Saturday, October 31, 2009

Riding Trains and Drinking Tequila in....Tequila!

If you drank eight different shots of tequila a day, it would still take a 100 days to work your way through every variety of tequila available in the Mexican state of Jalisco. They take tequila very seriously here in central Mexico.
With more than 800 different brands of tequila to explore, one of the most fun way of studying this particular fire-water is by riding the legendary Tequila Express – an excursion railroad that runs a rolling party from Guadalajara down 40 km of rusting track to the Hacienda San Jose del Refugio, near the town of Tequila (http://www.tequilaexpress.com.mx/ilaexpress.com.mx/).

Of course, “express” is a relative term. This “express” train takes an hour and forty-five minutes to chug just 24 miles, but that gives you plenty of time to admire the scenery of rolling hills covered with fields of cultivated blue agave – the spiny, cactus-like plant from which tequila is made. And the long train journey also gives you plenty of time to drink tequila, accompanied by a dozen mariachi players, who move from car to car, bringing a bedlam of blaring brass and strumming guitars with them.
The ride begins at Guadalajara’s train station with our guide offering some basic information about Mexico’s national drink.
To be called “tequila,” the liquor must be distilled from a fermented concoction that is at least 51 percent the juice of an agave plant grown in Jalisco, the Mexican state that covers the very heart and central part of the country. The mixed stuff is generally considered rock-gut; all really good tequilas are distilled from 100 percent agave juice, and will be marked as such on the bottle. A “sister” drink, mescal, is made from agave grown outside of Jalisco and has slight variations in how it is prepared.
There are four basic types of tequila. Tequila blanco or silver tequila is distilled and bottled with no aging and is clear; a gold variety is the same thing with caramel added for coloring. Aged tequila is a new phenomenon that only dates back to 1989 when Don Julio invented it by accident. He served some friends a personal tequila that he had stored in his office in an oak cask. The aged drink was a sensation. Today, tequila reposado (rested) has been aged two to 11 months in oak casks. Tequila anejo (aged) has sat at least a year in a barrel. Both tequilas interact with the oak, taking on a pleasant dark amber color, while becoming much smoother and sweeter – perfect for sipping rather than mixing in drinks, much like a single malt scotch. Tequila anejo can also become very expensive, selling for up to $400 U.S. a bottle.
With the short tequila train lecture over, our guide says it’s now time to try some! As the countryside rolls by and the mariachis play, it’s five happy train carloads of guests who sample a variety of tequilas, before finally arriving at the Hacienda San Jose del Refugio, home of the famous Herradura tequila factory. It was here in 1870 that Don Ambrosio Rosales discovered a horseshoe in a field and made it the “good luck” symbol of his tequila. Today, Herradura is one of the most famous and traditional of all tequilas.
The hacienda is organized somewhat like a kibbutz. Inside its long, adobe walls, it is home to five generations of workers, who live in the attractive compound of colorful houses and cobblestone streets. You must be a relative of a previous worker to live in the sprawling hacienda.
On a tour of the grounds, craftsman show how the spines of the cactus-like agave plant are cut away to reveal a big, “pineapple-like” ball in the heart of the plant. Called a “pina,” these giant pineapples are loaded on conveyor belts and cooked by huge ovens for 26 hours. Then, the roasted balls are crushed and juiced and the liquid is allowed to ferment naturally in the open air into a low alcohol, beer-like product called pulque. No yeast is added at Herradura, all fermentation is natural. Mango and citrus trees planted around the hacienda add natural ingredients to the air to help the fermentation process.
From here, the pulque is distilled twice to make it tequila. The hacienda museum preserves century-old distilling equipment with copper tubing, vats and eerie lighting that make it appear more like Frankenstein’s laboratory. Today, modern distilling makes tequila a minimum of 38 percent alcohol, although Herradura makes a variety with a higher alcoholic content of 45 percent.
Which we were happy to taste, while enjoying a Mexican extravaganza of a buffet lunch, mariachi music, colorful dancers and a charreada, a Mexican rodeo with trick roping and riding. All these traditions – so identified with Mexico -- come from Jalisco. As does sangrita, Mexico’s partner for tequila. Order an “un completo” in any bar and you will be served two tall shot glasses, one with tequila and one with a spicy red mixture called sangrita, a non-alcoholic drink that “completes” the tequila. The idea is to take small sips from each glass. To really become a local, order a “bandera,” which adds a glass of lime juice, replicating the red, white and green of the national flag.
There are as many recipes for sangrita as there are for tequila, but most involve grapefruit, orange and lime juice, chili powder, hot sauce, jalapeno or tomato juice. Mexicans believe that sangrita’s combination of tart juice and fiery chili wards off hangovers.
After the lunch, fiesta and dancing, the train finally departs at 6 p.m. with, yes, more tequila, mariachis and madness for another two hours, dropping the survivors back at the Guadalajara station at 8 p.m. You’ll need a cab from here – no one drives home from the Tequila Express.

