There are a lot of cool things to do when visiting Guadalajara but touring Tequila, Jalisco and the Valles Region has to be near the top of that list. The area is famous for country hospitality, culinary arts, and of course distilled agave spirits that earn a massive amount of money for the region.
The Valles Region has 11 municipalities each with a unique touristic offering. There is an important archaeology site called Guachimontones in the town of Teuchitlán. Closeby are two historic hotel haciendas with lovely restaurants. Maru Toledo, a famous cultural anthropologist and cookbook author operates a ranch and cooking school where she gives talks on traditional cuisines. In Magdalena, there are many jewelry stores selling locally mined opals. There are lovely small distilleries and restaurants sprinkled throughout El Arenal, Amatitan, and Tequila. Take the time to go for a hike or a horseback ride in the agave fields. Tequila, Jalisco is a treasure.
The pueblo of Tequila, Jalisco has a huge touristic infrastructure where you can eat, drink, tour distilleries, see concerts, view museums, ride horses, and even swim in waterfalls.
Tequila, Jalisco is the crown jewel in a spectacular ring of pueblos that circle the Tequila Volcano. You could spend weeks getting to know each one but try to spend just one extra day exploring the pueblos next to Tequila, Jalisco.
Table of Contents: Touring the Tequila Valles Region
- La Ruta Del Tequila
- Pueblos in the Tequila Valles Region
- The Best Hotels in the Tequila Valles Region
- Where to Eat in the Tequila Valles Region
- The Best Distillarties to Visit
- Transportation to Tequila, Jalisco
The landscapes in tequila country are absolutely stunning and the cultural significance of the agave plant runs deep. The Valley below the Tequila Volcano was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006 because of its natural beauty and cultural significance. With so much culture it is a shame that the tourist traps are what most international visitors end up experiencing. The pueblos around the Tequila Volcano are spectacular: full of culture and adventure. You need to include these towns on your tour of Tequila, Jalisco.
In this chapter, we are going to explore the cultural significance of the agave plant, see how tequila is made, and explore the changes caused by skyrocketing demand. After that, we are going to visit the pueblos in the Tequila Valley with unique cultural significance to the Ruta Del Tequila. Guachimontones, El Arenal, Amatitán, and Tequila each offer a unique glimpse into the culture of Tequila. This guide will help you travel along the Ruta Del Tequila like a local and leave with an intimate glimpse of one of Mexico’s most treasured regions.
The Legend of Tequila
A long time ago some Indians were strolling through the agave fields when surprised by a thunderstorm. The Indians took shelter in a cave to wait out the rain and watch the lightning in the distance.
Next to the cave where they were waiting out the storm there was a pit full of agave piñas. In the early days the Indians used just about every part of the agave except for the the fibrous center of the agave called a piña. The agave piñas were thrown into a ditch with other scraps of wood and debris.
Not long after the Indians had taken shelter in the cave the lightning began to get closer and closer. The lightning struck the pit full of agave piñas starting a fire and cooking the discarded piñas. The delectable smell of cooked agave got the attention of the indians who tasted it for the first time.
The Indians divided up the sweetened pieces of cooked agave between themselves and soon went on their way. One of the Indians left his share of the cooked agave in the cave only to return a few days later. When he returned to pick up the agave a magical transformation had taken place. The cooked agave sugars were starting to ferment into alcohol. Drinking the fermented agave juice gave him a mild buzz and a new industry was born.
Agave, maguey, Metl, and Tocamba all refer to that marvelous tree that is so important to the native peoples of North America. There are well over a hundred different species of agaves and nearly 40 of those species are used to make mezcal. However, only one species, the blue agave Tequilana Weber, may be used to make tequila.
The agave was known as the marvelous tree to the people of Mesoamerica because of all the uses they found for the plant. You can make paper out of the leaves, nails, and needles out of the points, ropes, clothes, construction equipment you name it. Today the biggest moneymaker by far is tequila.
The agave is a unique plant that takes a really long time to reach maturity. Some agaves can take up to 30 years to reach maturity. It takes at least 7 years for the blue agave to reach maturity and develop all those sugars that will be turned into tequila. As the agave reaches maturity a stock (quiote) will grow out of the piña and eventually flower. The stock moves sugar from the piña to the flowers making the piña useless for tequila production. Since agaves that have flowered can’t be used for tequila the quiote is removed in most industrial farms.
