A fellow of the explorers club since 2011, Justin Fornal is an award-winning writer, whose prose has appeared in national geographic, whetstone, vice, men’s journal, and roads & kingdoms. His fieldwork has focused on vanishing cultural traditions, rituals, and ancient textiles. He is also a co-founder of the history, arts, & science action network (Hasan). Christopher Beauchamp’s projects have taken him to the jungles of Borneo, Newfoundland’s frozen fjords, giant gypsum caves in the Ukraine, and ebola wards in Africa. His work has appeared in National Geographic, Smithsonian, Men’s Journal, Vice, and Rock & Ice.
Since the beginning of 2022, Fornal and fellow Explorers Club members, Chad Anderson and Emiliano Ruprah, have led three expeditions throughout remote areas of Oaxaca, Mexico, to document vanishing cultural traditions—including the art of mezcal production. Their field research will be featured in the upcoming film The Mezcalarians.
This was not the first time our field team had been met with a blockade during our 2,400-kilometer research trip to document the cultural traditions of Oaxaca, Mexico, and we suspected it wouldn’t be the last.
Over the past few days, fixer extraordinaire Antonio Recamier, photographer Christopher Beauchamp, and I had witnessed breathtaking spectacles throughout Oaxaca and the nearby state of Guerrero—Afro-Mestizo Devil dancers of Cuajinicuilapa summoning ancestral spirits under the full moon; jicara artists in Pinotepa de Don Luis carving ancient Mixteca dreamscapes onto the dried fruits of the Crescentia cujete tree; and, just off the coast of Huatulco, we had documented one of the world’s last remaining artisans milking sacred purple dye from the marine snail (Caracol purpura). It can be argued that Oaxaca’s ethnic diversity, fierce landscape, and (until recently) lack of navigable roads has let it remain one of the greatest bastions of Precolumbian Mesoamerican culture and tradition on the planet. Oaxaca is also the world capital of mezcal.
The Oaxacan saying, “for everything good there is mezcal…for everything bad there is mezcal” rang true throughout our journey, as the revered spirit was central to rituals, dinners, business dealings, and even spiritual cleanses. Mezcal had asserted itself as the central thread that seamlessly tied our entire journey together.
Mezcal, technically speaking, is any distilled spirit produced by roasting and fermenting the piña (heart) of an agave plant. Agaves, also known as maguey, are large flowering succulents that thrive in dry desert climates. Typically, a crop of agave piñas are harvested, roasted, broken apart, and then submerged in water to ferment. This fermenting puree of sugar-rich roasted agave, water, and airborne yeast is called the mash. The mash is left to ferment uncovered for roughly four to ten days and is then distilled making
the clear, high-proof spirit known as mezcal.
While there are more than 200 types of agaves, only a fraction of that number have enough fermentable sugar to make them worth harvesting for mezcal. Tequila, for example, is made exclusively from the blue agave (Agave tequilana), which grows well in the Mexican state of Jalisco. While all tequila is mezcal, all mezcal is certainly not tequila. Arid mountainous pockets speckled throughout Oaxaca’s highlands are the perfect environments for agaves such as espadín, cuishe, and tobala to prosper. Over the past few years, the growing global obsession with mezcal has been approaching a fever pitch. Mezcal collectors and investors are demanding more and more spirits be crafted from rare and slow-growing agaves that produce only a few bottles per piña. Whereas an espadín agave takes only six years to mature and can produce around 20 bottles of mezcal per piña, the wild-growing tepeztate agave takes 25 years to mature and will only produce 5 bottles. It is theorized that over-harvesting could have a harsh impact on Oaxaca’s ecosystem and its denizens, including pollinator bats who rely on mature agaves as a source of food and fuel when they migrate. Conversations—and heated debates—continue between farmers, mezcaleros, scientists, politicians, and environmental groups on how to best address mezcal’s growing popularity while still enabling a sustainable future.
