Guadalajara – Mariachis, Tequila and the Mexican Hat Dance
by David Lida
David Lida is the author of Travel Advisory (Perennial), a collection of short stories set in contemporary Mexico.
It’s midnight in the open-air Plaza de los Mariachis in downtown Guadalajara. The city is the cradle of mariachi music, but not much noise is being made tonight. In fact, various groups of musicians idle in corners of the square, or repose at white plastic tables bereft of clientele. The brass studs on their tight black suits shimmer under the street lamps. One man tunes his trumpet, for his own benefit, it seems.
All of a sudden, a weathered fellow in a rancher's jeans and straw hat, drinking beer with three cheerful and chubby female companions, calls over the leader of one of the mariachi groups. After a protracted negotiation, the musician summons his collaborators - they are eight in all - and they begin a spirited version of “La Negra,” one of the great mariachi compositions, with piercing trumpets for the high notes and violins for the lyrical moments.
The rancher and his friends are not the only ones who are roused. The serenade prompts another table of patrons to hire a different group of mariachis to entertain them. Soon, yet another begins, and suddenly the three groups of warring entertainers are producing an unparalleled cacophony.
Guadalajara is not only the birthplace of mariachis, but it also claims tequila, charrería (Mexican rodeo) and el jarabe tapatío (the Mexican hat dance to you) as its deeds to cultural glory. Much of this glory – as well as history, tradition and folklore – can be found smack in the city’s downtown, in the neighborhood known as the centro histórico.
The centro is a brick-shaped labyrinth of spacious plazas, flowing fountains, majestic kiosks and roomy pedestrian walkways amid the glorious monuments – some dating back to the 16th century – of Mexico’s colonial era.
Roughly twelve square blocks, easily accomplishable on foot, Guadalajara’s centro is not a musty museum or a tourist’s Disneyland-from-another-century. It’s a living, breathing part of the city, where Guadalajarans – known as tapatíos – of every stripe gather to work, shop, eat and drink, get their shoes shined or listen to concerts.
A tour of the centro necessarily starts with its most august structure – the Cathedral. Built between 1568 and 1854 (the delays were due to earthquakes, fires and non-natural disasters, such as scarce pesos), it’s an oddly scrambled construction of Doric columns, Corinthian spires, baroque and neoclassical turrets, and twin towers that were ordered by a 19th-century bishop after he saw their model illustrated on a ceramic dish imported from Spain. The interior is a magnificent alloy of white paint and gilt trim, ornate chapels and profusely bloody Christs.
If you enter, however, make sure that your exit is assured. My wife and I were trapped here once, during a mass first-communion ceremony of 100 or so youngsters. Apparently the (earthly) powers that be thought it was tantamount to sacrilege to let anyone leave until the entire rite was finished, so they locked the doors on us.
Around the corner from the Cathedral’s entrance is the Plaza de Armas, with an 1890s Art Nouveau bandstand in its center. Guadalajara has always seen itself as Mexico’s most conservative bastion, so the bandstand caused something of a scandal when it was first unveiled, as it is adorned with women naked to the waist.
Every Thursday and Sunday the state orchestra gives free concerts of light classical music here at 6:30 pm – a tradition over a century old. In the early 1900s, a class-based strata dictated where you sat at these performances, with the city’s wealthiest denizens closest to the bandstand. Today, the custom is much more democratic (although when they burst into “The Skater's Waltz,” it’s not hard to pretend that it’s a hundred years earlier).
There’s music all over Guadalajara – in addition to the concerts, you'll find mariachis in the bars and restaurants, marimba in the public plazas, and strolling guitarists on the streets. At the ornate, 19th-century Teatro Degollado, local and visiting orchestras render classical compositions on a weekly basis.
Strolling through the pedestrian walkways of the Paseo Degollado and the Plaza Tapatía is an entertainment in itself. In addition to the musicians, you can watch comedians perform in front of gathered crowds – and you are as likely to be the butt of their Spanish-slang jokes as anyone else in the throng. Sitting attentively at small tables with typewriters, escritores públicos wait in the open air until their unlettered brethren hire them to write a letter. Old men, college students, secretaries sneaking a day off, and the otherwise unengaged read the newspapers, get their shoes shined, or sip tejuino, a refreshing local specialty, both sweet and salty, made from a corn base with lemon ices. (It’s sold from carts all over the centro.) On these walkways, you can also check your email at a cybercafe, have a drink or snack in an open-air restaurant, or get a free haircut at a beauty school (if you dare).
Guadalajara’s Regional Museum, around the corner, is well worth a visit. Set in a 18th-century building that was formerly a seminary, in the salons surrounding the lovely patios, you’ll find an eclectic collection – pre-Columbian art from Jalisco and the surrounding states; the skeleton of a mammoth that’s supposedly 20,000 years old; and religious art from the colonial era.
