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Agave nectar was known and widely used among the Pre-Columbian cultures. Along with honey, it was used a flavouring for several dishes, and as a sweetener when drinking chocolate. Both were highly valued and traded extensively throughout Mesoamerica. These products augmented other Mesoamerican foodstuffs: maize and posolli gruels and their atolli and pinolli drinks. There is evidence that sweetmeat dessert-like substances made with toasted squash seeds or popped amaranth seeds and boiled agave syrup or honey were made and given as gifts and used as ritual offerings.
Updated May, 2011
Visiting Tequila Country
You can't fully appreciate tequila until you have visited Tequila County. If you can at least once in your life walk between the rows of blue agave, take the soil between your fingers, taste the baked agave fresh from an oven, sip raw tequila dripping from a still, smell the muskiness and agave seeping from barrels in a dark bodega, or stare in wonder at the dark shape of the volcano on the horizon, you will learn more about tequila than a lifetime of mere sipping and sampling.
Getting to the land of the blue agave is easier every year. Many airlines fly into Guadalajara from around the world, and the tequila regions are a mere 1-2 hours away. There are buses from Guadalajara that go to each zone daily (take a taxi to the new bus station and find the appropriate bus). A taxi to Tequila from Guadalajara airport was about $80 USD in 2006, more than double that to Arandas.
Another option is to book a personal tour with David Ruiz, who comes from a family of tequileros, and knows the families, the regions and the companies intimately. David's knowledge and access to the industry are impressive. He is genial and offers a superb experience. David joined the forum for portions of our 2007 and 2008 tours and helped us get into places we had never been able to visit. I highly recommend his services if you want a memorable tour with depth.
You can also rent a car and drive to both regions long the well-marked Mexican highways. Be forewarned: the traffic in Guadalajara is a challenge for anyone not used to Mexican driving. Once outside Guadalajara, Tequila is about 45 minutes' drive away. There are two highways: the slower two-lane free highway which runs through Arenal and Amatitan before it reaches Tequila, and the faster toll highway, which bypasses the smaller towns and requires several payments before the exit to Tequila.
Tequila is considered a day trip, a jaunt from Guadalajara, for many Mexicans and foreigners. Tour buses in the city offer low-cost day trips to Tequila, with one or more distillery tours thrown in.
The Tequila Express is another popular weekend excursion; a two-hour train ride to Amatitan with music and dance performance, is followed by and a tour of the Herradura factory at Hacienda San Jose del Refugio, that dates to 1820. The cost for the train trip is about $70 USD and tickets are available from Ticketmaster's Mexico outlet.
For the less adventurous or those pressed for time, a day trip from Guadalajara on the Tequila Express will at least get you out to the area around Amatitan and a chance to tour the stunning Herradura distillery and its classic hacienda, founded in 1802. Amatitan is about 30 minutes from Guadalajara and the 2,500-acre Herradura site is well worth the trip: you'll even see the family home, used continually from 1862 until 1995, and still a weekend retreat for the Romo family until the distillery was sold in late 2006.
In Tequila itself you can go on several inexpensive bus or walking tours of the local distilleries. There are usually ticket sellers in the plaza and zocalo. But you can also simply go to the distilleries and pay for a tour, or just ask to visit. While tours were a rarity a decade ago, they have become part of Tequila's growing tourist business today. However, while the larger distillers may have regular tours, smaller companies may only allow them by pre-arrangement and some are still not comfortable with the idea of allowing visitors onto their premises.
However, while Guadalajara has many facilities for international visitors, since most of the tequila-producing towns are small and not on the popular tourist trails, they lack a lot of amenities. There are small but clean and attractive hotels in Arandas and Tequila. Outside those towns, however, facilities tend to be more spartan but prices are very reasonable. Check for rooms and availability before you travel. I have stayed at the Mision Tequillan in Tequila (telephone +52-374-742-3233) and the Hotel Santa Barbara in Arandas (52-348-783-3737) and can highly recommend both of them.
Since UNESCO added the tequila-producing regions to their list of World Heritage Sites, Tequila has been seeing more tourists:
Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila (Mexico). A 34,658 ha site, between the foothills of the Tequila Volcano and the deep valley of the Rio Grande River, is part of an expansive landscape of blue agave, shaped by the culture of the plant which has been used since the 16th century to produce tequila spirit and over at least 2,000 years to make fermented drinks and cloth. Within the landscape are working distilleries reflecting the growth in the international consumption of tequila in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, the agave culture is seen as part of national identity. The area encloses a living, working landscape of blue agave fields and the urban settlements of Tequila, Arenal, and Amatitan with large distilleries where the agave ‘pineapple’ is fermented and distilled. The listed property includes fields, distilleries and factories (both active and not), tabernas (distilleries that were illegal under Spanish rule), towns and Teuchitlan archaeological sites. The property numbers numerous haciendas, or estates, some of which date back to the 18th century. The architecture of both factories and haciendas is characterized by brick and adobe construction, plastered walls with ochre lime-wash, stone arches, quoins and window dressings, and formal, neo-classical or baroque ornamentation. It reflects both the fusion of pre-Hispanic traditions of fermenting mescal juice with the European distillation processes and of local technologies and those imported from Europe and the U.S.A. The property also covers archaeological sites which bear testimony to the Teuchitlan culture which shaped the Tequila area from 200 to 900 A.D., notably through the creation of terraces for agriculture, housing, temples, ceremonial mounds and ball courts.
If at all possible to fit it in to your travel schedule, spend at least a day visiting Guadalajara. It is a beautiful city, Mexico's second largest, with many plazas, colonial buildings, art galleries, wide streets, a fascinating mercado and great places to eat and shop.
For some personal reminiscences of the area, read the tour 2006 and tour 2007 pages.