Blog Post: Tequila

The view from the pool at the top of our hotel. We were undisturbed here for hours, with no other guests in sight.

Deep Mexico. Not the border, not within running distance of an airport. The real meat of the country, right in the center – Guadalajara, and then Tequila.

I grew up within about six hours of the Mexican border, and have always lived within twelve hours of it, so I have some familiarity with Mexican culture. And, as seems to be the case wherever I travel, the US culture has permeated this country as well – so travelling this far into Mexico felt a bit like someone turned my “culture slider” from 30% Mexican to 85% Mexican. Yeah, there are McDonalds and Chilis, but that’s not the norm in Jalisco. And I didn’t spend long enough in the country to tell you what the norm is, but it definitely involves tortas and pastel paint.

Erin and I took the trip on invitation – my good friend (and boss at my day job) Michael Sias and his lovely bride Carmina planned their wedding in a small town near her family’s home base, deep in Jalisco. The city is called Tequila… I have no idea why. Something about the amazing vodka they produce.

No, there was tequila. A lot of it. The streets are literally paved with the byproduct of the tequila manufacturing process, as the cactus pulp fills in the (many abyssal) holes in the old-world cobblestone streets.

We only ran into a few service staff/tour guides who spoke English, but it was really a rarity. Luckily for me, Erin is pretty fluent in Spanish, so I would generally pick her up and place her between me and whoever was speaking at me. She did a great job figuring out exactly (…sort of) what was going on.

We left Thursday morning, flying out of San Antonio directly to Guadalajara airport. Much searching, much showing of passports. It’s only a two hour flight, though we spent two hours getting to the airport and another two hours in a taxi getting from Guadalajara to Tequila.

Guadalajara would jump from modern convenience to third world hovels without plumbing or electricity seemingly at random. However, it was uniformly colorful.

Heavy traffic getting out of Guadalajara. Weird fact: Drivers all use their hazards when they hit heavy traffic, but no one uses their blinkers to change lanes.

Graffiti covered everything.

I took quite a few short videos on this trip. Here’s a couple cataloging our journey to Tequila…

The highways in Mexico are baffling. You’ll be driving down a road (or in our case, death-gripping your spouses’ hand in the back of a taxi) going somewhere between sixty and eight-five MPH, and you’ll spot, if you’re lucky, a few white lines painted in the pavement. And just past that? A violent speed bump. A wheel-breaking, axle-scraping, tumor-riddled speed bump grown to kill. A speed bump planted decades ago that’s grown well and tall.

I don’t get it – I can only guess how many sleepy/drunk/foreign drivers fly into one of these going full clip, only to have their wheels and tires destroyed as they are sent hurtling catastrophically into the town the hump was meant to protect. They are the “I HALP!” of road safety.

We actually came across a serious wreck on the way to Tequila, and the road was shut down entirely. But our taxi driver was determined and/or bitter about giving a two-hour ride to the middle of nowhere, and veered off down a dirt road in an attempt to get around the block. It did offer me a up-close view of an agave farm, as seen below…

But soon we were clear, and the roads got quieter as we veered off toward Tequila. They also got much, much prettier:

And then we got out of Guadalajara, and things started changing. Mountains in the distance, including one incredible inactive volcano.

Mountains getting closer…

A blue agave field at the base of this one.

Canyons in the background.

Then, a drive down a canyon pass into the city of Tequila.

In this video you get a glimpse of Tequila, nestled in a valley between the mountains:

And we arrived! Beautiful town. We didn’t have a lot of time to snap pictures on arrival, as Mike and company were waiting on us to go out and eat… which we didn’t actually wind up doing, and instead visited the four-star restaurant in the hotel.

Well, I did have time for one picture. The town square is dominated by this church, the Parish of Saint James (okay, the Parroquia Santiago Apostol) which was built by the Spanish in 1530.

Behold:

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The hotel was pretty much perfect. Modern, built within the past few years. It’s apparently the most expensive place in the region by a big margin, but I would have paid twice as much per night if this place were in Austin.

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Nice bed.

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Panoramic shot of the sky bar..

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City at sundown.

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Coffin store! Erin was not interested in shopping here.

It was getting dark, so we went back to the hotel instead of trying to find Mike and company. We didn’t think wandering around the streets at night was a good first move for obvious tourists. However, after a few days in Tequila, I… well, I still wouldn’t wander around the streets alone at night.

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This is one of many hotel bars.

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Closeup of the extremely ornate cabinets.

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Personal tequila minibar in our room.

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Breakfast in bed, day two.

I really like these next two pictures because of the contrast they show between the hotel and the rest of the city. The first is a view from our room of our courtyard and the pool. The second is a picture of what’s just over that big salmon colored wall.IMG_5323

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Not exactly Disneyland – I liked it, it felt very real. People dried clothes up on the roofs and someone had what appeared to be a pit bull guard dog on his balcony.

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Inside of the hotel elevator. I realize this is a global elevator manufacturer, but they really missed an opportunity not calling themselves “Shindler’s Lifts.”

Day two – time to go exploring.

