Ten years ago I lived in an apartment building in downtown Mexico City. One afternoon a friend strolled over from his flat across the hall and asked me if I wanted to go out and try some pulque. Pulque, he explained, is a pre-Hispanic alcoholic drink still made today. Artisan farmers called tlachiqueros draw a watery sap from the center of the maguey plant, allow it to ferment, and pulque is made. It was late afternoon and the city felt frenzied just outside our windows. Pulque, whatever it was, sounded like a great idea to me.
Once outside we turned just two corners to an alley style street full of open-air, wholesale chicken vendors. We walked past a pair of double-swinging saloon doors and into a space that instantly captured my senses. Every available wall and ceiling surface was adorned in strongly detailed, red-and-purple murals, depicting all the major Aztec gods. It looked like the whole damn pantheon, done by someone I’d later learn was a naturally talented punk squatter artist with zero interest in the standard trappings of credit. To my amazement, he had painted Huitzilopochtli, god of war; Huehueteotl, old man wisdom; Xochipilli, lord of dance and flowers—all deities that had in recent times taken more and more space among my secret intellectual obsessions. The bar was called Las Duelistas, or The Dueling Women, a name so specific and strange that its origin in legend had long ago been lost to time. Las Duelistas, when I first walked in, had been there off-and-on for a cool 100 years.
The maguey savia, or sap, is drawn from the core, or “heart,” of certain wide-based agaves that grow wild in Mexico’s central altiplano. This base liquid is called aguamiel, and it looks similar to the liquid found inside a coconut. The aguamiel is traditionally left out in massive open barrels, where it ferments until it becomes sour and frothy. Pulque, the resulting libation, is made. When it peaks and is ready to start drinking, pulque can range from about five-to-eight percent alcohol content, creating a buzz like a tough pilsner or ale—but, as its adherents will always tell you—“it’s a different kind of buzz.”
This was my first visit to a pulquería, a bar that only sells pulque. The place was crawling with the coolest sort of college kids, in natted locks and tattoos, carrying an acutely indigenous yet academic sense of self. Old men and ladies slouched or danced among them. The jukebox was on as loud as it could go. In my quick scan, it seemed that everyone was glowing with sweat and happiness. There was nowhere to sit and hardly anywhere to stand.
Since the idea was to get me drunk on pulque for the first time, the advice and warnings began rolling in. Some people get sick immediately. Some people hate it. Every first timer gets the runs, my new friends said cheerily. The reason was something about the nature of the drink’s continuous fermentation and the sap’s cultures, but at this point it didn’t matter.
I’ll try anything once … or twice. So I asked for a glass of the avena, an oatmeal-flavored pulque, at 15 pesos, and smelled the top. Funky, but not overpowering; definitely overloaded with powdered cinnamon, which was added on just before serving. Overall it was a nonthreatening offering. I took a sip. It was thick and slightly fizzy in my mouth. A few people leaned in to watch. A silent yeasty bite of a flavor struggled to push through the added oatmeal and sugars, but it was there. It was … good.
I finished my glass and asked for another.
I did get the runs that first time, yes. It is a common side effect for pulque virgins. Consuming pulque for a first-timer is ingesting raw new microorganisms, proteins, and probiotics; after all, pulque is used traditionally as a curative potion for gastrointestinal problems.
Researchers at Mexico’s national school of biological sciences, at the Instituto Politécnico Nacional (IPN), say pulque is packed with “friendly” bacteria and nutrients that help replenish the digestive tract. The science behind it remains in its infancy, but it’s so far seemingly confirmed the countryside knowledge that for countless generations has led people in Mexico to give doses of pulque to breastfeeding mothers, small children and ailing seniors. Among herders and farmers in the country, an unspoken custom is the use of pulque as an energizing breakfast food. That day, I ran out of Las Duelistas and back to my apartment. I unleashed, drank water, and then headed back for more. My friends just laughed.
Countless generations in Mexico give doses of pulque to breastfeeding mothers, small children and ailing seniors.