Most of the agaves on industrial farms are clones. It is impossible to reproduce through pollination if the plants are not allowed to flower. Cuttings are taken from the rootstock and replanted just before the rainy season starts to repopulate the harvested agaves. We are going to go into much more detail in the next chapter when we visit Los Altos de Jalisco.
How Tequila is Made
While there are a lot of opinions about the different machines used to make tequila the steps are rather similar. Agaves are selected, cleaned, cooked, juiced, fermented and later distilled and sometimes aged. How you actually go about each of these steps is what sets one tequila apart from another. Not only is this big business but it is also agriculture. Every once in a while there will be a shortage of agave and tequila producers need to make the most out of what they have.
An Agricultural Product
The first step of crafting fine tequila is selecting the agaves. As in all agriculture, there is a fine line between ripe and under-ripe. The jimador is the farmworker responsible for selecting ripe agaves for harvest. Agaves are harvested to maximize the sugar content. The agave is cleaned of leaves leaving a ‘piña’. If you leave too much of the leaf it makes the tequila bitter.
The agaves are halved or quartered depending on their size and loaded into steam ovens. This is one of the key differences between Mezcal which uses a very different cooking style. The type of oven depends on the producer. Autoclaves are like huge pressure cookers. A diffuser is a machine that accomplishes several steps very efficiently but produces a somewhat insipid distillate. Diffusers are controversial. Some people claim they make the process more efficient while others claim they suck the soul out of the tequila.
The Cooked Agave
There are a number of different oventypes for cooking the agaves but they all use steam. The steam oven is one of the principal differences between a mezcal and a tequila. The steam-cooked agaves typically do not taste as smokey as the mezcal agaves do.
Once the agave is cooked you can smell and taste the sugars. The cooked agave is absolutely delicious and I think that great tequila tastes like agaves rather than oak barrels.
The process of extracting the agave sugars from the cooked piñas could be modern or traditional. There are a number of small producers that are going back to ancestral methods. Rather than industrial machinery they are using a tahona like was used a hundred years ago. The tahona is a two-ton stone wheel that rolls in a circle crushing the cooked agave to extract the sugars. The finished product is expensive but tasty.
The next step is to ferment the agave juice in large vats. This is a chemical process where yeast converts sugar into alcohol. There are dozens of variations that will affect the taste of the final product. What kind of material is the fermentation tank made of? Is the agave juice fermented with or without the pulp? What types of yeast are used to ferment? All of these decisions change the flavor profile of the finished tequila. Some tequilas add ‘natural flavor’ to the finished product but we aren’t interested in that stuff.
Lastly, is the distillation process. Fermentation can only get to 15-20% alcohol before the yeast dies and the conversion stops. Distillation raises the alcohol content by separating the alcohol from the water. The still is heated and the alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than the water. The alcohol vapor is cooled and becomes a liquid again with less water and higher alcohol content. Most tequila is double distilled but I have heard there are exceptions to this rule.
Some people like to age tequila in oak barrels like you would age wine or whiskey. The oak adds a new flavor profile that you don’t find in agaves. This started as a marketing tactic to break into the US beverage market. US consumers were accustomed to drinking whiskey aged in oak barrels and Mexican producers wanted to take a little market share by introducing a similar product. It is interesting that in today’s multinational conglomerate atmosphere that used whiskey barrels are sent from Jack Daniels to Herradura to age tequila.
Again, I highly recommend visiting both a large distillery and a small distillery. The big distilleries have great tours and theme park-style manicured grounds. Jose Cuervo has created a really enjoyable experience between the hotel, the distillery, restaurants, and events. The smaller distilleries don’t have distribution in the United States. Many are making tequila for their family, friends, and community. There are some great small producers making very unique styles of tequila. While you are here, I recommend trying tequilas that you are only going to find in this part of Mexico.
Styles of Tequila
When I am teaching young waiters about wine I am constantly asked what the best wines are. The simple answer is the one that you like the most. The same logic applies to tequila. There are a number of different styles with very different flavor profiles and it is hard to say that one style is better than another. You are never going to convince a Frenchman that an oak-aged, California-style chardonnay is better than a Pouilly-Fuissé (un-oaked chardonnay). And you will never convince my mom to give up her Rombauer Chardonnay. What you should do is try a number of different styles to see what you like the most.
