We were still a half-hour s drive away, but already the landscape was filled with blue. On either side of the highway, in fields stretching from the roadside to the hillsides, agave plants sprouted in every direction, like a sheet of azure weeds that refused to be subdued.
The beautiful fields of agave with their thick, pointed leaves and robust, pineapple-shaped centers are one reason this town of 35,500 is famous. The other is the drink produced in the many factories here.
As destinations go, the beaches of Cancun and Cabo San Lucas outdraw the agave fields and tequila distilleries that offer tours and tastings. But this town, located just west of Guadalajara on the highway to Puerto Vallarta, is dressing itself up in the hope it can entice tourists to spend a few days here rather than just a few hours.
In July, the area s abundant agave fields were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, joining a list of cultural and natural properties considered to have universal value. Tequila tours are plentiful, from the newly built and centrally located Jose Cuervo facility (called Mundo Cuervo), with a distillery that dates to 1873, to smaller factories just a short bus ride away. Some include a stop at an agave field, where a
Most tours last less than a couple of hours, which is one reason Tequila is considered a day trip for Mexicans and foreigners, who can make the drive from Guadalajara in a little more than an hour or simply hop a tour bus in town (the Hilton Hotel offers one for about $33). The Tequila Express, a popular train excursion that includes a tour of the Herradura factory and a two-hour music and dance performance, is another one-day option. In town, sales agents hawk tours from behind small counters in the plaza and zocalo (town square).
Prices range from between about $5 and $7 and although the size of the distillery might range from big to small, the process of turning agave into tequila is similar at each.
The best tours, though, are those that stop at an agave field, where the hearty blue succulents rise five or more feet in height and grow from seven to 10 years before they are harvested.
The 7,500-foot elevation of the Mexican state of Jalisco is said to be best for growing agave, helped by the soil of a now-extinct volcano that rises above the city.
At distilleries, visitors walk through the process of making tequila: placing agave plants known as pinas (Spanish for pineapple) in large kilns for 36 hours or more, then sending them through shredders, where the juice is squeezed from the fibers. The juice is placed in large, stainless-steel vats, mixed with water and left to ferment. Then it undergoes a two-step distillation process to purify it and enhance the alcoholic flavor. Finally, it is aged in wooden barrels for two months or longer, although one type, blanco (clear), is not aged.
A trip to Tequila also should include a visit to the National Museum of Tequila and the Sauza Family Museum, both near the zocalo and costing about $2 to tour. Each gives a historical perspective on the drink, although the Sauza Museum is essentially a collection of memorabilia, including paintings, old photos and ancient tools, in what was once the family home. The Sauzas sold their operation in 1988, although Guillermo Erickson Sauza, a fifth-generation family member, recently began producing his own brand, Los Abuelos, using traditional techniques.
The Museum of Tequila is a well-designed display of photos, drawings and artifacts in several rooms detailing the history of tequila. One legend holds that the drink was discovered when lightning struck an agave plant, and the resulting sweet smell and taste agreed with the area s indigenous people. Spaniards introduced the distilling process after Hernan Cortes conquest in 1521. Important tequila-producing families are noted throughout the museum, but you ll need to understand Spanish, or have a translator nearby, to fully understand the displays.
Tequila is wrestling with its future, weighing its village ambience against the prospect of being a major tourist destination.
Four years ago, Mexico s tourism office named the city a Pueblo Magico (Magic Town), providing about $544,000 for municipal and social improvements. Although tourism numbers are growing steadily about 93,000 visited in 2005, double the number in 2002, according to the Tequila mayor s office the town seems unaffected by its newfound recognition.
On my recent visit, the town square and plaza were quiet, uncrowded and unhurried. They were filled with families or couples enjoying the mild weather most days and nights. But changes are coming. A plan by the city s mayor, Miguel Marin, to close off one street from traffic, repave the main road and plant trees and flowers in front of some stores has met resistance by some locals, who simply don t want to lose their parking spaces in the name of beautification.
"We need tourism," Marin said. "We need more hotels, more restaurants, more transportation." If visitors stay the night, he said, "they spend more money, they eat breakfast and lunch, they buy souvenirs."