And that’s how pulque’s spell began in my life. Ever since that day, I’ve had pulque as much as I can when I travel in Mexico. I’ve tried homemade pulques in the hot mountains of Guerrero and Oaxaca, and fresh pulques along roadsides in the verdant prairies of Morelos and Tlaxcala. Wherever I see it in Mexico, even when I know it might well be a bad batch, I’ll at least ask for a taste. Years of doing this has confirmed that no two pulques are alike. I’ve only thrown out a glass of pulque twice: once on a roadside outside Tlayacapan, Morelos, because it had long turned; and another time from one of the stands with regrettably bad pulque that crowd bewildered tourists just outside the exit gates at Teotihuacán.
The love of pulque that began ten years ago continues, so that now I find myself back in central Mexico preparing to undertake an all-out pulque journey. The first step in the process is to remind myself that so much of pulque’s allure is ephemeral. Because pulque ferments until infinity—old-timers say it “keeps cooking in your stomach”—it is a drink that cannot be successfully exported, although there have been attempts to can the stuff they have mostly fallen flat. For now pulque can only be consumed in its truest form within the borders of Mexico. That true pulque should be made only by the hand of a tlachiquero, who is probably one because his father and grandfather were as well. Unique among many of the country’s great foundational native foods—chile, corn, vanilla, chocolate—pulque alone is both only made in Mexico and only consumed in Mexico.
• • •
Like Mexico, pulque is at once an ancient relic and ever-evolving with the times, the intersection of the sacred and the profane. On the morning that I began my pulque journey, this thought hovered with me as I entered my favorite pulquería in town, El Salón Casino. It is known for an unusual specialty pulque flavor that I have yet to see pulled off anywhere else.
Like Mexico, pulque is at once an ancient relic and ever-evolving with the times, the intersection of the sacred and the profane.
Pulquerías like this once appeared on every other block in Mexico City, along the major canals that served as thoroughfares—water freeways—during the era of Tenochtitlán up through colonial times under Spanish rule. There were more than a thousand in Mexico City and the surrounding regions. But today only an estimated 50 or so remain.
El Salón Casino sits on a corner on a fast-moving through-street in Colonia Obrera, a working-class district two neighborhoods to the east from trendy hot-spot Colonia Roma. I used to sneak away from work in the middle of the week and come here for a fresh curado. The place is surrounded by shabby apartment blocks, single-ware stores selling office furniture or plastic tubing, and hole-in-the-wall tortillerías. I’m to meet my driver Guillermo here, but I arrive before he does.
There is a double swinging door, of course, and a side-serving window that was once used—as in all surviving pulquerías—for lady customers. Back in the day, women were not generally allowed inside. A few people sit about, and I ease in among them. The self-dubbed La Catedral Del Pulque (cathedral of pulque) places its available curado flavors on a ledge in large clear plastic jugs, the kind usually used in taquerías to sell agua de jamaica or agua de horchata. Flavors change daily. Today it is cranberry, which is reddish-purple in color; guayaba, bright pink; celery, grassy green; pine-nut, a softer pink; and at the far right, tomato, milky red in hue but accompanied by an extra sign hanging on a length of string that reads: ostiones.
That’s right, oysters. This is my favorite curado available in Mexico City, and by far the most adventurous: tomato-flavored pulque with added whole oysters and topped like a Mexican shrimp cocktail, with diced onion and cilantro. Jitomate con ostiones, as it is called in Spanish, is a luxe pulque that leans to the gluttonous side of modern tastes. Everyone wants the “next-level” item in Mexico City street food; micheladas come with skewers of gummy bears or mango slices, boiling surf-and-turf molcajetes these days can feed a fleet of seamen. Then there’s the tomato-and-oysters flavor of pulque.
I ask for a mug of it, and watch as the young attendant, cool and collected, dumps about eight raw oysters into a cup, followed by a hefty pour of the tomato pulque. He follows this with a dash of a generic chili sauce, onion and cilantro. The glass is rimmed with salt and chili powder, and served with a small plate of extra sliced limes and salt: a meal in a mug.
El Salón Casino’s walls are covered floor-to-ceiling in vintage photographs mounted on wooden blocks. Photos of longtime customers, the old owners, women in 70s- and 80s-style bikinis. Historical photos, humorous photos, silly photos, and as at all proper pulquerías, hand-painted script messages displaying epigrams, double-meanings and rhyming couplets, all of which require a strong grasp of Mexican street slang in order to decipher. Tastes at Salón Casino are elevated: instead of just using a nameless “white” base pulque for the “curados,” which at other places is usually mixed from several sources, this pulquería offers its whites in barrels identified by three distinct sources: Hidalgo, Chalma and Tlaxcala. Connoisseurs get to pick their favorite.
