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Walking to Tequila

Walking to Tequila

Tequila, Mexico

Tequila, Mexico

I never feel more alive than when I am on a walking adventure.  The trip is at least as important as the destination, and you really see the details when you are moving at three miles an hour.  You can’t cover as much ground, but what you do experience you feel at a depth that is astonishing.  Especially in Mexico, on the road to Tequila, where anything can happen and usually does.

September 20, 2007

I’ve always been a walker.  Seeing the world at 3 miles an hour is just the right speed for me.

As a kid I used to walk miles through the fields and forests of Upstate New York—always barefoot.  There was a dirt road—the Hacadam—about 4 miles to the east, and I used to like to walk there to wade through swamps and pick blueberries.  Hot tar, stones, and thistles never bothered me, but once I stepped on a broken bottle in the swamp and had to limp to a farmhouse with my foot sliced open and call Ma to drive me home.  In those days you didn’t have to worry about your kids being out alone in the forest all day.

About 15 years ago a little girl was kidnapped and killed on the Hacadam, and another bit of our innocence was lost.  It was the first time we locked the door.  We used to go camping and leave the door unlocked because we were going “just for the weekend.”

When I lived in Syracuse I walked the Erie Canal from Syracuse to Rome, camping out along the way.  What a sense of freedom, of seeing interesting places under my own power.  Plus it was good training for my Central America trip.

I hiked 1200 miles through Central America in 7 months, in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.

Once I settled in Guadalajara, I explored every square inch of town on foot.  It wasn’t long before I started looking for adventures farther afield.

Tequila is a beautiful little colonial town on the skirts of an extinct volcano, about 50 miles from Guadalajara.  It is surrounded on all sides by miles and miles of slate blue fields of agave, the robust, spiky plant from which the spirit is brewed.   There are Wild West looking mountains and deep canyons filled with mango trees and refreshing pools in which to swim. The town itself has an ancient church, a pretty square, several tequila distillery tours, and about 13,997 little stalls that give out free samples of the local drink. If you are still standing after the first three you are doing great.  The perfect place to walk.

It was Spring Break, I had two weeks off from classes and a friend crazy enough to walk fifty miles through rolling fields of sugarcane and mesquite grasslands to Tequila with me.  Antonio was about 30 (I doubt if he knew his exact age), very dark, and the sweetest man you could imagine.  His parents had kicked him out at eight, and he had grown up on the road, working where he could.  He seemed to live outside a money economy.  I don’t know how he got along, but he did—a real survivor with a wonderful sense of life and a real friend.  I do know he had been a guest of the state for some 36 months, several years back.

My apartment was kitty-corner from Teatro Degollado, in the geographical center of Guadalajara.  First thing in the morning Antonio and I stepped out the front gate and into the Plaza de los Fundadores—Founder’s Plaza.  I had started the tradition of touching the plaque commemorating the founding of Guadalajara in 1541 before heading out on an adventure, just for luck, and we left our fingerprints on the brass.

Guadalajara isn’t an early morning town like, say, Antigua Guatemala.  There are folks in the Antigua market at 6 in the morning.  In Guadalajara stores open between 9 and 10.

The town was just coming to life as we walked a couple of blocks south to Avenida Juarez.  We wouldn’t get lost on our hike—we would follow Juarez which, after a name change to Avenida Vallarta, rolls over the hills and cuts through Tequila on it’s way to the Pacific.

Guadalajara is a big town, and walking from city center to the western outskirts takes an hour and a half or so.  Suddenly I had to pee, always a problem in the suburbs where the McDonalds and the bushes are few and far between.  I ended up using the facilities in a fancy hotel.  I walked right in, looking serious and important, and was directed to a marble-clad men’s room.  I wound up some toilet paper and put the roll in my pocket for future use, and left with a wave of thanks to the clerk.

Antonio stayed outside the hotel.  As a white, blue-eyed foreigner I am usually welcome in a hotel or business without question–even in ratty jeans and a tee shirt.  Antonio looks like an obrero—a manual laborer—and is the color of coffee grounds.  He had traveled all over Mexico, had experiences and jobs many would only dream about, was courteous, kind and intelligent, and had one of the best life philosophies I have known.  Yet his indigenous looks and lack of money dictate that much of the world will always consider him subservient and third class.   Sad that we judge people on their physical appearance, but we all do.

