It’s Cinco de Mayo and tequila time: The more you know, the better it is.
Got to admit it: I didn’t even know Tequila was a town. I knew tequila had to be made in Jalisco, Mexico, to merit the name, and I was in Jalisco to see the liquor being made, but that my favorite beverage was named after an actual place—I had no clue. From Guadalajara, the best place to fly into if you are visiting Tequila, our bus passed through miles of sandy-colored scrubland. Then we topped a hill and saw a solid blue vista stretching to the mountains. It looked like a lake, but it was field after field of Weber blue agave, the only kind used to make premium tequila. (It really is blue.)
Agave is an unlikely-looking crop—and a scary one. When we met the jimador (agave harvester), he warned us repeatedly about avoiding the plants’ spikes. Armed with his coa, a long flat knife like a machete, he showed us the techniques for pruning agave. The leaves are trimmed every year with a different cut until they mature—eight years or so. He harvested the piña—the pineapple-shaped fruit that weighs around 100 pounds when ripe—and let us taste the raw fruit. It tasted a lot like wood and was about that juicy. It’s hard to see how anyone could envision making a drink out of this dry stuff.
But of course they do, after a lot of roasting and mashing and sieving and aging. We sipped lots of tequila flights in Tequila—most of the distilleries offer tours and tastings of everything from silver to añejo to reserve—and came away with an even higher regard for the magic liquid.
But there’s more to Tequila than tequila, though everything from murals to motorcycles bears the emblem of the agave. The town—founded in 1530—is built around a central plaza anchored by an 18th century church, Our Lady of the Purísima Concepción, whose bell rings every evening. The tiny cobbled streets wind past open doors of shops, bars and restaurants as the day begins to cool. The costumed voladores set up their pole and perform the ancient Mayan dance to appease the rain gods, a ritual now preserved as Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
In fact, the whole town of Tequila is designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO. That doesn’t mean it’s lacking in modern luxury—the Relais & Chateaux Hotel Solar de las Animas, built in traditional colonial style around a courtyard, has an antique charm, but the beautiful pool, serene rooms and excellent food are completely 21st century.
Not far out of town is evidence of the ancient culture that first settled the area and, perhaps, made pulque from the wild agave. Rediscovered in the 1970s, the site wasn’t excavated until the ‘90s. Los Guachimontones, circular stepped pyramids arranged in a circle, were made by the Teuchitlan people around 200-300 C.E. The weird mounds are believed to be cosmograms—mythological maps of the universe. In a hole at the apex, worshipers erected a pole and performed rituals much like the voladores do today.
Who knew? Again, I didn’t. Like most Norteamericanas, I know more about the kings of England than I do about the history of our neighboring country. I came home from Tequila with two goals: 1) Learn more about Mexico. 2) Drink more tequila.
BOOK A TRAIN Take the luxury train to Tequila operated by Jose Cuervo. mundocuervo.com
BOOK A ROOM AC Hotel Guadalajara exudes Old Mexico charm, with five-star service plus a killer rooftop pool. hotelsolardelasanimas.com
BOOK A TOUR Tour the Jose Cuervo Agave Fields and book a tasting and tour at the distillery. mundocuervo.com