When Guillermo arrives, he is pleased to see that my drinking is underway. We order another round and this time I switch to piñón, the only curado that is priced a bit higher due to the value of the pine-nut itself. Piñón is a one-of-a-kind flavor, blessed by the nutty rawness of its base. It’s terrific. After that, we examine possible routes for our trip, and go each for a final mug of the celery, refreshing and crisp. He has a business in customs at the airport, and Guillermo and I actually met at this very pulquería one day, two strangers sharing a table and a love of pulque. Today we catch up on each other’s lives and on the general Mexico City gossip. Three pulques in and we are feeling great.
Guillermo wants us to hit five pulquerías today, but the goal already seems too ambitious. Our next destination is La Rosita, a pulquería in a neighborhood near La Merced market called La Viga. We are torn off-course by some kind of disturbance on a main road, and Guillermo takes us down old working industrial blocks lined with factories that look as though they are active just on the margins of legality. As I sit in the front passenger seat of Guillermo’s dusty pick-up truck, an elbow over the open window, bumping along, I realize I have about three liters of pulque and a collection of oysters in my belly, and it’s only 3 p.m.
La Rosita is empty save for a young, disinterested attendant, and his only customers, two men in their late thirties who look like working fathers and who probably don’t belong at a pulquería at that hour anyway. The swinging door opens directly onto the street corner, while the old women’s door has apparently been converted long ago into a window. The murals look fresh, and clearly inspired by the now-famous murals of Las Duelistas but without the original’s flair and gumption. La Rosita has seen better days, but the bar seems fine with its lot, comfortable out here on a corner in the Viga. I have some piñón again, but only a small glass, while Guillermo and another friend who joins us for a few, Augusto, have a celery and avena each.
“The nectar of the gods,” Guillermo smiles, and the three of us cheer to it.
Drinking pulque generates an unusual high, dancing around the edges of a completely psychotropic experience if drunk in its best state. And in La Rosita, I can tell from the way I am responding to things, listening, reacting to the strange warmth brewing inside my belly and mind, that I am getting there. We pile back into Guillermo’s truck. I start to feel too heavy. A little dizzy. Traffic in Mexico City moves in lazy drawls. The movement stops and starts for what seems like an hour in the heat, until we reach a place called La Bella Carolina, a pulquería in Magdalena Mixhuca.
This is another old colonia, embedded somewhere in the wide eastern expanse of the city, that retains its pueblo characteristics—twisting, cobbled streets—despite being swallowed up long ago by the surrounding sprawl. La Bella Carolina is lively and energetic; inside a group of cooks work in an open kitchen making a salsa in a massive stone molcajete. The food is free. They are preparing the traditional “botana” plates served inside pulquerías, at no cost as long as a customer keeps drinking. This method of capturing customers is also practiced in certain old-school cantinas with regular beer and spirits. The custom perfectly combines the dignity of eating at will with the egalitarian spirit of accessibility for all.
I manage one more pulque this day, and no more. Guillermo can tell I am fading. I have a final glass of guayaba at La Bella Carolina, enough to keep me awake while I read the walls that are covered with insignias and phrases related to pulque. The guayaba, despite how full I am, is deeply refreshing. One hand-painted sign on the wall reads in part:
The properties of pulque
Raises your gun
Eases the journey
Makes you some children
Pulque culture drips with references to sex. That last “property” is written “hace chamacos.” The term is a nod to the frequent description by old-timers that pulque es “chamacero,” which is a slang way of saying “makes you a gaggle of children.” There’s no solid proof the drink is an aphrodisiac, but suggestions abound. And the drink itself feels sexual: the most common images I’ve heard used to describe the look and texture of pulque by first-timers include “semen” and “saliva.” Maybe if we’re willing to admit it, it’s those properties of pulque that partly make it a thrill to drink.
Today reminds me of the times I used to drink to the point of no return. Guillermo drives us back west into the core of the city for an early day. I trudge upstairs to the friends’ apartment where I am staying. They aren’t home. The living room is darkened by the leaning sun. I lie down on the couch and allow the fermented aguamiel that is sloshing in my belly to lull me into a sleep that does not fully break until the following morning.
