Two characters come to mind when I think back on our recent trip to Guadalajara. One was a slightly seedy, tequila-saturated old guy who hung around the stairwell in Guadalajara’s municipal palace, collecting tips for talking about the ceiling murals. I’ll call him Ramon. Ramon spoke eight languages, he claimed, although all I heard was annoying English and irritating Spanish (and a smattering of Russian), as he bossily herded my wife and daughter and I and half a dozen other visitors across the landing, to improve our perspective on the images overhead. We don’t take to being herded, and would have been out of there fast if it weren’t for the subject matter. However, the ceiling murals in this particular palace were painted by Jose Clemente Orozco in the 1930s—and the main event is a fiery portrait of Miguel Hidalgo, the revolutionary priest who freed the slaves of Mexico in 1819. Ramon claimed, believably—he was a fairly ancient fellow–to have gotten the inside scoop on these murals from none other than Orozco himself.
Such are the charms of old Guadalajara, so steeped in history it feels, at times, not like the new world but the old. Or it did until we walked out of the palace into the Plaza Guadalajara in search of ice cream. This small plaza—small, that is, compared to the vast acreage of the nearby Liberation Plaza, on the other side of the imposing municipal cathedral—is graced with abundant shade trees, fountains, and sidewalk cafes. Outside one of these cafes we met another memorable dude—Eduardo Scissorhands. This muchacho was a perfectly executed vision of Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands, from the movie of the same name, complete with black lipstick, black leather clothes, spiky black hair and seriously bladed hands. Senor Scissorhands was supercool, and since my 12-year old daughter Jade has not seen the movie, she was impressed and a little scared by this strange character, who gazed at us enigmatically, spoke not a word of English or Spanish, but had a faint twinkle in his eye as he basked in our attention.
So it goes, as old meets new in Guadalajara—the Spanish name derives from an Arab phrase meaning “river running between rocks.” Guadalajara is often called Mexico’s second city, after the larger and more cosmopolitan Mexico City, but for many Guadalajara is the most “Mexican” of all. Mariachi, for example, is a music developed by the early Mestizo (mixed Indian and Spanish) culture of Guadalajara, as European culture was forced on the native tribes. Forced or no, the end result, mariachi, Guadalajara’s house music, comes in a rhythmic, emotion-packed style that is singularly Mexican, which is to say, a powerful, lively blend of Native American and European influences.
These commingled influences go way back. Guadalajara was founded in the year 1542 in what is now the historic center of the city, and it is here, in the ancient center, that visitors seeking to unravel Mexico’s mysteries will find the most intriguing places.
Driving to Guadalajara from our home in Sayulita on the Pacific Coast, we pushed against the tide, as seemingly half of the 2 to 4 million (depending on how many suburbs you count) Guadalajarans were headed in the opposite direction, intent on spending Semana Santa, or Easter Week, Mexico’s biggest holiday, at the beach. We on the other hand were fleeing the crowds that would soon take over our little beach town. An easy ride over the mountains on the Cuota, or toll road, took us through the glittery lava fields surrounding Volcan Ceboruco, and across the high desert past Tequila (the city, and first home of the beverage), ending with a straight shot on relatively untrafficked avenues, zooming through the burgeoning high tech office parks and convention arenas on the city’s west side—sprawling Guadalajara is fast becoming known as Mexico’s high tech and convention center–into the old city.
There, Jade and Donna and I checked in to the venerable Hotel de Mendoza, an inviting if slightly eccentric old place, with an unbeatable location just steps away from the plazas and historic buildings of old Guadalajara. The short version: charming lobby, decent restaurant, smallish but well-furnished rooms, bad water pressure, not such great views, all problems rendered less problematic by the killer location.
Across the street from the 400-year old, re-purposed convent that houses the hotel lies the Degollado Theater, constructed between 1856 and 1866. This neoclassical gem is worth a walk-through (open to the public for free tours, 12-2pm Tues to Sat, non-performance days only) even if you skip the show—the interior has been finished and refinished over the decades, with a number of striking murals.
