travelog 122

Riding the Herradura Tequila Express Train

Enigma: Where do we find ourselves in the company of bawling Tequila fans from Colima, two exhausted girls sleeping on a bench, Mariachi music with a chic coiffed singer, a joke cracking animator, two overworked guys serving drinks, and blue agave fields passing by before the window?

Solution: On Herradura's Tequila Express train.

Actually we're not really huge fans of such tourist attractions but when Dieter Gruber, a cactus friend from Basle, Switzerland, announced a short visit to Guadalajara to fulfill one of his "teen dreams", we grasped the opportunity with both hands and bought tickets for the abovementioned Tequila Express too. Over the years Dieter has blossomed into a serious Tequila connoisseur, became a member of Club Mundo Cuervo (his absolute favorite is "Reserva de la Familia"), had already visited the Siete Leguas Tequila factory in Atotonilco a few years ago with us, and of course he also knew the UNESCO world heritage site, the blue tequila agave fields in Jalisco. In Switzerland he had already located a store selling Tequila Siete Leguas and other prestige labels and at home he's cultivating two Agave tequilana in pots. Now he wanted to check the Tequila Express off his "Bucket List". Of course our friends from Guadalajara, Jean-Marc Chalet and Lupita, are also in on it.

You can buy tickets on the internet and even choose in which wagon you would like to ride, although we want to point out that there are two Tequila Express trains. One is better priced, the other done up to look exclusive. The better priced train belongs to Herradura and only runs to Amatitan (and not all the way to Tequila!). The more expensive one is the Jose Cuervo Expresss which started operating in 2012, but since Dieter already knows the Cuervo factory in the town of Tequila (and us too), we decide for Herradura. With $1370 Pesos the price is pretty princely and even the two "old farts" Jean-Marc and Martin don't get much of a discount with their Mexican senior citizen ID. However, for the Jose Cuervo Express we would have paid between $1450 Pesos for the "cheap seats" and up to $1800 Pesos for "Premium Plus".

By 8:50AM at the latest we need to be at the Guadalajara train station. Trying to get into the parking lot we are told that this place is reserved for employees only but that they have a valet parking system for an additional $120 Pesos. So, therefore leave the car and pay. At the ticket counter we need to get in the line that corresponds with our wagon. And wait. Lupita sees a coffee maker but coffee will not be served until she can show her ticket. Colorful baseball caps with the Tequila Express logo are on display but of course you have to pay extra too to get one. Finally we're assigned our seats and receive a card to hang around our necks that identifies us for the rest of the day as Tequila Express tourists. At long last Lupita can get her free coffee and we sit down on a bench in the waiting hall. And wait some more. Beautiful Mexican ceramic pots with cafe de olla are put up at the other end of the hall and sweet pieces of bread are temptingly arranged in woven baskets. Quickly we find out that this corner is reserved for the better paying customers, for the Jose Cuervo tourists to be exact. To shorten the time until departure of the train a Mariachi band serenades the waiting people and the Mariachi and Charrerķa embassador can be photographed in her full Adelita costume. Finally it is announced over loudspeakers that our adventure will soon begin and that we should fall into a line at the entrance to pass security and board the wagons in an orderly fashion.

The Tequila Express was brought to life in 1997 by the Jalisco Chamber of Commerce to preserve at least a small piece of the Mexican passenger railway system and particularly to preserve three important aspects of Mexican culture: Charrerķa, Mariachi, and Tequila. Since then the train rides every weekend from Guadalajara to Amatitan (and Tequila). The general public seems to be interested in the train. We see young couples, families with kids and grandparents, groups of Tequila aficionados, a group of friends celebrating a bachelorette day with the bride, and of course fair-skinned tourists like us. After a conductor turns Jean-Marc and Lupita's bench around so that we can chat easily, the train rolls out of the station. For just about 45 kms (28 miles) our train needs 1 1/2 hours, would you believe it, but to make up for the incredibly slow ride we can admire the blue agave fields passing by our windows.

The Tequila Express consists of five wagons plus the engine. The wagons look like somewhere else they would have been made to scrap long ago. Boarding the train a photographer takes our first picture which she tries to sell us on the ride back. At the end of the wagon is the bar manned with two young guys. Then there's Antonio, our animator, who is responsible to keep us in extremely good spirits. To strengthen our group identity he explains that there's a competition between the wagons and that the winning wagon will get a surprise gift at the end of the trip. After that everybody is cheering loudly and clapping hands whenever it is required because the volume is decisive in winning the price. Antonio first tells us about the history of the Tequila Express train and then goes over to more serious things, the rules of the game to be exact. In short this means that they don't want drunken sailors on board and they also don't tolerate the use of four-letter words or worse, because the whole affair here needs to be suited for families. To the relief of the group from Colima the drinks are finally served. The selection consists of various "New Mix" drinks with a 5% alcohol content such as Paloma and Margarita by Herradura which are made with Tequila Jimador, but of course there's also Tequila Jimador and Tequila Herradura served straight. With that we all get a sandwich in a plastic box and a can of guava juice after the consumption of which you already have downed 46% of your daily sugar, so we rather stick to Tequila! The Mariachi band from the train station marches through the wagons and entertains the customers with a few songs although we're really not very impressed with the singer.