• • •
No matter how it comes, pulque can feel like a direct bridge to the great civilizations of Mesoamerica, a sliver of what life must have been back then. It’s a pre-Hispanic kind of drunk.
This following morning, Guillermo and I travel south within the stew of the city to meet Jorge Campos, a researcher on the campus of the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia, or ENAH. This is the place where the country’s future anthropologists and historians work and study in buildings set among trees and ridges of black volcanic stone jutting up from the ground. The ENAH is commonly stereotyped as “hippie” in Mexican slang, and the time I spend here doesn’t disappoint in reinforcing the notion. Gallant, beautiful young Mexicans of every shade, hair type and gender expression crisscross a stone plaza before us while we wait for Campos to arrive. I feel comfortable among them.
Campos, an instructor at ENAH, walks up to us appearing more or less like any other student. He is dressed all in black with dreadlocks, and combat boots laced up to the top of his calf. We sit with him on the edge of the campus as he describes the first-of-its-kind academic colloquium on pulque that he organized at ENAH. It brought together anthropologists, biologists, musicians, historians, and tlachiqueros themselves to discuss all aspects of pulque, from its production to its cultural customs.
Advanced civilizations ruled over what is now Mexico and Central America for thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans. They discovered pulque, made gods for it and used the drink for special occasions and religious rituals. Archaeologists believe the fermented sap that is scraped as aguamiel from the heart of the maguey was central to rituals at major centers like Cholula, east of modern Mexico City, where a pre-Hispanic mural shows parades of figures appearing ecstatic while drinking pulque from hollow gourds.
“There is evidence of obsidian scrapers for the maguey from 500 years before Christ,” Campos tells me. “We can see it among the Purépacha, the Nahua, the Otomí, the Hñahñu,” he adds, mentioning some other indigenous nations with still-sizable recognized populations. “It is the national drink.”
Its consumption was strictly regulated; if you were caught drunk on pulque while still a student in the Mexica empire, for example, you’d be severely punished or even killed.
Some believe the drink was given to sacrificial victims before their hearts were cut out, an offering to the gods that Mesoamerican nations regarded as essential to ensure the cycle of the seasons. According to Aztec myth, the goddess of pulque is Mayahuel. She had 400 children represented as hungry drunken rabbits. According to the myth, her 400 breasts produced the sap that became pulque and nourished her suckling children. In surviving codices, she is depicted sitting upon a blue maguey plant, holding piercing maguey points, suckling children, a representation of the “nectar” of the agave.
Campos then tells us he has brought some pulque himself, from outside the city of Toluca, Estado de México. We all smile.
He walks us back to the shaded commons area of the ENAH campus, where we are surrounded by students and faculty lounging, reading, and drinking scorching hot cups of coffee and smoking cigarettes. At scattered tables, bearded and bespectacled men sell books on Mesoamerican history and mythology. Campos produces a covered jug from his rucksack. He tells us he traveled west here, across Mexico City, entirely on the metro and rickety combis of public transit, all the way from Toluca. The pulque he’s brought here today is from the rancho of San Mateo Atarasquillo, in the foothills between Toluca and Mexico City. I ask that he spell the name for me, amazed that he carried the pulque all the way here himself, on his back.
Campos pours us each a quick sample in a plastic glass from the coffee cart. The pulque is perfect, it tastes hours fresh.
Campos says his goal is to help “de-colonize” pulque and to make it central again, if possible, to Mexico’s life and diet.
“It’s a living thing, it also gets cold,” the black-clad teacher tells us, a bit poetically. “If you don’t add fresh aguamiel to it after eight days, it ages. It is also born … also matures … and also dies.”
The pulque from San Mateo Atarasquillo is in its best form that I’ve ever tasted, I tell him, honestly. He smiles triumphantly. I thank Campos with a strong, grateful hug. He responds with some stalling formalities, and looks as though he wants to say something.
When he does, it is a reminder of how precious this drink truly is: “Diez pesos per glass,” Campos says.
• • •
There are a few key things that pulque should never be. First, pulque should never be baboso, or mucus-like.
Frequently when it reaches the cities, pulque is mixed with cactus sap, resulting in a snot-like consistency. This is unfortunately done at lesser pulquerías, in order to extend the life of the product.
