Real, Rugged Mexico

I’m heading out for a morning ride at Hacienda de Taos, a rustic ranch south of Chapala, Mexico. My horse, Zamora, is a spirited black mare that quivers with energy. Celina, the owner of the ranch, José, her partner, and Peter, my husband, are riding, too. It’s a beautiful blue-sky morning, sunny and clear. As we clip-clop up a hill, a cowboy shouts hello. He’s milking cows in an open-air pen at the top of the hill and invites us over for a treat.

A taste of creamy warm milk straight from the cow would be special enough, but this is Mexico, and there’s always a reason to celebrate—even at ten in the morning. The cowboy invites us to enjoy el pajarete with him, a traditional Mexican morning drink. First he sprinkles instant coffee and sugar in our mugs and then adds a healthy portion of tequila. We grab our mugs and walk over to the cow and—squirt—fill them up with fresh-from-the-cow milk. Mmm. What a way to start the day!

It’s the beginning of our second week in Mexico, and the more Peter and I see, the more we love about Mexico’s heartland. The Mexican people are so hospitable and friendly. Everyone greets each other with Buenos Dias, Buenas Tardes, or Buenas Noches, depending on the time of day. Always a warm smile follows.

Sometimes I think Americans have lost touch with the basic good manners of life. We’re so busy we forget to connect with one another—a simple smile, a greeting, or a handshake. In Mexico the pace of life is slower, and whenever Peter and I visit, we slow down, too, and remember what it feels like to be present in the moment.

I swallow the last of my el pajarete and thank the cowboy for sharing this special morning ritual with us. We climb back into our saddles and head down the trail.

I’m so glad I found Hacienda de Taos—thank you, Google. When planning the trip, I simply typed in horseback riding and Chapala, and there it was. Celina, it turns out, is from Taos, New Mexico, and came here a few years ago to start a new life. Hacienda de Taos opened for its first guests in 2011.

Starting the ranch from scratch hasn’t been easy. Much of the land was cleared by hand, and she and José built the two-story ranch house themselves with local materials. “We even made the bricks,” Celina says. Besides accommodations in the ranch house, guest lodgings include two wooden cabins. Peter and I stay in the larger one, which has a loft, and love the western-style décor and the porch out front, where we sit with our coffee in the morning. 

I tell Celina I want to improve my cantering, so one day we head out—just the two of us—to a wide-open area, where shrubs dot the desert landscape. I’m on Pecos now, a stallion who’s actually a descendant of Secretariat—who knew? Celina says, “I’m going to leave you here to canter on Pecos. I’m not even going to watch. Just practice.” And she disappears.

“O.K. I can do this,” I tell myself. I touch my calves to Pecos’ flanks, and suddenly we’re flying across the pasture. Yee-ha, I’m cantering! We circle some shrubs, and I’m finally learning to feel the horse’s rhythm. Celina knew I needed to build up my confidence, and she let me have time to work on cantering without feeling like I was being judged. Soon she reappears, and we canter off together. At one point she says, “Try this!” and lets go of her reins and holds her arms out in a T. I do it for a few seconds—whee!—and I’m amazed at how effortless it is to ride in rhythm with the horse.

One evening Celina, José, and José’s father bring dinner over to our cabin—a Spanish-style tortilla and cole slaw, and we sit outside around a campfire, eating and talking, as night falls around us. In the inky sky more stars than I’ve ever seen before pop out, little sparkles that seem to multiply the longer I stare at them. In the distance a coyote calls, “Yip, yip, yip,” but it’s not a scary sound. It’s just nature, and there’s plenty of that to be found at Hacienda de Taos.

Another night we drive to a nearby town called Mazatmila to visit Celina’s friends, Louis, who’s from Belgium, and his wife, Linda. They own Gigi’s, a restaurant that adjoins their home in a picturesque glade filled with fruit trees and gardens. We’re only 50 kilometers from Hacienda de Taos, but the landscape is completely different: mountains, forests, and cooler temperatures.

Louis loves meeting Peter since they can converse in Dutch, and before long we feel like old friends. A wonderful singer, Louis shares a few cabaret-style songs for us. We dine on Linda’s fabulous cooking, meet their kids, and when it’s time to leave, we promise to return one day.

We say the same thing to Celina and José the next morning after breakfast when it’s time to head to Guadalajara. During our short stay we’ve bonded with our new friends and the beautiful ranch they call home. As we drive toward Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, Peter and I already start making plans to return to Hacienda de Taos.

Our first stop in Guadalajara is the Sunday Rodeo sponsored by Charros de Jalisco. After finding our seats in the arena, we discover we’re the only tourists here. Everyone else is a local. Soon beautiful Mexican women in frilly, colorful dresses ride into the ring. The men who follow are decked out, too, in wide-brimmed hats and neckties.

Rodeos are an important part of the culture of Jalisco, the state in which Guadalajara is located. It’s our first Mexican rodeo, and we watch multiple events—everything from riding bareback to lassoing steer. Some of the events seem a little cruel—like galloping after a frightened steer, grabbing it by the tail, and making it fall. Back in the day, it was a technique cowboys used to capture a steer that escaped from the herd, but here in an arena it just seems cruel. Likewise, when the cowboy lassoes a horse and it falls to the ground, all I can think of is how much it must hurt.

Hot and dusty, we check in to the Presidente Intercontinental, one of Guadalajara’s finest hotels. Our corner suite on the 12th floor features modern décor, a spacious living area, comfy king bed, and sweeping views of the city through floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. It’s gorgeous, and after roughing it on the ranch, we are ready for a little luxury. Every morning we feast at the hotel’s buffet breakfast: fresh baked breads, cheese, smoked salmon, omelettes made to order, and hearty Mexican dishes.

