The Vampiritos of San Luis Soyatlan

Your new Cinco de Mayo obsession.

Photo: Courtesy of Diana Spechler

If you've ever heard of San Luis Soyatlán in the Mexican state of Jalisco, it probably wasn't because someone told you, "You have to check out San Luis Soyatlán!" Sure, like all the little towns ringing Lake Chapala, Mexico's largest lake, San Luis Soyatlán in the city of Jocotopec is charming – a plaza, a tall white church, mountains visible across the water. It's a place you might stop to stretch your legs if you're driving around the lake, an easy day trip from Guadalajara; your more likely destination, however, would be touristy Mazamitla, the "Jaliscan Alps," a mountain town sprinkled with rustic cabanas. If San Luis Soyatlán rings a bell, it's most likely because someone urged you to go there for one reason only: to line up with hundreds of thirsty Mexican travelers for the town's signature drink: a vampirito.

Thanks to sangrita, a popular tequila chaser native to Jalisco, the drink is blood-red. Hence its name, vampirito: little vampire. Says Dr. Edgar Martin del Campo, expert in Mexican vampire folklore, "Vampires are a fascination in Mexico because of their roots in indigenous culture, clandestine relics from the darker side of native spirituality." Mexico does have some interesting vampires: There's Cihuateteo, the dangerous seductress; Chorti, who's permanently trapped in the past (his feet are screwed on backwards, pointing to where he's been); and Tlahuelpuchi, the shape-shifter who craves blood each month during her period and who, some say, can be repelled with a garlic enchilada. Some scholars believe that Mexican vampire lore originated with the Aztecs, specifically with the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca, "god of the smoking mirror." Jalisco is home to a thriving population of Huicholes, an indigenous group that descended from the Aztecs. So it's fitting that a Jaliscan town is responsible for making the vampirito so famous.

Vampiritos are available in bars throughout Mexico, but you'll never see a bustling scene like the one in San Luis Soyatlán, and the San Luis Soyatlán vampirito is widely known to be the most delicious. Often, several small vampirito operations set up shop outside in San Luis Soyatlán on the weekends, but the biggest, the one that's been around for more than 15 years, is an assembly line arranged on a few folding tables pushed together off the main road. Behind the tables, one person hands you ice inside the kind of plastic bag you might get if you won a goldfish. You hold your bag open and someone else doles out the orange and lime juice, sangrita, salt, and Squirt; a third person is rushing you to choose among four or five tequilas, and then yanking your bag away, jabbing a straw into it, tying up the top, and thrusting the thing at you.

Some vampirito diehards like to show up with a bottle of tequila to add their own shots (from experience, I can assure you that extra tequila isn't necessary), but on its own, a large vampirito will cost you 80 pesos, roughly four dollars and 65 cents. Once you've handed over your money, you can take your bulging bag and enjoy the sunshine and your salty, tangy cocktail. Or you can climb back into your car (the passenger seat, of course) and continue on your way to Mazamitla. Or you can drive the other direction to the funky hippie town of Ajijic and have dinner at La Mesa, the new restaurant with outdoor seating, fire pits, contemporary local art on the walls, and the best ceviche for miles. Or you can imagine yourself into Mexico's rich folkloric tradition: you're not a tourist swigging a vampirito; you're a vampire drinking its victim's blood.

If you finish your vampirito, your very human limitations will quickly remind you that you're not a vampire: you'll be stumbling a bit, not to mention looking for the nearest restroom. But you'll return to San Luis Soyatlán sooner than later because like a vampire who gets his first taste of blood, you'll be dreaming of vampiritos.

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