Tequila!

There was a time when slamming back Jose Cuervo tequila shots defined my notion of drinking socially and irresponsibly. When attending college mixers and parties, it was the perfect way to act cool and behave stupidly at the same time. The time-honored tradition of licking salt before swallowing a rim-topped shooter glass and finishing with a limon bite was a pattern of behavior that I remember clearly, but can’t recall with any accuracy.

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It was also my surrender to the fiery pepper that typically accompanied the alcohol. While the raspa would rocket through my gastric canal, I often wondered how I survived the taste of jet fuel laced with vanilla extract. But those negative thoughts always melted away after the third shot. That’s the magic of tequila; sometimes it makes you question your own sense of reality.

As we aged, so did our palettes. Drinking buddies flush with more disposable income succumbed to the lure of unblended Scotch or reveled in the crisp bite of French vodka. But not me. I saw no reason to search for a better bitter. It seems I was too emotionally attached to tequila to switch to a competing liquor.

shooter girl (2)

My mission was to find a tequila that didn’t taste so nasty. Move over Jose Cuervo, and say hello to Patrón.

Apart from all the trusted distilleries in Jalisco, Mexico, the one tequila that resonated in America debuted in 1989, and soon captured a coveted 30% market share–not because of Patrón’s unique flavor profile or quality control standards, but because shampoo mogul and co-founder, John Paul DeJoria positioned Patrón’s top-shelf status through its hand-numbered bottles, silk ribbons, and round-top corks. Late-show tequila was now dressed up and ready for prime-time.

It wasn’t long before other celebrities jumped on the brand-wagon to use their cache to cash in. While Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo supported the aging baby boomer sub-culture, George Clooney’s Casamigos courted the endless summer sect, and P. Diddy’s DeLéon catered to the crowd behind the velvet rope.

Tequila’s makeover has generated record-breaking sales since 2012. According to the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS):

…tequila volumes [in the U.S.] have grown by 121%, at an average rate of 5.8%. In 2016 alone, 15.9 million 9-liter cases were sold. What is even more impressive is that while the volumes of value and premium tequila grew by 93% and 72% during the aforementioned time frame, those of high-end premium and super-premium shot up by 292% and 706%, respectively.

And spirit producers are betting big that the current wave continues. Last year, DeJoria released his remaining 70% of Patrón shares to Bacardi for $5.1bn, and Diageo secured Casamigos from Clooney for $1bn to stand beside its Don Julio brand acquired from Jose Cuervo in 2014.

With my head spinning from all the stats, I needed a drink…or more. And I needed clarification and historical perspective to make sense of it all. Fortunately, when at our resort South of the Border, Leah and I were introduced to Socrates, our waiter at Vidanta’s La Cantina on the Riviera Maya, who was eager to share information about his culture, and the connection between tequila and Guadalajara, his family’s home for the past 200 years.

mixing worm salt

Ordinarily I’d order a margarita before my meal, like so many times before…

margarita

but on this night, Socrates offered me a turn at the tasting table…

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and a briefing on the distillation process of tequila and its significance to the Mexican economy.

“Tequila has been produced in Mexico since 1726, but mezcal has been distilled by the Toltecs in clay pots for special ceremonies since the year 600. My family has been growing blue agave and producing spirits before my abuelo was walking,” stated Socrates, “so it is my honor to present you with our wonderful heritage and the drink of my people tonight.”

He continued, “Tequila is a very special drink that requires lots of patience–from the ten years the agave tequilana plant grows to maturity in the sandy hills of my country–until it is harvested. Once all the leaves are stripped from the agave plant, the piña is roasted, and the juice is released by running the tahona over the piña. This is true for all the varieties of tequila you will sample tonight.”

“What makes it clear and what makes it golden-colored?” I asked.

“Ah, that is all about the aging,” replied Socrates. “Silver tequila or blanco is tequila in the purest form with the most natural taste after the distilling process–a little bit of sweet with a taste of citrus and pepper. It is preferred when making margaritas.

“And the golden color?…” I reiterated.