While the type of agave used to make the mash is the key component to a mezcal’s flavor, many other elements come into play, such as the source of the water, the type of distilling device (copper or clay), where the airborne yeast is coming from, and, perhaps most uniquely, in what type of container the mash is actually fermented. All these factors affect what ends up in the bottle. While most of Oaxaca’s roasted agaves will spend their time fermenting in oak wood barrels, in a few isolated villages, mezcaleros still use unique fermenting containers based on what was available to their ancestors. In some areas, mezcaleros still use large black clay pots or open pits carved into stone. In Santa María Ixcatlán we interviewed Amando Alvarez, a mezcalero who ferments papalome agave in cowskins that have been stretched over wooden frames. To my palate, the mezcal achieved a flavor akin to a blue cheese-stuffed olive served in an old leather wallet (in the best way possible, of course). After years of researching mezcal production techniques, it seemed that mezcaleros who ferment in anything other than oak barrels (or plastic) were getting harder and harder to find.
Among our research team, unique mezcal fermentation methods had become a bit of an obsession. This was the precise reason we found ourselves speeding toward the isolated mountain village of Sola de Vega, to follow up on a lead Antonio had regarding a mezcalero named Fidel. Rumor had it, Fidel was fermenting his agave in hollowed out ahuehuete (Taxodium mucronatum) tree trunks. The ahuehuete, also known as the Montezuma bald cypress or sabino tree, is deeply rooted in Precolumbian Mexican culture and is sacred to the Zapotec people. El Árbol del Tule, an ancient ahuehuete growing in Santa María del Tule, has been listed as the widest living tree in the world. While cutting down these sacred giants is illegal, his containers had been passed down through the family and were thought to be more than 150 years old.
The fact that Fidel’s palenque (mezcal distillery), known as Las Grutas (the caves), was eight hours from where we had eaten our fiery goat stew breakfast would not deter us. Our team was able to see a lot and cover great distances because we often drove instead of sleeping. A breakneck schedule was customary protocol in order to experience as much as possible and stay within the expedition’s budget. The plan was to reach Fidel by late afternoon, film an interview, buy his mezcal, and then drive on to Oaxaca City to meet the rest of our expedition team who would be arriving at the airport just after midnight. The schedule was tight, but doable. However, should one speed bump arise, the whole plan would be reduced to tatters.
That speed bump came in the form of the village of San Marcos Zacatepec.
With just two hours left in our eight-hour drive, we started to hit makeshift checkpoints. Local militia members urged us to turn around before reaching the Chatino village of San Marcos Zacatepec. It was located in the middle of a major protest and the residents had taken control of the only road through town. Absolutely no one was permitted to pass to the other side.
As we got closer and closer to the village, the warnings grew more and more dire. Local leaders flagging us down seemed confused that we hadn’t already turned around. As we approached the last checkpoint before the isolated stretch to San Marcos Zacatepec, we pulled over and weighed our options. Turning around would mean we were guaranteed to lose five hours out of our already tight schedule. The change in route would take us straight to Oaxaca City and eliminate any chances of documenting the ahuehuete-fermented mezcal. If we continued on, we risked being detained, having our gear confiscated, or suffering whatever fate a group of tired, grouchy, possibly drunken protesters felt like inflicting upon stubborn travelers who had dared enter their forbid-den domain. As serving expedition leader, the decision rested with me.
As it had so many times before, that which should have served as a deterrent had become the seductress. The thrilling uncertainty of conflict just beyond the forest ahead called like a siren song. San Marcos Zacatepec, a small, nondescript village that only hours ago had done little more than straddle our route had thrust itself into the white-hot spotlight as a mysterious land spilling over with defiant warriors and forbidden mysteries. I knew that to turn back and never know what pleasure or horror had lay just around the bend would haunt my dreams for eternity. What I had termed the “explorer’s disease” was fueling my brain with knee-jerk anticipation and gleeful obstinance. Over years in the field, I was careful to surround myself with explorers who felt the same mad urge for the unknown—however epic or trivial. Those in my past who had revealed an overzealous rationale to take the path of least resistance were rarely invited back for another journey. I had learned to align with hardened, swarthy creatures whose only true religion was bloodthirsty curiosity.
This was our route. We would stick to our route. We would trust the road to guide us to where we were meant to go.
“Hide the memory cards and extra passports.”