Guadalajara, Guadalajara!

With more than 4 million people, Mexico’s second largest city can be modern, sprawling and congested, but it also offers a wonderful, colonial, pedestrian-friendly downtown worth spending a day or two exploring. Start at the Catedral de Guadalajara. Begun in 1561, this is the heart of the city, surrounded by plazas, shopping and incredible architecture. The balcony of La Antigua Restaurant and Bar at Morelos 371, overlooking Plaza Guadalajara and the cathedral, is a great place to grab a local amber Victoria beer, eat some delicious garlic shrimp and plan an attack.
Plaza Liberacion, to the east, has the most colorful activity with everything from balloon vendors to Aztec dancers and drummers performing their ancient ceremonies beside a wild statue of revolutionary leader Miguel Hidalgo. More on him later.
The Mercado Libertad is “deep Mexico,” with hanging pig’s heads at the butcher shop, herb and spice stalls, acres of produce and windows filled with mystical interpretations of devils and ghouls, no doubt to ward off evil spirits. Don’t miss the songbirds for sale in cages in the back courtyard.
Plaza de los Mariachis is a bit disappointing mid-week, but on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons it allegedly jumps with mariachis bands. The very first mariachis began right here in the1860s as cowboy troubadour groups.
The Instituto Cultural de Cabanas is a Unesco heritage site and architectural gem, approached via a long pedestrian mall lined with shops, restaurants, fountains and statues. The rest of the square mile historic district has pocket parks and churches, museums on history and art, colonnaded walkways, courtyard cafes, and all manner of shops and department stores. It’s not as uniformly historic as the Zocalo of Mexico City and there are many tasteless modern buildings mixed in with old treasures. But there’s a relaxed and friendly vibe to the city – and certainly no hint of danger. Guadalajara feels safer than most American cities. There are horse-drawn carriage rides for the tourists, but you’ll do better on foot…and the horses look like they can use the rest.

Tlaquepaque

Besides being fun to say (tlah-keh-pah-keh), this is Guadalajara’s Beverly Hills, a truly pleasant pedestrian street, 7 km from downtown. Lined with upscale artisan shops, cafes, parks, hanging walls of brilliant pink bougainvilleas and quiet courtyards this is a lazy, tree-shaded town with a gleaming white basilica and plenty of cast iron benches to while away an afternoon. Marimbas are popular and several groups hustle around town playing them. El Parian, at the end of the mall, is an open courtyard shared by a half dozen bars and restaurants. Here, you can sip a beer watching the street action, or sit quietly in the center court listening to live music.
Tlaquepaque is known throughout the region for offering some of the finest arts and crafts in the nation; many of the galleries represent artisans who work on-site. Like Beverly Hills, the stores are not cheap, but with its compact shopping area and more than 200 shops, restaurants and boutiques, this is the shopping destination in central Mexico and more fun, traffic-free and relaxed than any shopping district in Mexico City.

Tequila

The town of Tequila is less than an hour from Guadalajara and offers a quiet village of cobblestone streets, all surrounded by a sea of rolling hills covered with blue agave. Tequila was first introduced here in 1795 by Jose Cuervo, who received the exclusive government contract to distill it. Tours of the Cuervo distillery are available in English and Spanish (www.mundocuervo.com), and offer a variety of tasting options. The grounds and shops are beautiful.
In the central town square, don’t miss the bubble machine man, who pushes a cart dispensing bubbles, followed by a small army of kids. There’s also the National Museum of Tequila and any number of shops specializing in tequila and tequila souvenirs.

Ruta 2010 – Walking and Drinking Cerveza
on the Road to Revolution
By a stroke of good fortune for the Mexican tourism office, both of Mexico’s revolutions began a hundred years apart – in 1810 and 1910. Assuming the country doesn’t follow suit and have yet another revolution next year, this will lead to one big historic celebration in 2010.
Routes that follow the various military campaigns have been laid out with one leaving from Guadalajara that goes to the three most historic towns of Mexico’s 1810 revolt: Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato and San Miguel. Happily, they are also some of the most beautiful and charming destinations in central Mexico. http://www.bicentennial.gob.mx/

