The Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila is an area that shows agave cultivation and represents the growth of tequila distillation since the 17th century.
Tequila is the liquor produced from the blue agave around the town of Tequila, western Mexico. Today, the agave culture is seen as part of Mexico's national identity and is known world wide.
The designated area encloses a living, working landscape of blue agave fields, with its distilleries, factories and haciendas. The towns of Tequila, El Arenal, and Amatitan are also included, plus Teuchitlan Archaeological sites from between 200 and 900 A.D.
Map of TequilaLoad map
I visited this WHS in January 2022 on two separate legs of my Mexico road, before and after visiting the Islas Marietas, marked by the loss of my camera due to technical failure and managing to find the exact same replacement online for half the price on my return to Tequila proper.
Due to this mishap, I allowed more time to explore the area and components of this WHS. First I focused on the agave landscape around El Arenal which is by far the most scenic and also the busiest, with several workers employed in the fields loading and unloading their trucks with the main raw material. Having a rental car or a bike helps to look out for the tiny roads with the most scenic spots for photography. The only drawback, a bit like in Burgundy, France, is the huge highway which passes right through the agave landscape. By far less disruptive are the railway tracks which are a great alternative if you want to visit the area in style with the expensive Jose Cuervo Express train+bus tour at sunrise or sunset departing from Tequila.
Be aware that most if not all attractions in Tequila and its surroundings are very touristy, for locals and foreigners alike, so early visits (in Mexico this is conveniently stretched to before 11am) will prove essential to beat the tour groups and the bulk of the tourist circus (especially in Tequila proper, with long vehicles in all shapes and forms (I've seen a red pepper vehicle, a tequila barrel vehicle, a tequila jarrito vehicle, an agave plate vehicle, etc.) roam the small streets till nighttime). If you're so inclined, you can also sleep in a tequila barrel-shaped room! The easiest way to explore the agave landscape around El Arenal is to park your vehicle at the famous Jarritos La Puerta de Agave (a busy place from noon to sunset but very quiet and ideal in the morning). Here there is a UNESCO tiled information board and map on this component which is situated just above the highway. Most tour companies also organise horse riding tours in this scenic area. Nearby I also really enjoyed a well-presented and more intimate tour at the Tres Mujeres distillery for a nominal fee of 50 Mexican pesos (just under EUR 2.50 with only 6 pax in total), which reminded me of the "Underground Cathedrals" of Nizza Monferrato for its LED-lit ambience. Quite a change from Fábrica La Rojeña, the oldest distillery in Tequila managed by the Jose Cuero monopoly (with tours ranging from around 300 to 450 pesos (around 14 to 20 EUR) per person which in my opinion did not give me much more than the smaller distillery tour to justify such a price difference. Moreover, at Tres Mujeres I tasted and really enjoyed the excellent Rompope liquor with macadamia nuts while listening to the piano notes coming from the chapel with tequila barrel seats. Something to keep in mind when driving around the El Arenal area is the weather. There were minor roads which involved literally crossing a small river or stream. I managed fine with my rented 2WD sedan in sunny weather, but I wouldn't have ventured so far in by car had I visited in a rainier season.
The other components of Amatitán and Tequila focus more on the historic and cultural aspects of the agave landscape than the natural landscape itself. In both central plazas, quite close to the letras, there is an UNESCO tiled information board and map focusing on each component, as well as an oval red UNESCO inscription plaque (both missing the shiny brass agave plant in the middle). In both towns there is a Ruta del Tequila trail to follow on foot with several information boards in Spanish and English as well as colourful graffiti and brass statues on the tequila industry. The main sites worth mentioning are the La Bola de Oro, the lively Parroquia Santiago Apostol square with voladores during the peak season, the Mural of the Mayahuel Goddess with a UNESCO symbol on the floor just in front of it, and of course the Jose Cuervo properties in Tequila.
