Oaxacan Mezcal Aficionados: Embrace a Visit after Covid-19

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Autumn, 2020, and the rest of the year, as well as the entirety of 2021 and into 2022, will be critical times for tourism in southern Mexico’s state of Oaxaca. As an aficionado of Oaxacan mezcal, if you haven’t done so already, it’s incumbent upon you to seriously consider a visit to the state capital for your next vacation once the coronavirus is no longer an impediment, rather than traveling anywhere else in the world.

Aside from agriculture, Oaxaca’s economic fortunes rely on tourism and virtually nothing else. Over the past several years the city and central valleys have increasingly been relying on mezcal tourism. Spirits drinkers make a pilgrimage to learn about Mexico’s iconic spirit, while at the same time to buy at a fraction of the retail prices encountered outside of the state and throughout the rest of the world. And some arrive for business purposes (i.e. agave distillate brand development and documentary film production).

Aside from patronizing palenques, visitors support the economy through paying for lodging, meals, crafts, cooking classes, archaeological site admission, transportation; the list goes on. But beginning in March, 2020, tourism dropped to close to 0% of the state’s gross domestic product. Even snowbirds left, sometimes at the behest of their homeland governments.

Oaxaca has, to be fair, been accustomed to economic peaks and valleys. But until now (April, 2020), mezcal tourism has been immune to the ravages of, for example, the 2006 civil unrest, the (Mexican) swine flu (H1N1), the US economic crisis, the warring drug cartels, and zika. “Regular” tourists would stop coming at the drop of a dime, and simply defer visiting to experience Oaxaca’s renowned cuisine, its craft villages, the plethora of pre-Hispanic ruins, and all the rest, until foreign state departments and (predominantly) American media stopped warning readership. But the mezcal visitors seemed immune from that fear-mongering. However this era is different from the rest. This time agave spirits aficionados don’t even have the option of visiting.

Oaxaca is now in the deepest valley imaginable, akin to a black hole. But it can emerge, with your help.

Palenqueros are still working, but sales have slowed significantly. In many cases those with access to the export market cannot get their mezcal or destilados de agave into other countries. One palenquero beginning an export project into Canada, is all ready to go. The mezcal is bottled, sealed, labelled and on pallets. Canada Customs and Immigration will not allow it into the country, so it sits in San Juan del Río, waiting.

And of course, with no visitors arriving to Oaxaca, those distillers who rely on foreigners who visit their palenques for sales, have no revenue coming in. Even Oaxacans and other nationals are not visiting the villages to buy for their own or re-sale consumption. Over the past three weeks I’ve spoken with palenqueros from Santiago Matatlán, San Dionisio Ocotepec, San Pablo Güilá, San Baltazar Chichicapam, Santa Catarina Minas and San Juan del Río. To their credit these producers are taking it all in stride. But regretfully some do not recognize the gravity of the pandemic; and that it can impact them, their friends and their families, at any moment.

As of April 23, 2020, the state of Oaxaca had registered “only” eight deaths, three of which have been in the central valleys.

Many mezcal aficionados, even those who have previously visited Oaxaca, prior to arriving have had no idea of the breadth of Oaxacan offerings, wrongly assume that we have mezcal and little more. And so they visit alone or with friends, leaving partners and children behind. Not everyone in a family enjoys spirits.

In an effort to convince your family that they should vacation with you, explain about:
• the pristine beaches of Huatulco, just a 35 minute flight from the city
• the world renowned reputation of Oaxacan cuisine with its rich, diverse and flavorful moles, and tlayudas
• the state’s 16 distinct ethnic groups each with unique customs including food, dress and language
• the city’s colonial architecture, museums, shops and markets
• the numerous nearby craft villages producing pottery, textiles, hand-hewn wooden and metal products
• facilities in the city for children of all ages
• the ecotourism villages for swimming, horseback riding, fishing and hiking
• the numerous special events throughout the year including the wild mushroom festival, Night of the Radishes, Day of the Dead

Buy a copy of the Moon Handbook on Oaxaca, even a dated edition that you can find on the internet for a very modest price. You’ll come to learn that even if you have been to Oaxaca several times, guaranteed there are nearby sights you didn’t know existed. Almost three decades later I’m still soaking it all up.

Come for a visit; for the first time, or a return. Meet and chat with hardworking palenqueros the names of whom might already be familiar to you. Experience their small, roadside distilleries, modest homesteads and quaint villages (try to get off the beaten track; the “ruta de mezcal” is rather limited, with all due respect to government). Witness all stages of traditional copper alembic distillation and ancestral clay pot production.

You’ll be supporting the restaurant and bar employees who have not received a gratuity for months; the retail employees who have been without any income; chambermaids who have not cleaned a room from April onward, lodgings closed and shuttered; the craftspeople in the villages who have not seen a tour guide for months. Even gas station attendants with seniority are feeling it, working half the shifts as previously.

Oaxaca will inevitably continue to suffer, but you can make a difference. Some travelers may defer visiting “just to be safe.” Others will concentrate on putting their economic lives back together. And still others will not have accumulated that extra disposable income or vacation fund for a couple of years. But once you are in a position to travel again, make Oaxaca your first choice of destination.

Visiting will make you feel just a little better about yourself because of those you’ll be helping.

alvin starkman, mezcal

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

All our Oaxaca mezcal tours are fully customized to meet the passions, desires and interests of individuals, couples, business partners and groups. If  you want to learn about mezcal, purchase at a fraction of retail prices you are accustomed to paying, and/or learn about the culture of rural Zapoteco mezcal distillers and their families, then this is for you. These excursions are anywhere from a few hours in duration (the most popular being single day excursions to visit a number of artisanal factories, known in Oaxaca as palenques) up to weeklong vacation packages for the most ardent of spirits, fermented beverage, and Mexican cuisine aficionados.