This article is from the February 2000 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Guadalajara, Where Mexico Gets Real

by Karen Kressin

Karen Kressin, a longtime Mexico File contributor, lives in Kansas and has a special fondness for another mid-country setting, Guadalajara. Karen contributed a two-part article on traveling with kids to Mexico which began with the May 1998 issue. She can be reached by email at karen@kressin.com

All Mexicophiles should visit Guadalajara. Really. Most Mexicans live in cities, and not every Mexican is a waiter, artisan, or hotel maid. The middle class and the rich live and work in the cities. Cities make Mexico tick. Like the blind man examining the elephant, travelers who limit themselves to picturesque villages and beach resorts cannot get the whole picture. To understand Mexico, you have to experience its modern cities, and Mexico’s best big city, in my opinion, is Guadalajara. It is cleaner, quieter, and safer than Mexico City. It is home to much that is “real” Mexican –  mariachi music, the Mexican hat dance, and tequila, for example. It typifies, more than any other place, the blends of Indian and Spanish, traditional and modern, that make up this complex and fascinating country.

Guadalajara is where I fell in love with Mexico. In 1966 my mother and I moved there to spend a year while my father was away fighting the Cold War. Last summer my husband, children and I spent three months there learning Spanish, and I'm still sold on Guadalajara.

By road, Guadalajara is seven hours from Mexico City – and five hours from lots of other places, including Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, Zacatecas, Querétaro, Guanajuato, and Morelia. Its airport receives direct flights from the United States. It is possible to start a visit to Mexico by flying to Guadalajara, or to make a sidetrip to Guadalajara from another city or from the Pacific coast. You will need at least three days to get a taste, but you may find you want to stay longer.

What To Do in Guadalajara

Guadalajara’s main tourist attractions lie between its photogenic cathedral and Mercado Libertad, with Hospicio Cabañas Cultural Institute and the walking street known as Plaza Tapatía in between. The main spots are close together, so there’s no need to rush around to fit everything in. Take a relaxed attitude, put on your walking shoes, and get to know Guadalajara on its own terms. Sit in one of the four plazas surrounding the cathedral (Guadalajara has no single zócalo). There are band concerts three evenings a week in Plaza de Armas, and street bands play traditional Mexican music on marimbas and Simon and Garfunkel on native pan flutes. Walk along Plaza Tapatía. Check out the Orozco murals in the government palace and Hospicio Cabañas.

Take your camera into the Mercado Libertad, where they sell positively everything. You will find regional clothing and consumer electronics, tourist schlock and kitchen utensils, beautiful vegetable stands and smelly butcher shops. Ask someone where the traditional medicines are and look for dried bats. Buy a fruit you have never tasted and take it back to your hotel to wash in purified water and peel. Next door to the mercado is Plaza de los Mariachis, where you can hire a band for about $6 to play you a song while you have a drink and eat a snack such as pozole (hominy soup with chunks of meat) under an umbrella. Ask them to play “Guadalajara.” Or maybe just listening to other people’s songs will be enough for you. Hire a horse-drawn calandria near the cathedral for about $12 and ask for the tour of the historic city as opposed to the modern city, so you don’t end up mired in traffic on Guadalajara’s truck route. To counterbalance the “traditional” with some “modern,”go to one of the glitzy malls (I recommend Gran Plaza) and mingle with Guadalajara’s young, hip, and well-off.

The two nearby villages of Tlaquepaque and Ajijic offer a dose of Mexican rural charm combined with arts and crafts. Both feature shops located in historic houses on cobblestone streets. Tlaquepaque is now surrounded by the city. You get there by catching a city bus (30-60 cents) downtown on Av. 16 de Septiembre. Ajijic is on Lake Chapala, south of the city. Buses leave from the old central bus station near Parque Agua Azul about every half hour, costing about $2.50. Ajijic has many artists and lots of U.S. and Canadian retirees. The same bus station also has buses to the town of Tequila, where you can tour a distillery.

On Sunday or Thursday, you can go by city bus to the suburb of Tonalá and experience an enormous outdoor bazaar offering interior decorating items, glassware and ceramics, clothing, food, craft supplies, and novelties. Arrive early to avoid some of the crowd. A nice place to research local crafts before you buy is Casa de Artesanías, a combination museum and store run by the state of Jalisco. It is located south of downtown near Parque Agua Azul. Occasionally there are temporary arts-and-crafts stands downtown. There was a two-week festival of Oaxacan art last summer, for example. Huichol Indians are always set up to sell beadwork and other items on Plaza Tapatía.

Guadalajara offers pastimes where you can rub shoulders with ordinary Mexicans spending their leisure time. I recommend the rodeo (charreada), the bullfight, and soccer (fútbol). Inquire around to find out when events are and how to get tickets. The box office of each venue is a good place to start. I have tried all these events, and the atmosphere in the stands was a big part of my enjoyment. Teatro Degollado east of the cathedral offers musical and dramatic events. So does Hospicio Cabañas Cultural Institute. These are well-advertised. Both places also have ballet folklórico troupes that give weekly performances. As a rule, in Mexico you cannot simply make a telephone call to get information. Often you have to inquire in person, and this presents an opportunity to explore. An expedition to the soccer stadium or bull ring by bus to ask about tickets doubles as a cultural experience and a morning’s activity.