Last but not least, I also made an extra effort to visit the pre-Columbian archaeological site of Guachimontones, awkwardly included in this WHS. It is known as the largest of the Teuchitlán Culture sites within the Tequila valleys. It consists of 10 circular mound-like structures, the biggest one being Circle 1, each encircled by other cerimonial mounds or buildings, and of course 2 ball courts. Due to heavy looting, but also due to the physical features of this archaeological site, there isn't much to see and I wouldn't classify it as worth the effort to get there. Nonetheless, if you're determined to visit, don't miss the panoramic view from high above the site by walking or driving uphill on the first cobble-stone street on the left just before arriving at the Guachimontones site, and then always keeping right till you get to a clearing where you can park your car. The views of the Guachimontones Circles from here are quite obstructed by the huge trees around them, but a short ramble/trail following the black rubble wall will lead you to an excellent viewpoint.
I enjoyed my visit in and around Tequila and after being lucky to find the exact some model of my bridge camera being sold online for half the price as an unwanted gift, I decided to celebrate and splurge it a bit to enjoy a short stay and swim at the luxury hotel Solar de las Ánimas, also owned by the Jose Cuervo monopoly.
In January 2022, I made my way to Tequila by public transport from Guadalajara. I found a bus company with the promising name of “Quick” at the old, dilapidated inner-city bus station that has frequent departures during the day. One way cost was 90 pesos (4 EUR). Unfortunately, the ride wasn’t all that quick – it took 2 hours. An hour is already spent on leaving the sprawling city of Guadalajara. On the way back I disembarked as early as possible, at Periferico Sur, where I caught the Tren Ligero (above ground subway) to the city center.
The landscape only gets interesting near the town of El Arenal, the first of the three included in the core zone. Here you’ll really start to notice the large agave fields. Their blueish colour makes them a fine sight I think.
I got off the bus at Tequila - a real tourist town, with a long main street (“the strip”) lined with souvenir shops that leads to the main square. I already got offered a tour to a tequila factory several times, but I first wanted to see what options there are. It appears that you can be driven around here in a tourist bus in the shape of red pepper or a wooden barrel. I opted for a more sober tour of a factory, that of Jose Cuervo on the main square. This is also a thriving business: there are tours throughout the day, and you can go for a standard tour or one where you can taste extra drinks.
My “classic” tour was in English and I participated together with 3 US Americans of Mexican descent. On the Spanish tour after us, there were about 20 people. This company (the global market leader) has been making tequila since 1795. The drink comes from the heart of the agave plant, which becomes visible after all the leaves are cut away. The core is then boiled and crushed to make juice, which is fermented and distilled into tequila. The drink can then be aged in oak barrels, giving it a golden hue. This post-processing, similar to other spirits, has only been common since the 1960s. In the end, we could of course also taste some. First was the “candy”, a piece of the crushed plant from which you can suck the juice. It tastes a bit like sugar cane. And then some sips of the tequila itself. We weren't pushed for shopping.
I wanted to see some more of the agave fields and take better pictures than those from the bus, so I hiked to what I hoped would be a viewing platform. There is one called “Campos de Agave” at Google Maps. But I ended up in a common neighborhood without the views.
Things that I had wanted to do but didn’t due to time and other constraints:
- Visiting the second location of this WHS, the pre-Columbian archeological site of Guachimontones. Unfortunately, it had closed on short notice for Covid reasons during my stay in the area. It would need a separate day trip from Guadalajara when travelling on public transport, as it lies on the other side of the volcano.
- Checking out the towns of El Arenal and Amatitan. In El Arenal, the church was remodelled by Luis Barragan in 1940 and he also partially remodelled the church in Amatitan. Also, these two smaller towns provide more easy opportunities to see the agave fields up and close.
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I used a different mean of transportation than Solivagant to visit Tequila, but my experience there was quite similar. As my interest in Tequila was rather weak and my time a little limited, I chose to visit on a half-day tour from Guadalajara. Many tour operators are based in Guadalajara centro and I thought it would allow viewing more of this vast landscape while being less time-consuming.
The tour I took included the visit of a distillery and then some free time in the town of Tequila. Like Solivagant, I think the history and the process of making Tequila is interesting, but I saw very few interesting stuff in the distillery. The visit was mostly aimed at learning how to taste the different kinds of Tequila. We then had way too much free time in the distillery to sample food at the restaurant and buy things. I used this time to walk around a bit and enjoy the agave landscape and the cellars where Tequila is aged. The agave landscape is the most impressive thing this site has to offer in my opinion. Wherever you look, fields are covered with this blue plant. The landscape with the volcano in the background is thus quite good-looking.