Town of Pain..and Ice Cream
Dolores, which means “pain,” is the least attractive but most historic of the three. It was here on September 16, 1810 (a date celebrated in Mexico as a national holiday) that a rather bizarre priest named Father Miguel Hidalgo rang the bell of his church and issued the “El Grito de Dolores” – a call to revolution against Spain. Hidalgo gambled, danced and fathered seven children, but this unorthodox padre is a Mexican national hero and his fiery, bald-headed image shouting out for independence can be seen throughout the country in countless murals, statues and even at the entrance of San Miguel’s largest disco.
Hidalgo and compatriot Ignacio Allende threw together an army of 80,000 machete-armed rebels, who captured Guanajuato, San Miguel and Guadalajara, before meeting disaster against well disciplined royalist troops. Hidalgo and Allende were captured, executed and beheaded. Their heads hung in iron cages in Guanajuato for 10 years, until independence was finally won in 1821.
Today, Dolores is much more peaceful. You can visit Hidalgo’s home, see the bell he rang for freedom (the Liberty Bell of Mexico) and visit a museum on the revolution, but most people stop here for ice cream in the pleasant town square. In one of those quirks of Mexico that you just accept, Dolores has become a national center for homemade ice cream. You can get dozens of flavors that include favorites such as beer, tequila, avocado, cheese and even fried pork skin. If flavors such as corn ice cream don’t appeal, they also have every tropical fruit flavor imaginable, all served at the corners of the square from distinctive stands.

Guanajuato
Three and half-hours from Guadalajara, just forty minutes from Dolores, is one of the great colonial gems of Mexico – the incredible silver mining town of Guanajuato. As much as a quarter of the world’s silver has come from this town. Founded in the 1550s, there are still eight active mines in the area.
The wealth of the hills was poured into fanciful (and colorful) Baroque and neoclassical buildings, churches, mansions, parks and homes, that are painted wild colors, from turquoise to brilliant burnt orange. But it is the location that is truly different. Built in a steep valley, the town spills up the sides of the mountains in twisting cobblestone streets, stairways and alleys that have a real European feel. The main roads of the town are underground – five miles of tunnels that branch off, interconnect and meet up again – all underground. The unique layout, preserved architecture and wonderful pedestrian-friendly center have won Guanajuato a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Jardin de la Union is the center of the city – a wonderful triangular park of cast iron benches and trimmed trees, lined on all sides with umbrella-filled outdoor cafes. It has the feeling of Italy or Spain. Nearby is the university, the elegant Teatro Juarez and the Basilica of Guanajuato, but it is the plazuelas (the pocket parks) that you will remember. Built wherever there is a flat spot, these little green spaces offer an oasis from the labyrinth of narrow, twisting streets – one of which is so tight, it is called the kissing alley because legend has it that two lovers kissed across the alley from balconies on either side.
In the evening, groups of Estudiantinas (musicians dressed as 19th century troubadours) stroll the alleys, serenading tourists. It’s a little corny, but great fun, though it must drive the local residents crazy to be serenaded every night.
The town has an inexplicable love affair with Don Quixote (there are statues everywhere and a museum) and in October, kicks off a yearly, three-week Cervantes Festival that celebrates all the arts with music and dance in the streets.
Bars are everywhere and inexpensive. It’s no surprise that Zorro and Once Upon a Time in Mexico were filmed here. This is romantic Mexico, so wildly beautiful and colorful that it’s difficult to believe this is an actual working town of 140,000 people and not some movie set. Ride the funicular to the hilltop for a stunning view at twilight, have a drink at a café around a square, poke in the galleries and shops, and get lost in the backstreet alleys. This is one great town.

San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel is arguably the most Americanized town in Mexico with a Starbucks and 8,000 (about 10 percent) of the population being ex-pats and Europeans. But don’t let that bother you – it’s also one of the most beautiful towns you will ever visit.
Founded in the 1542, the colorful colonial town became an artist colony and beatnik hang-out in the 1950s and has been declared a Mexican national monument.
The 24-square block historic center is a dream of earth colors -- ochre, yellow, brown, pale green and burnt orange adobe buildings. Some of them are nearly 500 years old; all are adorned with antique wooden doors and line an up and down, hilly maze of cobblestone streets, offset by elegant shops and shop windows…all under the soft, pale light of a 6,000-foot high mountain desert.
Deep Mexico is around every corner. Step in the market or pause outside one of the dozen historic churches and you’re sure to meet an old women begging for centavos. But on the next corner is a courtyard restaurant with a wall of flowers that would be at home in Santa Fe or St. Moritz.
The center of town is El Jardin, the quessential Mexican plaza of cast iron benches and boxed laurel trees, lined with colonnades of arches from colonial days. There are any number of bars here for a Victoria beer and the sunset show when thousands of grackles go crazy, roosting in the trees, as lovers walk by.
The rose-colored, La Parroquia, a Gothic church of crazy spires allegedly inspired by a European postcard, overlooks the square and completes the picture that, Starbucks aside, you’re not in Kansas anymore.
San Miguel has the home of the other beheaded hero, Ignacio Allende (for whom the town is named). There are galleries galore and museums, but it’s also a great place to just wander and walk, order a tequila “un completo” at an outdoor café, and watch the color of the buildings change as the sun moves lower on the horizon and the hundreds of historic lanterns start to glow. Nobody but the taxi cabs are in a hurry, and even they will pause, briefly, rather than run you down. There’s just time for another “un completo” before the mariachis start playing in the plaza.

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