“That is the color from the barrels to age the tequila. Usually 6 months resting in an oak barrel, sometimes already flavored from bourbon or wine, and we call it tequila reposado. The taste is a balance between the agave and the wood–more smooth with hints of caramel and spice,” Socrates continued.

“But for me, the real tequila is the sipping tequila called tequila añejo. This is tequila aged for at least one year in the barrel, which now darkens the tequila to an amber color. It is very smooth like fine wine or whisky, and is to be enjoyed at room temperature,” he concluded.

I pointed to the tequila table. “But there are bottles that are marked ultra and extra añejo. What about them?”

“That’s the newest tequila category that’s been added since 2006,” remarked Socrates. “It refers to tequila that’s been aged more than 3 years. So it tends to be darker still, unless the color has been filtered out, and looking like a blanco. But what’s left behind is tequila that is incredibly smooth and complex and rich, with very little alcohol taste.”

“How rich?” I asked.

“This tequila can cost over $300 a bottle,” he exclaimed.

Dinner was served–chicken fajitas for Leah…

chicken frajitas

and lobster tacos for me.

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The food was delicious, but the tequila…

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OMG!…and worth every peso!!

Flamingo Road

The Vindanta vacation resort in Riviera Maya maintains a habitat for flamingos smack in the middle of their property, and neither Leah or I had any idea that it was even there, despite a sign posting by the iguana-laden boardwalk…

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just outside our building.

grand mayan 3

We must have walked past the entrance to the preserve a dozen times or more, oblivious of the signage, probably thinking that Flamencos had more to do with a lounge or restaurant concept than the pink birds that occasionally keep company with gnomes and jockeys on people’s front lawns.

So imagine my surprise after learning of a conversation Leah overheard between two hotel guests who expressed such delight in watching these birds, that we had to see this unexpected treat for ourselves.

A short walk off the beaten path revealed a contained area at the toe of a foot-shaped lagoon,

bay

where a “pat” of flamingos (maybe 20 or more) were cruising around a contoured wading pool surrounding a small island of palms and mangroves.

bevvy of birds

These quirky birds couldn’t stay still for a moment. They mostly followed the leader of the pack–a five foot specimen that often craned its long loopy neck…

black beak

above the preeners,

pretzel neck

wings akimbo

and the feeders–

standing guard

beak dip

as his elongated legs wallowed through the rippled water…

4 birds

while keeping a watchful eye…

one stand out

on the humans who regulary monitor and manage the water conditions.

maintenance

Much of the pat’s time was spent trolling the curve of the pool with their immense beaks fully immersed in water, moving their heads backwards in an inverted position…

trollers and waders

with their beak sharply angled downward from the middle–the narrow upper jaw fitting into the lower jaw–intended for separating mud and silt from the food that they eat.

close-up

The filtering is assisted by hairy structures called lamellae which line the mandible and a large rough-surfaced tongue, helping them extract the brine shrimp that constitutes their main source of food and the reason for the florescent color of their plumes.

Their fingers feature a webbing that prevents them from sinking in the mud they regularly wade through when feeding.

one leg

The Caribbean pink flamingo (American) reproduces on still waters, or on small islands within shallow salt water ponds and lagoons where it builds a mud mound with a small indentation for depositing its single egg (rarely two). The incubation period lasts from 28 to 32 days, and nesting is performed by both parents. Its offspring feed on regurgitated food for 75 days, although they can feed on their own after 30 days or so.

Flamingos reach maturity between two and three years of age, reaching recorded ages of 27 years in the wild and 50 years in captivity.

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No doubt, these fascinating birds have it made in the shade.

pat

Super Blood Wolf Moon Eclipse

Captured in Playa del Carmen, Mexico

super blood wolf moon eclipse

After a full day of sun, two stellar NFL Championship games, and a few beers, I was determined to stay awake to witness this special celestial event.

The stars were out.

The air was cool with passing cloud cover.

Oh, how I wished I had a tripod at the time!

 

At Your Service, 3

It’s hard to imagine going away to a resort to relax, and then being sidelined because of a cold. But after a day of Ubers, planes, and transport vans, we finally arrived at Hacienda Tres Rios–north of Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya–for a week of fun,

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and all I could muster was a trip to the hotel convenience store for antihistamine pills before I was ready to collapse. It seems that running around the continent for nearly ten months had compromised my resistance, and was now threatening to compromise my vacation.

