We continued climbing along the same highway, towards Etztitlán. We stopped to let the engine cool down in a pueblo called “Ranchito”, and I sat down with a woman and two men, all sitting by the side of the road under a straw umbrella.
They bragged about the cool westher in their village. Then they said that around the corner was a small “volcano” (signposted on the road as volcancito). Really it is a steam vent (fumerole) which makes the soil around it hot enough to cook corn. They put cobs in either a plastic bags or a pot, dig a hole and bury the corn in it. In an hour or two, it’s ready to eat. “It saves on firewood,” said one of the men. It turns out that the volcanic landscape is not only gorgeous; it’s generous.
They were a really nice bunch. The woman sold us a couple of sweet “tamales”, which were made of cornmeal mixed with milk, cinnamon and a little sugar. Edd and I had them in the van with coffee.
Driving north from Etztitlán to Magdalena, the land began to reveal dusky grey-blue patches—the fields of blue agave plants, the ones used to make tequila! Finally we went east, the road became narrower and we were squeezing our way through Tequila, the town.
Designated as a “Pueblo Mágico”, Tequila has had a little revamping with the financial help from the government, which informational signs around town don’t let you forget. The money probably did make a difference: The sidewalks are wide, the streets cobbled and cleaned, the storefronts polished and packed with customers, mostly Mexicans. It was a pretty happy, indeed magical, place.
We paid to stay in a hotel parking lot for two nights, right in the middle of town, in the middle of the pink clouds of sweet-smelling steam, released from factories like José Cuervo.
We went on a tour of the Sauza factory the next day! It offered some of the cheapest ones. We were the only ones who showed up, so it ended up being a private tour! Our tour guide Rene was very nice and spoke great English.
We were driven to a demonstration garden. The driver, Jaime, demonstrated how to use the jima, a sort of sharpened spade, to chop off all the leaves, whittling the plant down to its sugary heart, called a piña.
Then we practiced planting our own agave shoot, or hijuelo. I was a little disappointed to find out that they just dig them up again for the next tour group! These guys don’t see free labor when it hits them in the face! Sad little saplings.
Then we went to the cooking and distilling buildings. Rene gave us a couple of lovely shots… err, samples, along the way. We ended up in the gardens of Casa Sauza for a slushy margarita.
We had to take a nap afterward.
Both nights in tequila, we walked from one culinary delight to another. We had cantaritas, a famous drink from the state of Jalisco. It’s tequila mixed with grapefruit, orange and lime juices and grapefruit soda (like Squirt) and it’s served in a clay jar then topped with plenty of Tajín chili powder. It was completely acceptable to walk around town with one in hand.
We also had a cup of sweet tequila ice cream at Nevería San Antonio. It tasted just like tequila. And it was non-pretentious at 15 pesos a scoop. I love this country.
When we wanted to eat non-tequila flavors, we went to the food market Cleofas Mota, which had stalls serving homemade-style Mexican plates, like stews and soups. When the market closed, the alley beside it filled up with vendors grilling meat for skewers, tacos and hot dogs.
We finally began making the zag to our zig, and headed back to the coast again. Highway 200 to Puerto Vallarta had a surprise in store for us: a shrine! It has not been uncommon to see shrines at the first ascent of treacherous mountain roads. But this was an elaborate, multi-story shrine. And cast off to the side, in it’s own little rebellious cell, was Santa Muerte.
Talk about spooky! We did a little reading up on the “White Lady”. She’s a patron saint of a little bit of everything! We knew that the narcos prayed to her, but it seems that those who feel marginalized by the Catholic church have also turned to her for hope, making altars in their homes and giving her offerings like the ones in the picture.
We didn’t make any offerings to any saints, we just focused on the road and finally made it to the beach town of Rincón de Guayabitos, where there were plenty of cheap campgrounds.
The water was calm and beautiful, so it was a good place for kids. The thing is that the beach had the atmosphere of a carnival. Tons of families, noise, music, everywhere. And it wasn’t even the weekend. Vendors sweated their asses off, pushing carts or carrying on their backs more types of merchandise than you can imagine: fish on skewers, rubber floats, silver jewelry, cakes, coconuts, candy, hammocks, oysters, sculptures of motorcycles, peanuts, flan, bracelets, three-foot tall wooden crucifixes, ice cream, fake tattoos, hats, buckets and pails, beads, white linen shirts. Musicians strolled up and down the sand. It was unbelievable. When people went back to their hotels, plastic bottles, styrofoam cups and cigarette butts were left in their place.
We got hungry. We walked the beach to La Pineda restaurant, built under a thatch-roofed palapa, perched on the rock overlooking the boats. Little lights hung in straw lampshades from the ceiling. Next to a large grill was a huge pile of sticks and logs which one of the cooks was using to fuel the fire.
Our waiter was really friendly and brought us free appetizers: crispy rolled taquitos with shredded beef. The mains were wonderful. My shrimp were huge, stuffed with cream cheese, rolled in sweetened coconut and served with pineapple mango chutney. Edd had a huge grilled fish lightly brushed with a tangy tamarind sauce (healthy bugger). Our food came out literally fresh and hot off the grill. The French fries were seasoned, the salad had a vingarette, the rice was flavorful. Our three 750ml micheladas, served in huge margarita glasses, were full of ice and lots of spice. A full-sized banda (complete with tuba, tumpets, clarinet, and drummer) played and sang in harmony all through the dinner.
In the end, after a 20% tip, it put us back 25 dollars. More than we’d normally spend, but no place we’ve ever eaten at in Mexico can compare to this place.
Our dinner was so good, that our next one looked like a comedy of errors. We thought we’d try a sit-down place in town that said it specialized in seafood. The ambience was the sort of grungy place where you expect the food to turn out super delicious, authentic and cheap, and plus it seemed relatively busy. How quickly we realized we were in a parallel universe of the night before.
For starters, the micheladas were served in huge styrofoam cups. That was ok, maybe authentic. We both ordered shrimp. Then we watched as the diners who came after us got their food, ate it, and left. Table after table. Edd asked the waiter where our food was. The waiter said he’d check and then never came back. Meanwhile, enter a one-man band, with a guitar, harmonica and bass drum. He didn’t know how to play any of the aforementioned instruments, let alone all of them the same tine. They were all out of tune anyway. His voice cracked like he was just entering puberty and he beat the drum whenever he felt like it, the faster the better. Another waiter finally brought our food. The shrimp were nothing special, the french fries were limp and the lettuce was dressed in water. Trying to spice things up a bit, poor Edd bit into a pepper. His face turned red, his eyes teared up and he started hiccupping and couldn’t stop. Another waiter kept trying to take our plates away while we were still eating. The kick in the nuts was that they were just as expensive as the restaurant from the night before.
Anyway, we were just going to leave and laugh about it until we went to pay. There were signs all over saying they accepted credit cards. We didn’t have enough cash so Edd gave the cashier his card. She went ahead and charged us 3% extra to run it, without mentioning it to us. Then I let her have it: the service was horrible, the musician sounded like “a drowning snake” (I don’t know what that even means), the food was expensive, and on top of it all, you’re going to charge extra to take our card without even telling us? Dios.
Then I hoped that none of them prayed to old “Holy Death” to have her put a curse on me.
Fortunately, bad experiences like this are the exception. From the mountains, to the city to the sea, Mexico is spoiled for resources, and that means loads of lovely foods and drinks. Luckily we have brought our appetites!