Mexico / Central Mexico / Jalisco
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Wednesday, April 26, 2017
Agavenfelder vor den Toren von Tequila
Agave fields just outside of Tequila
Ein Jimador beim Agavenschneiden
Agave cutting Jimador
Geschnittenes Agavenherz
Cut agave heart
Tequila in Fässern - Cuervo
Tequila in barrels - Cuervo

Mariachis, Horses & Tequila

The federal state of Jalisco is certainly one of the most interesting states of Mexico – not only because of its famous agave liquor.

The history of the village of Mezcala on Lake Chapala dates far back to the times of nomadic hunters and gatherers. It is not clear whether the name of the village is derived from the drink mescal or means “Place Where the Moon Lives” in the local language. Tourism entered the village only late so it could preserve its original character. A bit of luck, and you will meet people who still speak the indigenous language, Nahuatl. Mezcala spread from neither the church – which was built no earlier than 1971 – nor the village square, but along the lakeshore and the frequented mole. During a short tour through the Casa de la Cultura de Mezcala, you will get a fascinating overview of the different epochs of the village; the exhibits include mammoth bones, arrowheads and sacrificial vessels from prehistoric times, and pistols and cannonballs from the colonial period and the Wars of Independence as well as traditional clothing and elaborately crafted mantillas. The museum further gives you insight into regional manners and customs and festive traditions.
The Isla de Mezcala is at the deepest place of Lake Chapala, about 5 km (3 miles) south of Mezcala, and has played an important and eventful part in the history of Mexico. It started as a destination of pilgrims attending sacrificial rituals. The archeological finds date back more than 3,000 years. During the Wars of Independence (1810 - 1821), the island was the arena of several battles that were of decisive importance for the destiny of the country – the only remnants testifying to this period are the ruins of an old fortification with a drawbridge. Owing to its remoteness, the island was later used as a high-security prison, which led to its surname “Alcatraz of Mexico.” The central building consisted of two brick vaults for about 100 prisoners. In the course of time, the island fell into oblivion, and most of the buildings, into ruin. The people used the land to cultivate mainly plums and wild cucumbers. Only in recent years have various institutions made efforts to restore the historic places, to examine them archeologically and to revive the legends of the Isla del Presidio.

Guadalajara, the second-largest town of Mexico, is always worth a city tour. The Cabañas Hospice was founded in 1805 by bishop Juan Ruiz de Cabañas to lodge orphans and people needing protection. The UNESCO listed it as a Cultural World Heritage in 1997. The building today accommodates the cultural center Instituto Cultural de Cabañas Guadalajara. It is the largest colonial building in all America; its complex construction includes 23 patios overtopped by a central dome. The walls and vaults of the former chapel were designed in muralismo style in 1938 – 39, the painter being José Clemente Orozco, an important Mexican artist and cofounder of contemporary Mexican painting. The murals are considered masterworks of Mexican art and include scenes of the Spanish conquest (“El Conquistador”), the fresco “Hombre del Fuego,” and the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The center of Guadalajara is the cathedral, which was built between 1541 and 1628. It is surrounded by four magnificent plazas. The door side faces the Plaza de los Laureles, a place full of Indian laurel trees; especially the youth likes to meet in their shade. Another place, the Plaza de Armas with its well-known Victorian pavilion, lies next to the cathedral, too. The Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustres presents with a wonderfully cared-for park with life size bronze statues of Guadalajara’s honorary citizens. Behind the cathedral, you will find the fourth place, the Plaza de la Liberación with a colonial fountain and bordered by the remarkable Teatro Degollado. After a visit of the cathedral, it is wonderful to saunter over the four plazas, each of a different character, and to end the evening here.

Did you ever hear of the Tequila Express? When you take the special train of FerroMex, the trip is all about the high-proof national drink of Mexico – tequila. You have to be in the station of Guadalajara early not to miss the train – and the atmosphere in the waiting room: Your fellow-travelers, mostly Mexicans who have come to Jalisco from all over the country on this Saturday, are in a hilarious mood already.

The train leaves Guadalajara westwards to go directly to the extended agave fields. While the unique cultural landscape passes by the windows, a mariachi group starts playing and livens up the party. And, of course, you get snacks and tequila to your heart’s content! Arrived in Amatitán, you are taken to the agave fields of the José Cuervo Company at the foot of Tequila volcano. Awaiting you is a jimador to show you the high art of agave cutting. The knowledge of pruning - in the first years of life - and - at the end of their lives - harvesting the agaves is often transmitted from father to son. It takes at least 8 years before the agave hearts can be harvested. On the field, the jimador will show you in detailed steps which forms there are to trim the blue agave (Agave tequilana Weber). And one fruit will be harvested especially for the visitor: The jimador will expose the core, resembling a giant pineapple and weighing up to 45 kg (100 lb.), by completely cutting off the pointed agave leaves.

