In an effort to bring you some new voices on Ottsworld, here is a guest post from writer Sherry Spitsnaugle. I met Sherry S at a Denver event and found out that she was a travel writer! So not only does she have a cool name, but she also has a way with words! All opinions, experiences, and photos here are hers. – Sherry O.
Our taxi bumps down the narrow, cobblestoned street in the small village of Atotonilco, a ten-minute drive from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Dogs run loose and a woman with her head covered in a scarf walks along the path, carrying bags filled with produce.
My friend Donna and I have signed on for a week with Beyond the Nest, a company that incorporates wellness, travel, workshops, and exploration, all with a like-minded community.
The driver stops near a massive door shrouded by greenery and announces we have arrived. He rings the bell, and the ten-foot tall gate opens to a lush, tree-lined villa, which feels like a secret paradise. Birds warble, a gentle breeze blows, and even the air smells perfumed.
I look at Donna and ask, “Is this heaven?”
Table of Contents
Wellness Travel in Paradise
Co-founders Vanessa Famighetti and Mary Fusillo greet us with hugs (after asking permission), bottles of chilled water and hand towels. I bury my face in the icy cloth and breathe in the scent of eucalyptus. After a day of noise and grit in airports and planes, it feels like a world of comfort, luxury, and relief.
We’re here to spend the next week at BTN’s “Flying the Coop” wellness travel retreat. The name certainly fits. After 18 months of being cooped up due to COVID, arriving at the estate feels like we have definitely flown the coop.
Tour of Property, Happy Hour, Welcome Dinner
Mary and Vanessa show us to our individual rooms in the main house, which consists of a kitchen, dining room, living areas, and a master suite and large bedroom on the second floor. Several smaller structures with bedrooms and sitting areas are located throughout the two-acre property, as well as a pool, horse stables, and glass gym, all amidst verdant gardens, olive trees and pomegranate trees.
Part of the philosophy of Beyond the Nest wellness travel includes a luxury aspect, and this privately owned home certainly has it. Fine art adorns each room; muted colors of grey, charcoal, and cream create a contemporary yet relaxed vibe. Several months ago, Vanessa scouted properties in the area and settled on this beauty, which Beyond the Nest has rented for the retreat.
At make-your-own-margarita happy hour, we meet Margaret and Sarah, cousins from Houston, who are here for the same reasons we are: to travel after being on lockdown and do some self-discovery.
A local chef named Sunday introduces herself and explains what she has prepared for our welcome feast: esquites (corn) salad, chapulines (Tostada with guacamole) and huitlacoche (corn truffle) quesadillas. And those are just the appetizers. She also serves two types of mole with chicken, and chilis en nogada, (stuffed poblano chile peppers).
Sunday casually mentions the quesadillas are topped with crickets.
We all laugh when Donna prepares to take a bite, but first says, “Sorry, Jiminy.”
Travel and Wellness Vision
Beyond the Nest’s vision is helping others learn to create a passion-filled life
I first learned about Beyond the Nest when I interviewed Mary about the launch of their company. I was impressed by the company’s vision – and I signed on.
Week-long luxury wellness travel retreats provide workshops led by experts, with discussions about topics such as the importance of being connected to a supportive community.
Afternoons and evenings are filled with cultural and wellness activities such as hot yoga, meditation, or exploring San Miguel’s galleries.
Workshops focus on recalibrating after COVID, rediscovering our inner-power, mental and physical wellness, and remote work and travel.
Day One Begins With Yoga
Our first full day starts at 8:30 with vinyasa yoga in the glass-walled gym, a two-minute walk from the main house. Vanessa guides the four of us through our practice as we gaze out onto the lush lawn and trees.
For breakfast, we dine on fresh mangos, yogurt, bacon, egg and cheese-filled homemade tortillas, and locally grown, dark-roast coffee. Then, we gather in the living room of the main house to discuss, “Who am I and where am I going?”
We each come with something on our minds and in our hearts, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, change in professional status, and, of course, the weight and worry of the pandemic.
I share with the group that retirement during COVID was a struggle, especially when friends in the same situation adjusted easily. But, somehow, making the commitment to participate in the retreat somehow kicked off my recalibration. The anticipation of going to Mexico, meeting other travelers, and exploring options for next steps, helped me begin to adjust to the idea of retirement.
Still, after over an hour of talking about personal issues, I’m relieved when one of the housekeepers, Maya, announces lunch.
Botanic Gardens and Rooftop Cocktails
This afternoon, we take a van to the botanical gardens of San Miguel (El Charco del Ingenico – Jardin Botánico) for a guided tour. Andrew, an expat who has lived in San Miguel for seven years with his wife and young child, explains the flora and fauna.
