10/21/2011 02:58 EDT | Updated 12/21/2011 05:12 EST

Town of Tequila waits for Pan Am visitors, hope Games show them the real Mexico

TEQUILA, Mexico - Paula Ocampo has lived in the same home for 55 years, a tiny three-room cubbyhole of brick and adobe tucked behind the well-guarded gates of the Herradura tequila hacienda.

The famous drink that flows through Mexico's veins has provided work and a home to three generations of Ocampos. She can't imagine living anywhere else.

"We live, we survive from the tequila industry," said Ocampo. "Tequila is good for us. I feel something really nice in my heart when I hear Herradura mentioned because I live here, my family works here, it's my life."

Ocampo is a tiny woman with shoulders bent from her 74 years. Her sun-drenched skin is a terracotta brown. The mother of five boys and three girls — all of whom have been employed, or still are, by Herradura — moved into the hacienda when her late husband was hired to run the old grinding wheel, a process of crushing the agave plants that has since become mechanized.

"The tequila made the old way was so good," she said. "No hangover."

Ocampo happily welcomes a stranger into her modest home, one of 18 rent-free employee residences within the 32-hectare hacienda that has its own medical centre and ambulance, two soccer fields, and a cemetery.

The distillery, one of more than 100 in Mexico that produce a combined 900 brands, is set against the backdrop of fields of the spikey, blue agave plants which are fermented to make the drink.

The hacienda conducts daily tours, and like other businesses near or in Guadalajara, it hopes to draw visitors who are in town for the Pan American Games, which run until Oct. 30.

Saul Perez, a tour guide at Herradura, believes the Games can help mend Mexico's battered image. More than 44,000 people have died in drug-related violence in the country in the past five years.

"People only hear about the drugs, the violence," said Perez. "We hope the Pan Am Games will show the real Mexico."

Ten minutes down the road, in the town of Tequila where the iconic drink got its name, a tour guide named Angel said he'd expected business to be booming. But the Pan Am Games are a week old, and for the most part, the tourists have yet to show up.

"We still have hope, maybe this weekend, next week," he said.

Angel blames the media as much as the violence for scaring tourists away.

"The news is bad, they tell you everything that's bad, shootings, killings, so people don't want to come," he said. "There are bad things going on, but if you don't really deal with arms or drugs, there are no problems. If you deal with the bad guys, that's when bad things happen."

Some 70 per cent of the 27,000 people in Tequila work in the tequila industry — a stat that becomes obvious the moment you step foot in the town.

Life-size tequila bottles adorn the doorways of stores along Avenida Sixto Grojon. The shops sell everything from agave cookies and syrup, to souvenir tequila barrels and bottles and, of course, the alcohol itself. There are too many brands to count.

The town boasts the Real Tequila Hotel and the National Museum of Tequila. A bus shaped like a giant tequila bottle carries tourists around the town. There's another bus shaped like a barrel. Still, with its cobblestone streets and 18th-century church that overlooks the main square, Tequila hasn't lost its Colonial charm.

Javier Rangel mans the counter of his father's small tequila shop. There's a poster of the Pan American Games on the wall behind the cash register, and he keeps a laptop on the counter to help him translate because his English isn't great. He hasn't had to use it.

"The people are in Guadalajara, no players, no people here," he said. "Maybe next week."

At distilleries such as Herradura and Jose Cuervo, guides educate tourists who arrive with preconceived notions of worms in bottles and wicked hangovers. (If there's a worm in the bottle, it's not tequila, it's mescal.)

Distillery visits are like the Niagara region's wine-tasting tours. Tequila is to be sipped not slammed. Salt and lime is an insult.

"It's not just about getting drunk," said Marco Mendoza, a server for Jose Cuervo, where a huge 2.5-litre bottle of Jose Cuervo Tradicional, in a brightly painted wooden box, will set you back just 600 pesos or C$44. "It's about feeling different things in your mouth, not the aggressive drink and drink and drink."

Large ceramic plaques in the town extol the virtues of the liquor that originated in the 1600s. Its worldwide popularity has led the town and its surrounding agave fields to be declared a Worldwide Heritage Site.

Agave is still harvested by hand by jimadores, whose craft is handed down through generations. Top jimadores earn up to 4,000 pesos — about C$300 — a week. The agave plants, which have tips so sharp it feels like being stuck by a needle if you brush up against one, stretch up to two metres tall. They grow for 10 years before the "pinas" —the plants' keg-sized pineapple-shaped roots — are harvested.

Tequila is a winding 60-kilometre drive from Guadalajara through lush green mountains and vast fields of agave — a sometimes treacherous trip by the looks of the ornate crosses that dot the roadside.

The Tequila Express also carries visitors from Guadalajara to Tequila, the ride coming complete with a traditional Mexican meal and live mariachi music.

Some 6,000 athletes from 42 countries are competing at the Pan Am Games, the largest sporting event in Mexico since the 1986 World Cup. Aurelio Lopez Rocha, director of the Tourism Administration of Jalisco State, told reporters he's predicting the number of visitors to the region could reach 800,000 with a revenue of 1 billion pesos (C$77 million).

Angel remains cautiously optimistic that Pan Am Games visitors will start showing up. He says they should listen to Canadians.

"Canadian tourists have a lot of positive thinking, they keep telling others, I go there every year and never in the 20 years I've gone has something happened," he said. "The people that have been coming, they keep coming."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An early version misspelled Paula Ocampo's name as Paula Ocampa.