After a silent 20-minute climb up the empty pass, we saw a wall of trucks adorned with red spray-painted signs blocking the road ahead. As we slowed to a halt, an army of stern-faced men stormed out from a small plaza and swarmed the vehicle. We explained we were travelers who had heard of the blockade and had simply come up to learn about their concerns. The pugnacious group was taken aback that we were not actually asking to pass. Scowls turned to tired smiles as they explained how a larger village that was responsible for distributing funds from the government throughout the area had been holding them for themselves and that San Marcos Zacatepec was the only village with the courage to speak up. Long story short, the only road through the region ran through their town and they were holding it for ransom. They made it clear that as long as we did not try to get around their blockade, we were welcome to be guests in their village.
Parking the car, we approached the group and inquired if there were any special foods, drinks, sites, crafts, or people that were unique to San Marcos Zacatepec. The group erupted in raucous debate, and, when the dust settled, a consensus was met. We must visit La Piedra Mujer (“the ladystone”). A small lad no more than seven years old was assigned to us and led our three-man team down a series of winding staircases to a concrete chamber with a corrugated steel door and a hand-painted sign that read “Piedra Mujer.” The young man gave us a serious look beyond his years and pointed inside. He would go no further. We would soon find out why.
The door let out an ominous coffin-lid creak as we stepped into the darkness of the chamber. My nose was immediately filled with the perfumed fragrance of fresh flowers and my eyes delighted at the warm twinkle of flickering candles. These offerings had been left to honor and adorn the sacred artifact for which the small temple had been built. A large gray stone that resembled a human vulva.
The anatomical fertility shrine felt like something one might see in India or Thailand, so stumbling upon such a site in remote Oaxaca was a thrilling revelation. One of the older protesters appeared from the shadows and offered some insight.
“Legend has it that what you see here is the vagina of a giant who was turned to stone. The stone is very powerful. For hundreds of years the people of this village have been visiting the Piedra Mujer and asking her for help. People bring offerings and touch the stone when making their prayer. The stone used to be deep in the forest, but when they started building the main road, we knew it would get destroyed, so we moved it into town and built this small temple.”
“How may we show respect?”
“Touch it. You must touch the stone.”
Realizing that touching the stone in the wrong way or place could be an irreversible breach of etiquette, we begged our host to show the proper fashion by which to honor the stunning zaftig tabernacle.
The kind old man closed his eyes, gently pressed his hands against the stone’s outer curves and whispered a prayer in Chatino. We followed suit, all making our own private wishes. As sanctified as the atmosphere was, as I gazed deep into the shrine’s pet-rified chasm, my inner researcher could not help but wonder if those in dire need of exact results from the shrine had ever engaged in more petrophillian forms of worship.
Once we had clearly accepted the great ladystone as our queen and savior, we were officially considered guests of San Marcos Zacatepec. Our growing entourage whisked us away to an open-air hall where the town’s women were serving and eating porridge in preparation for a series of speeches that would be given by local leaders about the blockade. As we sipped our hot hearty meal from large clay urns, the crowd inquired as to the true purpose of our journey and chosen professions. We explained that we were filmmakers documenting different cultural traditions in Oaxaca who were en route to Sola de Vega. I inquired if there was a palenque in the village where someone was making pulque or mezcal in a locally specific manner that we might try and purchase. The group erupted into hushed whispers, all speaking the name, “Señora China.” This revered village elder was known as a powerful curandero (healer) who grew her own medicinal plants and brewed a homemade jackfruit tepache.
Tepache is an ancient Precolumbian fermented beverage usually made from pineapple rinds and piloncillo (raw brown sugar). Airborne or mother yeasts convert the sugar into alcohol, resulting in a refreshing fizzy kombucha-like cooler. Most low-alcohol, fruit-based ferments in Mexico are referred to collectively as tepache, including those made from corn, soursop, and, in this case, jackfruit. (Even the fermenting maguey mash that will be distilled to make mezcal is called tepache.) Due to her status as the local curandero, it was inferred that drinking Señora China’s tepache would bring about good fortune.
San Marcos Zacatepec, where have you been all my life?
Our young guide stepped forth once again from the group and offered to show us. He pressed a colander into the depths of the wretched stew and started pulling out fistful-sized globs of slime and casting them into the tall grass. I heard a muffled wince of genuine concern escape from Antonio, while Christopher was more direct in addressing his anxiety. Leaning in close he whispered in my ear, “If we drink that, we are going to die.”
