Travel & Outdoors | July 2009
|Tequila Just One of Many Treats to Be Found in Jalisco|
Alan Ferguson - Canwest News Service
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July 29, 2009
Tequila, Jalisco - It may seem a long way to come for a jar of hand lotion, but this is a very special unguent. Applied with regularity, it is guaranteed to make your hands as silky-smooth as a 15-year-old's.
I say guaranteed loosely, for no such pledge is written on the jar. But I put my faith in the solemn promise of Izmael the Jimador, the man who makes it.
A jimador is an expert in the cultivation of the agave plant. He is constantly wielding a variety of long-handled, razor-sharp tools in fields baked by a tropical sun.
Izmael's hands should be calloused and rough. They are as smooth as a 15- year-old child's. That's good enough for me.
The ingredients of his magic lotion aren't listed on the jar either. They're a secret. All we know for sure is that his concoction is based upon a liquid squeezed from the spiky leaves of the blue agave plant, source of the sugar from which tequila is made.
Izmael keeps a stash of his secret potion in unmarked jars in the cab of his pick-up truck, parked right there on the blood-red soil of a plantation owned by the fabled Jose Cuervo ('Joe Crow') distillery.
You can buy a small jar of this elixir of youth for a mere 50 pesos - less than five bucks Canadian. According to the jimador, a handsome figure in a spotless white shirt, blue jeans and sombrero, you can rub this balm over your entire body with equally beneficial results.
You would think the potion's alleged recuperative properties might have made Izmael a millionaire, but he tells me that the process of making it is too costly to be a commercial success. Most of the agave leaves are ploughed back into the ground as fertilizer for a new crop.
You'll have to go visit Izmael if you want to buy. It's easy enough. The privately owned Mexicana Airlines offers generous legroom to passengers on its frequent flights from Canada to Mexico City - 11 weekly flights out of Vancouver.
Upgrade to business class and you'll be pampered like a baby. There are convenient connections to Guadalajara, the bustling capital of Jalisco state, from where you can easily arrange trips to the picturesque town of Tequila, named after the liquor for which the state is justly famous.
Once you've got your magic lotion in hand, you can head downtown to the headquarters of the venerable Cuervo distillery, founded in the late 18th century and set amid luxuriant gardens. For a small charge, you can take an instructive tour of the premises, sampling the product at various stages of its evolution. By the time you get to the family's private cellar, where they keep the good stuff, you should already be relaxed.
Euphoria sets in only after you've scooped a ladle of the special reserve liquor from its burnt-oak barrel and let it trickle seductively down your throat. It's like liquid cocaine. The effect is hardly less miraculous than Izmael's cream.
Connoisseurs of tequila - and there are many around the world, with 70 per cent of Cuervo's production going to export - may stop reading here. But for initiates - or those for whom the word tequila has sickening evocations of a teenage drinking orgy - there's much to learn. You should never, for instance, drink tequila neat unless the bottle is marked "100 per cent agave." If it isn't, it's been mixed with sugars other than agave and is good only in cocktails. The Cuervo workers said they preferred "blanco" tequila, a pure white spirit. Other tequilas are imbued with their honey colour after maturing in oak casks - mere months for "reposado" varieties; years for aged, or anejo, types.
The true tequila was first crafted only after the Spanish conquerors brought their distilling skills. Until then, native tribes sipped on a rougher "mescal" wine whose chief effect seems to have been to make them dance. Today, the state of Jalisco is, with minor exceptions, the sole originator of genuine tequila, the quality of which is monitored by the Tequila Regulations Board.
Tourists are being more and more drawn to the area: there is even a "Tequila Express," a liquor-sodden train excursion from Guadalajara. Those who survive it describe it as a riotous experience.
More sober-minded travellers may prefer to stay in the capital, whose tumultuous history is reflected in many impressive works of art. In the 1930s, the social realist artist Jose Clemente Orozco dared to paint subversive murals depicting the stupidity and avarice of bishops and politicians alike, while advancing the cause of downtrodden peasants. These dramatic works can be viewed in various public buildings in the city and pack enormous graphic power.
A brief stay in Guadalajara can accomplish many things. Visitors to the second floor of the block-long Corona market on Hidalgo St. can browse among a cornucopia of traditional "cures" for everything from arthritis to impotence. Here you can meet Santa Muerte - the patron saint of death - whose grinning skull is everywhere on grisly display. The theory is that a prayer offered up to the death saint will spare you from his clutches. Criminals hoping to evade a sad end are said to be among his fans.
A short trip to the suburbs takes you to Tonala, where the twice-weekly street market boasts more than 1,000 vendors selling wares from pottery to furniture to shoes - a handmade pair of leather sandals sells here for around $15 Cdn. For higher-end goods, jewellery and the like, go to nearby Tlaqueplaque where you can stroll in an inviting pedestrian precinct lined with eateries such as the El Parian, a complex of 17 different restaurants sharing a vast roof and a centre stage upon which dancers and musicians perform daily. One of them, Solo Monterrey, offered more than 350 varieties of tequila - we went there. The food was delicious. Try the molcajete, a spicy stew of arrachera steak, tomato and hot chile sauce served in a bowl of volcanic rock.
If it's night life you want, you won't be disappointed. High-end discos open at midnight and rock till dawn. But here's a fashion alert. Young Guadalajarans, both guys and gals, dress to the nines. You won't want to be caught looking dowdy.
Eight million people live and work in the city, with all the traffic noise and congestion that involves. To escape, hop aboard a Mexicana Airlines flight to Puerta Vallarta, less than 45 minutes away. The airline recently bought 10 brand new, 50-seat Bombardier Canadair jets in which you can stretch your legs at will.
It's easy to be cynical about such resorts, but Puerto Vallarta offers a vast range of innocent pleasures to a huge number of visitors at an affordable price. Who's to knock that? More than 3.5 million tourists come here every year to paraglide, scuba dive, whale watch, swim with dolphins or just sit on the beach and drink margaritas.
The food is a fantastic bargain. Eight of us had dinner at Tinos in the old town. Delicious appetizers included crab crepes, tacos stuffed with smoked marlin, shrimp empanada and plump mussels basking in a sea of seasoned butter. Huge plates of grilled zarandeado - red snapper - followed, washed down with copious drafts of tequila and wine. Rich desserts came next, and then the bill - $300 Cdn. For eight.
Less obvious diversions lie in store for the adventurous. The authorities two years ago relaxed a former total ban on gambling to allow slot machines in local malls. And for something really different, call up the local campus of the University of Guadalajara and ask the staff if you can see their alligator research program. The star of the show is Goliath, a massive, crooked-toothed beast rescued six years ago when he strayed onto a housing development. He may look ugly, but 23-year-old science student Merab Bodillo told me he has the friendliest nature "when he's in a good mood."
It's hard not to be in a good mood in this lovely old town.