He takes one glance at everyone’s open-toed shoes and advises us not to stand in one place too long because of the ants. We chuckle, hop around, and immediately get a move-on.
After our three-hour excursion, we make our way to the luxury Rosewood Hotel for cocktails at Bar Luna, a rooftop bar with an incredible view of San Miguel. The auburn, gold, and crimson colors of homes and the towering churches make for a striking background. A slight drizzle and the 68-degree temperature feel fabulous to me, but my new friends from Houston cover up with whatever they can find including pillows on the chairs. We all get the giggles as they try to get warm.
The taxi ride back to the estate is even more fun as the four of us – Margaret, Sarah, Donna and I – squeeze into a taxi and stop at a local convenience store to stock up on some forgotten items. We pool what few pesos we have because we haven’t exchanged money yet. Whether it’s the gin and tonics or the laid-back vibe, we feel like old pals on an adventure.
Because of the huge feast last night, we agree tonight’s meal should be lighter, earlier, and more casual. Being flexible and getting to make decisions about what we do or don’t do are aspects I love about being in a small group.
We sit on the patio in the evening breeze (the Houstonians are wrapped in blankets) and snack on chicken salad topped with pomegranates in an avocado.
Day Two: Reiki, Crystals, Spa, Shopping
This morning, Tara from San Diego, a Reiki instructor, joins us after our yoga class. She explains the history of this Japanese practice that promotes healing. Tara also discusses Chakras and explains the basics for beginners.
We each choose a crystal from a table filled with amethyst and other stones.
I go straight for the smooth round piece of rose quartz. Today’s session is relaxing for me and transformative for others in the group.
After yoga and breakfast, we gather for our daily discussion. Vanessa and Mary talk about connections, transformative moments, and having a joy-filled, rather than purpose-driven life. We each share stories of struggles, achievements, and goals.
For lunch, Sunday serves spring rolls with noodles followed by mango and a sweet rice dessert. When Donna mentions this is her favorite dessert, Sunday brings a second helping.
Sunday also surprises us with fortunes she wrote by hand, which we draw randomly. This gesture seems simple yet so caring. We take turns reading our fortunes aloud and everyone agrees, when each person reads theirs, that the words are a fit.
For me, these moments are less forced and reveal more of our personalities than when we are in the scheduled workshops.
This afternoon, we have a choice of spa treatments or shopping; Donna and I opt for massages while Margaret and Sarah choose exploring the small boutiques and galleries in town.
The luxury Rosewood is a premier hotel and spa, and as to be expected, the staff pamper us – right down to a hot brew (we think it’s turmeric) served in a dainty cup as we lounge in the waiting room.
Cooking Class with Local Chef
Tonight, Sherry McHarg, a transplant from Palm Springs, comes to the estate to teach a cooking class. Sherry owned the award-winning Rose Inn near Ithaca NY, with her first husband, before it burned to the ground, and has an impressive list of accomplishments.
She shows us how to create homemade pasta and talks about the importance of adding oodles of butter. Dressed in a black off-the-shoulder dress, jewelry, and with impeccable nails and makeup, she remains elegant while chopping garlic or washing the occasional utensil.
We gather around the kitchen’s marble island, wine in hand, and watch as everyone takes a turn with the pasta machine. Church bells ring in the background, the aroma of garlic saturates the air, and we’re chatting, laughing, and teasing one another. This is my favorite memory of the week.
We relocate to the formal dining table and indulge in the fruits of our labor, although it’s chef Sherry, along with Sunday’s help, who did the actual prep and cooking.
She offers her cookbook, Cooking with Sherry and Other Spirits, for $20 each, and within minutes, the stack of books she brought disappears.
Day Three: Behind-the-Scenes Tours
We have established a routine, with morning yoga (my favorite part of the day), breakfast, and discussion, which today is “Shifting Gears.” We each share what drives us. We agree: happiness and contentment.
This afternoon, we are privileged to have a behind-the-scenes tour of the Santuario de San Miguel, one of the most famous UNESCO sites in Mexico, normally closed to the public. The historic chapel houses priceless artifacts and works.
Private tours are one of the benefits of traveling with Beyond the Nest, whose staff has connections and contacts. Following the church tour, we go to the home of jeweler and longtime expat William Harris, who welcomes us as if we are family.
Bill and his partner Howard have a reputation in the community as being the people who open their home if there’s a fund-raiser or—from what I can conclude — any other social occasion. They are beloved in the expat community in San Miguel, and it’s easy to see why. They are warm, funny, welcoming, and charming.
