On the party train: Riding the Tequila Express

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GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- This city isn't an early riser on Saturdays, but by 10 a.m. passengers are gathering in the waiting hall of its train station.

They're about to board the Tequila Express, which is no ordinary commute. The train is bound for the base of a 9,000-foot extinct volcano, Volcan Tequila, where the town of Tequila lies.

Most of the town's 20,000 inhabitants busy themselves in the production of -- yep, that's right, tequila.

This weekly train ride is known locally as "the party train." Living up to that name, a 10-man mariachi band, its brass horns emphatic as a train whistle, starts the crowd swaying.

The band is well received by the 75 or so passengers, most of whom are Mexican. Suddenly the band is on the march, followed by passengers who fall in line as they head toward the train tracks.

Trains began the Guadalajara-Tequila route in 1922. This one ambles to its destination, stretching out the short journey to an hour and a half.

The mariachi band drifts from car to car while porters pass watermelon and paprika-dusted cucumber slices.

It's surprising how quickly the train moves into remote countryside. The sparse, rugged terrain begins to fill with bursts of sharp, turquoise-blue spikes.

This punk-rock lord of the landscape is agave, a closer relative to lilies than to cacti. Of nearly 200 varieties, the king is agave tequilana weber azul, whose juice is double-distilled into tequila.

Warning for clients: Passengers on this journey have the chance to sample the product all day long, so they may want to pace themselves.

The entertainment during a day in Tequila includes dancers in the town square. The town of Tequila itself -- much of it adobe, with unpaved or cobblestone roads -- conveys old Mexico with authenticity. Train riders join others near the town square's gazebo to watch beautifully costumed dancers.

At the distilleries, visitors can view the custom of mashing the agave with a huge millstone pulled by a burro.

Tequila is a company town mostly owned by the Cuervo and Sauza families. The local Sauza museum reveals how intertwined the history of Mexico is with agave juice. The drink was intermittently in and out of official favor, depending on when it was regarded as a threat to Spanish wine.

Activities in Tequila vary by season. During the Day of the Dead celebrations in early November, guides dress up as ghosts. In early December, the National Tequila Fair showcases parades, cock fights, mariachi serenades and rodeos.

Those who hike surrounding ridges will find pines, oaks, madrones and redwoods (short in this climate and altitude) and 60 species of birds.

While hiking, one must watch out for several pitfalls. The rocks are often obsidian, the glass formed from leftover lava from the volcano. There's also the danger of backing into a bloodthirsty agave spike.

The day culminates with a large cookout on the town's outskirts. Another mariachi band plays, comedians perform and there's a dance contest. The crowd dances until the 6 o'clock boarding time.

For many, the trip home is more subdued, though diehards continue to dance. The train arrives in time for a night out on the town, for those who want to continue the party.

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For more details on this article, see On the Wagon: Tequila Express.

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