Outside the museum is a square known as the “garden of history,” where you can hire a horse and carriage that will take you around the centro for about $20 an hour. This plaza is also known as La Rotonda de Hombres Illustres, as it’s surrounded by statuary depicting Guadalajara’s most famous defunct citizens – scientists, statesmen, artists and revolutionaries. At night, the benches here are preferred spots for smooching lovers, a consequence some might consider creepy, as some those illustrious citizens are buried under the plaza’s hallowed ground.
Few would argue that Guadalajara’s most illustrious citizen of all was Jose Clemente Orozco, who along with Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros formed the triumvarate of great Mexican muralists. These were the artists who most boldly and notably transformed Mexican painting from a weak imitation of the Parisian salon school into something uniquely national (and nationalistic). Their original conception was a repudiation of easel painting, meant to “socialize art” and “destroy bourgeois individualism.” Their monumental works were meant to be admired by the masses and not an elite.
“It was given to us to take painting to the street,” wrote Orozco in his memoirs. “Good murals are really painted bibles.” Primarily in tones of red and grey – fire and earth – one of his greatest works can be found at the Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace) right around the corner from the cathedral. Hidalgo, círculo político y las fuerzas tenebrosas (Hidalgo, Political Circle and the Gloomy Forces) depicts Miguel Hidalgo, the priest who was the premiere figure of Mexico’s independence from Spain, brandishing a fiery stick and freeing the Mexican proletariat from its bondage. To the right and left of this image are semblances of the currents that caused Orozco the most consternation when he painted the work in 1937 – Nazism, fascism, communism and the Catholic church.
Orozco’s other great Guadalajara mural, Hombre de fuego (Man of Fire) is found in the central chapel of the Instituto Cultural Cabañas. Much of it depicts the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and by extension, the suffering 20th-century hordes.
An orphanage between 1829 and 1980, the Instituto Cultural Cabañas is an enchanting, sprawling structure built around 17 different patios. Today, in addition to Hombre de fuego, it is home to various Orozco canvases and sketches, as well as temporal exhibitions of contemporary art. Dance and music performances are also held here.
Around the corner is the Mercado Libertad, one of the largest in Latin America. It is one of Guadalajara’s oldest institutions, yet also one of its most contemporary, for here, among the products and produce you’ll find Mexico old and Mexico new. It’s easy to get lost in its confines and pass a couple of fascinating hours in the market. Among the products I considered buying: a battery for a watch; a saddle for a horse; a T-shirt depicting Olive Oyl stark naked in a compromising position; a parrot; a pair of green cowboy boots meant to be made of crocodile; a kilo of chicken feet; a plate of pickled pig’s hoofs, and a bar of soap that promised hair growth. Instead, I settled for a pair of huaraches and a lovely bowl of fresh fish soup.
A Consumer’s Guide to Guadalajara
Delicious dining, festive night life, myriad shopping options, comfortable lodging – all are available in Guadalajara. Forthwith, recommendations and advice:
One-Stop Shopping in Tlaquepaque
Do you like Mexican crafts? Want to buy your sweetheart a pair of silver-filigree earrings – or furnish a three-story house? Even if you’re just window shopping, you can do no better than in Tlaquepaque, a colonial village a ten-minute cab ride from Guadalajara’s centro histórico.
Principally on the pedestrian-only Calle Independencia, various colonial mansions have been restored into virtual warehouses of handicrafts from all over Mexico. Just about anything you can think of is available – from equipal furniture (made of bamboo and stretched leather) to papier-mache Day-of-the-Dead skeletons to handpainted talavera pottery to brightly-colored handblown glass. Among the standout shops are Ken Edwards (Madero, 70) for both traditional and modern pottery designs and J.J. Marquín (Independencia, 186) for hand-carved furniture. At La Rosa de Cristal (Independencia, 234) not only can you buy glassware, in most afternoons you can see artisans blowing it. Adobe (Independencia, 195) is remarkable for its size and dizzying selection.
Getting Around Guadalajara
Rest assured that, while Guadalajara is Mexico’s second-largest city, it hasn’t been plagued with the crime problem that the capital has suffered in the last few years. Still, it’s smart to take the same sort of precautions that you would in any large city – carry modest amounts of money and only one or two credit cards; don't display your cash, and be discreet about jewelry; don’t leave valuables unattended or handbags hanging on the backs of chairs.
The best way to get around the centro is on foot, but if you’re going any further, yellow taxis are the way to do it. They’re abundant, safe and cheap – I've never paid more than $5 for a ride within the city limits. A word of caution: While taxidrivers are supposedly obligated to use their meters, many of them don’t. If your driver declines to use the meter, be sure to set the price before the ride begins.
