I sat around an open fire that warmed the cool valley air around me. I could hear insects in the background singing along to the crackling of the burning wood. Across from me was a stranger. Each time he took a puff of his cigar I would be reminded of my own. My cigar laid limply in my right hand, as I was still in shock of where I was, but each time I saw him lift his, I would subconsciously start to lift my hand to my mouth to smoke. This pull would bring me back.
“Where are you from?” I asked. I couldn’t remember his name. I had met seventeen other people in the airport earlier that afternoon, and about ten more people since my arrival here at the Hacienda.
“Jacksonville, Florida. You?”
Before I could answer, the rest of our group came to join us around the fire. All strangers with no idea who we all were other than a shared itinerary for the next four days, yet somehow we all felt connected. We stayed up just about all night.
There’s a funny feeling about traveling that I love. Especially traveling with people you don’t actually know. Something forces you to be more honest, real, genuine, and sincere to yourself. There are no connections between you and your companions at this moment. So what you’re left with in reality is two options: 1. You can experience where you are near the company of others. or: 2. You can be influenced to experience a strange land with people who are seeing the same things you are for the first time.
The best thing about the latter — is that this forges a deeper connection.
Yo Quiero Cerveza
As I sat down in my assigned seat on the plane, I thought to myself, “I wonder what the first thing I’ll do in Mexico is.” Seated next to me was a gentleman from Florida. I overheard him speaking about tequila to the person seated across the aisle. Determined to share this trip with friends, rather than strangers, I decided to ask him if he were visiting Patron. He was not. He was on this plane with a few of his coworkers, all of whom were on a company trip to visit Don Julio, a brand they represented for the distribution company they all worked for.
Immediately after some quiet salutations and greetings, the woman in front of me asked if I was a bartender. I responded simply with the word, “Patron?” To which four more voices scattered through the plane said, “Patron?!” I’m a fairly simple man when it comes to the terms of courting friendships. To me, this was enough to call these five people friends. However, the plane ride was long — and I was tired, and so I shut my eyes.
We landed in Guadalajara and were required to rendezvous at the airport bar called Wings. Fortunately, I had recently been on a trip to Miami. My broken Spanish was welcomed by many of the Cuban nationalist and the positive responses I received from that trip was enough confidence for me to try to order a beer in Spanish from this lowly stereotypical airport bar.
“Hola, yo quiero cerveza por favor….. Aaaaaa…. Tecate?” I panicked. Of course I would accidentally order an overpriced airport beer I could buy at the bodega for $1.50 one block away from my apartment back home. I guess I got my answer to the wonderment I held on the plane.
Once the rest of our group arrived, we were ushered to a shuttle bus with Patron’s logo discreetly draped along the side. Despite my exhaustion of traveling all day, I was wide awake to find my face glued against the window of my seat — staring at a brand new landscape I’ve never had the pleasure to render before. Two hours atop of a rough narrow road driving in the valley of Jalisco we finally made it to Atotonilco el Alto, home of the Hacienda Patron. Cue the Jurassic Park theme song.
To a Memorable Trip and a Forgetful Night
The Hacienda was an oasis in an otherwise mountainous desert. Cultivated Blue Agave grew neatly arranged all over the grounds. Newly developed buildings mimicked classic Spanish Colonial mansions, but housed a state of the art distillery. And a luxury resort never to actually be rented by an individual person for the night, but rather voluntarily host esteemed guests welcomed by Patron. Somehow our group fell into that category.
I was too excited to rest during our break after check in and instead explored the grounds. Discovering pink peppercorn trees shadowing the newly planted citrus trees that riddled the compound. Finding rabbits and other critters roaming the garden beds. And realizing all too suddenly that this can’t be real.
We were all gathered into a conference room to talk tequila. After all, this is why we were all invited here. To learn and be educated by Patron about the culture, history, and science of their tequila. Five tequilas were laid out in front of us to try blindly side by side. There was no wrong answer, just genuine questions given by our host to respond to. “What flavors do you pick up on the most from the third tequila?” “Fourth?” “Fifth?” “What was your favorite out of the line up?”
It wasn’t until we all answered that the identities of the tequilas were given. I appreciated this. It felt that they actually cared for and respected our opinion. This tasting would set my perception of Patron for the rest of our trip.