When the train finally reaches the small station at Amatitan, busses are already waiting. We are asked to deboard the train in groups and get into the busses well-ordered. The busses bump over cobblestone roads to the main entrance of Tequila Herradura. You have to give it to the event's organizers: there are an average of 60 people in every of the five wagons, all of whom are transferred without problems into the busses and are then passed through the premises in groups without ever really getting in each others way. A guide with megaphone is assigned to every group and his first question is "what's the best Tequila in the world?". He's come to the right people and we answer truthfully "Siete Leguas" and promptly raise a cheer from other group members and an embarrassed look from the guide. We pass a row of little colorful, old houses where some employees still live. Then we meet Felix, the jimador. He shows the group how the leaves are cut from the agave plant with the coa and how the hearts are then cut into pieces. Of course he wants some of us to try it and calls a couple from the first row. Suddenly the man kneels down and Felix explains via megaphone that this is a marriage proposal. Surprise, surprise! Stuff like that does not only happen on American TV but also in Mexico. The young man stutters in embarrassment, the young woman turns as red as a beet and exclaims "YEEEEEEEEES!!!!" to the relief of everybody else and we get on with the tour. Soon the group from Colima attracts attention, not only because they all wear the same self-designed t-shirts and most of them are obese, but mainly because they take selfies constantly and everywhere. A few women of the large group have small extendable poles where they tie their cell phone, they hold the pole far up into the air and then everybody puts a silly smile on their faces and grins dumbly into the camera. First it is amusing to watch them but soon the picture snapping becomes a little annoying and one can't help but wondering who in the world will want to admire all these pictures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other social media platform there is out there.

Every time the following group gets too close, the guide gets some kind of hand sign to quickly finish his sentence and move on to the next station. Our second stop is next to the ovens and the fermentation tanks. It is incredible how many ovens there are to cook the agave hearts. It is equally incredible how many fermentation tanks we see. And still the Herradura people want to make us believe that everything going on here is "all natural" and that only natural yeast is used to start the fermentation process. Yeast, to be exact, that is found in the air all around us. That's why we see so many fruit trees growing on the premises and that's why there is some kind of black cover on many of the old buildings, they tell us. To us this "all-natural-theory" sounds more like a great marketing strategy than reality, particularly considering the huge size of the factory and the quantities of Tequila produced daily. To anticipate one of our realizations from a Siete Leguas visit, we'd like to elaborate a little bit on the natural yeast. At Siete Leguas we asked precisely for the natural yeast and if it would work at all with the quantities of Tequila that are produced daily by Herradura. The black cover on buildings is forbidden by law because it could be harmful fungi, we are told. Asked about the yeast, the person responsible said that we were not the first to ask this exact same question. Owners of a Tequila factory in Arandas wanted to know more details from Herradura on a recent visit and their guide explained that at Herradura they start something like a mother yeast in a small tank, indeed a very natural process. This mother yeast is then added to the huge tanks, something that is strictly speaking already a manipulation. The fermentation in such huge tanks would take forever if you would leave it up to mother nature and in the case of Herradura or Cuervo would be an economic nonsense. After all the theory at the fermentation tanks, we then pass a small table where we are again invited to a degustation. Lupita tries one of the New Mix margaritas but it tastes extremely artificial. We stick to Tequila straight and a glass of water. The next attraction are donkey Cuco and his master Pedro with whom you can have your picture taken. Then we see the building where the destillation process takes place and where the fermented agave juice becomes Tequila. Next comes the original building which is really the most interesting part for us. You walk through musty smelling stone halls in semi-darkness. There are underground tanks and old pieces of machinery are exhibited. At the end we reach the cellar where the Tequila is stored and aged in barrels, or at least a small part of it. Many of the barrels are densely scribbled over with names and dates and some of our group immortalize themselves on one of the barrels too.

Now that we all know exactly how Tequila is produced and after hearing scores of times that Herradura is the very best Tequila in the world, we're finally getting to the leiserly part of the day. We're the second-last group to arrive at the buffet. Again, we have to say that the organisation is excellent. To file more than 300 people without problems past a buffet, one needs to have thought out a good strategy. It all works perfectly well and there's no waiting time at the buffet and the serving bowls are always filled with food. The second surprise is that the food at the buffet is really delicious! You can have your plate served with mole, fajitas, potatoes with chorizo and/or green chiles in sauce, or you can have all of this served in tacos. Then there's an astonishingly delicious pozole, a large salad bar, and of course many spicy salsas. We share a table with two other families right next to the stage. Dieter is thrilled about Jean-Marc's flair for organization, although it is pure luck that we're sitting here. In the background we soon hear ominous trumpet-like sounds coming from huge shells. Scantily clad, good-looking men and women perform a dance in honor of Mayahuel, the goddess of agave plants. Then the folcloric presentations continue with mariachi music and dances but unfortunately the music is turned up to full volume so that we soon leave for a walk around the building. First we stroll past the various souvenir stalls. Then we have a quick look at the improvised Herradura store where you can buy the very expensive Tequila they never let you taste, and finally we find a shady tree and have a nice siesta in the grass.

Soon the busses arrive to take us back to the train station in Amatitan. The Tequila aficionados from Colima, now well-fed and quite merry, get going and two women without a male companion try to have a go at the young mariachi players and words are used that our animator would not have liked at all! Back in the train we're glad that the Colima group sits at the other end of the wagon because by now the raucous bawling is pretty unbearable. On top of that we're getting another round of Tequila and mixed drinks which of course very few passengers can resist. After all we have all paid a steep price and want to get everything we can. At the train station in Guadalajara we are all witnesses to one of those scenes that everybody dreads. An older lady with way too many kilos on her hips has obviously had one too many and is completely drunk. Now the men from the Colima group have a go at her and challenge her to shake her hips and do some twerking. It is pretty embarrassing but the poor woman doesn't even realize it.

After getting our car back we all drive back to Jean-Marc's place and have a glass of the best Tequila in the world: Siete Leguas. Two days later Dieter comes to visit with Jean-Marc and Lupita to tour the factory of Siete Leguas again, but this story has to wait for another travelog.

January 2015

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen