Not Just Shots: How to Spend 24 Hours in Tequila, Mexico

Tequila. For many it conjures up memories of college-era drinking and hellish hangovers.

But tequila is more than just a drink… and Santiago de Tequila, in Mexico’s state of Jalisco, about 37 miles from the city of Guadalajara, is more than just the birthplace of that drink.

One of Mexico’s famed pueblo magico towns, Santiago de Tequila was founded by Franciscan friars in 1530. It’s a lively little spot and like most colonial towns around Mexico, the church, or mission, is strategically placed at the center of town. In Tequila, that’s Plaza Principal, which is surrounded by buildings that house small restaurants and shops, food stalls, and of course plenty of bars.

The clean cobblestone streets around here are teeming with tour guides and bus loads of tourists as well as locals. Later in the day, this is also where you’ll see happy, tequila-fueled people dancing to live music and enjoying the square.

The first item on your exploration agenda in Tequila has to be a distillery tour.

The earliest version of the drink, known as pulque, was derived from the fermented sap of the agave plant as far back as 1,000 BC. When the Spanish invaded Mexico in the 1500s, they began distilling the agave to make a less-refined version of the tequila that we drink today.

To see the whole tequila-making process, take a tour that includes a visit to the agave fields (you’ll see fields of this blue plant on the outskirts of town). It’s worth the extra hour or more to see where this great spirit grows. There are plenty of tours to choose from, this region of Mexico has over 150 registered distilleries.

Jose Cuervo is the most famous tequila brand and you can take a one-hour guided tour of their La Rojeña Distillery (the oldest in the Americas at 250 years old). You’ll get to taste some samples in the catacombs of their distillery.

But my favorite for value is a small distillery called Destileria Don Kiko, about a 10-minute drive outside town. They have a wide range of tequilas, but my favorite was called Los Rieles that sells for about $22 a bottle. It is smooth and has hints of oak and vanilla.

After your distillery tour, you’ll need something to eat. Fonda y Galeria La Damajuana is a casual restaurant and art gallery, just down the street from Jose Cuervo, and serves simple but delicious food. Try the birria—a meat dish (here it was beef but can be goat or lamb) cooked for hours in a volcanic stone oven with spices and served in a Veracruz red sauce. The sauce has tomato, onion, garlic, green olives, and jalapeno peppers. For those that are spice averse, the pollo a la plancha (grilled chicken with mild seasoning) as well as cheese quesadillas are good options. All meals are reasonable at around $7 to $8.

The region has over 150 registered distilleries.

Next up, head to one of the many small bars that line the square and sample some of the town’s unique tequila drinks. Most of us are used to drinking tequila quickly… as a shot. But good tequila is meant to be savored, either neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail. A local favorite cocktail is the Cantarito—made with orange, lemon, and lime juices, grapefruit soda, and tequila. It’s served in a clay cup jarrito de barro) that keeps your drink cold.

As you’re sipping on your drinks, you’ll see what looks like a 100-foot-tall flag pole in the town square. This is where you can witness La Danza De Los Voladores, a dance that dates back thousands of years and symbolizes the indigenous Mexican people. Four men, the Voladores, are suspended by a rope tied around their waist, and a fifth, called the Caporal, stands on top of the pole on a tiny platform. The ropes unwind, and the four Voladores gain speed as they hang upside down and descend to the ground. All the while, the Caporal dances on the platform. The Voladores represent the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Watch it below:

Another popular feature worth checking out on the square is within the city hall building. Originally a jail, it was renovated in 2010 with the open courtyard serving as the location for a large mural called "The 7 virtues of Tequila" painted by Master Martin de la Torre Vega. This brilliantly colored painting features the many faces and different scenes of this unique town’s history.

For your last meal of the day, treat yourself at La Cueva de Don Cenobio at the Casa Sauza distillery. Eat in the 19th-century mansion’s impressive arched dining room or dine under the stars in the lush gardens. Chef Karla Castro serves exquisite Mexican food and will pair each course with a recommended tequila cocktail. We enjoyed octopus tacos and pozole, a traditional stew made with pork or chicken with chili peppers, onion, garlic, radishes, avocado, and salsa, topped with shredded cabbage.

For a nightcap before heading back to our Airbnb (we paid $100 for a two-bedroom apartment within walking distance of the main square), we tried the oldest bar in Tequila, La Capilla. Rated among the top 50 bars in the world by Drinks International Magazine, it’s home to the Batanga. Created by La Capilla’s owner Javier Delgado Corona in 1961, it’s a simple drink made from white tequila, lemon juice, and coke. It doesn’t sound like much, but after my second one, I had to admit, it was a fine drink.

If after all that tequila you need a pick-me-up the next morning, go to the corner of Jose Cuervo and Corona and order a pachecada from the cart by the municipal palace. It’s a drink made from tejuino (a fermented corn and unrefined cane sugar brew), dark beer, lime, and coarse salt. Once used in religious services, today it serves as a "medicinal" drink.

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