Residents who embrace that thinking still don t want to lose the city s small-town charm.
"If McDonald s or Burger King come here, it s not good," said Juan Francisco Lopez, spokesman for the tourism office and lifetime resident. "This is a Mexican town."
Increased tourism, he said, will bring "more jobs, more opportunities. But, for example, we will have problems with a lot of cars and buses, and our streets are small. Right now, there are no crowds downtown." Tequila is a town where everybody seems to enjoy being outdoors folks gather in the plaza or the zocalo, in church, in stores and on street corners. Everyone knows each other, and although a visitor can t walk through the town center without drawing notice, I never felt unwelcome. It lacks big-city luxuries, but it has enough to serve basic needs. There are no shopping malls or supermarkets, no department stores and no Starbucks (although Guadalajara has one). But you will find a grocery store, a drug store, several small clothing outlets and an electronics store. As well as several ice cream shops.
Tequila also has a number of dining options, from the street vendors who serve up tortillas with meat or pork, or who cook corn on the cob on small grills, to several restaurants offering up classic Mexican cuisine everything from carne asada to tacos and enchiladas. Margaritas are on every menu. (One note: Because Mexicans eat their main meal in the late afternoon, you re not likely to find many restaurants open for an evening or late-night meal.) You can find plenty of liquor stores, including those selling tequila in large plastic bottles with no labels presumably for customers whose palates don t know the good stuff from the swill. If you walk by, expect to be invited inside for a good deal on Cuervo or Sauza. But you re better off buying from the factory, where prices are usually lower.
My advice: If the weather is nice and you ve been tasting tequila all day, buy some ice cream and find a bench on the plaza. You can watch kids playing and people deep in conversation. By 8 or 9, things fall to a low buzz. Getting more from a visit, though, is difficult. The tourism office s Lopez said he hopes the town will develop some eco-tourism or adventure tourism alternatives to attract a wider audience. But right now, the mayor is preoccupied with convincing residents that some trees and flowers will make the streets nicer. Whatever else it does, Tequila may need more than just factory tours to grow as a destination.
"I don t think you can stop progress," said Sergio Gonzalez, who owns a small restaurant in town and is developing his own tequila brand with his family. "There s a lot of good things and bad things that come with tourism, but I ve seen small towns grow and grow because of it. "We need it here. It will be good for us."
IF YOU GO ATTRACTIONS: Mundo Cuervo, 75 Jose Cuervo, is a must-see simply because of the size of the Cuervo tequila operation. Tours are offered every Monday through Saturday, on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday at 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m. Information: www.mundocuervo.com (click on Location, then on Tour). If you can finagle a visit to Los Abuelos, a short walk from downtown, it s worth a visit. The brand was started in 1999 by Guillermo Erickson Sauza, a fifth-generation Sauza, who uses traditional tequila-making methods in his small distillery, named La Fortaleza. Contact them by e-mail at abuelo@losabue los.com and ask about a visit. Other recommended stops include the Museo Nacional de Tequila, 34 Ramon Corona, and the Sauza Museum, on the zocalo at 22 Albino Rojas. You can visit both places for about $2. The museum is a collection of photos, artwork, tools and tequila bottles as art. The Sauza Museum has several rooms of photos, art and mementos and is still operated by a family member, although the distillery was sold in 1988.
LODGING: The best thing about the Hotel Plaza Jardin is that it s centrally located in the town square, just a block from the Jose Cuervo factory tour. The next best thing: It s cheap, about $20 a night for one person. The rooms are basic but clean, and the neighborhood is quiet despite its location. Located at 13 Jose Cuervo, www.hotelplazajardin.com.
DINING: Cholula, at 55 Ramon Corona, across the street from the Cuervo factory, and Real Marinero, 92 Benito Juárez, one block off the zocalo, both serve popular Mexican dishes, including tacos, carne asada and ceviche. My favorite breakfast stop was Los Agaves, 13 Jose Cuervo, off the Hotel Plaza Jardin lobby; it serves eggs, bacon, ham and chilaquiles.