We all gazed in macabre fascination as Mauro continued to dissect the alien mass. I attempted to reassure my friends that I alone would be expected to sip only a small sample, after which we would take the rest to go. I was quickly proven wrong as Mauro filled three extra-large solo cups to the point of spillage with the primordial muck. Knowing I may have brought a trip-ending pox upon my expedition team, I whispered the only compromise I could think of.
“Don’t worry, I’ll drink them all.”
As we sat on hand-carved wooden chairs in the garden sharing an audience with the señora, Mauro handed us each a warm cup of overflowing tepache. Staring into the opaque umber lagoon, I realized I had seen this liquid before. My mind was transported back to Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, a few months earlier, where I had made the bold decision to try every home-brewed tella (barley beer) I came across in the central market—whether served from a clay cup, a rusted tin can, or an old mop bucket. Children looked on in wonder while local brewers beamed with pride. It was a glorious day of friendship and fermentation.
While spiritually fortifying, I did end up ingesting a bacterium that, for 24 hours, left me with just enough power to pull my shivering cadaver across the lodge floor to the bathroom and back to bed. What was the first thing I did after emerging from my convulsing chrysalis? I went straight back to the market, drank more tella, and didn’t get sick again.
As I hoped, my day of violent illness was nothing more than a baptismal vaccine of gastrointestinal acclimation. A far worse fate would be to not celebrate, honor, or understand the offerings of one’s host. The germophobic naysayers of all that is visceral have convinced so many travelers that we must power wash our very path with hand sanitizer and have the entire world bend to appease our eating identity of the moment.
The tella, the tepache, and all handcrafted offerings of hospitality must be quaffed with gusto. The day I cower before any cup or plate is the day I burn my passport. “Giardia be damned,” I mentally cry out to the gods as we all take a slow, deep chug of the jackfruit tepache. There is a long silence.
“This is extraordinary!”
Christopher seconds, “Wow, that’s a nice surprise.”
Antonio added, “Señora China, your tepache is beautiful.”
The flavor we feared fell upon our tongues in the form of nirvanic soma that tasted like the señora had squeezed nectar from a stick of Juicy Fruit gum and then carbonated it. No sooner had we started frantically filling empty water bottles for the road than the tepache began to unleash its second blessing in the form of good fortune. A voice called from the front gate.
“Where are the filmmakers, where are the filmmakers?”
One of the lead protesters burst into the garden, stating that the committee had decided that if we would film their demands using our equipment and upload the footage to YouTube, they would let us proceed through the blockade and continue on our journey to Sola de Vega.
We rushed back into town and broke out our gear. True to their word, we were soon back in the car driving through a small opening the protesters had permitted in the blockade. While we had entered to cold stares a few hours earlier, we were now exiting to a throng of cheers, warm hugs, and hearty goodbyes from newfound friends. The road had indeed guided us where we were meant to go.
Within a few hours we reached Las Grutas palenque in Sola de Vega and were staring into the massive ahuehuete fermenting vats. The heirloom monstrosities looked like a combination between a dugout canoe and a shipping container. Master mezcalero Fidel lined up a collection of mezcal bottles in front of us with the featured agave printed boldly on each label. Tobala, barril, tepeztate, were all familiar standbys, however one label stood out from the rest.
“Whoa, I have never tried a javalin.”
Fidel smiled and filled my cup with a heavy pour.
“The javelin is my best mezcal.”
We all raised our glasses to the people of San Marcos Zacatepec, who had offered us great hospitality during their own time of conflict. I tipped the jicara cup to my lips and felt the beautiful 46-percent spirit warm my mouth with a cleansing heat. The weary tension of the road quickly transformed into calm reflection. What rare satisfaction that an arduous quest might be punctuated by the toothsome high note of mezcal.
Sensing my deep satisfaction, Fidel leaned in with a smile.
“Was it worth the journey?”
“It’s always worth the journey.”
A few days later, Antonio shared an online link to a Oaxacan newspaper that the village of San Marcos Zacatepec had reached an agreement with the surrounding villages and reopened the road. Perhaps our footage assisted in bringing these negotiations to fruition. Or, perhaps, Señora China’s tepache had worked just a bit more of its magic.