23 May 2019 Leisure Handbook

Sign up for FREE ezine
Current issue
Leisure Handbook
Current issue

View this issue online
Buy print edition
Download PDF

Leisure Handbook - Deborah Szekely


Deborah Szekely

On her 90th birthday, the extraordinary Szekely embarked on a new career as the Wellness Warrior

Liz Terry, Leisure Media
Deborah Szekely photographed by Victoria Will at Rancho la Puerta
The Szekely family owns 3,000 acres of land around Rancho La Puerta and has protected the area against development
The sustainable gardens at Rancho la Puerta were designed and created by Szekely’s daughter, Sarah-Livia Brightwood
Guests can take classes at the cookery school with executive chef Denise Roa
Crops are grown organically on the adjacent farm
Executive chef Denise Roa

World War II was in full swing when Deborah Szekely and her husband Edmond founded the health retreat that would grow to become Rancho la Puerta, the award-winning destination spa in Mexico.

Now – 74 years later – Szekely is hot on the tail of the US government, lobbying for better food policy and seeking to educate the public on health issues. Liz Terry talked to her about her life and work

“Nothing in my body is 90 years old apart from my knowledge,” explains Deborah Szekely to her attentive audience. “Because the body largely renews itself every seven years, so very few things in me are any older than that.

“And our bodies are absolutely nobody’s responsibility but our own. Don’t forget that ultimately no one else really gets the rewards for taking care of that body apart from you.”

I’m at Szekely’s weekly lecture at Rancho La Puerta, in Tecate, Mexico – the destination spa she founded, initially as a health retreat, with her late husband Edmond Szekely – and she’s playing to a full house of spa-goers.

We’re in a beautiful wood-beamed room with sweeping views over rolling wild gardens and craggy, mountains.

The crackle of concentration in the room is palpable, because when a 90-year-old with the vivacity, passion and focus of Szekely gives you health advice, you tend to pay extra special attention.

She has great power to influence people with her words, as witnessed at the 2012 Global Spa and Wellness Summit in Aspen, when, as a keynote speaker on health, she moved many to tears with her powerful oratory. “I’m so fortunate I’m able to communicate my feelings about subjects I feel passionately about,” she remarks in our ongoing correspondence.

The Rancho La Puerta lectures give Szekely the chance to share her knowledge and philosophy with guests and to encourage the attitudes and behaviours that underpin the ethos of the place.

“What you’re doing at the Ranch,” she tells everyone, “is not worrying about losing a few pounds, it’s beginning a conversation with your body – which means listening. You can’t have a conversation without listening. It’s a two-way partnership.

“And once you begin to listen, you’ll be amazed at the rewards – the body wants to live and to thrive, it loves to be healthy and it can be our choice to be healthy. There are a few who have health issues, but for most of us it is a choice. Gaining and losing weight, for example, is a lot of work for the body. It copes, it manages, but it would manage a lot better if we paid it more attention and didn’t make it work so hard at pointless things.

“Everything at the Ranch is designed to teach you to hold hands with yourself,” says Szekely, “to encourage you to learn to listen to the messages your body’s giving you: when you get a headache, for example, there’s a reason. You might not have slept enough, not eaten enough, had a fight with your friend or be dehydrated. Whatever the reason, it’s a message and you need to pay attention and fix it. Our aim is for you to go home with a new respect for your body.

“As you wake in the morning,” she advises, “take time to stretch and feel your body moving. Check it over bit by bit – awaken it to the day – wiggle your fingers and toes, feel the energy and be aware of the miracle of it. Then breathe deeply three or four times, take a moment to feel blessed – the body likes that – to feel blessed, because we are. We have much to feel blessed about.

“Then I’d like you to say out loud, ‘Good Morning!’ Because it is a good morning, with all kinds of possibilities and you’re sending that thought out into the ether.

“It makes a difference, that little routine of acknowledging your body at the start of the day,” she explains, “you’ll find that if you’re faced with a decision about how you treat your body – heading towards food you shouldn’t be eating, for example, or trying to make time for exercise – you’ll be more respectful of it if you acknowledge your partnership with it and your ability to control how you behave. It’s the absolute key.

“If you want your body to serve you well, then serve it well: it’s self-regulating, self-healing and it knows what to do, don’t wait until things fall apart before you take action, cherish it and pay attention to it.”

The joy of Rancho La Puerta is that this philosophy of self-reliance and knowledge-sharing can be found in all aspects of the operation. Guests enjoy access to a huge choice of wellness options during their week-long stays – healthy food, wellness lectures, great hiking, a ‘health centre’ offering a good range of spa treatments, four swimming pools and a choice of fitness classes to match any destination spa in the world. It’s no surprise that ‘The Ranch,’ as Szekely lovingly calls it, was voted World’s Best Destination Spa by readers of Travel & Leisure magazine in 2010 and 2011.

Just as important to the overall experience is the physical environment and it’s here that Szekely and her daughter, Sarah-Livia Brightwood, a landscape designer, have collaborated to create a place which cradles and nurtures guests in a thousand delightful and unexpected ways.