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The Jose Cuervo crow. It’s actually taller than me.

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Big bird, or tiny man?

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This is not technically tequila, but “agave liquor.” It’s 30% alcohol by volume rather than the 35% tequila is sold at, and basically not refined as well. These jugs cost about $7 each and look like about two gallons of liquor. I did not feel the urge to buy one. Note the AK-47 shaped decanter in the back – what else are you going to drink your hideously cheap booze with?

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It’s really disconcerting that Mexicans use the same symbol for the peso that we use for the dollar. It’s about 20 pesos to each dollar, so these come out to around $7.50 each.

One thing I failed to capture here, but which was a constant everywhere I went, were the dogs. Mexico apparently has quite a wild dog problem. In Guadalajara I noticed people walking with dogs and assumed these were well-trained animals following their master without a leash, but… no. They’re just stray dogs following people around. And they were everywhere – literally ten in the town square alone, chasing pigeons or sleeping outside shops. Over the trip I probably saw over a hundred, from well-bred golden retrievers, to toy poodles, to what might have been a coyote who infiltrated their ranks. They all seemed pretty domesticated, actually, in that they were comfortable around people and are pros at city life. I did not try to pet any of them, though.

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It’s a building, what do you want from me?

Erin wanted to take some tours. We were honestly trying to stay away from the Jose Cuervo related stuff (note, this wound up being unavoidable. They even owned our hotel, apparently) because it’s such a massive global brand that it seemed it would be less authentic. So we met up with a Gran Orendain tour, a smaller tequila distillery. In what became a trend on our trip, we were the only English speakers interested in the tour and so got a tour guide to ourselves.

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Yes, our tour bus is shaped like a barrel of tequila.

This is a 500 year old city, meaning some conquistador designed this place with horses in mind. Because of this, traffic was insane. In many places, the roads were only wide enough for a single car to travel at a time – even though they were two-way roads. Our bus regularly got in scrapes where traffic would gridlock as multiple cars tried to enter an intersection at the same time, with the only solution being for one set of drivers to chicken out, and for four or five cars to reverse at the same time and let opposing traffic pass.

I took this next set of photos from the tour bus window. This is how close the enormous novelty-shaped van was to hitting other cars as we passed.

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So close this driver is reaching to fold back his side mirror – that wood is the side of our van.

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Perfectly normal situation to be in, apparently.

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Big pile of agave inside a distillery.

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This was a clothes washing station built decades ago for locals to do their laundry. No longer in use, but a cool historical site.

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The “modest distillery” that played some important historical role in Tequila’s history. It’s now in ruins and apparently haunted.

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One thing not accurately captured here is that this area stank pretty awful. A constant stream of bubbling tequila-manufacturing waste water runs across here, and smells like rancid agave. Despite that, it was very pretty…

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Iguana chilling out below the ruined distillery.

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This is the heart of the blue agave cactus after seven years of growth.

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Guide snapped a shot of the two of us. You can see an open oven in the back where the agave hearts are cooked at about 120 degrees for many hours.

I’m confident these hard-working guys were thrilled to have me standing around pointing a cell phone at them.

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Agave syrup, water and yeast. This is the first step of the fermentation process, and pretty gross. Just a filthy vat of brown fluid bubbling as it digests itself. Luckily, the distillation process cleans the finished product completely.

A bit of tequila nerdery: I’m a scotch guy, but I am generally interested in liquor and the way different regions of the world have created products so unique to their culture. Scotland has scotch, the USA has bourbon, Russia has vodka, etc. – all beverages really specific to their country of origin and steeped in history.

So, it turns out blanco tequila – the cheaper, clear variety – is a lot closer to being “the real deal.” They all start as clear/blanco tequila, but brown tequilas, categorized as “reposado” or “anejo” are aged between six months and three years in oak barrels. Except, no one tried to do that until the 1960’s, basically borrowing the technique used by everyone who makes whisky. To me, this kinda turns the brown tequilas into “tequila whisky” and blanco has the purist and most unique flavor. We got to do a taste test/interview with a tequila tester for Jose Cuervo who agreed.

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There’s some kind of yellow pigment in this statue’s eyes that made it quite creepy.

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Big ridiculous tour bus.

Because we had multiple dinner/parties, we didn’t really get to try much food. But I’m a big fan of Anthony Bourdain’s approach to travel, and wanted to try something local. I should say that Erin and I took a cavalier attitude to Montezuma’s Revenge. We ate ceviche, brushed our teeth with tap water, had ice in drinks, etc. We did try and stick to bottled water for drinking. And… neither of us got sick at all, so there.

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A lot of shops are built into this garage-type structure, basically a single-room establishment with a metal door that slides down at night.

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Rest of the shop.

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Tacos! Barbacoa, flank steak, and chorizo. All very good.

That night, we went out to a western-themed wedding party hosted by Mike and Carmina. I was too busy talking with my boss’s dad to remember to take photographs, though I did manage a few. The bar was seriously impressive, and massive.