The Degollado’s monumental quality is enhanced by surrounding open spaces—the theater’s façade towers over Liberation Plaza, with its dramatic statue of Miguel Hidalgo (In Mexico, you come to realize this iconic figure is everywhere, like Washington or Lincoln in the USA). The city’s Baroque-style central cathedral, erected between 1561 and 1618, anchors the plaza’s other end. Encircling these plazas are Guadalajara’s grand historic buildings–the municipal palace, the palace of justice, the regional museum, the city museum, and the governor’s palace. Each of these buildings houses not only a functioning element of government, but also serves as a museum. Hence the Orozcos on the ceiling.
Easter Week in Mexico is not like any other week, we quickly discovered. On one hand, since most everybody’s gone to the beach, the crowds are sparse, so there are no lines and you can do everything at a leisurely pace. On the other hand: many Mexicans take their Catholicism seriously, and Easter Week (I am not a church-going man) is prime time. For example, one evening, outside the cathedral, we watched a man crawl slowly across the plaza, up the steps, and into the church on his bloody hands and knees. He looked like he had crawled all the way across town if not the state of Jalisco. This self-inflicted suffering offered a strange vision to my daughter and wife and me—far scarier than Edward Scissorhands with those bladed fingers and innocent eyes. But still, we couldn’t take our eyes off of him. “What is he doing?” my daughter asked. “Seeking a state of grace,” I answered, “In the only way he knows.”
Behind the Degollado, we discovered a sculpted fountain with statues of the city’s founders—in the exact spot, it is said, where the first buildings of Guadalajara went up. From here, we wandered down the Paseo Degollado between two long banks of retail buildings, and soon discovered yet another plaza, the Tapatio, which offred up a quirky collection of modern, cast bronze sculptures in a surrealist vein—my favorite was the flat man on the sofa with feet (bronze human feet), while Jade loved the nearby eight-legged table (bronze human legs).
And then came a real highlight of our trip. My art-loving Mexican friends have always sung the praises of the Orozcos in the Hospicio Cabanas—and now I know why.
Overlooking the Plaza Tapatio, the Instituto Hospicio Cabanas was constructed in the early 19th century to house orphans, widows, and the indigent. With Mexico’s various upheavals over the decades, the Hospicio changed purpose a few times, but always served the people. In the 1930s, the state government asked the painter Jose Clemente Orozco to paint the walls and ceilings inside the main chapel.
By most accounts, the resulting work, completed between 1937 and 1939, is Orozco’s masterpiece—a total of 57 distinct frescoes featuring images drawn from Mexico’s bloody, complicated history. To me, though certainly rougher in style and texture, they are the 20th century’s answer to Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel. The murals have earned the Hospicio Cabanas, transformed into an arts center in 1980, a place on that very short list of buildings that have been designated by Unesco as World Heritage Sites. Don’t miss these murals! The rooms beneath them are quiet, and invitingly cool, with benches upon which people lay on their backs for long, contemplative stretches of time, gazing up at the murals.
In the history of 20th century Mexican art, Diego and Frida rule Mexico City and perhaps the world, but Orozco surely rules Guadalajara.
Mexico is home to a rich culinary culture as well, and Guadalajara has a deserved reputation for both tradition Mexican cuisine and innovations thereon. Since we stayed in the old part of town, we mostly went traditional. Probably the best of a number of fine meals was a dinner at the renowned La Fonda de San Miguel, located in an ancient convent (circa 1690) not far from the old city center. As Jade and I discovered, walking around in the eerie back rooms and stairwells of this antiquarian mystery palace, where stood pieces of wooden furniture whose purpose we couldn’t quite fathom (nuns were said to have been tortured here, in anti-clerical times), the rumors of ghosts seemed utterly believable. When I asked our waiter, Miguel, about the ghosts, he grew serious, shook his head, and put a finger to his lips, as if to say, “don’t wake them.”