Brightwood has created a sustainable, permaculture landscape which supports a rich biodiversity. Flocks of birds fly by, drifts of wildflowers come into view, insects hum and hammocks slung under trees create shady restful sanctuaries to while away the midday hours. It’s a healing place.

The work has taken decades “Each time my mother came to me to say she wanted to add a feature or a building,” says Brightwood, “I had to work out where best to place it.” The result of her deliberations is wonderfully pleasing – lawns roll across a landscape planted with herbs, fruit trees and vines, while footpaths, laid with local, hand-made red brick pavers meander for miles connecting buildings and activities. “We make you walk here,” says Szekely.

Early photographs show the grounds as largely being covered by the indigenous flora, so the beautiful landscaping is a triumph of gardening craft and makes up a significant part of the wellness experience – I propose to Brightwood that her contribution to the Ranch is in many ways equal to her mother’s because of this and she quietly accepts the compliment, while Szekely is clearly extremely proud of her daughter’s work.

Szekely’s son Alex was a driving force in the business until his untimely death from melanoma in 2002 at the age of 44.

He’s credited with working to establish the Ranch’s staff programmes. SpaFinder’s Susie Ellis, who’s close to the Szekelys, recalls: “It was Alex who instilled in the Ranch the appreciation for each member of staff. He believed taking care of those who take care of the guests is of the utmost importance.” It’s clear these prescendents endure today, as the staff are longserving, as well as natural and attentive with guests and clearly care passionately, about being part of the Rancho La Puerta family.

After running for US Congress unsuccessfully aged 60, Szekely “flew the coop” and headed off to Washington DC anyway, where she had a second career running the Inter-American Foundation and other NGOs.

She was deeply involved with the Ranch between 1990 and 2010, when she turned the presidency over to Brightwood who runs it with general manager Roberto Arjona. Today she still sits on the board and her weekly lectures keep her involved.

The arrival of Szekely’s 90th birthday spurred her to find a new way to harness her lifetime of skills for the greater good: “I wanted to do something very special when I turned 90,” she says, “and I can’t begin to tell you the extent of my frustration and anger when I see the terrible state of our health education and decisions about health-related policy. The US government declaring that pizza is a vegetable, for example, how dare they do that?

“I was thinking there must be something we can do,” she says with exasperation, “because we’ve been doing nothing. Health care is sick care in the US. We need an effective focus on prevention and education.”

The solution, and her new passion, is Wellness Warrior (www.wellnesswarrior.org), a lobbying group she’s established for “fighting unhealthy special interests that unduly influence the US Congress and advocating preventative wellness and healthy food”. The organisation has a mission statement ‘Be Heard, Be United, Be Well’.

“There are millions of people involved in wellness,” she says, “but they have no say in Washington. My aim is to raise money for lobbying. I want a million people connected with wellness to donate $10 a year so we can lobby on prevention.

“I want young people whom the current lobbyists are influencing to hear our viewpoint also. They don’t realise how dangerous it is when government guidelines allow pizza to be counted as a ‘vegetable’ in a balanced meal plan. If the main dish was pasta, this could mean that everyone genuinely thinks they’re eating a balanced meal, when they’re very obviously not doing so.

“Vermont and Maine are doing school lunches on a farm-to-table basis throughout the state. It’s healthier – and it’s cheaper! There are so many wonderful initiatives like that which we can promote.

“I think there’s a pent up demand for wellness,” she says. “I want to see if I can create a tipping point. It will either be a spectacular failure or a spectacular success and I’m prepared for either.”

And Szekley’s in a hurry. “For 73 years I’ve made my living making people healthy. Someone worked out I’ve had an impact on 500,000 lives,” she says. “It took 73 years to do that, but I don’t have another 73 years to do another 500,000, so I need to find a faster way using technology.

“There are so many challenges. Old people are over-medicated and sitting themselves to death, drug cocktails are doing harm – diabetes drugs can cause high blood pressure and blood pressure drugs may cause diabetes, for example. The incidence of lifestyle disease is increasing and government policies have led to a situation where the production of unhealthy foods is subsidised so they’re cheaper than the healthy alternatives.”

It sounds as though Szekely plans to make waves in Washington and such a challenge is entirely in line with her views on ageing: “These days, if we look after ourselves, we’re living longer. I urge people to think of life in thirds: the first 30 years are for education and growing up, the second for starting a home and raising kids and the third are wide open for reinvention. The reason you want to be healthy is so you can have these years of glorious freedom. “It’s important to start daydreaming early about what it is you’d like to do when you’re 60,” she says, “that’s the reason people come back to the Ranch over and over again – they want health so they can have freedom in that heady last third of life.”

So Szekely is heading out into her fourth ‘third’ of life – nimble from regular pilates classes and workouts, with a spring in her step, a refreshingly fierce attitude and her life experiences under her belt. “I really do feel that what I’m doing is what I was supposed to do,” she says.

From Spa Business Issue 1 2013, p32

Originally published in Leisure Handbook 2014 edition

Published by The Leisure Media Company, Portmill House, Portmill Lane, Hitchin, Herts SG5 1DJ. Tel: +44 (0)1462 431385 | Contact us | About us | Advertise | © Cybertrek Ltd