Tequila can be broken down into a number of classes depending on how it is aged, blended, and filtered:
- Tequila Blanco or Plata (Silver) is a young tequila that usually has no oak aging. This is the most popular style of tequila in Guadalajara. Tequila blanco typically has strong notes of agave and citrus.
- Tequila Oro (Gold) is a style of tequila that blends fermented agave sugar with other sugars (typically sugar cane) for distillation and then adds carmel coloring to achieve the gold color. It’s best to avoid this class of tequila if there is a better option available.
- Tequila Reposado (rested or aged) is aged in oak barrels from 2 to 12 months. The oak barrels must be less than 600 liters and many are recycled bourbon barrels. The oak starts to develop the aromas of vanilla, caramel and butter.
- Tequila Añejo (extra-aged) is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 12 months. This where the vanilla, caramel, butterscotch and oak aromas really start to stand out.
- Tequila Extra Añejo is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 36 months. This is where the caramel and toffee flavors start to intensify and take on notes of whiskey, coffee and raisins.
- Tequila Cristalino or Diamante is not an officially recognized class of tequila but it is a style that is increasingly popular. Each tequila company has their own marketing but essentially they are blends of añejo, extra-añejo and possibly a reposado that are later filtered with activated charcoal. The filtering leaves the tequila crystal clear, visually resembling a tequila blanco but with much of the flavor profile of an añejo.
- Flavored Tequilas are not tequilas but tequila based beverages. There are strick regulations what can and can not be called tequila. If it doesn’t come from an offically registered factory it can’t be called a tequila. You can look up the NOM number to see what factories make which brands.
How to order Tequila
Now that we have gone over the styles of tequila we need to see how it is ordered. While modern cocktail bars are starting to catch on the most common way to order a tequila is called ‘derecho’ or neat. The proper tequila glass (not a shot glass) resembles a champagne glass with a slightly wider mouth. It is not likely that you will find many tequila bars with true tequila glasses on hand. Some will substitute a champagne flute, others will use a small snifter. A shot glass is probably acceptable for most commercial tequilas. I would try to avoid anything gimmicky like a skull. Not only is it difficult to appreciate the aromas but it is difficult to drink out of.
Derecho, Divorciado o Banderita
A common way to order tequila derecho, or neat, is with a banderita or little flag. You will be served three separate glasses of tequila, lime juice and sangrita. Sangrita is mixture of tomato and orange juice prepared with Worcestershire sauce, jugo maggi seasoning sauce, Tabasco, salt and pepper. It is kind of like a bloody mary without the horseradish. Sangrita is a great way to clear the palate between tequilas. I am not a fan of the ones that come in a bottle but love the one we make at the bar.
Your tequila almost always will include one or two sodas with it. Ordering a tequila divorciado you will get a shot glass of tequila, a highball glass with ice and a soda or two. You then mix the drink as you like at the table or bar. I like to order a can of soda water to have as I sip on my tequila. The reason they give you two sodas is because so many people drink their tequila mixed with soda water and diet coke. I find the idea appalling but many restaurants have adjusted their costs to include two sodas because so many people order liquor this way.
Visit Tequila Jalisco and the surrounding pueblos
The State of Jalisco uses the hashtag Jalisco is Mexico and there is a lot of culture to take in. The pre-Hispanic population was very prosperous. The Spanish colonial legacy is seen in the haciendas and churches. I think my favorite part of Tequila, Jalisco is the ranching culture. The agave plant has been very good to the people here. This is an agricultural community and the people around here have a strong culinary sense of identity.
The best way to visit the Ruta Del Tequila is by renting a car and visiting the pueblos at your own pace. Some of the best landscapes are little ways outside of the towns and having the ability to stop at the lookout points will give you way better photos. I also like the ability to pull over when I see a busy taco stand. With the exception of some wayward livestock, the roads are safe and well traveled. Just make sure do designate a driver.
Teuchitlan & Guachimontones
Teuchitlán is a little pueblo on the other side of the volcano from Tequila, Jalisco. Right above the town of Teuchitlán is the archeological site of Guachimontones. Teuchitlán is located right next to a lake that was an important part of the agricultural system that supported a large population. Guachimontones was a significant pre-Hispanic community that is estimated to have had around 40,000 occupants. The conical-shaped pyramids are unique from all the other archeological sites that I have visited in Mexico and Central America.
