TECATE, Mexico -- From San Diego, Highway 94 winds through rugged mountain passes, past gnarled stands of oak trees, to a sleepy border crossing. The hourlong ride gives a visitor a chance to shake off some of the stress of daily life -- the ideal prelude to a spa escape at Rancho La Puerta, which is just across the border in the Mexican town of Tecate. This is the time to contemplate goals for the week ahead.
Part summer camp, part luxury resort, part spiritual retreat, the spa can be anything you want it to be.
For me, a novice but enthusiastic hiker, it was a chance on two successive visits -- in 2004 and last year -- to sign up for guided hikes that taught me a lot about my abilities and endurance.
For my sister, the "ah hah!" moments came in back-to-back yoga classes in one of the ranch's serene, light-drenched studios, with some sessions led by Los Angeles guru Larry Payne, co-author of "Yoga for Dummies." His classes were so popular that his adoring students, and their yoga mats, were packed in like sardines.
My mother, meantime, was fast becoming the ranch's most proficient septuagenarian in the tough but wildly popular discipline of Pilates and -- inveterate social butterfly that she is -- meeting all sorts of interesting people and lining up dining companions for the eagerly awaited, mostly vegetarian feasts in the communal dining room.
The three of us have been to other spas over the years, but for each of us, Rancho
It comes by these attributes honestly. Founded more than 65 years ago by an eccentric Hungarian, Edmond Szekely, the ranch was the subject of bemused newspaper articles in the late 1940s, which dubbed "the professor" and his acolytes a "crypto-religious health cult."
Even back then, Szekely was advocating organic food, daily meditation and exercise, a mind-body connection. He railed against commercial fertilizers and pesticides, and he and his wife, Deborah, grew much of the food that their health-seeking guests ate.
Visitors paid just $17.50 to erect their own tent at the retreat, which in the early days had no running water or electricity, and nothing resembling a gym or a swimming pool.
Everyone chopped wood, worked the farm and in the kitchen, and tended the goat herd in the rolling hills nearby. The typical breakfast was raw goat milk, bread from wheat grown and germinated by Deborah, and wild honey. Most meals were vegetarian -- a diet that has since been modified to include daily fish entrees and, occasionally, free-range poultry.
Out in the "real world," where Americans were just starting to fall in love with whipped cream in a can and cheese in a jar, all this emphasis on natural living was considered kind of nutty. But as the ranch grew and prospered, it gradually became more mainstream, even as the core of Szekely's teachings gained widespread acceptance.
Today, the ranch sprawls over 3,000 acres at the foot of 3,885-foot Mount Kuchumaa, also known as Tecate Peak.
Guests stay in dozens of charming casitas scattered around the gently rolling property, many decorated with original Mexican folk art and equipped with fireplaces, patios and kitchenettes.
The public buildings and common areas are beautifully landscaped with brilliantly colored beds of flowers, and trees and shrubbery specially chosen to thrive in Tecate's semiarid climate.
Winding paths meander past swimming pools, tennis courts, gymnasiums, a meditation labyrinth and the imposing Spanish Colonial dining hall.
Sculptures, including stunning pieces by Mexican sculptor Francisco Zuniga, adorn the lawns and other public spaces, and the scent of organically grown herbs permeates the massage and locker rooms.
Overseeing the operation is a well-trained staff of fitness instructors, massage therapists, cooks, gardeners and housekeepers, many of them Mexican. They tend to your every need, whether it's lighting a fire in your casita in the cool evenings or delivering a daily newspaper to your front door.
Yes, the real world does occasionally intrude into this paradise. When the Szekelys put down roots here in 1940, Tecate was a village of just 400 souls. Today, the city is home to about 100,000 people and, with Tijuana just 16 miles to the west, part of a region whose population numbers at least 2 million.
Walk around the grounds and you can hear giant trucks whizzing by at all hours of the day. From the slopes of Mount Kuchumaa, considered a sacred site by the Kumeyaay Indians, you see -- sadly -- subdivisions and some of the ravages of uncontrolled growth and pollution.
But on the very same hike, you also can round a bend on that magical mountain and feel totally cut off from civilization. Before you lie vistas of puffy white clouds racing wildly over the mountain ranges, and stark boulders lurching up toward the brilliant blue sky.
You discover the wild beauty and serenity that lured the Szekelys here so many years ago. Others, who don't opt for the morning hikes, find their bliss elsewhere: in a tai chi or dance class, in the cooking school or on a massage table with hot river rocks on their back.
Wherever you find it, savor it. Because soon, very soon, you'll have to go home.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: From San Diego, take Highway 94 west for about 40 miles to County Route 188, which takes you to the border. Rancho La Puerta is about three miles west of Tecate. It's advisable to bring a passport for smooth re-entry into the United States.
ACCOMMODATIONS: Rates for a Saturday-to-Saturday stay begin at about $3,100 a week for singles, cheaper for double occupancy. Watch for themed events, including couples' and women's-only weeks. The extended hiking program over three days is offered only from November through March. For all hikes on Mount Kuchumaa, hiking boots or trail shoes are required.
INFORMATION: www.rancholapuerta.com; (800) 443-7565.