Saturdays at the resort have always been a busy day of transitioning, as the staff warmly welcomes new arrivals with chocolate-covered strawberries and mimosas, while firmly ushering last week’s guests through the check-out process and out the door.

After checking in, we killed time at the buffet, waiting for our room to be ready. It was an excellent opportunity to people-watch and predict who among us would be the chosen people we see again and again throughout the week. Of course, it’s always the loudest guests who make a lasting impression, and this week would be no exception. Sitting at the farthest end of the room, three overweight, middle-aged woman were easily heard above the dining room din, kibitzing with the waiter, and on their way to getting shit-faced with yet another round of drinks.

Eventually, a bellman escorted us to our accomodations–a top floor room with an ocean view, or so we were told.

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Standing on the balcony, I strained my eyes past the clearing where the last building stood, and that’s when I discovered the deception; the hotel had determined that the miniscule ribbon of gray beyond the mangrove canopy qualified as a view of the ocean.

But I was in no shape to argue. All I could think about was getting into bed with a small hope of shaking this nasty hand that was reaching past my scratchy throat and squeezing my sinuses. That’s when our next-door neighbors arrived, and headed straight for the balcony. I immediately recognized the drunken cackling and the pitchy singing. Standing on my side of the dividing wall, I peered around the other side unnoticed to have a peek, and sure enough, each one held a drink in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, confirming my worst nightmare.

“This can’t be happening!” I quickly re-entered the room, and shut the terrace door to keep the cigarette smoke from seeping through the opening. “With 272 other rooms spread out through the resort, this is where they’re staying?” I moaned in resignation.

“Well, not if I have something to say about it,” declared Leah.

She grabbed the phone, and dialed the front desk downstairs.

“Tell them about the smoking,” I coached, “because obnoxious is too subjective.”

Leah asserted, “I’m calling from 1307. We just arrived, and already the cigarette smoke from the people next door is drifting into our room from the balcony, and it’s intolerable. So you need to find us another room.”

“I’m very sorry that you are being inconvenienced, ma’am” the desk clerk regretted, “but we are unable to accomodate you because of the volume of registrations at the moment. However, if you could be patient with us, we should be able to make other arrangements tomorrow after check-out time, when we’ve had a chance to review our room inventory,” the advised.

“What time, tomorrow?” Leah zeroed in.

“If you come to the desk at 9:00 am, we will be happy to help you,” she elaborated.

Meanwhile, a slurred rendition of Shape of You vibrated through the shared door between the rooms.

“Damn! I used to like that song,” I aired, “and now it’s ruined forever.”

The clatter of their high heels on marble floors resonated throughout the night, and imprinted on my sinus headache. As I lay awake in bed with a box of tissues by my side, I wondered how many costume changes they could go through in one evening, and cursed the day Ed Sheeran had become popular.

A new day for a fresh start, Leah and I packed the last of our belongings and shlepped our bags to the front desk. We previewed a room on the top floor of another building and unconditionally accepted the exchange.

Not too shabby–an ocean view with a whirlpool tub on our new balcony, and a chance to reboot our vacation. Ahhhh…

…choo!

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Feeling sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, Leah and I consulted the concierge to schedule enough activities through the week to balance my boredom with my recovery.

After settling into room 4302, we met up with Salvador, our trail guide who escorted us through the Nature Park on mountain bikes.

bicycles and nursery

We wove our way around the mangrove forest through a labyrinth of sandy trails recognizing white, red, black, and buttonwood mangroves–the four distinctive varieties that flourish in this tropical environment. On the way to the many cenotes,

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we identified a plethora of termite burls, several songbirds, a vulture and an iguana.

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Of the ten cenotes on the property, we visited Cenote Tortuga;

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Cenote Hondo;

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cenote Hondo.jpg

Cenote Viejo;

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and Cenote Orchideo…

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cenote orchideo.jpg

where we were greeted by a small school of Garra Rufa,

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eager to perform ichthyotherapy for free.

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On Monday, we spent our morning with sales agent, Ricardo (At Your Service, Too), and our afternoon with Manuel, who guided us from Cenote Aguila,

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down the Rio Selva…

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to the ocean.

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On Tuesday, we took a behind-the scenes-tour of the kitchen with Celia, the kitchen supervisor. She invited us into her casa to showcase the operation and preparation of all food within the hotel:

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by the numbers…
walk-in
Walk-in
cleaning shrimp
Fish Prep
butchering
Butchering
carving garnishes
Deli and garnish
bakery
Bakery
soup prep
Soups
pasta station
Pasta
grilling veggies
Grilling and frying
bartending
Bartending
china and crystal
China and crystal

Celia’s staff works hard–six ten-hour days every week–and is committed to ensuring a healthy and tasty experience with fresh ingredients and a variety of international cuisines. She acknowledges us by placing her hand on her heart–a sanitary salute of sorts to thank us for the opportunity to serve.

On Wednesday, we travelled by hotel shuttle to Playa del Carmen,

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for a stroll up and down 5th Avenue–a pedestrian marketplace stretching 20 blocks, and lined with fashionable shops,

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Where’s Leah?

eateries, tequilarias, t-shirt mills, modern malls, massage stations, tchotchke kiosks, tourist stands, Mom-and-Pop Mexicana, and pharmacias, etc.

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I’ll have a week’s worth of Cialis, and a half-pound of hard salami, por favor.

By Thursday I was dying. After five days of dosing Sensibit D (an antihistamine decongestant), my body had betrayed me, turning my free-flow nose into a gripping sinus headache.

But that didn’t stop me from touring the Cancun Brewery with Leah and The Ed Sheeran Trio. Hiding behind the green wall of an unassuming building,

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a shiny brewery has taken shape in the middle of Tres Rios jungle. According to Brandon, brewmaster from Michigan,

Brandon

a Sunset Group partner bartered a warehouse, utilities and unlimited clean water in exchange for craft beer supplied to all Sunset Group hotels.

diesel

Additionally, production runs of Pale Ale, Hefeweizen, and Pilsner are crafted in short batches of kegs and cans to satisfy Riviera Maya’s thirst from Cancun to Tulum.

brewery

To some extent, I felt sorry for Brandon, as he was peppered with ridiculous comments, questions, and suggestions from my ex-neighbors, yet good-naturedly responded to everything that came his way. Then I stopped myself when I realized that here is a guy who otherwise, would still be living in Michigan, but instead comes to work in shorts and flip flops, and gets to drink cerveza for a living.

Adios, Cancun Beer.

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Friday was a good day to lay low and do nothing in preparation of an early departure on Saturday.

Lounging by the pool, I reflected on the past week, thinking about the activities I’d missed out on: snorkeling at Yal-ku in Akumal; diving Santa Rosa reef at Cozumel; and exploring the ruins of Coba or Tulum. While all of that would have made for an exciting itinerary, it wouldn’t have made for a relaxing vacation, and maybe that’s what my body was really craving.

Every day discovering something brand new

The sun felt good on my face, as I moved in and out of consciousness–half awake, half-asleep–my body floating through a cenote abloom with fragrant orchids,

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In the distance, a hypnotic song was playing–a lilting melody of love that grew louder and louder with every new verse–until I snapped awake. The Three Little Mermaids were at it again, wading in the pool with a drink, and killing me softly with an execution of Shape of You.

No matter. It was time to rise, and the perfect segue to a late-afternoon hot-stone massage we had scheduled as our reward for enduring Ricardo’s two-hour spiel (At Your Service, Too).

By evening, we were totally relaxed and ready to celebrate our mock 13th anniversary over a langoustine dinner and a special treat from the pastry chef.

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It was everything I needed to forget about the miserable cold that plagued me through this vacation.

Many have asked, “Why on earth do you call it a vacation, when you’ve been on a vacation for the past ten months?”

To which I answer, “Who cares what it’s called!”

Come on now, follow my lead
I may be crazy, don’t mind me…

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Cheers, from Mexico!