Second, it shouldn’t have too funky of a smell on top, either. This is usually masked by extravagant amounts of sugar, but the method always shows when you taste it. Also, pulque should never taste or look like a smoothie. If it looks like you could get it at Jamba Juice, you’re in trouble.
And finally, pulque should never, ever have any added liquors, like rum or tequila. That’s like mixing wine with milk.
As I am reminded after meeting Campos, carrying his jug of fresh pulque with him from the countryside, the best pulque is always found as directly and closely to the maguey plant as you can possibly get. Pulque is best when you happen upon it, by chance, and buy it by someone carrying it; by the person who just pulled it. Then you have it at its best.
That evening, we drive headlong into weekend traffic, east from Mexico City, past the volcanic peaks of Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl, which still breathes, into the Valley of Puebla. We drive past the sprawl and chaos of the city of Puebla, with its double-decker highways and disorienting urban landscapes. Mexico City feels like an alien vision behind us, a fever-dream. We keep driving. As the sun dips and an altitude chill descends on us, I point to a great sweeping volcano with a long and wide incline still in the distance before us. “That’s La Malinche,” I say. It is getting dark. I know where this road loads. “We aren’t going to Veracruz, are we?” I ask.
“Yes,” Guillermo says, almost proudly, answering my first question.
“And no,” he adds. “We’re going to Huamantla.”
I love this part of Mexico, the green highlands heading east to Veracruz, the only part of Mexico that is truly “ringed” by volcanos, in that a total of four are visible from most vantage points: El Popo (or Popocatépetl), Iztaccíhuatl, La Malinche, and the Pico de Orizaba, or Citlaltépetl, Mexico’s highest point. This is the state of Tlaxcala, and it, along with the outer areas of Puebla, is often overlooked for more palatable destinations in Mexico, like San Miguel de Allende or Oaxaca City. Indifferent to all that, the region is just as rich, productive and rewarding.
Huamantla is a town on the eastern edges of Tlaxcala state, on the northside of La Malinche. It was founded in 1534. From this small city of roughly 57,000 people, any visitor also has a direct view of the Pico de Orizaba and its 18,406-feet point. The sight of it is truly breathtaking, even in the waning darkness. It is a triangular hat worn by Earth. After hours on the road, (accompanied by some of the leftover guayaba pulque in a bottle, from La Bella Carolina), we reach the busy little center of Huamantla. Our goal here is to visit a place that dubs itself the Museum of Pulque, first thing the next morning.
It is a typical “magical” town, as many towns in Mexico were dubbed during an aggressive tourism campaign in the term of President Felipe Calderón. Officials identified a scattering of picturesque and promising villages to spruce up and promote. The changes were largely cosmetic, but either way, tourists have responded. Huamantla now has slick floor-laid lights that make its baroque colonial churches practically sparkle at nighttime. There are a few fine hotels in town, and we wind up at a place called Malinalli, with all the trappings you’d expect in fancy Oaxaca: pink walls, a gurgling fountain, stone features.
The Museo del Pulque sounds like a bad idea at first. It is a “museum” with no real archival or historically preserved pieces, and on the property of a high-end hacienda hotel. It is morning, just past 10 a.m., Guillermo drives us to the door of the castle-like Hacienda de Soltepec, founded between 1780 and 1790. It was once a prosperous pulque-making ranch, making thousands of liters of pulque a day. Now it’s a hotel, serving the most well-heeled tourists from the economic centers of Puebla and Mexico City. We stroll into the lobby as if we know where we are going and I catch a glimpse of ostentatiously wealthy Mexican daytrippers having what look like royal-grade breakfasts: fresh sweet bread, fruit, moles, eggs, beans.
A host in a gleaming white shirt asks how he can help us.
“Uh, we’re looking for the Museo del Pulque?” I offer.
He points us back outside.
Around the hacienda’s main gate and near an alleyway, there is a large plain stone building that looks like it’s at least two hundred years old. Its walls are thick and covered in old stucco. Outside the words “Museo del Pulque” are painted in old-timey letters, and inside, we are greeted by Don Juan Miguel Hernandez, along with his wife and son, who are just barely opening and prepping the place for their first visitors: us.