Surely the ghosts were already awake! After all, a pair of huge green macaws, hanging around outside their cages in the back of the restaurant, were squawking loudly enough to wake the dead and all their friends. Beautiful but nasty, these old birds—since they were outside their cages, I figured them to be friendly, and foolishly reached out to stroke one. Ouch! I nearly lost a fingertip to a big, sharp beak. When I complained to the bartender, he just laughed at me! Up north, that’s a lawsuit in the making. In Mexico, instead of calling the lawyers, I ate molcahete with fresh bass from nearby Lake Chapala—rich seafood soup served hot in a stone bowl (they do it with meats as well)—and was that ever great! As were the colonial corn cakes—tortas de elote–my wife devoured, and Jade’s pasta with fresh giant prawns. Outstanding, and dinner for three with a pitcher of Sangria, (downed a little too fast, maybe, to ease my pain) at this high-priced Guadalajara eatery ran us maybe the peso equivalent of 30 bucks.
After all the kulchah, should you happen to be traveling with kids who are tired of looking at old buildings and such, take them to the zoo! Just north of the city, the Zoologica Guadalajara was built in the 1980s and features an impressive collection of animals—said to be the largest in Latin America—including a spectacular array of tropical birds. It’s inexpensive, loads of fun, includes a panoramic train ride through the park for a few extra bucks (in the p.m. you won’t want to walk in the heat)—and there’s a water-based amusement park right next door. Jade loved the Sergio Bustamente-designed blue monkeys frolicking on the grand entrance stairway, and it was great fun for her to head into the glass pyramids full of tropical birds to get out of the sun and just hang out. The train gets you pretty dang close to lions, tigers, hippos and rhinos. We took a relaxing low budget lunch break at the zoo’s back end, where a shady outdoor fast-food café overlooks the magnificent Huentitan Canyon (laced with hiking trails), Guadalajara’s local “grand” canyon.
Outside of the historic heart of Guadalajara, where the plazas and ancient buildings feel deeply reminiscent of Europe, there are neighborhoods such as Minerva, and nearby towns like Zapopan, where a more contemporary lifestyle and scene has emerged. There are lively new neighborhoods that have evolved around universities, convention centers, and other gathering places. Guadalajara, indeed all of Mexico, is on the brink of international importance—both economically and culturally—and one can sense that, even in a one week visit to this vibrant city. The positive energy is palpable, and exciting.
My friend Jorge, who moved from Guadalajara to Sayulita half a dozen years ago to try small town life (and do a lot of surfing and yoga), pointed out that on Sundays Guadalajara has been closing about ten miles of city streets, opening main boulevards and side streets to bikers, skaters, and strollers only. This has helped transform this oversized, car-addicted city (hello, LA, Seattle, Dallas, etc.) into a more pedestrian-friendly, urban oasis. The work the city is doing is in preparation for the upcoming Panamerican Games, opening in and around Guadalajara in 2012, should further the city’s accessibility and allure.
Another reason to visit Guadalajara is to experience the surrounding towns and sights—Lake Chapala, Tonala, and especially Tlaquepaque, for it is a truly wonderful suburb, or pueblo, or…well, it is part of Guadalajara, but grew up separately before urban sprawl absorbed it into “Greater Guadalajara.” And so, in search of arts, crafts, and small-pueblo charm, after a week in Guadalajara we decided to skip the longer sidetrip to Lake Chapala (where Americans have been holed up since the 1950s) in favor of a few days in Tlaquepaque. During Easter Week, the drive took 15 minutes. Dealing with Guadalajara’s normally dense traffic, it might be 30 to 45.
Though we enjoyed a few good sessions around Guadalajara’s Mariachi Plaza, our real mariachi highlight came elsewhere, at El Patio, a quietly enchanting old-school restaurant in Tlaquepaque. We stopped in for a cool drink on a hot Thursday afternoon, and happened onto an uptempo set by Innovacions Mexicana, Tlaquepaque’s all-woman mariachi band. Mariachi music in the hands of half-a-dozen powerful, striking women in full, gold-braided regalia, honeyed voices harmonizing over trumpets, violins, and all the rest and you have—well, for me, it was an epiphany, a musical moment that will stay with me forever. But really, it was just another sweet moment in Tlaquepaque, which we found to be a truly magical place.
A few decades back, the villages in the region around Guadalajara, including Tlaquepaque, Tonala, and a few others, were separate pueblos. Today, urban sprawl has absorbed them, but, as we delightfully discovered, they remain distinct in spite of the lack of physical separation.