Where to Stay
Deluxe: Although there are no luxury hotels in the centro histórico, rest assured that on the city’s west side, less than ten minutes from the centro by taxi, there are several options with peak levels of pampering. You can hardly do better than the Camino Real (Avenida Vallarta, 5005; 3131-2424), which has just undergone a multi-million-dollar renovation. It’s a compound of one-story buildings set around abundant green space. With its lawns, fountains, tennis court and four swimming pools, it’s an urban oasis, and feels more like a country club than a city property. Doubles from $125.
Mid-Level: Hotel de Mendoza (Calle Venustiano Carranza, 16; 3613-4646). Built in a former convent, the De Mendoza is on a quiet street smack in the middle of the centro, two blocks from the Cathedral. Comfortable and calm, the decor is masculine and sober, with dark polished wood and a dusky palette. There’s a restaurant in the lobby and a swimming pool in the interior patio. Doubles from $85.
Economy: Hotel San Francisco Plaza (Calle Degollado, 267; 3613-8954). About five blocks from the Plaza de Armas, the San Francisco Plaza is built in a colonial-era building, with rooms surrounding four patios. Those facing the street can be noisy, and the interior rooms can be a bit close, but they are all spacious and, at $45 a double, it's one of Guadalajara's greatest bargains.
Santo Coyote (Lerdo de Tejada, 2379; 3616-6978). Guadalajara’s most fashionable restaurant is located on the swanky west side, a short cab ride from the centro. It’s always crowded, so call and reserve beforehand. Set around a lavishly verdant patio, among Santo Coyote’s best appetizers are a mushroom and shrimp sautee, or panela cheese in vinagrette. Standout entrees include filete Moctezuma – a steak in a sauce of cheese and huitlacoche (corn fungus, a Mexican delicacy) – and the molcajete con camaron, an enormous pot that includes sliced steak, sausage and shrimp, from which you fashion your own tacos.
El Sacromonte (Pedro Moreno 1398, 3825-5447). This restaurant, also in a lovely patio, made its fame for elegant preparations of traditional Mexican dishes. Among the standouts are quesadillas cibeles (in a strawberry and rose-petal sauce), mosaico de Goya (blocks of salmon and panela cheese in the form of mosaic tiles), pollo El Delirio (chicken stuffed with sauteed cactus and huitlacoche), and chamorrito tradicional – an enormous pork shank slowly cooked in a highly seasoned (though not spicy) sauce.
Birreria Las Nueve Esquinas (Colon, 384; 3613-6260). Many people will tell you that if you haven’t eaten bírria, you haven’t been to Guadalajara. It’s roast kid, shredded and served in a rich broth, along with various condiments (principally raw onion and various chile sauces). At this simply adorned restaurant – open for lunch only – located in the principal plaza of the Nueve Esquinas section of the centro (about six blocks from the cathedral) it’s absolutely sublime.
La Fonda de San Miguel (Donato Guerra, 25; 3613-0809). Set in the quiet patio of a former convent, with a stately stone fountain in its center, La Fonda serves excellent preparations of traditional Mexican food, some with a creative touch, such as the pechuga San Jonas, a superb chicken breast stuffed with seafood and served in a light tequila-cream sauce. Other outstanding options are the manchamanteles (pork loin in a fruit and chile sauce) and chile en nogada (a mild chile pepper stuffed with a mincemeat mixture, topped with a creamy walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds).
La Vida Nocturna
Copenhagen 77 (Marcos Castellanos, 140-Z; 3826-7306). Boasting a superlative Mexican jazz trio that plays old U.S. standards, this tiny bar-restaurant, with abundant mirrors, colorful mosaic tiles, red velvet banquettes and tuxedo-clad maitre d’, looks like the setting from an early James Bond movie. Even the menu is redolent of the 1960s – steak bearnaise, snapper almondine, and superlative paella.
El Cubilete (General Río Seco, 9; 3658 0406). On a quiet sidestreet in Nueve Esquinas (just about the only place open at night in this section of town), it’s a dimly-lit cave of a club with a long bar and tables. It will be very hard to stay seated in either section when the exceptional Cuban bands get into action; bring dancing shoes.
La Fuente (Pino Suárez, 78; no phone). This down-and-dirty cantina has 80 years of experience serving Jalisco’s traditional tequilas (try the Centinela Reposado, Cazadores, or El Jimador). The crowd is mixed – university students, bureaucrats in suits and ties, common card-carrying drunks. Most nights, a combo plays standards from the traditional romantic Mexican repertoire.