Dinner was held in a glamorous dining hall. Traditional Mexican dishes with a contemporary flair were served coursed out until I physically could not take one more bite of food. However, the night was not finished. We moved into the bar where two extremely talented bartenders catered all that we needed with no charge. Pouring thousands of US dollars worth of their high end premium tequila. Roca. Piedra. Burdeos. All at our dispense. After countless cocktails, shots, and neat pours. That’s when I asked for a cigar, one last neat pour of Burdeos, and happily walked to the fire outside to finish my night.
I woke up very early in the morning before dawn to a storm rolling through the valley. The rain was heavy and the thunder was gentle. I got out of bed and looked outside. It felt peaceful to me, so I decided to open all the doors surrounding my bed. I crawled back under the covers, curled up, and comfortably fell back asleep.
I love when I wake peacefully before my alarm. Birds chirped in the trees outside my doors under the bright blue morning sky. The storm had passed and the air felt light as it carried that fresh smell only present after a rain. Miraculously I was not hungover. Something I couldn’t say for my fellow peers. One by one a person would walk into the dining hall for breakfast with different expressions of pain on his or her face. Those of us who felt fine would all silently look at each other with a sinister smirk and share in the pleasure of those in discomfort.
Today we will go to an agave field north of town to meet a Jimador who will demonstrate how to harvest a matured agave plant. We all were packed tightly into shuttle vans. The group of individuals I was with was an interesting bunch. We were all still strangers, but with memories already shared over the fire from last night. As we carried conversations in the van, a phrase was mentioned in passing; Allocated Alligators. This caused an eruption of laughter and quick wit amongst those inside. From here on out, this group that was so lucky to attend a trip like this, would be forever known as the Allocated Alligators.
Along route we stopped at a temple dedicated to honor San Cayetano. It was a small, yet beautiful temple that offered a panoramic view of the town below. It was here when I feel I truly saw how this town was. Looking over rooftops that were only a dozen feet below from the cliffside of this temple. Roofs that had holes in the ceiling, fixed with a tarp rigged over the top. I noticed felled walls and toppled chimneys stuck in disrepair that still functioned as homes for people. I noticed so many things that I take for granted back home in my HVAC life. But one thing I noticed overall, were the bright vivid colors of all these homes and buildings. There was so much pride here. So much gratitude, appreciation, and humbleness.
Tony el Jimador
The agave plant used for tequila production is native to specific regions within Mexico. This plant has many names, but is most commonly known as Agave Azul (Blue Agave). It can take years for this plant to fully mature before harvest, causing wild foraging to be difficult, and cultivation to be rather timely. We pulled into one of the many agave fields in this area. Each field is privately owned and ran by individual local farmers. Big and small mezcal producers rely on these farmers to harvest the agave they need for their own company’s production.
I stepped out of the van and onto a bright reddish-brown field with blue agave plants grown for miles. The contrast in colors aligned with the cumulus clouds framed in a deep oceanic blue — I couldn’t help but be once again taken aback by the beauty of this country. We sat under a tree as our guide, Mariana, spoke with us about the agave. Mariana was a beautiful young woman and small in stature. Beside her was a man three times her size with a coa in hand. I found humor in this contrast as well.
Before long we were on our way back to the distillery for an official guided tour of the process. We had the privilege to be offered a very exclusive tour of the facility. And were even welcomed directly by Francisco Alcrazaz, the master distiller for Patron, with whom we had lunch with to pick his brain with any questions we had.
Mariachi is Life
Dinner was served in a Citizen Kane esque style. A long single table to seat twenty plus people. We sat outside, as courses of extraordinary food and drinks were passed around. Those seated near me shared their personal stories of who they were and how they got here. I loved hearing these stories, especially in the setting I was in. Surrounded by gorgeous people. Delicious food. Breathtaking scenery. And amazing tequila.
As I looked longingly at the empty plate in front of me, wishing I could reset my stomach to experience dinner once more, I sipped on my tequila as if it were a digestif. Suddenly a mariachi band appeared from behind me. If I’m not mistaken, this would be the first time I experienced a true mariachi band in person. So much charisma, theatrics, and comedy. They would interact with us in attendance of their performance and invite us along to be apart. Even pulling me up to sing lead in a wonderfully terrible rendition of The Devil Went Down to Georgia. An item on my bucket list I didn’t even know I had.