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We spent day three exploring, shopping, and doing another tequila tour, this one ending in a private tasting lesson where we paired different types of tequila with different foods to bring out flavors. After that, we had three or four hours before the wedding but wanted to relax. We swam in the big hotel pool – totally empty, except for the staff – and then moved the party to the sky bar. Also empty. This was one of the more serene and “if this isn’t good, what is?” moments of my life.

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I took about 500 variations of this shot. Church, inactive volcano, swimming pool.

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I filmed a video of the thirty second walk from my room to this view to try and give a better sense of it.

Time to get fancy! Erin bought me this suit as a Christmas gift a few months ago.

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See, Mom? I told you burgundy shoes could look good.

Off to the church! I’ll spare you more shots of the outside. Here’s the interior, though.

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Epic.

Before the show really got rolling, one of the ancient kneeling-board things slipped from its hold and brought all it’s considerable weight down on my shin. I may have said something very unholy in response, so apologies to Mike and Carmina if I brought some sort of curse on their family.

I didn’t take any shots of the actual ceremony as it seemed like poor taste to wave my cell phone around this solemn event. I also couldn’t really understand anything, as it was primarily in Spanish. But the bride was radiant, the groom stoic, the space sanctified. All in a good day’s wedding.

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Mike and Carmina, post ceremony.

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Happy newlyweds.

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My own beautiful wife/personal translator.

So that was the end of the ceremony, officially. And now I’m thinking – okay, head to the reception hall. Eat food, meet the groom’s friends, try not to get smashed at the open bar, leave with some dignity. Maybe dance a bit, pay respects to the newlyweds, eat some cake.

But, no. At this point, things took a turn for the extravagant. First, a march through the streets with our mariachi band.

It doesn’t end at a reception hall. Oh no, it ends with us being handed margaritas at the gated entrance to a compound. Just inside the gates? Sweet modern art.

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Garden art on the way to the arena.

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Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

So we walk past that, a bit hesitant and not knowing what to expect. And we were right to feel that way, because we did not expect this. Yeah, it’s a gladiator-style sand pit.

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A lifetime of playing videogames tells me that black statue is going to come alive, and one of us is going to have to fight it before we can advance to the next area.

But, no! Tribal ceremony re-enactments!

And then… dancing horse! Because of course there’s a dancing horse:

What a party! That wrapped up, and we were led further into the compound, and greeted by more abstract sculpture.

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That’s the hall across the courtyard.

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The view from inside the veranda.

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Multiple gardens across the property.

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More flowers.

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A general sense of wonderment had set in at this point, with everyone pretty much in awe of the proceedings so far

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Inside the hall – massive flower arrangements on every table. And that’s a glowing dance floor in the center… the first hint this might be a little more laid back than the estate implied.

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I’m a big fan of cool ceilings.

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And this was an impressive one.

We ate, we got to know the lovely people at our table, and I drank a bit of tequila. The fathers gave speeches, and the dancing started – slowly at first, the father/daughter dance and Mike and Carmina’s first. But the floor wasn’t filling fast enough, so Carmina decided to kick it up a notch and aggressively recruit for the dance floor. I wasn’t going to say no.

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I was disappointed that the horse didn’t show up. That guy could dance.

So we danced. A lot. And then, we were force-fed tequila with a stick. I failed to get any video evidence of this mostly to protect the guilty. The organizers had a limbo stick with a shot-glass mounted on the center. Limbo under, pause, and have a shot of tequila deposited in your face. I think the party cleared an entire bottle in about five minutes; not even Erin was spared. It was a good time.

All told, this was a ridiculously fun wedding. Got to be the most impressive private party I’ve ever attended in my life.

We had to get up at seven, so we left around midnight. Things weren’t even close to winding down, but we knew we had a good eight hours of travel ahead of us, including our most daunting task: figuring out the Guadalajara airport. So we said our farewells and stumbled back to the hotel.

The next morning we woke up early to meet our taxi out Tequila. A bit dried out, I did snap a few parting shots of Mexico. A stark contrast from the night before, but a striking one as well. I liked the dichotomy of it all – most extravagant party of my life up against the realities of a country that, at least in places, is a bit down on its luck.

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We loved the trip. I’d do it again tomorrow if I could. Everyone we met was extremely polite and helpful – or so I assume, since I couldn’t understand what they were saying. No one tried to scam us, we never felt threatened, and the only time someone ran up to me in the street was to return a hotel room key I dropped. I’ve done a lot of vacations in the United States, but this was our first real attempt at international travel. Flying kinda sucks and is expensive, yet the end result was something much more memorable and enchanting than even my recent trip to Colorado. That was a zen-like romp in my own personal bubble, while this was vibrant and noisy and alive with nothing to separate me from a very colorful land I knew almost nothing about.

Go to Mexico.

Thanks for reading.


I am the author of several novels. They are short and sharp mysteries, thrillers, and dramas that make you think.  I try to put the same level of craft and detail into my stories that I find when I analyze literature the way you’ve seen above. You can get all my works as either paperbacks or e-books at a very reasonable price from Amazon.com. Click here to see them all.



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