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Tequila to Rattle the Innards

Alcohol: A Mexican bar sells firewater from jars with a snake inside. The drink appeals to college students and people who say it's medicinal.

June 10, 2002|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ENSENADA — Dropping into Francisco Dario's cantina in a remote canyon southeast of this tourist resort can be perilous.

As the gray-haired jack-of-all-trades invites visitors into the establishment built in the shadow of Mt. Pico del Diablo, he warns them not to tap on a jar containing an angry rattlesnake.

But he doesn't seem too nervous about filling a shot glass with a wooden ladle full of the crude and fiery spirit tequila con vibora. Rattlesnake tequila.

Dario's hideaway may be the last in northern Baja California to serve this most elemental form of Mexico's national spirit--a folk remedy to many natives and a cross-cultural dare for hard-partying college kids.

In a country where much of the tequila industry has turned sophisticated--with handblown bottles and years of aging in oak casks--Dario offers a whole coiled rattlesnake soaking in every reclaimed juice jar on his bar.

There is nothing subtle about this rough elixir he serves up at the Rancho Agua Caliente, an 800-acre natural hot spring at the end of a dirt road off Baja's Highway 3, roughly two hours south of San Diego.

Sliding a brimming shot glass across his dark Formica-topped bar, the 46-year-old ranch manager smiles and urges: "Try it. It calms the nerves, and is a fine remedy for arthritis, kidney problems and cancer."

Laden with pinkish scales and snake pulp, it goes down like liquid fire.

Dario was taught how to make the stuff, which goes for about a buck a shot, by a previous manager who reportedly learned the process from a Japanese business partner.

Leaning on the bar, he said, "I catch a snake myself with a special stick. Then I drop it into a jar [alive] and fill it with a gallon or so of cheap white tequila."

In its death throes, the snake emits minute amounts of compounds with certain medicinal properties, Dario contends.

"After it's dead, I gut the snake and put it back in the jar," he said. "Then I put the jar in the sun for three months, then in the shade for three months."

"After all that, it's ready to serve," he added. "One snake is good for three years [of soaking]. I prefer red diamondbacks."

The fact that Dario's customers--who come from across Mexico as well as from Korea, China, Italy, San Francisco and Los Angeles--don't keel over on the spot may have to do with the product's exposure to sunlight. Rattlesnake venom breaks down in high temperatures, according to experts.

In any case, Dario's product is not unique. Alcoholic drinks featuring poisonous serpents are common "cure-alls" in rural areas throughout the world, said Russ Smith, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Los Angeles Zoo.

"In India, they use cobras. In Japan, pit vipers," he said. "These are relatively safe mixtures because the venom has to be injected into the bloodstream to be harmful."

Don Boyer, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the San Diego Zoo, is more concerned with the fate of the snakes.

"I've actually been to Rancho Agua Caliente and talked to the owners," he said. "I told them, 'I like tequila as much as anyone. But, gee, do you really have to kill rattlesnakes?' "

Locals, however, say tequila con vibora is disappearing from the cultural scene in Baja California, where the biggest cities are being rapidly transformed by new high-tech businesses, seaside developments and waves of retirees from the United States.

"In years past, every local cantina had a pickle jar full of it stashed somewhere; not anymore," said John Bragg, who keeps one of the world's largest collections of tequila, North America's first distilled spirit, at his Pancho's restaurant in Cabo San Lucas.

Among his more than 500 tequilas is tequila con vibora.

"We sell over 50 gallons a year of it at $4 a shot to mostly American college kids, who make a big deal out of it," he said. "Sometimes they make me haul the snake out so they can get a picture holding it."

Added Bragg: "That beat up old snake looks like a ragged piece of inner tube."

In the Ensenada area, however, rattlesnake elixirs are no laughing matter.

At the Centro Botanicas de Ensenada herbal shop, clerk Martha Saldivar said, "Some people eat rattlesnake meat to purify their blood. Others use rattlesnake oil to cure baldness. Some musicians put rattlers inside their guitars to improve the sound."

Occasionally, she said, her store sells rattlesnake corpses to customers who make personal batches of tequila con vibora.

Ricardo de Alba, who runs a business in Ensenada selling top-of-the-line tequilas to tourists, is among hundreds of locals who prefer to leave the production process up to Dario.

"Much of Mexico still believes in the healing powers of herbs and plants and other natural products, and Francisco is part of that tradition," he said. "I see him at least once each summer for a shot or two myself."

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