We passed the Periferico—Guadalajara’s beltway–and boom, were in the Mexican countryside.  Just to the west of Guadalajara are ancient, extinct volcanoes like El Colli, and the geothermal Primavera Forest.  It is a gorgeous area, with views of distant blue mountains and mesquite-dotted grasslands.

We passed La Venta, where smoking shacks crowd shoulder-to-shoulder and tumble out into the street with their roast chicken, menudo, and birria (goat stew).  Next came La Primavera, the little village on the northern edge of the Primavera Forest, where one can soak in the many hot springs bubbling up from the hot rocks below.

Just beyond the Primavera the landscape opens up and the signs of civilization are fewer and farther between.  All of a sudden the hungries hit and we were ready for lunch.  Why hadn’t we bought one of those juicy roast chickens an hour ago in La Venta?  Now we were ravenous.  We trudged down the road, empty now where food stalls had crowded out the vista just a few miles back.

And then there appeared an Oxxo.

Now, an Oxxo is the Mexican version of 7-Eleven.  Not exactly a gastronomic haven, but at least we could get a plastic-wrapped bean burrito and bottled water, to hold us over.

Much to our surprise, this Oxxo sold sushi.  We are used to surrealism in Mexico, and don’t question it.  We bought a nice box of assorted sushi—complete with those wooden chopsticks you have to break apart to use—and spent a happy hour eating while hopping from tie to tie down the railroad tracks that parallel the road to Tequila.

Walking to Tequila, Part II

September 22, 2007

It was on the way to Arenal we found the boa constrictor, stretched out in the ditch.  He was about six feet long and rather dead, evidently having been run over by a car as he crossed the road.  I didn’t know we had boas nearby, but I later learned they are found from the coast all the way up into the Primavera.  Dead snakes smell real bad and this one was no exception, but we were sorry for the boa’s bad luck anyway.  We often kept to the ditches ourselves, to stay out of the way of the big trucks and tourist buses barreling down to the beach towns and back up to mile-high Guadalajara.  We didn’t want to end up flat as the boa.

Just outside of Arenal we found a roadside restaurant and practically fell through the door.  We had walked 30 miles, and my feet felt every one of them.  We were covered with sweat—April is a hot month in Jalisco, our state—and caked with road grime.

We were alone in the restaurant, and the motherly owner asked us where we were heading.  “But why don’t you just take the bus to Tequila?”  Exactly the same question my Mom would ask.   She shook her head, and started cooking upsome heavenly shrimp sautéed in butter and garlic.

The back of the restaurant opened onto a small yard filled with guayaba trees and chickens, and what was obviously the owner’s house.  I was grimy and sticky, with no hope for a shower in sight, and desperate.

As steam erupted from the fry pan, I popped the question.

“Do you have someplace we can wash up?”

“Right outside the door, on your left” she said, motioning toward the back.  “Clean up as much as you want.”

Just outside the door was a huge, open air shower.  Eureka.  Plumbing never looked so good.

A bougainvillea shielded the door enough so that we could strip down and scrub up, with the smell of our dinner wafting into the shower.  We carried our own towel to dry off with, and five minutes later were eating like two guys who had just walked in the sun for thirty miles.  Fantastic.

It’s always tough to get started again after a break—you lose your momentum and your muscles start to tighten up.  It was getting near nightfall, so we left Avenida Vallarta to explore the town of Arenal and find a place to pitch our tent for the night.

Asking around, everyone said we wouldn’t be bothered in the soccer field, as long as we broke camp before the kid’s wanted to play the next day.  We picked the smoothest spot, by one goal and at the far end of the field, and set up a tiny tent.  As much as we would have liked to walk around town, I was beat.  I don’t even know if we said goodnight before I was in another world.

It was a strange world, full of purple and green dancing lights.  Very insistent lights.  As a matter of fact, the lights were playing over our purple and green tent like little flashlights, which indeed they were.

“Police.  Open up!”

Ah.  The police.  I need to explain right here that in Mexico some police are very nice and friendly and helpful, some want you to pay them money for infractions real and/or imagined—like pitching a tent in a soccer field, for instance–and others want to make out and out trouble.  I looked at Antonio for inspiration.  I didn’t get it.

Antonio had had some rather intimate experience with the police in the past, and by the look on his face he wasn’t anxious to renew the relationship.  He went from coffee grounds to butterscotch to hint o’ beige, and then disappeared altogether under the covers.  I unzipped the door.