Piedras Studio, featuring jewelry designed by R. Luis Pantoja, a talented artist and native of San Miguel, is located in their home and open to the public by reservation. If you can swing an invitation to one of their parties, all the better.
Day Four: Friendships Form Through Travel, Wellness, and Even Shopping
After yoga, we meet outside near the pool for the morning discussion and review what we’ve experienced this week. One person shares that the highlight has been meeting Donna and me, and we nod our heads that the feeling is mutual.
The new connections and simply being here are the benefits. While my friend and I could have planned a trip to San Miguel on our own, having a firm date and schedule motivated us to make the decision. Without that structure, we would most likely still only be talking about traveling.
After lunch, we pile into the van and head to La Aurora in San Miguel to browse the fine art and small galleries.
As we’re driving down the narrow, hectic streets of San Miguel, Margaret says, “This is why I came: to have someone who knows what they’re doing show us the highlights.”
She explains that she hasn’t traveled extensively but loves to explore and simply feels safer having a guide.
Mercado de Artesanias
From the high-end galleries of La Aurora, we walk a couple of blocks to Mercado de Artesanias, an area packed with small vendors, each selling linens, bags, leather purses, or colorful blouses and dresses. We get each other’s opinions about gifts for friends and family, asking about everything from a dress for a three-month old child to a Day of the Dead statue. I’m not a shopper but being with everyone else makes it fun. At the end of the day, my purchases amount to three tortilla warmers for 300 pesos or about $5 each.
Tonight’s dinner is casual – a decision we make together – and we order pizza and salads from a small Italian café in Atotonilco.
Day Five: Shopping for Last-Minute Treasures
We spend our final full day beginning with yoga with Vanessa, followed by a breakfast of fresh fruit, granola and yogurt.
But First, COVID Testing
Today, we skip the morning discussion because everyone’s getting COVID testing before the return trip to the United States. An on-call doctor arrives to administer the test. Since this is my first trip out of the country since COVID, having this task organized is a huge bonus of traveling with a group.
This afternoon, while the others shop for souvenirs, I detour from the group to explore on my own. I wander the narrow streets of San Miguel, stopping at Starbucks, a charming location near the town center with a courtyard built in a centuries-old building. When we all meet at our predetermined location, it’s fun to see everyone with their bags filled with treasures, and we decide to have a show-and-tell back at the villa.
As we say our goodbyes Saturday morning, we exchange emails, addresses, birthdates, and invitations to each other’s homes. We pose for a final group photo, and Sunday sends us off with a boxed lunch and a hug. There are warm farewells with one another, the organizers, and staff.
Recalibration, for me, has come not during the planned sessions, but by being in a different country with a new routine, meeting new people. Bonds form during unexpected moments: a taxi ride when we are squeezed into the backseat of a small car, giggling over seemingly impossible yoga poses, and making pasta gathered around the kitchen with a glass of wine. These are my favorite moments of travel—and life–which are experiences that can’t simply be added to an itinerary.
Beyond the Nest wellness travel retreat provided the setting and opportunity to make connections which will hopefully be lifelong friendships. I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
If You Go on a Wellness Travel Retreat
Since the retreat, co-owners Mary and Vanessa have decided to go their separate ways and are pursuing their individual visions. They support one another and hope you join them on an adventure. Mary’s company, Go Beyond the Nest, is preparing for future retreats in both domestic and international locations. There are some lovely locations for retreating, including the Texas Hill Country.
Vanessa calls her new venture, “the company of my dreams!” The name of her company is Ikigai Journeys with the website set to launch soon. Vanessa adds, “Ikigai is an ancient Japanese tool used for purpose finding.” I, personally, can’t wait to see the result of Vanessa’s passion, exuberance, and her commitment to helping others.
Mary and Vanessa each have charisma, talent, and a drive to succeed in guiding others, which they no doubt will make happen, whether separately or together.
Many companies offer similar retreats. Some highlight yoga, cooking, or yoga and cooking together. Others focus on meditation, empowerment, or photography. Enter what interests you in your search engine, and you’ll find a range of location and price.
For me, getting out of my everyday life, making new connections, and yes, crunching down on crickets were all healing and transformative. The point is to sign up and go. You’ll be glad you did.
Meet the Author: Sherry Spitsnaugle, guidebook author, travel writer, wife and dog mom, first expressed her urge to explore at age four when she packed up her little red wagon and took off for an adventure— around the block. Today, she continues to fulfill her travel bug tendencies, exploring and writing about her experiences.
Sherry Spitsnaugle participated in this retreat at her own expense. However the article has been sponsored by Go Beyond the Nest. All opinions expressed here are those of the author.