple philosophy decades ahead of its time: live simply, respect the body’s inherent wisdom and embrace a life in nature. He was an early proponent of incidental exercise, and getting around on foot means Caroline and I will add at least another 10,000 steps to our day before it’s done.
On our first hike, we meet Katy, a woman in her 40s from Los Angeles who’s been coming to the Ranch with her mother since she was 14. She’s the first of many friends we will make during our week at the Ranch, which is populated mostly by women, though a handful of men tag along. Nearly everyone comes for a Saturday to Saturday stay, and meals are served in a communal dining hall at set hours; at dinner the first night, we sit at a big table with strangers, but we soon know each other’s names and where we’re from: there are two pairs of sisters, a couple of solo travellers and Caroline and me – friends of more than 20 years who live a few thousand miles apart.
Over the course of the week, we meet Steve and Holly, a vibrant Californian couple in their 80s who will hit the dance floor on the final evening; mother-daughter duo Laurel and Teal, visiting from Oregon on their second trip (though Laurel first came decades ago with her own mother); and visiting chef Joey and his wife Jaeme from San Francisco.
Almost everyone has been before – so much so that Caroline and I have nametags on our backpacks identifying us as ‘first-timers’. “After a week, you’ll see why people come back,” Katy tells us. “After a few months away, you’ll start planning your next trip”.
Learning for life
But right now, over that first breakfast, Caroline and I are busy planning our day; the myriad of options is a bit overwhelming; in addition to the hikes, more than 50 fitness classes are offered – obvious things such as yoga, Pilates, and strength training, but also more specialised lessons in Gyrokinesis or Feldenkrais. Add to that art lessons, lectures, cooking classes, bird watching, history tours, sound healing and a wide range of aquatic and racquet offerings (it was Pickleball week during our stay) and we began to worry a week wasn’t long enough. But it’s thrilling, plotting schedules – a little like choosing your first university classes and thinking about all you’ll learn. We try to find a mix of doing and being, and by day three we seem to have it down.
We try things we’ve never tried before (Gyrokinesis) and new takes on things we have (deep water aerobics), and if the key to longevity is to continue to make new neural connections, then Rancho La Puerta is the fountain of youth. We start each day with a guided hike at 6am among the 4,000 acres of the resort – the Professor’s Hike, the Pilgrim, Alex’s Oak, names that reflect the Szekely family’s lasting imprint on the land – and we pass boulders of magnificent forms, horses roaming wild on the mountains and scale heights where we can see as far away as the partially built border wall, and down into the dusty valley to the nearby city of Tecate.
But we soon discover it’s also important to schedule down time. Sitting by the pool, lounging beneath the unbelievable boughs of decades-old oaks in colourful hammocks, reading in the silence of our private terrace, taking time for a spa treatment, or enjoying a glass of wine at the Bazaar del Sol are all equally beneficial to our wellbeing – especially for two busy moms who normally only see each other once a year – and Rancho La Puerta’s thoughtful landscaping, designed by Rancho La Puerta president, Sarah-Livia Szekely Brightwood – a trained landscape architect – is filled with hidden nooks for quiet and contemplation. Caroline and I take time to slow down and connect, sometimes trying activities together, but just as often, going our own way and meeting up for lunch or dinner. I can see why this framework is ideal for mother-daughter and sister combos, and start thinking about bringing my own daughter when she’s old enough.
With seven days and evenings to catch up without the distraction of husbands or kids, we feel we can spare one night to try something called the silent dinner – which is exactly as it sounds. We’re not sure what to expect – the idea of eating a four-course meal in complete silence sitting across from strangers sounds both horrifying and challenging, and like nothing we’ve ever done before, which is why we sign up.
The dinner takes place in a private dining room away from the rest of the guests and about twelve of us gather around a large round table, where our host, Hazel – one of the Ranch’s yoga instructors – gives us tips and instructions. The idea is to slow down and eat mindfully, she says, and perhaps to give thought to all that had to take place for the food to be served to us: the rich earth that grew the vegetables, the farmers who harvest the crops, the chefs who plan the meal and cook the food, the servers who bring it to us, the dishwashers who clean our plates.
Really take the time to notice how the food looks and smells before we put it in our mouths, we’re told, and then chew slowly, noticing not just the taste, but the texture, so we’re using as many senses as possible. We’ve been given a sprig of rosemary, which we bend one way to indicate to our waiter whether we want the vegetarian or the fish option for the main dish, and those with special dietary requirements are also given silent indicators. Hazel rings a small chime, and the silence begins.
It’s easy at first, then unnerving. Caroline confides later that she found it hard not to laugh. I smile at the waiter as he brings and clears each dish, fighting the urge to say ‘thank you’ and attempting to communicate my gratitude with eye contact instead. The circular table means we’re looking across at everyone, watching as these strangers silently eat and mindfully taste their food. Many close their eyes (Hazel has told us this might help us to focus on the food), but I find myself looking into the faces of these strangers instead. At the end of the meal, which takes around two hours, Hazel again rings the chime, and invites us to share our experience with the group.
Many say the food tasted richer and more flavourful; one shared how the experience had him reflecting on meals where he’d come together with family to celebrate. For me, it was about connection – yes, the conscious connection to the food and the earth it grew from, but somehow, over a meal where nothing was said, I felt a deep connection to these people with whom I had not shared a word, but with whom I’d shared an experience.
Change, growth, connection
It’s that idea of connection that keeps coming back to me over my week at Rancho La Puerta; the time to reconnect properly with an old friend, the space to connect with myself, the magnificent setting in which to connect with the natural world, and the shared experiences that connected me to new-found friends.
Many have likened Rancho La Puerta to summer camp for adults, which might only make sense if you’re American, and grew up in a certain demographic where you were sent away for a week or two in the heat of the summer to sleep in dorm-like cabins filled with bunk beds and where, in the course of a week, you could come back a changed person, with new friends, having experienced your first taste of something like independence.
We’re all of us years (mostly decades) into our own independence, but the summer-camp spirit that’s rekindled is one of change and growth and connection. The idea that spending time in nature grounds us in a way that we often miss in daily life, that taking on new challenges is both hard work and rewarding and that making new friends is one of life’s richest rewards.
When I sit down to interview Deborah Szekely, who will shortly celebrate her 100th birthday, it’s not surprising to hear her reflect on so many of these ideas: the importance of the natural world, the value of continued learning for mental wellness, and the fact that myriad friendships have been a key to her long and healthy life. The Ranch’s motto, a favourite greeting of Edmund Szekely, is ‘Siempre Mejor!’ or ‘Always better!’, and reflects this idea of continued growth – mentally, physically, intellectually and spiritually – throughout life, no matter what your age.
The final night – the one where Steve and Holly tear up the dance floor – is a celebration; there’s a live band, wine with dinner and hugs and phone numbers shared, photos taken and promises made to come back at the same time next year. Everyone lingers over their meal, not wanting the magic to end.
Caroline and I pack the next morning and wheel our bags to the reception at the front of the Ranch, where we’ve barely passed by since our arrival. Our suitcases stand ready for the bus that will take us to the border, and suddenly, it arrives, and a fresh round of guests disembarks, most smiling and exclaiming how good it is to be back, but with a few looking wide-eyed and hesitant, not quite sure where to go.
“Was that us just a week ago?” I ask Caroline. It was. And I think Katy was right: this place changes you, and I get it now. I can’t wait to come back.