Four policefolk—three men and a woman all in full riot gear– had our tent surrounded.  They hunched in attack mode and shone their flashlights in my eyes.  I felt honored.  Either we were considered dangerous characters or it must have been a slow night in Arenal.

“Good evening I am walking from Guadalajara to Tequila and we asked several people and they said it would be alright to pitch our tent here in the football cancha and I will be going first thing in the morning and promise I will clean up the site and not leave any garbage and my visa is in order and if I had known you were coming I would have put some clothes on and…”

It was then I noticed the woman cop was choking back a laugh.  I was half wrapped in that damn pink flannel sheet I carried around for so many years.  My garbled, just-woke-up Spanish probably made about as much sense as something you would hear in the monkey cage at the zoo.  She turned around and wiped away the tears.

The guys smiled too, and said it was ok—they had just noticed something unusual and had decided to check.  “Don’t leave any garbage.”

I thanked them profusely for waking us up and scaring Antonio half to death, only I didn’t mention Antonio of course, and zipped the tent back closed.  I don’t remember anything else until well after dawn.  I’m a good sleeper.

Today would be a little easier.  After thirty miles of hiking my feet hurt, and I had some blisters.  Antonio never complained.  If he was ever hot or hungry or tired, he never showed it.  He loved being out on the road, having adventures, and wherever he ended up was home to him.

Walking to Tequila Part III

September 23, 2007

Westward from Arenal was the most open, beautiful country we had seen so far.  The Tequila Volcano soared in the distance, and as it grew larger all day we watched the road covered in tiny yellow butterflies and traded travel stories.  I never feel freer or more alive than when I’m walking.

We hiked 15 miles, enjoying the spectacular scenery and the sense of adventure.  Amatitán turned out to be a gorgeous little town, tucked in at the foot of a cerro and guarded by a cross at the top of the steep hill.  A trail led to the top, and it is said that an image of the Virgin Mary can be seen there in the rocks.

I was in no shape for mountain climbing.  The Virgin would understand.  My feet hurt.

We explored the plazas and cobblestone streets of town, and ate huge platters of Chinese food at a Spartan restaurant.  Stomachs full and content, I wondered if there was anything I could do for my feet.

“Antonio, how do you say ’Dr. Scholl’s’ in Spanish?”

“What—your feet hurt so much you need a doctor?”

“No, but I could use those pillow-cushion things you put in your shoes to make the going softer.  Do you think we can find them here?”

“Plantillas here?  In Amatitán?  Are you having a reaction to that funny powder they sprinkle in Chinese food?”

“I want to look.  Let’s find a pharmacy.  It’s monosodium glutamate.”

“Foot medicine?”

“No—the stuff they put in Chinese food.”

So off we limped—me, anyway, Antonio is made of steel—and hit the three little drugstores of Amatitán.  No one had plantillas, or foot pads.

The third drugstore was a little larger, and it was packed.  It seemed half the town was in line for Band-Aids or electrolytes or Vicks VapoRub.  But the woman at the counter was very patient and helpful.

“No—no tenemos plantillas.  Why don’t you use towels?”

“Well—I hadn’t thought of that.  I guess I could cut up my towel and…”

“No señor!” she said, laughing.  “Feminine towels!”

Before I could react to this new idea she turned her head and bellowed to the back of the store.  “Hey Mario!  This Gringo needs feminine towels!  Bring him some Always!”  And then glancing at me—“Make them ‘Maxis!’”

I was suddenly the most interesting person in the drugstore.  People stared at me and giggled amongst themselves, wondering just what kind of medical anomaly I suffered from that I needed Kotex.  Antonio was laughing the loudest.  I wanted to get some Ben Gay for his underwear.

“Here you are, señor—six feminine towels for you.”  Service with a smile.  My blisters pulsed, so I paid for them and threaded my way out to the street.

“You are getting a lot of sun, Daniel.  You are very red!”

Damn—I forgot that Ben Gay.

We hobbled down to a nearby plaza and sat on a bench.  I took my shoes off with a sigh and unpacked my Always from the bag, slipping one in each shoe.  I put the shoes back on and stood up.

“Ahhhhhhhhhh!  Oh—that’s WONDERFUL!”

Go ahead and laugh, but there is nothing nicer than walking with feminine napkins on your feet.  You have to change them pretty often because they flatten out, but they are incredibly comfortable.  Absorbent, too.  Since that time, whenever I’m going to take a long walk I buy Always.  The ones with the wings–they hug your feet nice.  I’ll do a commercial for the company, if they want.

