The two species of turkey that exist in Mexico are native to the Americas: domestic (Meleagris gallopavo Linnaeus) and wild birds known as pavo de monte (also called pavo ocelado or guajolote ocelado [Meleagris ocellata]), large animals endemic to the Yucatán. In addition to their biological value, they are still hunted for subsistence in traditional rural communities.
Turkeys have large, strong, robust bodies with blackish and coppery highlighted feathers, except for at the head and neck, which are bald and feature red and blue wattles. Some wild turkeys are also found in the Northern Highlands region.
Turkeys can be known as pavo, guajolote, güilo, cocono, choncho, chumpipe, gallo de la tierra, gallado de papada, pipila and totollin. The word guajolote derives from the Nahuatl huexolotl, huey big. Xolotl was a term that originally referred to monstrous beings.
Pre-Hispanic peoples ate turkey and valued it not only as food, but also as part of fire-related mythology.
The species was domesticated at least 4000 years ago, in temperate forest areas that surround the southern extreme of the Central Highlands. The earliest evidence of domesticated turkeys destined for food dates from between 2300 and 3000 years ago and is found at a number of locations in the Valley of Mexico Basin (Tlatilco, Cuanalan and Temamatla, in Mexico State). From there turkeys spread in all directions some 1500 years ago. In 1000 AD, the animals had reached the Zapotec region as well as the far north, and had spread throughout the Maya region by late pre-Hispanic eras.
Since then and to date, indigenous communities have used turkeys as a natural pesticide in milpas. They also reside in backyards as they fatten, to be cooked during the holiday season. In Mexico’s north, the Huachichil and Huamar peoples, principally gatherers, spare turkeys since they lead them to other food sources.
Europeans first encountered the birds in 1517, when explorer Francisco Hernández de Córdoba reached the Yucatán coast and observed large flocks. Later, Juan de Grijalva also discovered turkey populations further east; Hernán Cortés was told of guajolotes when he landed at Veracruz.
Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo took turkeys to Europe in 1523. The high value of their meat led the Council of Venice to decree that turkey be reserved exclusively for the tables of great nobility; as a response, farms were gradually established and the meat became cheaper in subsequent years. France was the second European country to cultivate a taste for eating turkey.
Spaniards called huexolotl turkeys pavos because of their resemblance to the European peacock. The English named the birds turkeys since at the time it was believed that anything exotic came from Turkey. In other countries it was called an “Indian cock” or a “Calcutta fowl.”
Turkeys were chosen over lamb in Europe as a traditional Christmas dish due to the tenderness and taste of their meat as well as to their greater ease of cooking.
The greatest production of the variety known as the “double-breasted” turkey is found in the Northern Highlands (Chihuahua and Sonora), designed to supply the end-of-year holiday market. So-called backyard turkeys are most often raised in the Central Highlands: Michoacán is the largest producer, followed by Texcoco in Mexico State (in organic form).
Mexicans consume turkeys at Christmas and at numerous other family and work-related celebrations. Meat is cut into pieces, cooked and added to different moles and pipianes; whole it is marinated in different sauces and then baked. Leftovers become stuffing in torta sandwiches and tostadas.


Mole de chiapas with turkey