San Pedro Tlaquepaque—nobody uses the San Pedro. Why would they? Tlaquepaque rolls off the tongue in a slightly different way than does “Guadalajara” but it, too, is a wonderful word—and means “the place above clay land” in Nahuatl, the lost language of the native peoples of this region. This makes sense, of course, for it is here in Tlaquepaque and in nearby Tonala that ceramicists, glassblowers, and artisans have been making arts and crafts for centuries; and it is here that locals and travelers come to shop.
To distinguish between the two—today, nearby Tonala remains the place where most of the stuff gets made, and so is a grittier, more workaday place. A wonderful little barrio, but not quite Tlaquepaque, at least as a destination for visitors.
With its tidy blocks of brightly painted, perfectly tended houses and shops, Tlaquepaque has evolved into an arts and crafts buyer’s paradise. There are still ceramics studios and glass studios here and there, but what prevails are galleries, displaying and selling paintings, sculptures, ceramics, blown glass pieces, folk art, fabrics—just about anything that says artisanal Mexico.
In Tlaquepaque, we chose a hotel—the Del Sueno—that was slightly “out of town.” Like many Tlaquepaque buildings, where lush courtyards and inviting spaces are hidden from the street behind high walls in traditional Spanish style, the elegant little hotel’s lobby, lounging areas, pool, and guest rooms, nicely detailed with Huichol art, were tucked in behind blank, almost forbidding walls on two sides of the street. From here, a ten minute stroll led us to the town’s arts and crafts retail mecca, found along the pedestrians-only strollers’ thoroughfare known as Calle Independencia, home to a fine selection of restaurants, bars, ice cream shops, sweets shops, a regional specialty, and other places to browse and nosh.
We spent three days walking the streets of Tlaquepaque, and discovered it to be one of the most appealingly pedestrian, people-friendly places we’d ever experienced. A quick cultural note: Mexicans promenade, and socialize in public, far more than Americans. It is part of their way of life, integral to the culture, and it is a pleasure to be part of it.
Jade and Donna and I, strolling Independencia on a Thursday evening in April, felt welcome, comfortable, with what felt like everybody in town out on promenade, enjoying a cool evening after a hot day, indulging in some of the local street fare. We sampled corn roasted in the husk, fresh peanuts, fresh garbanzo beans, handmade-to-order ice cream, and, specially for Easter as this was the day before Good Friday, empanadas filled with an amazing variety of fillings—tuna, pineapple, mahi-mahi, oranges, corn, strawberries, raspberries, squash—you name it, they had stuffed it into an empanada and cooked it. Everything except meat, of course, for this was Lent and like most Catholics, the Mexicans had given it up for a few days.
If Independencia is the spine of Tlaquepaque, the town’s main plaza, home to the Hidalgo Garden, is the heart: a serene, shady gathering place, ringed with historic buildings, that serves as a social magnet for locals and tourists alike. From here, we roamed the streets, and visited the town’s attractions. I basked in the quiet serenity of the Parroquia de San Pedro Tlaquepaque. The town’s namesake church: Located on the north side of the plaza, this beautiful little Romanesque/Byzantine building dates from 1813, and has served as Tlaquepaque’s parish church since 1845. From there we strolled a few yards to visit the Santuario de la Soledad, built over the course of more than a century, from 1742 to 1878, and combining elements of Romantic, Neoclassic, and Byzantine design.
After the contemplative quietude of these shrines, a stroll across the square brought us into El Parian, a columned, sheltered arcade full of restaurants, and its own small central plaza. Here we had a drink and enjoyed some of the local mariachi talent before heading back down Independencia to dine at the much-loved, long lived El Patio, where we had our transcendental female mariachi moment—and a really fine Sonoran filet as well.
On another day we wandered through the Museo Regional de Ceramica, a neat little museum tucked into an old, nine-room house filled with ceramics from all over Mexico, dating from pre-Colombian times to the present day.
For serious followers of the ceramics scene, in addition to the regional museum with its historic overview, there is the nearby Pantaleon Panduran Museum, located in El Refugio Cultural Center, a re-purposed 19th century hospital. Named after a 20th century ceramicist who almost singlehandedly transformed the Mexican craft of ceramics into the high art it has become, the no-fee museum displays winners of an annual nationwide ceramics-making competition. The Cultural Center also hosts traveling exhibitions of all kinds, including, during our visit, a ghastly but compelling exhibition on vampires and monsters that scared my daughter right out the door.
