Hunting for the Birthplace of Tequila
Ancient Workings and Heavenly Pools in Tecuane Canyon

©2010 by John Pint

El Tecuane Canyon
By now even the casual visitor to Guadalajara has figured out that Tequila is not the birthplace of tequila. After all, where does the Tequila Express take all those tourists? Not to Tequila, but to Amatitán, thirteen kilometers closer. Now Amatitán is the home of Herradura distillery which is old alright, but does not lay claim to being the oldest. Where then should we look for the cradle that gave birth to west Mexico’s world-famous inebriant?

According to Tony Burton in Western Mexico, a Travellers Treasury, the Spanish authorities outlawed liquor production in Mexico because it threatened to compete with Spanish Brandy. “This suppression led to the establishment of illicit distilling in many remote areas, including parts of Colima and Jalisco.”

Hoping for illumination on the exact location of the first distillery, I consulted the Jalisco Secretariat of Culture’s Guide to Agave Country. It states that the first clandestine distillery or taberna was established at the end of the seventeenth century on the property of the Hacienda de Cuisillos. This particular rancho, however, apparently stretched all the way from Guadalajara to the slopes of Tequila Volcano, offering little indication of exactly where the first taberna might have been located.

Finding that first distillery looked just about impossible, but then I came upon a plaque recently erected by the tequila moguls at the new Mirador overlooking Santa Rosa Valley. This states that the oldest taberna of this region was located in nearby El Tecuane Canyon and that it was a most unusual operation indeed. It supposedly utilized both Pre-Hispanic and Hispanic brewing techniques and cleverly took full advantage of gravity and a nearby spring to carry out its procedures.

At the same time I learned this, I received a message from a friend stating that he had found a natural pool and waterfall at El Tecuane, in a place he described as “paradise itself.” Unable to resist, I organized a trip to the area. What we found was fascinating indeed.

The cobblestone road to Tecuane starts about five kilometers north of Amatitán, with a primitive sign announcing “Balneario.” The road is in great shape, but bumpy enough that you’ll want a high-clearance vehicle. We drove about a kilometer and suddenly found ourselves overlooking a huge canyon we had never seen before. The view was absolutely staggering. In fact, the famous views of Santa Rosa Valley (of which Tecuane is a side canyon) simply pale in comparison with the magnificent panorama seen here. Unfortunately, you are seeing it from a single-lane road with a terrifying, sheer drop right at your feet. If you happen to meet someone coming the other way, a great song and dance ensues.

Luckily, the cliff-hanging ends after another kilometer and you can breathe easy while driving a further two kilometers down to the site of old El Tecuane Taberna. This historic site—which goes back to the early 1700s—is fenced and locked up, but we found the man with the key, Don Rosario Villagrana, at huge, modern Santa Rita distillery, located just above the old workings.

Part of the old workings of El Tecuane Distillery, built in the early 1700s and possibly the oldest tequila factory anywhere. The area for cooking and grinding the agaves can be seen above, and below are 44 fermentation pots carved into the living rock.


Here, on a wide, flat spot, we peered down into the kind of oven used by the Indians to cook agave hearts before the Spaniards arrived. This is a deep pit lined with volcanic rocks. The Indians threw a mixture of agaves and red-hot rocks into the pit and covered it up. The cooked mezcal was then ground up using a people-powered millstone. The sweet juice trickled downhill to a lower mesa in which 44 fermentation pots were carved into the living rock. Each of these held about 3000 liters. The resulting alcoholic brew was then carried further downhill in buckets, to several stills, cooled by cold water channeled from a nearby spring.


Most sources say the technique of distillation was brought to the new world by the Spaniards, but Don Rosario insisted the Indians had their own stills, in which the steam condensed in cloths hanging above a pot of boiling alcohol. “They wrung out these cloths and distilled that alcohol a second time,” and one taste of this potent “vino mezcal,” as it was first known, was, supposedly, what got the Spaniards into the tequila business.

This claim is backed up by the owner of Santa Rita, tequila historian Miguel Claudio Jiménez Vizcarra, who quotes from Domingo Lázaro de Arregui’s 1621 Description of New Galicia:

“The Mexcales are much like the maguey. Their root and the base of their spikes are roasted and eaten. In addition, when they are pressed, they exude a must, from which a liquor is distilled, clearer than water, stronger than aguardiente and of such good taste.”

Fermentation Pots Carved in Tepetate Rock, El Tecuane, Amatitan, Jalisco, Mexico


Whether the native Mexicans had developed their own stills, I can’t say, but standing in the middle of 44 huge old fermentation pots carved out of rock, I was definitely convinced that those Amatitán Indians (Tecuane was considered part of Amatitán) were no amateurs when it came to alcoholic beverages.

A bit dazed after visiting the incredible Tecuane tequila workings, we headed back up the hill to the balneario to enquire about the Pools of Paradise.

Alas, the balneario has a rather seedy looking cement swimming pool filled with dirty water, which on Sundays is said to be jammed with people who come to enjoy a swim and a fish fry. This was obviously not the “natural, spring-fed pool” we were looking for, but the owner of the balneario, Señor Ricardo Ramirez immediately understood what we were talking about. “The pools you seek are the source of the water I use in my fish farm,” he explained, indicating a row of huge tanks in the distance, each one brimming with mojarras. “Would you like to take a look? There’s a path that leads from here right to the pools.”

I should have suspected what sort of path it was when Ricardo grabbed a machete and started swinging it. A few minutes later we were tiptoeing along the top of the slime-covered side wall of a channel filled with rushing water. “Watch out for that plant,” warned Ricardo. “We call that one La Quemadora (The Burner). It stings like crazy but you mustn’t scratch it. You just have to aguantar (endure the pain) for a minute or two and then it’s all over.” We also had to “aguantar” a rather long hike along the steep non-path until, dripping with sweat and covered with clinging plant parts and burrs, we arrived at Paradise.

Tecuane Balneario owner Ricardo Ramirez shows Susy Pint the stinging power of La Quemadora while chopping a path to the Pools of Paradise.

There were two glorious pools surrounded by banana plants, mamey trees and rich jungly growth, with a couple of picturesque waterfalls thrown in for good measure. Colorful chachalaca birds frolicked overhead and…well, I’d better not go on because this little paradise is on the land of someone who wants no visitors, having been “burned” again and again by people who leave the place strewn with garbage and worse. Oh well, I guess it’s in the nature of Paradise to be of difficult access, isn’t it?

Susy Pint Meditating at the Paradise Pool

By the way, when we mentioned to Ricardo that the blue agave is supposed to have originated in Santa Rosa Canyon, he corrected us. “No, that’s not true,” he said. “The blue tequila agave actually comes from this very valley, right here.” Something tells me we have not heard the last of El Tecuane.

Watch a three-minute video of El Tecuane on Youtube.

How to get there
Drive west out Guadalajara toward Nogales. When you reach the town of Amatitán, turn right just before the first overhead footbridge across the highway. Take this road, signposted “El Salvador,” four kilometers north. Turn right at the Tecuane Balneario sign. Whenever you see forks or turnoffs, stick to the main cobblestone road. After only one kilometer you will come to the magnificent canyon view. Three kilometers from the El Salvador road, you come to the only major fork in this itinerary. Bear right. After one more kilometer you’ll be at the Santa Rita Distillery and just below, the ruins of Taberna Tecuane. Driving time from the Guadalajara Periférico to the old tequila workings: just over one hour.

Photo courtesy of Franky Alvarez