Many people are familiar with the chinampa agricultural system of Mexico City’s Xochimilco. It is less well known that the same chinampa agriculture system sustained the population here. The Tequila Volcano is long extinct but it left a large reserve of obsidian. That glass-like rock was made into all sorts of cutting tools and spear tips that were traded far and wide. Between agriculture and industry, this pre-Hispanic community must have been a sight to see back in the day.
Ahualulco de Mercado
Hacienda del Carmen
Ten minutes down the road from the Guachimontones archaeological site there is an amazing 17th century ex-hacienda that has been turned into a hotel and restaurant. There is a movement to restore and maintain these old houses as quasi museums. It is fascinating to see how the wealthy lived in centuries past. The Hacienda del Carmen hotel is not cheap. To keep the cost down a little you can make reservations at the restaurant and still get a chance to experience this living history.
Maru Toledo and Las Mujeres del Maíz
Maru Toledo is one of the preeminent voices of Jalisco documenting oral tradition and writing cookbooks. She hosts some amazing culinary experiences highlighting ranch style food. Her recipes and cooking techniques are centuries old. They cook on a wood fired comal and make cheese and vinegar in the old school way.
Maru hosts events every few weeks. Make sure to follow her facebook page to get up to date notifications about her upcoming events. There is talk of opening up the ranch to do breakfasts on the weekends but they haven’t started that just yet.
The first stop on the Ruta Del Tequila as you are heading out of Guadalajara is Arenal. As you approach the town you will start to see small agave farms on both sides of the highway. I recommend skipping breakfast in Guadalajara and getting some tacos in Arenal before your first distillery tour.
If you didn’t remember to bring a hat you should stop and pick one up on your way into town. Don’t worry, you will see the roadside stand as you hit the first speed bumps. If you plan on spending any time at all in the agave fields I can’t recommend a good hat enough. You will thank me later.
Tequila Cascahuín is small, independent distillery making some of the finest tequila in Jalisco. They are using old-school, artisanal methods of cooking, fermenting and distilling. You should pick up a bottle of their high proof tequila plata to bring back to the United States because you will not find outside of Jalisco. Before you visit one of the large, multinational distilleries you need to see how tequila was made in the old days. These guys are preserving the culture and traditions of a time long past.
There are a number of great, home-style eateries in El Arenal but I really liked Carnitas La Fuente. More than a few whole pigs are fried up each day and you pick out the cuts that you like and pay by the kilo. The owner of the place lives out back and will probably walk up and offer you a piece of jicama or an orange. There is a playground for the kids and a very enjoyable space to eat.
Hacienda Tres Mujeres
As you are leaving El Arenal towards Amatitan it is worth stopping at the Tres Mujeres distillery. The hacienda has some excellent scenery and is a great spot to take some photos. They offer tours in English seven days a week and I hear they have an very good extra añejo.
What I love about Amatitan is the authenticity. These are real cowboys and real farmers in the heart of Mexico. While the city of Tequila can feel like a tourist trap Amatitan is down home Mexico. The Herradura Hacienda is located in Amatitan and so is Cantaritos El Guero; two excellent pit stops along the road to Tequila, Jalisco.
One of the world’s most recognizable tequila brands also has a stunning hacienda tour. When it comes to the big name tequila brands there are a couple of options for touring distilleries. You can take the train in from Guadalajara or you drive in and just take the walking tour. There are a couple different price points depending on the tequila tastings that you are interested in. Honestly, the expensive tasting doesn’t seem necessary because I am not that into the añejo and extra añejo tequilas that cost a ton of money.
Tours are in English and in Spanish but make sure to call ahead to get the schedule. Intermediate level Spanish speakers will struggle to understand the technical vocabulary of the distillation process.
Cantaritos El Guero
People don’t drink a lot of margaritas in these parts. What they do drink are cantaritos. A cantarito is a mixture of tequila with grapefruit soda (Freska or Squirt), orange juice, grapefruit juice, lime, salt and a huge clay mug. Even is you don’t drink alcohol the fresh fruit juice mixed with Squirt is absolutely delicious.
The name comes from the clay vessle, cántaro, that people used to keep drinking water fresh in the home. The cantaritos range in size from large to stupidly huge. There are some funny videos on YouTube of people getting stupid. Don’t drink and drive.