The room is cool. Don Juan is short, indigenous, jolly and fun upon an initial greeting. I take in my surroundings and I immediately feel that he is lucky to work here. The entire room is long and has ceilings that are 20 feet high, with heavy wooden beams visible. In the middle is a wooden bar surrounded by nostalgic knick-knacks related to pulque and hacienda life: pewter dishes, decommissioned rifles, vintage glass mugs. An altar over the middle of the bar keeps flowers and a throwaway Viva México sign from a past Independence Day that hasn’t been brought down. On the smooth stone floor sit big tinacal barrels once used to ferment pulque to the open air.
“Tienen pulque?” I ask.
Don Juan says he does. I ask where it is from and he responds that is brought from the ranches nearby, no longer directly at Soltepec. He watches as we hesitate for a moment, and Don Juan tells me he has pulque that is top-notch, not to worry, but that he and his family first have to prepare the blended curados. We’d have to wait, and in the meantime, he is going to give us a demonstration of how a pulque-making maguey is scraped.
Don Juan guides me across the highway, under a rising sun, to a small grove of fat old agaves that sit behind a barbwire fence. He lifts the wire to let us through.
“We are like the ladies who are housewives,” Don Juan says, regarding the work. “Every tlachiquero has a different taste, and his own style of making the pulque be born. … I couldn’t tell you, ‘I have good pulque,’ but they’ve told me, ‘Hey, Don Juan, this pulque is the original.’ Everyone has their own taste.”
Pulque-giving magueys require five to fifteen years to reach a point where they begin making suitable aguamiel, Don Juan explains. He approaches a maguey that looks a bit beaten down. It is covered in scratched-in graffiti and awkward messages of love. I watch as he unexpectedly walks right upon the largest leaf of the plant and approaches its center, which is covered in plastic. Don Juan explains that if an open-heart maguey is left out to its own devices at night, racoons, flies and all kinds of other critters will be drawn to it.
Don Juan takes his acocote, an instrument used to suck out the aguamiel from the center of the plant. The object, which looks like a dried elongated gourd, has two holes on either end. The tlachiquero sticks one end of the acocote in the maguey, sucks up the liquid with his mouth through the other end and deposits it in a jug to carry back to the tinacal.
We hear him scrape down the white sides of the inside of the heart, so that the sap seeps forth. Don Juan then invites me to walk up on the large plant and peer inside its middle with him. I follow him, on to the leaf of an enormous maguey, first quietly asking the plant for its pardon. I peer in its middle. Once uncovered, the heart of the marvelous plant looks like the inside of an open coconut, fleshy and milky. “Every maguey is different, like us,” Don Juan says. “Each of our bodies are different, and that’s how they are.”
Don Juan walks us back to the hacienda complex. The Museo del Pulque is now filling up with families. It’s Saturday. There is now pulque to try and we hungrily reach for some guayaba and plain white. Every time I have pulque outside the city, it tastes better; it’s clear as day to me now. When it is fresh and perfectly fermented, with no additives, no sugar, pulque sings on the tongue and grabs the bitter receptors in the back of the mouth. Pulque doesn’t flatten everything into a low-humming refrigerator buzz like distilled liquor does. Beer is a happy high, which feels like there’s a party in my throat. Wine goes to the head as well and makes me feel warm in my stomach and chest. But pulque, with its curdling cultures, is another experience entirely. The sensation is of dancing with delirium. I feel full, and often just on the verge of throwing up. But even that feeling is somehow gratifying.
Don Juan hands us mugs with another round each. Just as quickly as they arrived, the crowds disperse again, and soon the room is quiet and darker than before, as the sun now sits directly over Soltepec’s lands. Noon already? It is lunchtime. A few guys in ranch gear come in: dusty pants, work boots, sunbaked baseball caps. We sit around together and keep chatting, things seem to almost stand still, as I continue to sip, filling myself once more with pulque, until finally I say I can’t have any more.
“It cooks inside of you,” Don Juan tells me. “They’ve tried canning it. It didn’t last long.”
I know the story well, and indeed one day at a liquor store in Echo Park, Los Angeles, I saw a can of imported pulque, bought it, took a sip, and tossed it out. I’ve never seen canned pulque in the States since.
After a little while I realize I need a toilet. I ask Don Juan where I can go and he says over his shoulder, “There, on the pillar, the brick pillar.”
Huh? I step outside, and look at the three huge magueys that I now see are like sentries at the gate of the Museo del Pulque. Don Juan is referring to a red brick pillar—that doesn’t seem to have any other function—right out on the side of the road, under the sun, in the open air.