In fact, my all-time favorite way to experience the life of Guadalajara is to ride the city bus. It’s easy – just hop on a bus, any bus that has a seat for you, and ride it to the end of the line and back. You may or may not be asked to pay again at the turnaround point. I recommend the regular-priced buses, not because of the minuscule savings, but because the deluxe buses aren't as much fun. If you are lucky you will be serenaded by an itinerant guitar player and get to see a rural población at the end of the line, complete with cobblestone streets and horses. The entire ride may last two to three hours, but you’ll eventually return to your point of departure. Don’t stare at your fellow passengers, of course, but it is perfectly OK to stare out the window and peek into open doorways as you go by. Interesting routes include the one that goes west to Ciudad Granja, as well as the one that goes southeast from Tlaquepaque to San Martín de las Flores. If the bus driver gets concerned that you look lost, just assure him that you are “solamente paseando.”

Where to Eat

Another great way to spend time in Guadalajara is eating dinner at one of the many fine restaurants in this world-class city. I suggest eating your dinner every day at comida-time (2 to 5 in the afternoon). This gives you time to walk off your large meal before bedtime. A big breakfast will have fortified you until then. The waiters in a Mexican restaurant will never hurry you to leave. In fact, if you don't ask for your check before they clear your last plate, they will disappear, and it will be hard to get someone’s attention when you do want your check. Comida can easily last two hours or more if the conversation is good. I also suggest that wherever you eat, you ask your waiter what aguas frescas are available that day. These are refreshing non-alcoholic cold drinks. Common examples are horchata (made with rice, sugar, and cinnamon), jamaica (tart-and-sweet hibiscus tea), limonada (fresh lemonade) and naranjada (fresh orangeade). Sometimes they’re also made with fruits such as strawberry or watermelon.

Three outstanding restaurants are downtown’s La Fonda de San Miguel and Tlaquepaque’s Casa Fuerte and Restaurant Sin Nombre. All have picturesque courtyard settings and serve fantastic gourmet regional food. They are expensive for Mexico, so your fellow diners will tend to be middle- to upper-class Mexicans celebrating something or another. Expect to pay $7 to $13 per entree. All three places have live music. La Fonda de San Miguel's complete menu including prices is posted on the Web at www.acomer.com.mx 

Less expensive, and charming in their own way, are El Mexicano (homey local specialties such as birria, a meat stew, and tortas ahogadas, “drowned sandwiches”) on Plaza Tapatía, Los Itacates (colorful decor with Mexican goodies such as chiles rellenos) on Av. Chapultepec near Av. México, and La Chata (Mexican specialties, including breakfast, in a bright, richly-decorated environment) about two blocks south of the cathedral on Corona.

Less expensive still, and favorites of ours, are Pipiolo and Las Vias. Both have multiple locations. Our Pipiolo was near the entrance of the Universidad Autónoma near the Plaza Amistad mall. Have a taxi take you there. You choose your type of meat (fillet of beef, pork loin, etc.) and they bring it to you grilled to perfection with a bottomless basket of fresh warm tortillas and pots of salsa and guacamole. Spicy pickled carrots and onions and broiled baby onions round out the accompaniments. Besides soda pop and beer, they also have horchata served in earthenware mugs. The meat is so tender and fat-free that we came to regard it as comfort food.

Las Vias has two locations in western Guadalajara, technically Zapopan. One is at the intersection of Patria and Inglaterra on the railroad tracks (hence the name). The tracks cross over Patria on an overpass, so your taxi driver will have to hunt a little. The other one is on Av. México across from Plaza México, a pleasant mid-sized mall. Las Vias has traditional Guadalajara fare – meats ranging from carne al pastor to steaks and chicken, with beans and rice as accompaniments. Its most spectacular offerings are colorful aguas frescas served in enormous ball-shaped stem glasses. There is a chalk board advertising what is available each day. I remember jamaica, horchata, cantaloupe, mango, pineapple, strawberry, tamarind, watermelon, papaya, and guanábana (a white-fleshed tropical fruit). They cost a little over a dollar and are quite luxurious. My family and I drank gallons of these last summer and never had any stomach upset, not even with the strawberry. Las Vias must be famous for these drinks, because we saw people stop in and get a drink to go – in an enormous plastic bag with a straw. Las Vias also serves breakfast, offering fruit plates and an array of Mexican-style eggs and other dishes.

Be sure to try the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet offered every day at the high-rise Hotel Mision Carlton at the intersection of Av.16 de Septiembre and Av. Niños Héroes. Served in a lovely glassed-in dining room overlooking the hotel’s secluded lawn and swimming pool, the fare includes fresh fruit, juices ranging from orange to celery and beet, cold cereals, yogurt, menudo (on weekends), meat and vegetable dishes in the steam trays, eggs cooked to order, freshly made tortillas, and delicate sweet rolls, muffins and banana bread. The cost is about $6US for adults, and children are half price. La Chata, mentioned above, La Rinconada, located in an elegant colonial mansion on Plaza Tapatía, and Carnes Asadas Tolsa, several blocks south of the landmark Gothic church El Expiatorio on Enrique Díaz de León, serve breakfast also.