The town of Tequila itself is rather uninteresting. It looks like most Mexican towns with a nice zocalo and a church. I believe going more to the countryside might be more interesting for someone looking for a genuine Tequila experience. Tequila deserve to be a WHS for its unmistakable national (and probably international) significance, but the experience offered to visitors is rather poor. It's then probably better to visit on your own if you're motorized, but the tour operator excursion is still pleasant if you want to tick this site, learn a bit, taste Tequila and see the landscape without spending a lot of times waiting for buses between different point of interests of the landscape while seeing more than only the town of Tequila.
Perhaps we should state right from the beginning that we don’t drink Tequila! So I guess that the Agave Landscape was up against it from the start with us and we certainly didn’t find it a particularly satisfactory excursion. I tried to tell myself rationally that what I was seeing was the equivalent of St Emelion in France, or Tokajii in Hungary, or Lavaux or Alto Duro ….. (there do seem to be a rather excessive number of European wine-based “cultural landscapes” which have made it onto the UNESCO list, and there are more on the T List too)! If, as a drink, Tequila can have the quality and variety of a fine Cognac or good wine and has its history engraved deeply in the countryside and culture of Mexico – then why shouldn’t its main area of growth and manufacture be similarly inscribed? Well, I guess it should – but somehow the dusty fields of Blue Agave (photo 1) didn’t seem as attractive as a hill side of vineyards! And I am afraid that the towns of Arenal, Amatitlan and Tequila couldn’t match the beauty of a French village – though the latter has a pleasant enough square and side streets. The saving grace for the Tequila landscape was its distant volcanic horizon.
It WAS interesting to discover more about the history and manufacture of Tequila. One can appreciate the back-breaking hard work which goes into growing, harvesting and preparing this prickly unforgiving plant (It may look like a “Cactus” but apparently it is related to the Lily family!). The several commemorative statues depicting men (“Jimadores”) carrying the specialised shovel/knife (“coa de jima”) for cutting the leaves away from the bowl of the plant testified to the consciousness of the people in their history and the efforts of their forebears - it reminded me of the similar pride (and statues) in a UK mining village. Indeed we had hoped to somehow get closer to the “soul” of Mexico during our visit so “essential” is Tequila to Mexican culture and social activity – but it wasn’t to be.
We stopped off in Tequila – one great similarity with St Emelion was that the town was totally given over to providing “shopping opportunities”. The main producer in town is Cuervo and it runs a comprehensive tour, tasting and souvenir “experience”. I personally thought its tour charges, considering that they were all aimed at bringing people in to buy, were somewhat excessive. At the end there is a shop with a seemingly endless range of “Tequila-related” souvenirs – we marvelled at the ingenuity of marketing men in linking just about anything to an alcoholic drink. There is also a small “museum” in town which covers the history of “tequila-like” drinks back to pre-Hispanic times and the more modern growth of the industry and its “grand families”. But I switched off at the exhibition of differently shaped Tequila bottles!
We escaped to the countryside. However, nothing much was happening – the Agaves just “sat” there under the sun without even a “campesino” in the landscape! We did get to talk in our limited Spanish to a farmer who was selling the offshoots used to create the next generation of plants. Unlike wine, the process of producing Tequila requires the destruction of the plant whose surprisingly large “bowl” (photo 2) is baked/boiled and crushed to create the fermentable liquor. These “seedlings” are carefully selected and are of known provenance – just like vines. How much more might we have got from the visit if we had been able to get to a traditional “Hacienda” rather than to the town-based mega-industry we had seen!
I can understand Mexicans visiting the heartland of their national drink, and the UNESCO list is gradually building up a portfolio of “food/drink-related” (agri)cultural landscapes, so Agave deserves its place (indeed I still look forward to the day when Sao Tome’s cocoa plantations make it!). But, unless you have a particular interest in Tequila, or can get closer to the source than we did, don’t expect too much from a trip out to the eponymous town.
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