Templo San Miguel Arcangel
Blissful rain filled in as white noise for the evening, so when I woke, the tequila had no effect and I felt more alive than the day before. Ron Cooper once wrote about the effects of mezcal on the system, “No one knows for sure how it cracks opens the mind or why it energizes rather than depresses, as other forms of alcohol do. There’s a reason it’s used in sacred rituals, as pulque once was. I don’t wish to perpetuate the myth that mezcal makes you trip. But I do believe that good, organic mezcal can help unlock certain mysteries that dwell within us.”
This day was very important to me. As part of a give back initiative hosted by Patron, we volunteered at a local food bank. We helped pack crates of food in town to give to those less fortunate. As we finished here, we went nearby to the satellite Patron distillery where we had tamales on the roof top. In the distance I saw an old church. I wanted to go there.
After our quick tour, we walked into the town square nested beneath that church whose steeple peaked high above the town. Walking through the town I saw the bright colors of the old homes and buildings. I saw people take pride by washing the outsides of their homes. I saw smiling faces as all us “gringos” walked by together in this town untouched by modern western civilization and tourism. Everything felt so beautifully authentic. I felt safe, welcomed, and at home here.
Two hours north of Altotonilco el Altos is a smaller town called San Francisco. Our destination was a small school. This part of the trip was easily the most humbling of the trip for me personally. We showed up to volunteer and hand food to residents of this town. Most everyone here were families with young children. They all sat patiently with us as we waited for the truck with the dry goods and produce to arrive.
Most of us in my group stood in circles as we talked to one another. Some of us helped set up the tables we would need to pass out the food. I fell between those two groups. The people helping set up didn’t need my hand. And I didn’t much feel like talking in this particular moment. What I wanted to do was engage with the people who were here. I looked around at all of their faces. A small handful of people were talking to one another. Kids sat quietly near their families being behaved. And I saw a group of kids playing on a swing set. I thought to myself, “I can’t speak Spanish, but I know how to have fun.” I walked over to the swing set and introduced myself. The kids all laughed at me. One girl got out of the swing and gestured me to sit there. Before I could even fathom to accept the offer, a smaller child struggled to climb onto the seat. I walked over, picked him up, and began to push him on the swing.
All the kids were laughing and smiling. I asked their names, and asked how old they all were, but they responded in fast paced long sentences. I realized my Spanish was that of a two year olds at that point, because I couldn’t understand anything they were saying to me. Still. What I did understand is that a kid is still a kid. Even with nothing or everything. Even with a language barrier between. The smiles and laughter and joyous energy from those kids was so much fun.
We wrapped up our charitable work and climbed back into the shuttle van covered in sweat and smiles. We were destined for our last night in Mexico. Our trip back to Guadalajara granted me the opportunity once more to gaze outside of the window and into the landscape. These long shuttle rides to different points within the highlands were some of my favorite moments. Food stands propped up in the middle of nowhere. Small little hamlets rested on these narrow roads. Farmland covering acres. Wild agave everywhere.
No rest. No time for it. Why would you even want to? We checked into our hotel. I took a quick enough shower and changed to the nines. I waited in the lobby bar drinking a local beer, as the rest of my friends came down one by one. Everyone dressed so nice and classy. We were ready to hit the town. No need to paint it. It was already so colorful.
Tlaquepaque is a shopping district that looks as if it would be apart of any major Hollywood production location scout’s short list. It was definitely touristy, but still had a very real historical sense of value. I walked around mostly by myself at this point. Going in and out of shops like I were Don Corleone. Smelling apples and oranges off of vendor carts/stands. Waving hello to people as if I knew them. Gentle head nods to any person who walked by me. Buying every refreshment with the few pesos I had in my pocket in perfect uneducated broken Spanish.