We could have pushed on, but Amatitán was so attractive, we decided to stay the night.  There was even a motel.  I wanted a shower and a bed.

The motel was brand new, and the owner smiled at us eagerly as he let us in our room.

“Use it for as many hours as you want!” he said, leaving.

That’s funny, I thought.  I guess he means to say that there is no set checkout time in the morning.

Jovial Antonio was giggling again.  I looked around our room.

The place was pretty good size, with a king-size bed.  But the décor was way over the top.  Who wants red walls, and red velvet curtains, and gold cherubs everywhere?  And what on earth is that big mirror doing on the ceiling?

Antonio doubled over.  “This is a ‘por paso’ motel.  You rent it by the hour and bring your girlfriend here while your wife is cooking dinner and feeding the kids.”

Did we care?  Nope.  It was a nice place to spend the night.  When we left the next morning, the owner gave me a big wink.

The last leg of the trip was the 10 miles or so into Tequila.  We finally put the volcano behind us.  It is distinctive for the basaltic plug jutting from the summit, left when the softer shoulders of the volcano wore away.

At the entrance to Tequila is an attractive statue of a worker cutting the leaves off an agave “pineapple,” preparing it for baking and fermenting.  The leaves themselves, or penque, are often baked—you scrape them over your bottom teeth like an artichoke leaf to release the molasses-y sweet pulp—or roasted with pork.

I don’t remember how many varieties of Tequila are produced in town, but the number is impressive.   I believe it is around 400.  Many of them can only be bought in Tequila. Like Champagne, which must come from that region in France, tequila can only come from the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, or Michoacan.  The very similar mescal is from the state of Oaxaca.

There is never a worm in the bottle, but don’t be disappointed.  What everyone calls the worm is actually a moth larva, or caterpillar.  What does it taste like?  After a few shots of tequila, who knows?  Axe underarm deodorant ran an add a couple of years ago which showed several gorgeous women going into a feeding frenzy over a guy in a bar who gulps down the tequila worm like a man.  I have to admit, for some reason it was pretty hot.

We walked the main street, and sampled various kinds of tequila.  Some are young, others are aged, and some are flavored.  I’m especially fond of a thick, almond tequila, and one mixed with cajeta, or burnt goat’s milk caramel, is just out of this world.  As for straight tequila, I’ve tried lots of different brands, and the one that has stood out head and shoulders above the rest for my taste is El Tesoro de Don Felipe (Don Felipe’s Treasure).  It tastes of Tequila soil, which sounds off-putting but I can’t get enough of it.

Even if you don’t drink, the tequila bottles are worth seeing.  Shaped like penque, packaged in wood coffins, narrow bottles extremely tall, fat bottles with blown glass agaves inside, decorated with dancing devils—they are an art in themselves.

Once you’ve had your fill of liquor, try Tequila’s ice cream.  Made by hand in aluminum tubs that rotate in ice and salt, you can find rose petal, corn, parmesan cheese, and of course tequila ice cream, all of them memorable.

A few years back I looked into living in Tequila, for its quiet atmosphere and clean air, and found it very reasonable.  If you are looking for a small town within an hour’s drive (or three day’s walk) from a big city, it would be a good place to consider.  One downside—we haven’t found a very good restaurant in Tequila yet (although we haven’t tried all of the high-end ones) and there is no hotel there unless one has opened fairly recently.

So did Antonio and I walk back home?  Naw—we took the bus and were back in no time.  But I did come back a few weeks later and walked about 15 miles from Tequila to Magdalena.  The next town along the road to Vallarta, it is famous for the opals they extract from the mountain just to the north of town.  There are several shops there that sell opals and objects made of local obsidian in black, snowflake, green, and milk chocolate brown.

As I was checking into the very basic hotel in Magdalena, a man in a cowboy hat sitting on a bench in the entrance spoke up.  “It only took you three days to walk to Tequila, and then three weeks more to get to Magdalena.  I thought you’d never get here.”

It seems he drives between Guadalajara and Magdalena and back every day, and enjoyed clocking our progress along the Vallarta road on his way out in the morning and then back again in the evening.

That we would finally meet in a one cockroach hotel in an opal mining town is just one of those incredible coincidences you learn to accept without question when you are in Mexico.

Dan and Omar

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Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.