“A Mexican never goes and pees alone,” Guillermo laughs, stumbling toward me, and after I take my turn on the pillar in the open air, peeing on a low bush in full view of anyone driving by who’d have the gall to stare, Guillermo steps in and follows.
An hour so later, I feel like I belong to Don Juan’s family. His son Alan recites pulque-drinking sayings to us, which he delivers formally into my microphone, standing erect, a perfect young orator. The couplets rhyme whimsically in Spanish, and all involve drinking pulque.
“Aquí hay curados de piña, de melón y de manzana/Si a usted le gusta mi prima, a mi me gusta su hermana.” (That translates to, without its Spanish rhyming: “We have pineapple, melon and apple/If you like my cousin, I like your sister.”)
Finally I ask him, “And do you like pulque?”
“No,” Alan admits abruptly with a smile. We all roar laughing. He’s a child of 11 years old, of course he wouldn’t like it, I think. Yet.
“Well,” Alan corrects himself, embarrassed. “I like some of the curados.”
• • •
I can be a nonchalant traveler, expecting, somehow by magic, that everything will work out on every trip, just how it’s supposed to happen. Who might need a hotel reservation on the harsh industrial outskirts of Mexico City on a simple weekend, for example, right? After leaving the Hacienda de Soltepec, we drive back toward Huamantla and stop at a roadside barbacoa eatery that looks particularly good: lots of happy-looking people at tables outside, a few attendants serving steaming plates of birria consomé, inviting smells. The reddish-brown and dense broth, with flecks of onion, cilantro, laurel leaf and dry chili powder, sits nicely with the gallon or so of pulque that I now have coursing through my system. We order beers.
After the barbacoa, Guillermo drives us on, through the lush highlands of central Mexico, and I’m reminded again why whenever I drive through this area I feel as though I might be in the French or Italian countryside. It’s gorgeous—rolling green hills, forested mountains, river gullies lined with oaks and pines, stands of corn. We are headed to a town famous in Hidalgo for its pulque, Nanacamilpa, but once we pull in, the streets feel too empty and scrubbed clean, as though the people who live here were subjected to a beautification program imposed upon them, making everything uncomfortable. Instead of pulque in Nanacamilpa, we stop and have micheladas at a corner mart. A lake that offered cabin dwellings on Facebook turned out to be desolate and guarded by a strange figure who spoke in one-word sentences. A lone horse trotted away from us on the other side of the lake, all on it’s own, looking as though he had somewhere important to go.
Nanacamilpa was a bust. We kept driving.
Before long I realize that my ambitions again feel parried down by reality, a too frequent conundrum in Mexico at large. We decide ultimately that we should stay in Texcoco, a little town just northeast from central Mexico City that five hundred years ago was the dazzling shoreline center of arts and letters for Aztec society. Today Texcoco retains a “natural” vibe; it’s home to the Universidad Autónoma de Chapingo, Mexico’s leading agricultural college. Its downtown area, though, is as dense and chaotic as any other in Mexico, with ribbons of unforgiving traffic, too many signs everywhere, and storefronts blaring competing genres of uptempo music in an endless competition to lure ears and customers.
We drive around, stopping at every measly hotel we could find, only to hear that no vacancies are available at stop after stop. Some kind of religious convention is happening in Texcoco this weekend. Nothing is available, at least at places that aren’t hour-rate, glossy motels meant for middle-class trysts. Tired, overwhelmed, nearing all possible nerve-endings, Guillermo and I finally descend on a rather scary-looking highway hotel complex with drive-in rooms, the kind that pop up all over Mexico and are for trysts a bit farther down the pay scale.
Lately, many of these hotels in the country have become de facto stations for the Federal Police. Mexico remains in the bloody throes of a drug war, first launched in 2006 with Calderón and continued with the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto. Texcoco, like a lot of Mexico, is safe until it isn’t. Petty crime, robberies, kidnappings and home invasions remain stubborn features of life in many communities. The Policía Federal maintains checkpoints on highways across the country and sometimes floods certain cities or towns if they become “hot spots” of violence. I’ve heard stories and read news clippings about it here, too.