Naturally, one of our first stops was a liquor store. Mezcal lined the walls like an art gallery. Bottles and bottles of brands I’ve never heard of. I didn’t even know where to start. I was honestly overwhelmed. One bottle that heavily caught my eye was a bottle of Campari, oddly enough, as it was “dusty” bottle. Which means an older bottling/label. I ended up buying a couple mezcals, and called it a day.
Dinner was at a beautiful restaurant called Casa Luna. Open ceiling to allow the dusk sky over hang. Bottomless Patron for us to enjoy all night. More mariachi. All of these wonderful things. Shared with wonderful people. Times I won’t soon forget, despite all the time that will come in between.
There’s no way in hell I would end my last night in Guadalajara right after dinner. Just about all of us went to a private mezcal bar called 400 Conejos. This bar is tucked away in a neighborhood. There is no sign out front, and looks just like every other “little box” house on the road. The only difference is that this house has a red garage door. $25 entrance fee, but with unlimited .5oz samples of any product we wanted to try behind the bar. From obscure single village bacanoras to illicit mezcals that aren’t even registered with the CRT. I believe I had fourteen different pours of mezcal before Kevin, Tim, and I decided to leave and go find another bar.
Instead of hailing an Uber, we half drunkingly had the brilliant idea to walk until we just found a bar. Mind you, we were in a neighborhood. It took about 2 miles of walking around and asking two different homeless men directions. Thank god, Kevin spoke Spanish, otherwise Tim and I might still be lost.
I distinctly remember the moment we realized we were near a bar. Sober by this point, I heard music faintly playing in the distance. I stopped everyone with a sudden hush. Held my hand up, as if to symbol that I were going to lay my ear to the ground to listen for a train to come.
We turned a corner, and there it was. A brewery. We grabbed a seat at the bar, and each ordered a beer. Kevin, our Spanish speaking friend, told me earlier in the trip that he wanted to pretend like he didn’t speak Spanish. Not sure of his reasoning, but we rolled with it. So he “stumbled” through his words while trying to figure how we could get to the next bar.
“You’ll love it. Lots of travelers. Very fun. Good place to meet people.” Those were the words our bartender told us. I was up for anything, so we followed his directions to get there. Despite the fact that we all had smartphones, none of us could use them. At least, I didn’t want to… because I’m cheap. About a mile up the road, we finally were out of the neighborhood we’ve been long trapped inside of. And a flood of people stood outside of the bar we were destined for, Bar Americas, an underground electronic/house club.
We looked at each other in comical disbelief.
Fuck it. We were here. We’ve been walking all night. I’m not nearly as drunk as I would like to be. And I just saw a few gorgeous women walk into this club. We paid the cover, and down we went.
This is the point were I want to disclaim that I am not a club person. The few times I’ve been to clubs have been against my will, or if I was being paid. I’m also not the biggest house music fan. I like it the normal amount, but that’s it were it ends. And yes. If you know me. I do bartend for an underground pop-up rave once a month in my hometown, but I do it in support of bringing live music to this otherwise quiet southern city. With all that said, I had a great time.
I threw back a few beers with labels I didn’t recognize and couldn’t read. Danced with a few people. Got shoved a few times. Took some shots. Lost my friends. Struggled my way to speak to anyone. And met some really cool people. Before I know it, it’s four in the morning. My flight is in seven hours. I can’t hail an Uber. I don’t speak Spanish. And I’m a bit drunk. I climbed out of the club back to street level, and thank god Kevin and Tim are there trying to call me.
“There are two ways of seeing: with the body and with the soul. The body’s sight can sometimes forget, but the soul remembers forever.”
The first night of this trip I made a toast that still resonates with me now, “To a memorable trip, and forgetful night.” It was to symbolize all the shenanigans we would come into, but enjoy every bit of the experience shared together. At the time when I said it, I had no idea how true this would become for me.
While it’s been nearly seven months since I took this trip, I still look back remembering the feelings I had through the experiences I was apart of. The feeling of driving through rural roads outside of a major metropolitan. The feeling of sitting near an open flame surrounded by strangers. The feeling of shaking hands with the people who make Patron. The feeling of seeing fields of agave spearing out of the cold red ground. The feeling of being lost, but never feeling lost.
While my trip to Jalisco was all too short. I know my journey through Mexico has only begun.
Para todo mal, mezcal. Para todo bien, también.