Vicky Baker, The Guardian, January 15, 2013
There is a certain look people give you when you say you are taking a trip just south of the US/Mexico border. The word "border" triggers reflex panic. Eyebrows rise and eyes dart apprehensively. Even when I assure people I won't be backpacking into the notorious Ciudad Juárez and will instead be staying at an isolated family-run ranch in the middle of the Sonora desert, the look of unease doesn't fade.
Mexico is as big as western Europe, yet it dominates international news for one reason only. There's no point pretending the country doesn't have very serious problems and that some areas certainly need to be avoided; however, not everywhere on or within a few hours' drive of the 2,000-mile border deserves to be blacklisted.
My home for a week is Rancho Los Baños (so called because of the abundance of natural springs in the area and nothing to do with lavatories). In 2008, its owners – the Valenzuela family – decided to defy the bad press and open their doors to tourists.
"I was a lawyer, a bored lawyer," says thirtysomething Manuel, when I ask what made him ask his father if he could start bringing tourists to stay on the working cattle ranch. "We didn't even offer riding at first. We didn't know how the horses – or even the cowboys – would react."
Fortunately, the horses and cowboys took the new direction in their stride. Although operations nearly drew to a halt in 2009 – when the combined forces of swine flu, global recession and an upsurge in drugs violence forced them to close for six months – business has been ticking over rather nicely since then. This year, they are expanding their accommodation to include simple cabins and tents, as well as rooms in the main ranch house.
"Obviously, business would be better if we were in Arizona," says Manuel, in perfect English. But the general perceptions of Mexico don't affect us too much. Our guests tend to be well-read. They do their research."
I like to think I'd done my research too, but even I wasn't prepared for the level of isolation. Hidden within 30,000 acres of rugged private land, the ranch is cocooned by peaks and canyons in all directions. The indomitable Sierra Madre mountains – the Mexican Rockies – stand just behind. There are no neighbours for miles; there is no internet or phone reception; electricity comes from solar panels. If you need groceries, it's a four-hour round trip to the shop.
This isn't the sort of place you happen upon by chance. I'd found it on top50ranches.com, a website that collates highly recommended ranching holidays, mainly in the US, Canada, Argentina and New Zealand. Rancho Los Baños instantly stood out: first for the location, then for the price (it claims to undercut most US "dude ranches" by 30% to 50%) and then for its more rough-around-the-edges approach. "Rustic", as they call it.
Guests are advised to fly to Tucson, Arizona, where one of the Los Baños team will escort you to the border at Douglas/Agua Prieta. Imposing steel gates mark the frontier, but we get through in under five minutes and, in a sign of our unjust world, no one even checks my passport. There's not much on the other side except a few billboards offering cut-price dentistry – so we don't stick around. We've still got a 55-mile drive south, through two small mining towns and a couple of dusty villages ("The sort of places that comprise two speed bumps and a store," jokes Manuel), before we finally pick up the dirt road to the ranch.
Getting to somewhere this remote involves a lot of driving, but the scenery is consistently, well, scenic. Copper residue has turned the ground a rich terracotta. Above it, steep, arid hillsides are dotted with mesquite bushes and 100-year-old organ-pipe cactuses – many bizarrely charred after a deep freeze two years ago. Manuel says past guests have compared it with Copper Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion Park. He plays it down, insisting this is a very mini version, but it's an undoubtedly impressive landscape.
Finally, we are on the ranch's land. We move past wooden corrals and the no-frills cowboy camp, where jerky is drying on washing lines and potent coffee is being brewed in a tin pot on the outdoor stove. Then we draw up to our ranch house, a whitewashed bungalow with a red tin roof and a wraparound veranda. This is no boutique hotel. The décor is simple and cosy – family hand-me-downs, cowboy hats hanging behind the doors and a stuffed puma outside the bathroom (slightly terrifying on a middle-of-the-night toilet trip). I feel as though I have stepped into someone's home while they are away for a week. Even my wardrobe still has someone else's stuff in it.
The UK winter (early December to mid-April) is the ideal time to visit this part of Mexico. Not only have deadly snakes and spiders hidden underground, but temperatures are very pleasant: averaging 21C during the day, falling to around 10C at night. The sky tends to be, as one guest puts it, "a Simpsons sky" – powder-blue with a scattering of fluffy white clouds. The sun casts a spotlight on a different mountain every day, as if proudly presenting a rotating cast. One day, after a very light shower, it presents its trump card: a vibrant double rainbow bridging the Sierra Madre and our temporary home.