No matter where we find ourselves in Mexico the food is fabulous. One night Peter and I walk a couple blocks up the street from our hotel and find Hacienda Canelo’s, a popular restaurant packed with diners. We order a delicious lamb dish served with corn tortillas, beans, and guacamole and can hardly finish it. As we dine, mariachi singers serenade the crowd.

Another day we decide to visit one of Guadalajara’s parks for a hike. Beforehand we stop at a nearby store and buy made-to-order sandwiches: thick slices of mild white cheese, tomatoes, and onions on crusty baguettes—the perfect lunch especially when washed down with a surreptitious beer.

One afternoon we stumble upon a neighborhood taco stand called Puerco Espada, full of young people. “Must be good,” Peter says. The tables are full, but a nice fellow says he’s getting ready to leave and gives us his table. We ask him what to try, and he says definitely the ceviche. A large glass arrives soon after filled to the brim with seafood, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and cilantro in a lime marinade—cool, refreshing, and simply phenomenal.

To learn more about the city, we book an outing with GDL Bike Tour. Our guide, Anne, is in training, so her boss and the owner of the business comes along to help. Riding in any city can be hectic, but part of the route has bike lanes and, when possible, Anne takes us on quieter roads as we explore the city. She points out historic buildings, monuments, shopping streets, and provides historical commentary at various stops along the way.

One of our favorite attractions is Cabañas Cultural Institute, a beautiful building completed in 1810, which operated as an orphanage until it was restored and converted to a museum in 1980. It’s now a World Heritage site, due partly to the integrity of it elegant architecture and also to the murals on its interior walls painted by José Clemente Orozco, one of Mexico’s best-known political muralists. Inside the chapel dome, for example, Orozco’s riveting mural called “The Man of Fire” dares you to look up. It depicts a naked man engulfed in flames who seems to be spiraling upward, an ironic work that suggests both idealism and pessimism at the same time.

We leave the busy city behind for an easy hour’s drive to the peaceful town of Tequila west of Guadalajara. It’s our second time here, but the first time we visit the distillery which makes Casa Sauza, a brand known for its quality and character. Our tour begins with a movie about the company, which has been crafting tequila for 139 years.

One element that makes Casa Sauza tequila different, we learn, is the gentle extraction technique they use. Instead of cooking the agave and extracting its juice, Casa Sauza does it the other way around: extracting the agave juice first through steam distillation and then proceeding with cooking, fermenting, and further distillation. Their brand Tres Generaciones, for example, undergoes three distillations, producing a smooth, well-balanced tequila.

Our tour guide takes us to the botanical garden, and we learn about agave plants. All of the planting and harvesting is done by hand, the guide tells us. She gives Peter and me a chance to plant a little agave plant in the dry, crumbly dirt. Next we watch a demonstration of harvesting a mature agave heart. In a matter of minutes, the worker skillfully extracts the heart from the plant, and with a sharp tool removes the leaves, leaving the piña (or heart) ready for processing.

We visit the barrel room next and enjoy a tasting of extra añejo (aged) tequila from the barrel and then don hard hats and safety vests before heading to the factory. Our first stop is a beautiful mural that shows imbibers in the five stages of tequila consumption: joy, euphoria, sadness, loss of inhibitions, and loss of consciousness, a graphic reminder of what can happen if you drink more than you should. As we tour the factory and learn about the manufacturing process, I inhale deeply the delicious smells that permeate the air.

Soon we meet Rafael and learn more about the importance of aromas during a tequila tasting. Who knew that tequila has so many different aromas depending on where you place your nose in the glass? For example, Rafael pours Hornitos Reposado for us, an aged tequila with a lovely pale yellow color. When we place our nose at the top of the glass, we detect citrus notes. In the middle, the scents are pineapple and green apple. At the bottom, we smell caramel and pear. I’m astonished at the wonderful aromas!

Of course, tasting the tequila is an even richer sensory experience. I love how Rafael instructs us to “meet” the tequila by touching it to our tongue. “It prepares your mouth for the tequila,” he says. Next we take a tiny taste and swirl the tequila through our mouths. Then for the final taste, pull in a little air and keep the tequila in the front of your tongue before swallowing, he says. When you drink tequila any other way, Rafael says, “You’re not respecting the tequila.”

After the tasting, Peter and I sit at a table in a lush, green garden, where we enjoy an extraordinary meal paired with tequilas. First, our server brings Mango Margaritas rimmed with Mexico’s classic chile and lime salt. Next he prepares a perfectly wonderful salsa tableside using colorful, fresh ingredients, which we enjoy with crunchy tortilla chips. Our first course is a creamy hacienda soup of corn, chile, and squash flower served with silver Tres Generaciones. Next a lovely steak arrives accompanied by a Portobello mushroom sauce and goat cheese mashed potatoes—served with Tres Generaciones Reposado. Then for dessert a tantalizing tray of sweets—and yes, more tequila: Tres Generaciones Anejo.

A mariachi band comes along, and we buy a song, “Guadalajara.” The five gentlemen surround our table and, with great enthusiasm, they sing and play for us. Peter and I look at each other and, without saying a word, we know that we will always come back to Mexico. From horseback riding in the rugged Mexican landscape to exploring the history and culture of Mexico’s second largest city to discovering tequila traditions, we love this country’s authentic culture, friendly people, and delicious flavors. Viva Mexico!

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Peggy Sijswerda

Tidewater Women Magazine, Editor & Co-Publisher.

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