You continue to the town of Tequila. You visit the Casa José Cuervo, the oldest tequilería in Mexico. After having been shown around the historic production facilities on a short tour, you are invited to a supreme-class tequila tasting event in the cellar vaults. Enjoy, and learn all about, the fine agave distillate: How does tequila age, how is it stored? How do you open your palate to the taste of the distillate, and how do you avoid the sharpness of the strong alcohol? When, how, and with what should you drink tequila? Maybe you will ladle your mouthful of aged Añejo from the small valuable keg at the head of the oaken table yourself. Who dares?

You then return to Amatitán and visit the modern production plant of the Tequilería Herradura. See how the hearts of the agave are cooked, ground and fermented. After having visited the interesting museum of the company, you rejoin the group of your train. Enjoy the Fiesta Mexicana with mariachi, good food, and the cheerful Mexicans. The Tequila Express will take you back to Guadalajara in the evening.

An as yet untouristed archeological zone awaits the visitor outside the city limits of Guadalajara – Los Guachimontones. The pre-Columbian excavations cover about 19 hectares (47 acres) and include 10 monumental circular stone pyramids, two large courts for the ball game, rectangular squares, dwelling complexes, and agricultural terraces. The pyramids are especially remarkable because they have been built in four concentric circles. The assembly is today assumed to have been dedicated to the wind god Ehécatl. The history of this region dates back to about 1,000 BC, when a specific Indian tradition, the so-called Tradición Teuchitlán, developed. This civilization, which influenced a large area, flourished about 200 AD and was in decline in the 9th century already. Various peoples ruled the region afterwards, before it was being conquered by the Spanish under Cortés and Guzmán from 1524. During the colonial period that followed, haciendas and ranchos in the form of large landed estates came into being, and it was not before 1837 that the surroundings of Teuchitlán were recognized as an independent community.

Or take the opportunity to enjoy a charrería at Guadalajara. The charrerías have their origin in competitions, where the Mexican cowboys, or vaqueros as they are locally called, demonstrated the classical work steps on the haciendas and exhibited their horsemanship, the so-called charrería. Going farther back in history, all began, strictly speaking, with Hernán Cortés, who brought the first horses to Mexico: He landed with 16 mounted soldiers. When one of the horses died during an expedition to Honduras, the Maya showed their great respect for the horse by deifying its carcass. At that time, all Spaniards in a colony were obliged to keep a horse. On the other hand, a royal decree of 1528 prohibited the indigenous population, on pain of death, from even mounting a horse. The decree was cancelled, when ranchers later began to depend on the Indians’ help. Whether at work or in sports, everything then revolved around the horse. The Mexican riders developed a technique to bring wild bulls under control by grasping the bull’s tail while riding. This technique, called coleada, begins with gathering the herd. The vaqueros then separate individual animals at full gallop, grasp their tails, draw it under the right hind leg and wind it around the pommel. They subsequently have the horse make a U-turn so that the bull falls. But the charros’ history also extends to the Mexican wars, because the charros formed part of the cavalry. In the battle at the Alamo, they hunted the Texans with their lassos. When they fought against the French, they used their abilities by throwing lassos over the cannons and jerking them out of their direction.

The charrería today is a folkloristic event with much dance and singing that you should not miss. Thoroughbreds, the charros in their typical costumes, lovely adelitas – the female charros – and much music, a fiesta par excellence and for many Mexicans the only true national sport. In the arena, the so-called palenque, the most diverse feats of dressage and lassoing are shown in a competition of rival groups. We have reserved a seat for you in a rustic box, which allows you to observe the fascinating activity out of harm’s way. The first competition is the cola de caballo, in which the rider must demonstrate that he has complete control of his horse. At full gallop the rider approaches a white field where he has to stop his horse within seconds. The horse then turns round right and left, without leaving the field. Finally it walks out backwards. Wild bulls are tamed and unbacked horses are broken in; this competition is called jineteos. In the death step, paso de la muerte, the riders jump from their horses to the back of a brute horse at full gallop. During the mangana, horses are caught with the lasso. There are also competitions for women – escaramuza charra – with adelitas presenting themselves in sidesaddles to perfection. We may even be lucky enough to see the jarabe tapatío, the famous Jaliscan folk dance, at the end of the show.

Craftsmanship is an important business in Jalisco, too. In Tlaquepaque, a well-known section of Guadalajara, the picturesque shops, close-packed as on a large market, offer you all traditional Mexican crafts. Stroll the pretty pedestrian area, or have a look into the romantic patios. How about a refreshing drink in the Patio Café?