Carnes Asadas Tolsa is the perfect place for dinner if you like meat. I can still taste their filet mignon – juicy, tender, and mushroomy – for about $7. Guadalajara is in ranch country, and its typical food is carne asada, literally “grilled meat” – and this restaurant, in business at least since 1966, has uniformly well-prepared examples of many types. An item to try, even if you don’t drink tequila, is their house-recipe sangrita (not to be confused with sangría), a tomato-chili-and-orange-juice tequila chaser that is quite nice to sip all by itself.

After comida at any of these restaurants, you probably won't need much of an evening meal. I have two suggestions for an evening snack if you want a little something. One is to drop by Panificadora La Nacional, a bakery a few blocks west of the cathedral, and pick up one or two pastries. They are the best in the city – far better than the ones in the supermarkets. No one will mind if you eat them on a bench in a plaza.

Another option is ice cream. Around town there are numerous branches of four very good ice cream and sherbet chains: El Polo Norte, Tepoznieve, Bing, and Dolphy. You will find exotic sherbet flavors with fanciful names like “siren's song,” “Xcaret” and “queen of the night” at Tepoznieve. It also has wonderful jamaica (beautifully red, tart and sweet) and limón sherbets. The corn (elote) and pumpkin seed (semilla de calabaza) flavors at El Polo Norte are good-tasting and good to impress the folks back home. Bing and Dolphy serve mostly flavors you have heard of before.

A delightful indulgence for chocoholics is Arnoldi, offering exquisite truffles and other chocolate candies, as well as fancy cakes. It has at least two branches, one north on Av. López Mateos near the intersection with Av. de las Américas and the other in Plaza del Sol.

Where to Sleep

When I travel, I have three primary goals – great food, picturesque lodgings (I am a sucker for gardens and courtyards), and relatively low cost. Even if you have money to burn, aiming for accommodations in the middle price range puts you in closer contact with the real life of a place. Also, you often find yourself in a prettier hotel. A high-end international chain hotel could be anywhere--Hong Kong, Omaha, Guadalajara. When in Guadalajara, I want to BE in Guadalajara.

An excellent place to stay is Hotel Isabel Residencial, about a mile west of downtown near El Expiatorio (and Carnes Asadas Tolsa). It has a swimming pool surrounded by a lawn and flowering bushes, with poolside seating for its very good small restaurant. Although the hotel provides plenty of interior parking, the cars do not detract much from the garden atmosphere. Rooms are about $30 double, with discounts for longer stays. Reservations may be necessary at peak times. There are some kitchenettes.

If you enjoy historic buildings, stay downtown at Posada Regis. This second-story residence-turned-convent-turned-posada two blocks south of the cathedral could be the setting for a Gabriel García Márquez novel. It has twenty-foot ceilings, a natural-light courtyard filled with lush potted plants and white walls with salmon and gold archways and moldings. The outside rooms have balconies over the street. I showed a picture of the lobby to a friend who has traveled often to Mexico on business and has always been put up in sterile, expensive “Holiday Inn” type hotels, and he exclaimed, “How do you find these places?” Double rooms are $21 per night. Discounts are available for longer stays. There is a public parking garage next door.

Two more modern and upscale downtown hotels are Hotel La Rotonda and Hotel de Mendoza. Both have parking. Step outside La Rotonda and you will see the yellow dome of the cathedral, just a block away. It has a pretty patio with rooms around and above it and a small restaurant. Doubles are about $50. You can’t tell from the lobby, but Hotel de Mendoza has a swimming pool in its courtyard, making it a special place for downtown lodging. Some of the rooms have balconies overlooking the pool. Doubles run about $80 per day. 

My philosophy about hotel reservations in Guadalajara is – Don't bother. The reservation process is costly whether you use a travel agent or try to send a deposit by Western Union. Instead, arrive in town by early afternoon and investigate the places yourself, one by one. Start cheap, if you like, and move up to a higher price range if rooms are not available. You might have to reserve your first choice place for a few days down the line and stay in your second or third choice for a while. In a city as large as Guadalajara, the worst case scenario is not that you’ll have to sleep in a park, but that you’ll pay more for a hotel without charm. This risk is highest during school vacations (July and August), Easter week, and major festivals – but apparently not at Christmas, when most Mexicans seem to celebrate at home. If you drive to Guadalajara, I also suggest that you find a safe place to park your car, leave it there, and then set off to explore the city without it. This makes for a much more carefree experience. The crazy traffic demands the best driving skills, and besides, Guadalajara has a lot of vehicular underpass tunnels that slip underground and then resurface, like intergalactic wormholes, a long way away, much to the unsuspecting driver's surprise. Not all maps show them.

And besides, you should be riding the bus!