You Can Take a Tequila Train to Mexico's Most Magical Town
You'd think it would be hard to live up to being designated a "magical" town, but Tequila, Mexico more than delivers on the hype.
Nestled deep within the state of Jalisco in central Mexico, the tiny community of Tequila, which was designated a Pueblo Mágico (Magic Town) by the Mexican Secretariat of Tourism, has been experiencing somewhat of a renaissance. And that is in no small part thanks to its signature drink.
Though the town pre-dates the spirit, people from all over the world are only now figuring out that like Champagne, Bordeaux, and Sancerre, their glass of tequila comes from somewhere truly special.
And while being there is great, traveling to Tequila is one of those rare instances where the journey really is just as cool as the final destination. So that is where our story shall begin.
To make it to the enchanted town of Tequila, one must first travel to Guadalajara, Mexico, a destination in its own right. Make sure to build in at least one day during your travels to relax, eat, and explore all the hidden corners of Mexico's second-largest city.
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In Guadalajara, you'll find a plethora of hole-in-the-wall coffee shops beckoning you to come in and sip, whimsical pop-up artist shops in Tlaquepaque, which you'll no doubt walk away from with an armful of goods, and world-class restaurants. Don't leave before you have the restaurant's grasshopper guacamole. It sounds intense, but the smoky flavor of the grasshoppers mixed with the creamy avocados is pure culinary perfection.
After spending one glorious night in Guadalajara, it's time to head to your intended destination: Tequila. The best way, by far, is boarding the Jose Cuervo Express.
The vintage-style, black and gold train is exactly the sort of thing you'd want to see pulling into a station to bring you to a place where agave is chopped down by hand and cowboys still ride out on horseback every day to tend to their crops.
Once aboard the train, which runs only on the weekends, guests who upgrade to first class are seated at plush booths where three perfectly poured tequila tastings are waiting for them. In the center of the table sits a plate of candied agave, a coffee bean, shreds of oak barrel, and lime rinds. Each of these items will soon play a key part in the next two hours of your life as you ride through the untouched Mexican countryside.
Along the route a master tequilier (a sommelier of tequila) explains in almost absurd detail all the things you should know about tequila that you probably don't already. Like how the spirit should always be made with 100-percent agave, unless you're adding it to a margarita, in which case it better be Especial. Or how if you want to test to see if your tequila is good quality, just rub a few drops in your hands. If your hands are sticky it means something sugary was added to it (like corn syrup) so it's not going to be a great choice for a shot. If, however, your hands are dry and smell a little like an oak barrel, that means your batch is worth a sip and savor.
The tequilier's greatest tip is how to actually savor tequila the right way: First, take in a breath, hold it, take a sip, swallow, then breathe out. This will take the burn out, while allowing your taste buds to fully marinate in the drink. (You can thank us for this party trick later.)
Before you know it, maybe because of the tequila or simply because time flies when you're having fun, the train comes to a halt. As guests begin to gather their goods the doors open and the sound of mariachi music comes flowing in.
Stepping off the train feels a little like stepping back in time as the warm Mexican sun beats down while the band plucks at their guitars to get you in the right mood. It is perhaps the happiest and most welcoming arrival one could ask for.
The town's center, which is home to just 40,000 people, is compact, with colorful shops, hotels like Los Abolengos Grand Class Casona Hotel, and Matices Hotel de Barricas, lined up next to tequila shops by Herradura and Patron. But we're here to visit one place in particular that not only sits directly in the town's square, but is also affiliated with a brewer who has called Tequila home for more than 150 years: Mundo Cuervo.
The over-the-top entryway to Mundo Cuervo's hotel, known as Hotel Solar de las Animas, is just the beginning of the perfect touches you'll find around that make you feel like you're in not only a magical place, but one packed with history as well. Though the hotel was actually built in the last decade, the space has an old-world charm that fits like a perfect puzzle piece into the surrounding community.
Here, guests can come to relax at the hotel's rooftop spa and jacuzzi, lounge by the pool, read an old book plucked from its large library, or belly up to its many bars for a tasting or two.
Even the rooms are ideal for feeling like you're far, far away from the rest of the world: The beds in each room are enormous, made from oak with with bright-white linens to offset the heaviness of the wooden frames. The beds sit next to a writing desk just begging for someone to come write the next great novel. And the paintings of families from a bygone era in Mexico hung around the room could give you just the inspiration you're after.
Oh, and don't be alarmed if you hear a loud "bang" around 5 a.m. It's just the town's way of waking up and celebrating each and every day with fireworks. It's simply because of the hotel's centralized location that you too get to experience this raucous wakeup call.
And you'll want to get up early, because there's so much exploring to do. While staying at Mundo Cuervo, guests are invited to visit its agave fields located just a few miles away.
The bright green plants jut up out of the earth for as far as the eye can see. They are grown directly under a dormant volcano, which looms in the distance. Though it hasn't erupted in 30,000 years, it still smolders inside, and it is this rich volcanic soil that gave birth to the agave. It all makes sense once you learn that "tequila" actually means "lava hill."
To get a good view of the land, guests can mount horses and tour the property with a jimador, whose job is to tend to the crops and harvest them when they're ready. "Ready" is relative, however, as it can take some of the plants nearly a decade to mature. But nobody here seems to be in a rush.
And that includes the horses living on Jose Cuervo's agave farm, as they simply mosey through the field, taking their time to spot flowers, trees, and tiny pieces of volcanic rock strewn throughout.
On the horseback tour a guide will explain to you the history of tequila and the legend of how it came to be as a gift from the goddess Mayahuel. To keep a long, but highly entertaining, story short, Mayahuel sent a bolt of lightening to the earth, lighting an agave plant on fire. The locals smelled the sugars burning from within and tasted the syrup that was flowing out. With this jolt, Mayahuel officially brought happiness — and tequila — to the world.
On the tour you may be lucky enough to meet a man named Ismael, a jimador who is so good at his job he can chop down hundreds of agave plants in a day. He's happy to show off a few of his moves and may even allow you to try it. But be warned: He may laugh at your feeble attempts.
Ismael, a man weathered by the sun but bearing laugh lines so deep you can feel his enduring happiness, may look familiar at first glance. And that's likely because you've seen him before. After working for the company for decades, the now 70-year-old has been recognized as the face of the Jose Cuervo brand.
After taste-testing the agave, guests simply pat their horses goodbye and head back into town for a tour of the company's oldest distillery, which is still in operation today. There, guests looking to learn a thing or two about tequila can see the process from start to finish (with a few hidden secrets in between that you'll have to visit to find out).
And it's there that one realizes the richness that tequila has brought to this town, the country, and the world over, simply from a burning green leaf allegedly sent down from a goddess above. And that deeper appreciation for a drink so often shot back without a second thought is what makes the town of Tequila, and Mundo Cuervo, well worth the visit.
After a day full of sun and a belly full of tequila, it was time to make moves back to the hotel, which fortunately sits just across the street. And thankfully, the hotel staff thoughtfully leaves a hand-blown glass decanter full of water on the nightstand.
Yes, Mexico continues to be the most visited country for tourists from the United States. But next time you're planning a trip to visit our neighbors to the south why not do something totally different, learn a thing or two, and pay respects to the magic of Tequila by visiting its birthplace instead?
Just maybe pack some Advil.