This article is from the December 1996 - January 1997 The Mexico
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Looking for a Business Idea? Tequila!
By David Simmonds
It is a drink that if it does not make you drunk promotes meditation, not always of a cheerful nature.Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano and a man who knew a little something about tequila and its effects.
No, I don't mean you should make the stuff. That's already being accomplished quite successfully all over this town thirty miles northwest of Guadalajara that took its name from the Tequilana Weber agave, much to the delight of every frat house (outside Utah) worth its salt and lime.
This volcano and rolling hill section of Jalisco has a sister region in California where the cash crop is grapes and the final product is wine. The similarites between the Napa/Sonoma wine country of California and the agave plantations of Mexico are many. Miles and miles of endless fields are tended by the same Mexican laborers in both countries and each locale is spotted with small rural villages of considerable charm and serenity. Major cosmopolitan cities, Guadalajara and San Francisco, lie less than an hours drive away in both cases.
The glaring difference, however, lies in the business that needs to be created in Tequila: the B&B. That's right: the weekend get-away Bed and Breakfast that thrives in wine country is completely missing in tequila country. As it stands, if you want to tour the tequila distilleries you will do so from Guadalajara. You wake up in the big city and you go to sleep in the big city. After a day of tequila tours and tasting, a nearby bed would be a highly prized and welcomed commodity.
I recently spent a couple of days in the town of Tequila. After a quick inspection of the four or five available hotels in town, I settled into Hotel Colonial at Morelos #52. It seemed correctly priced at $5 US. A firm bed, clean shower and a single fifty watt lightbulb dangling from the ceiling was what you got. Fair enough for five bucks, but it would have been nice to have found a little inn with a view of the fields.
The town is small and a nice place to stroll the streets near the main plaza. The Jose Cuervo distillery is housed in several very attractive colonial buildings near the town center and offers tours Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays from 11:00 a.m. to noon. The Cuervo family started it all in 1758 when they were given a concession to farm the area with the agave by the local magistrate. The Cuervo familys pre-eminence has endured since that time and the Cuervo brand is indeed the most widely consumed tequila in the world, even if it is not necessarily the best. Most Mexicans would give that title to Herradura (horseshoe) Tequila. This distillery is located in the nearby village of Amatitàn and gives tours as well.
Actually there are numerous smaller distilleries in the area and although not all of them have regularly scheduled organized tours, you can usually find someone to show you around and offer a sample or three of the liquor that sometimes simulates the effects of an hallucinogen. Back in the '60's the rumor was spread that tequila was related to mescaline, a psychedelic drug obtained from mescal buttons. Of course it wasn't true, but it was a convincing argument, because for many, the effects of tequila are unlike those of any other liquor. A few shots could turn the Unabomber into Katie Couric, or vice-versa. You never know.
I could go on and on about tequila, but I think I'll save that for another time. I really just want people to know that the town and the surrounding areas are a good region to explore. One fine way to spend a few hours is to drive up the Tequila volcano to the rim. I did this in a rented VW bug convertible and it was spectacular. It is a primarily cobblestone road that ascends the 9000-foot volcano through some amazing flora and fauna. I didn't see another person in the hour-each-way drive and the views were tremendous. Take time to stop along the way and listen to the quiet, interrupted occasionally by the chirping of one of the many bird species that inhabit the mountain.
Why is there a road to the top of a volcano, you might ask? To attract tourists? No, it was built to provide access to a communications tower perched on the rim. The compound is fenced and I saw no evidence of life, but then again I saw very little once I got to the top anyway. Unfortunately, at roads end a cloud had formed and visibility was about five feet, which made my attempt to peer and wander into the crater a risky endeavor. Fortunately, I had left my tequila purchase back at the hotel and wasn't burdened with yet another impairment (bad knees, poor judgment, delusions of invincibility, etc.). It was also cold at the top, even in the warm, rainy season. Take a jacket.
You will find the road up to the volcano by the Tequila railroad station, near the base of the mountain. Ask for directions in town from anybody and you will eventually find the road. Asking for the railroad station is the key. I had the feeling that not many people actually knew there was a road going up the mountain.
The volcanic terrain of this area is also a minefield for opals. The most notable town for opal purchases is Magdalena, several miles north of Tequila on Mex 15. I'm no gemologist, but I think the prices are very good . I have brought opals home in the past and had custom-made earrings and necklaces made as gifts with beautiful results. Some better prices can be found in some of the small villages off the main highway, back up in the hills. Several miles north of Magdalena look for a town named Tequesquite. From there turn right up a dirt road a few more miles to a small, wild-west style village, Hostotipaquillo. Along the way you will see hammer-wielding men banging into rocks. These are the opal miners and you can get your best prices from them, or they may direct you to a certain place in town to make your purchase. It seems a little remote and a little scary back there in the hills, but I've never had a problem and the locals have always been kind.
This entire area I have described is worth a visit and a few days of your time. But again, it would be nice to have a choice of better accommodations than are presently available. Many of the original haciendas built at the time of Spain's domination are located throughout this region. Imagine the unique hotel or B&B that could be housed in one of these stately, culture-rich old mansions. I am surprised that one of the major distilleries (Sauza, Cuervo) hasn't thought to open something like this and further enhance the experience for their many visitors. It's a can't-miss proposition (where have you heard that before?) that someone needs to explore. Anyone out there want to give it a try?