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A New Look : Tecate Health Spa Celebrates 50th Year With a Remodeling Push


TECATE — That universal valediction, "Don't stay away toolong," assumes additional meaning at Rancho La Puerta, a luxury health spa 3 miles west of Tecate in Mexico.

If visitors stay away too long, they might not recognize the place, which sits at the base of the Kumeyaay's sacred Mt. Kachumaa, about 40 miles east of San Diego.

And these days, "too long" can be just a little while, the way alterations and additions have been accelerating during the spa's 50th anniversary year.

The changes began in 1982, after co-founder Deborah Szekely went to Washington when President Reagan asked her to run the Inter-American Foundation, an agency created by Congress to make grants to Third World countries in Latin America.

Her son, Alex Szekely, took over and started the improvements, which have been under way ever since.

"We're looking at a new decade, a new millennium," he said.

The whole philosophy of the ranch, which hasn't changed much over the years, is to exercise, eliminate stress and eat natural foods (up to 1,200 calories a day). Smoking and booze are taboo.

Manuelita Ching, one of two concierges, recalled the early days.

"We had a New York woman who weighed 350 pounds. She stayed two years and lost 200 pounds. People had real health problems. Now, we discourage that," she said, referring to both lengthy stays and people with severe health problems.

Nowadays, long-term stays are not allowed. Most guests stay one week. Other than that, the regimen, which is voluntary, is basically the same as always: hiking, swimming, aerobics, dancing, yoga, meditation, herbal wraps, massages, beauty treatments, lectures or just relaxing in a private sun bin.

Rates run from $1,500 to $1,900 a week, and accommodations range from studios to two-bedroom villas.

The cottages are speckled throughout the grounds, which are flat and always smogless. Stone, brick and wood are the construction materials, with nothing higher than one story, and each guest site evokes rusticity.

Privacy is supreme. Tranquility is inescapable. One of several swimming pools is inevitably nearby, and none of the centers for congregating or learning is more than a short walk away.

Guests preferring long walks may hike up Mt. Kuchumaa, past the granite boulders on the slope and through the shrubs and chaparral to the landmark peak.

Pines, oaks, eucalyptus and cacti remind the visitor that this is no wetland, but shade is always plentiful.

Landscape architect Chris Drayer was in charge of improving the grounds and now is responsible for maintaining them. He has also done much of the remodeling and estimates he has "two years or so" before working himself out of a job. He could use a good rain, too, as the drought continues.

"The lack of grass is very frustrating," Drayer said. Straw, spiked with an apologetic, explanatory sign, covers former lawns.

Other changes include a new entry off Mexico's Highway 2, a remodeled library, a meditation site created by sculptor James Hubbell, a recreation room, redesigned guest cottages and a relatively new semi-vegetarian dining room--adorned by the Indian-style yarn pictures by Timothy Emerson Hinchliff.

Elsewhere, Drayer is finishing El Parque del Professor, the Maya-style sports stadium financed by Rancho La Puerta just west of Tecate for the community, which has enjoyed a happy symbiosis with the ranch for half a century.

Profesor refers to the late Dr. Edmund Bordeaux Szekely, who, with his wife, Deborah, founded the spa on June 6, 1940. His bronze bust is at the stadium. Over the years, the ranch also gave the community its first school bus, first fire engine and first ambulance. So it is fitting that the stadium be completed in this golden anniversary year, during which several celebratory activities have taken place. The ranch had an official birthday bash in June.

Rancho La Puerta takes its name from an ancient oak whose limbs (before being hit by lightning many years ago) formed an arch-like doorway.

Scattered throughout the grounds, some of the original ranch can still be found. And no one affiliated with the place can single them out better than Cecilia Jasso, an employee since 1950, longer than anyone.

"Here is the basement," she said on a recent tour, pointing to the excavation underneath the Szekelys' original home-office, a small adobe soon to be a museum. "They kept the food there because it was cool. There was no refrigeration."

Nearby is a tiny cottage made of World War II Navy packing crates, dating from about 1943, when buildings began to replace the tents the first visitors had to bring.

Jasso's job, as it has always been, is giving herbal wraps. Guests are packaged into a linen cloth steeped in a concoction of herbs, such as chamomile, eucalyptus, rosemary and lemon grass. Some regulars have been returning for 40 years.

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