Off-duty federal officers sit around a makeshift kitchen just inside the hotel’s gates, playing cards. The rigs and buses screaming down the highway outside echo deep into a long driveway, fitted with ground-level vehicle stalls that were mostly empty and two floors of rooms above them. The rooms are drab and stuffy. We ask the nightman for ice, any kind of mineral water or citrus cola drink, and two plastic cups. I have a bottle of Herradura Blanco tucked away in my bag, in case of emergency. I make palomas, and Guillermo prepares a few messy but serviceable tacos with the leftover barbacoa and tortillas from earlier.
All of this trouble is due to one goal: being up early and close to what I consider the most satisfying weekend dining experience in the great expanses of this country that I have seen, El Pica No. 1.
El Pica No. 1 is a “campestre” restaurant in the hillsides just outside of Texcoco that on the weekends is a family destination for barbacoa. Campestre means that the restaurant is mostly outdoors and housed by interlocking trees and paths marked by hanging vines. Customers walk among stalls and vendors, picking from a variety of foods and drinks and then setting up in vine-covered picnic tables among the scents of grass and smoke from the comal fires. Musicians stroll. And of course they sell pulque.
In other words, El Pica No. 1 is paradise for me. I first came when a friend in the food industry in Mexico City, Niki Nakazawa, had a birthday here. She in turn first saw it after another friend named Norma Listman, a native of Texcoco and a figure in food herself, had told her about it. I now try to go as often as possible, but it only works if you can leave Mexico City—about an hour-and-change to the west—early in the morning on a Saturday or Sunday. Not an easy task, even under the threat of the barbacoa running out, as it tends to do at El Pica No. 1, sometimes well before noon.
But today we make it. Today, I have convinced our intrepid driver that this was the way to finish our pulque journey, and once Guillermo sees El Pica No. 1 for himself, he understands.
The restaurant’s barbacoa ovens, stone and clay, built into the ground, produce 50 to 60 kilos of barbacoa on a busy day. The meat is as tender as cheese, practically fluffy in its slow-cooked fat, blessed with that earthen smell of the roasted goat meat. We stand in line and manage to arrive just in time for a half-kilo. We stand in another line for handmade blue corn tortillas, for chicharrón, and for condiments to add to our tacos. Off in a side pathway, El Pica has a stand that offers pulque from huge clay jars. I have a campechana—mixed white pulque with a curado pulque—of piñón, once more. It tastes like dessert.
El Pica is my happy place in Mexico, supplanted only by one other spot, Tetzcotzinco. Luckily one is just down the road from the other. Tetzcotzinco is a neglected, almost forgotten archeological site just outside Texcoco that is known locally as “The Baths of Neza,” in reference to the Poet King, Nezahualcóyotl, who ruled the city-state of Texcoco from 1418 to 1472. Unlike other historical sites, this one is free of tourists and tickets and little stands selling trinkets. This is more neighborhood pyramid than national site.
This one is free of tourists and tickets and little stands selling trinkets. This is more neighborhood pyramid than national site.
The Baños de Nezahualcóyotl are difficult to access, just a rutted rock path ascending several hundred feet on a hillside. Above, its splendor is breathtaking. A pyramid lined with evidence of short water channels down from a long-dry spring, the Tetzcotzinco is a relic of the five-star-level grandeur of pre-Hispanic royal leisure. The entire Valley of Mexico is laid out before you: the teeny spires of the Mexico City skyscrapers, the flat mirror of what is left of the Lago de Texcoco, and the soaring clouds that crawl forth, promising rain. Stone baths are built into the mountain’s side, with views of the city and valley below. I sit here and wonder what it must have looked and felt like centuries ago: King Neza, surrounded by servants and advisors, having a hot-spring bath, perhaps made fragrant with herbs and flowers, sipping on fresh pulque, with a view of his realm before him…
Tetzcotzinco, now a stone echo from the past, is still in my estimation one of the most luxurious places on the planet.
Here, my friend Guillermo and I hike up to the pyramid’s apex, with a plastic bottle filled to the top with the last of our pulque from El Pica No. 1. The sun makes us sweat into our glee. There’s no feeling in the world like this. We’ve made it. We have drunk our weight in pulque in three days and have come up here to the top of the king’s baths to celebrate. The only way to do that is to have one pulque more.
Daniel Hernandez is the author of Down and Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century and editor at LA Taco.