The town of Tequila, Jalisco has done an excellent job of creating a tourist destination. From the UNESCO world heritage program to the Mexican Pueblo Mágico program, the community knows how to promote Tequila, Jalisco as a major tourist destination. There are some really special experiences with deep cultural roots if you can sift through the excess.
Tequila may be a victim of its own success. Many of the experiences are expensive. It seems that everyone is trying to jump on the bandwagon without actually contributing anything. I still can’t understand why there are Voladores de Papantla and what they have to do with Tequila country.
Before you go to Tequila make a plan. Don’t let some barker push you into a tour or some restaurant that just doesn’t care. There is exceptional living history to experience with the right recommendations.
Los Azules Waterfalls
Less than two miles from the main plaza in Tequila is a secluded series of waterfalls called Los Azules. The last part of the hike is a little sketchy but the waterfalls are dope. The hike through the agave fields are quintessential Tequila Country.
I highly recommend hiring a guide if you have not been before. Once you start the decent into the falls the path is not 100% obvious. Wear good shoes, bring water and go early because it can get hot.
As you would probably imagine, José Cuervo has a large footprint in Tequila. In addition to the Rojeña distillery there are event spaces, restaurants, retail boutiques and much more. The whole area surrounding the distillery is beautiful and very Instagram friendly. They have done a good job preserving the colonial charm of rural Jalisco. Even if you don’t tour the distillery you need to check out Mundo Cuervo
Hotel Solar De Las Animas
My wife and I really enjoyed the Hotel Solar De Las Animas. The hotel does a spectacular job recreating the opulence of the hacienda era. The restaurant and bar have excellent food and very good service.
The Best Hotels in the Tequila Valles Region
Distillery Tours in the Tequila Valles District
Transportation to Tequila, Jalisco
Miguel de Hidalgo International Airport is a fairly serious hub with direct flights from major airports in California and across the US. If you happen to be in Southern California you should consider flying out of Tijuana. There is parking on the US side of the border directly in front of the Tijuana airport and the Cross Border Express pedestrian bridge is the best way to access the airport. During the low season you can score a one-way airfare for less than USD$50.
The Guadalajara airport is located about 30 minutes outside of town on the highway to Lake Chapala. An Uber will cost you about MX$150 and a taxi will run you about MX$250. There is also a shuttle that will drop you off in the Glorieta Minerva for about MX$60. Once you are in Guadalajara Uber is the best way to get around the city. Public transportation is uncomfortable and the metro doesn’t run anywhere near the tourist destinations until they finish the third line.
Tequila Trail by Bus
There are three bus terminals located at the western, southern and eastern entrances to the city. To go to Tequila and Amatitan you will leave from the Central Camionera Poniente at the western entrance to the city or the Central Vieja in Downtown Guadalajara. Buses leave for Tequila every half hour and take about an hour to get there with no traffic.
To head to the Highlands (Los Altos de Jalisco) you will be leaving from the Nueva Central Camionera on the border of Tlaquepaque and Tonalá. This is the big bus station with at least 20 different companies traveling all over the country. Check out Primera Plus and ETN bus lines. They are first-class and really comfortable.
Tour buses to Tequila
On Saturdays there is a Tequila Express tour bus that will take you to Tequila and back. Buses leave Guadalajara around 10am and return by 6pm. Make sure to make reservations in advance. The itineraries change from time to time but they are currently touring the Sauza property.
Train to Amatitan and Tequila
Both José Cuervo and Herradura offer train rides through the agave fields to their respective distilleries. The antique trains have been restored beautifully in a retro-modern fashion. Both trains operate on Saturdays only. José Cuervo Express leaves the Estación Ferromex around 9am and Herradura Express leaves the same station at 11am.
The Jose Cuervo tour is a combination of train and bus ride. You can choose to take the train to Tequila and the bus back, or take the bus there and the train back. The bus ride section stops at the Jose Cuervo agave fields for a harvesting demonstration.
Each train has a number of different cabin cars with different pricing. The pricing depends on the selection of tequila offered in each car. The selection of premium tequilas obviously costing more than the basic tequilas.
Thanks for reading. I hope that you have found something interesting or just enjoyed the pictures. I really love this part of Mexico and think that you will too. As I mentioned earlier, when you visit you should see a couple of the smaller pueblos. I like to see a big distillery and a small distillery to see the differences. Again, thanks for reading. See you next time.