Also on the ranch are a 70-year-old former SAS soldier who was once a bodyguard to the Fayed family, and his Maryland-raised wife, who are back for their second visit. There's also a fiftysomething male horse fanatic from Baltimore, and an outdoorsy, thirtysomething German girl, who has just arrived to work for the season from her adopted home of Andalucía, where she regularly rides bareback. In short, they are all much better riders than me and calmly slide out of their saddles at the end of the day while I limp off as if I have been sitting on a bag of spanners.
We've all timed our visit to coincide with the annual corrida, a cattle round-up in which all the area's vaqueros (cowboys) unite to retrieve more than 500 cows from all across the range. As guests, we get to go along for the ride under the pretence of helping out. Mainly I just follow behind 70-year-old Diego, a retired cowboy turned guide, who never looks anything less than immaculate, in his buttoned-to-the-top denim shirt. I'm sure I'm pretty much useless at rounding up reluctant cattle, but the real cowboys' expertise is astounding to watch. They hurtle down vertiginous slopes and communicate with each other across ravines without raising their voices.
After a full day in the saddle, we've certainly earned our dinner. Some days we eat with the cowboys at their camp; other days we head back to the ranch. Either way it's all pleasingly basic, with a typical day's menu being seeing meat stew and frijoles (beans) for lunch, plus tacos or quesadillas for dinner. Naturally, it's all topped with plenty of hot sauce and grain-sized peppers that could make you breathe fire.
On day three, it's time for a break from the riding and we head out for a hike in the nearby box canyon, and have a go at bouldering (a sort of ropeless rock-climbing). Although we're hardly recreating Mission Impossible, it is still quite a thrill.
"Lean into the rocks, trust them," says Manuel encouragingly, as we haul ourselves up to a place nicknamed the Bat Cave. It's huge and slightly eerie, with one column of light pouring in the top and a hairy wall made entirely of sleeping daddy longlegs. Nomadic tribes used to live in many of the caves around here. Later, we inspect some 2,000-year-old paintings in another cave. Elsewhere you'd expect barriers and entrance fees, but here there are no tour groups, just whoever Los Baños decides to take out for the day.
I arrive back at base bruised and exhausted. This is not hand-holding tourism, where guests are treated as though they are made of china, and perhaps that is what I like best. I've put long-neglected muscles to the test and left my sedentary life in front of a computer screen far behind. Yet tired as I am, I also feel completely relaxed. Even the coyotes' howling seems unlikely to keep me awake as I lie in bed that night. Instead of counting sheep, I try visualising runaway cows, escaping across the backcountry. One, two, three … and I'm out.
• The trip was provided by Rancho Los Baños, (tierrachamahuaecoadventures.com) and Top50 Ranches (top50ranches.com), which offers a five-night, six-day package from £514pp, including accommodation, meals, activities and transfers from Tuscon. Delta Air Lines (0871 221 1222, delta.com) has returns to Tuscon from Heathrow via Atlanta from £626
Ranch out: an escape from Mexico City
I visited another ranch during my stay in Mexico. Rancho Las Cascadas – 90 minutes' drive north of Mexico City – is a well-kept secret among the pilots and aircrew who come here to escape the hectic capital and get some exercise after a long flight.
My spirits lifted the moment I arrived at the hacienda-style property set amid sprawling ejidos (community-owned farms), mainly because it bombards you with colour, from hand-painted tiles on the walls to bright ceramics in the central cactus garden.
It's billed as a luxury ranch, but I found the atmosphere pleasantly homely, thanks to the motherly Swiss owner, Ushci. Her staff – a mix of Mexicans, Canadians and Brits – seem like adopted family, all almost falling over one other to keep us guests happy.
There are 35 horses on site, and the riding is tailored to individuals' ability. Excursions range from 10-hour cross-country treks to short sunset rides ending at a local hole-in-the-wall bar. There are also plenty of day trip possibilities, including the ancient Teotihuacan pyramids and the artsy colonial town of San Miguel de Allende.
The all-inclusive programme is good value, because it includes riding, sunrise yoga, all meals (including four-course dinners) and an open bar. The best moment though, for me, came after a long ride when, margarita in hand, I slipped into the infinity pool, which is situated right next to the waterfalls that give the ranch its name.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk