Last week, like many Bucerians, we ran for the hills. Our quaint town overrun by tourists, our favorite beaches unrecognizable as multicolored umbrellas, coolers and pick-up trucks blanketed the coastline. Where do many of these visitors come from? From the hundreds of small pueblos dotting the hills behind the Bay, where hard-working farmers have spent centuries transforming unforgiving mountains into livable communities. And as mountain folk head down to the beaches, us coastal folk often head up in elevation. The most popular of such nearby mountain retreats is the colonial town of San Sebastian del Oeste, designated a “Pueblo Magico” by the Mexican government. Driving up the steep, winding road to get there, one has the feeling of traveling back through history, as concrete turns to cobblestone, and roads narrow to the width of two burros. Ancient farmhouses with carved Parota doors and sprawling orchards accompany visitors to an ornate central plaza, where people have gathered for centuries to trade their wares and exchange news. The primary commodities sold are coffee and Raicilla, two magical elixirs distilled from plants growing wild in the surrounding hills.
Because it was Semana Pascua, San Sebastian was fully booked, and prices were sky high. Instead, we rented a large farmhouse (with beds for eight of us) in the nearby town of La Estancia de Landeros. A sleepy pueblo with one small grocer, a three-room primary school, a few basic restaurants, and roughly 200 inhabitants, La Estancia is a quiet gem that’s easy to miss. There is also minimal cell phone service and no WiFi. Our first night was like scenes from the TV show Intervention, as each of us came to terms with our tech-addictions and feeling cut off from the digital world. The kids whined for videogames and movies, while we adults surreptitiously glanced at our now useless phones, taking stock of all the habitual ways we depend on technology.
Before long, small cries of “we’re bored!” turned into elaborate games of baby dragons versus evil sorcerers, while the adults set our liberated attention spans to the slow and communal task of finding and preparing food. Starting with firewood for the grill and grinding spices in a Molcajete, what often takes minutes in the hustle and bustle of urban life took us several hours. As we worked with our hands, the conversation flowed and I learned details of my friends’ lives that I had never known, enduring the uncomfortable but worthwhile process of becoming fully present to one another.
One evening we sat for hours watching the sun fade and talking to a local entrepreneur, Jesús Eduardo Sánchez Enriquez, or “Lalo,” about the arduous process of making Raicilla. Brewed similarly to Tequilla and Mezcal, Raicilla is made only in the Jalisco Mountains, with about forty legal operations in the entire state (though hundreds of illegal ones). It takes Lalo and his crew at Hacienda Don Lalín roughly a month to produce a quality batch of Raicilla. From harvesting the wild Maximiliano Agave, to cooking the jagged stems for several days in a traditional clay oven, through a double distillation process (once with wood and once with propane), and finally left to age in wooden casks. It’s the careful distillation that makes Lalo’s Raicilla so smooth, and he works diligently to get the exact Ethanol/Methanol blend and making sure the natural sugar content is perfectly balanced. “Everything else is just Moonshine,” reminds Lalo, who claims that his Raicilla doesn’t cause hangovers and has been brewed in this traditional way for centuries. Eventually, the heat and exertion produce a pure essence that Lalo declares “better than any fine wine.”
And as we tested his theory later that night, board games and laughter replacing our usual screen-entertainment, I realized how crucial such time was in my life and the lives of my children. Our days in La Estancia consisted of nothing more than cooking, talking and walking—with some cool river play thrown in—and by the third night, we were all sleeping soundly to the silence of simpler times, having distilled our lives down to the essential ingredients that matter most.