After that entertaining horror show, there was nowhere to be but to the playful environs of the Sergio Bustamente Gallery, and so we headed back to Calle Independencia. The gallery is all Bustamente all the time, as he is a brand name artist, perhaps the most popular in Guadalajara if not the whole country. But commercial art-making and selling aside, we loved the cool, outdoor sculpture gardens in the back of the gallery, with their array of surrealistic statues. Though we weren’t in shopping mode that day, you just might find something you like in Bustamente-land, since Bustamente makes and sells almost everything: shoes, scarves, paintings, sculptures, handbags, tables, chairs, and fountains. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something, but it’s all there, and loads of fun to look at.
There are dozens of places to buy arts and crafts all over Tlaquepaque, and many will offer wares less sophisticated than Bustamente—if you’re looking for dishes with a handmade feel, real handmade Mexican crafts, be it pottery, glassware, fabrics, clothing, folk or fine art, you’ll find it, and you’ll also find DHL and other couriers to help you package and ship home whatever beautiful piece of Mexicana you simply must have.
If you need to refuel for your next round of exploring, do what we did and try Casa Fuerte, another classic Tlaquepaque restaurant on Calle Independencia, famed for their colonial corn cakes. The restaurant is bathed in beautiful daylight from overhead skylights, and at night turns into a wonderfully romantic dining room. One night Donna and I sneaked out for a celebratory dinner after Jade fell asleep wallowing in cable TV, which we don’t have here in Sayulita but which was readily available at the Hotel Del Sueno. While she dreamed away, we had an elegant dinner, with mariachis singing softly, and the lights twinkling like stars overhead, and then strolled home through the balmy, unscary streets of Tlaquepaque–with just one last stop, for fresh ice cream, hand-made before our very eyes. These guys have a bucket of ice; they have pointed metal mini-containers. They fill them with the concoction, stir them in the ice, pull off the top and there it was: the perfect ice cream cone, the sweet coda to a lovely week in Guadalajara and Tlaquepaque.
SIDEBAR: Guadalajara and Tlaquepaque both can offer travelers predictable hotel fare: the American and international chains have their outposts here. But what makes a trip here interesting is finding something smaller, older, and more elegant. In Guadalajara, I recommend the Hotel de Mendoza, retrofitted into a 16th century building that once housed the Santo Domingo Convent, adjacent to the Santa Maria de Gracia church, from 1542—the first metropolitan cathedral of Guadalajara.
It also has the benefit of pretty much perfect location, if you want to take the plunge into the heart of historic Guadalajara. Another highly-recommended historic hotel is the Morales, dating from the late 19th century but more currently displaying the benefits of a complete make-over, and a grand re-opening in 2006, following thirty years’ of neglect. Today the Morales offers the elegance of 19th century grand, classical hotel architecture, but the recent remodel means it works like a 21st century hotel in every respect.
In Tlaquepaque, the small hotel or B&B reigns supreme: the Hotel Villa Del Sueno, the Casa Armonia, Quinta Don Jose—there are half a dozen of these gems. Our own experience at the Villa del Sueno, though its slightly out of the center (ten minutes’ walk), leads me to recommend this, although we have friends who swear by the five-room Armonia or the 18-room Don Jose. Basically, you can’t go wrong with a small hotel in Tlaquepaque. For dining, there are loads of places, but perennial favorites are—and have had several great breakfasts, long lunches, and late dinners—and Casa Fuerte, an equally charming spot a block down Independencia from El Patio, and one I unhesitatingly recommend. Be sure and try the Torta de Elote, or colonial corn cake. Fabulous, as is the Sonoran filet if you trend towards steak.
Justin Henderson writes from Sayulita, Mexico.
You can read more of his work here; Just type in the Lucy Ripken Mysteries by Justin Henderson at Amazon to check them out. (X-Dames is set partially here in Sayulita, and Mexican Booty (AKA Precolombian Jive) is set on Isla Mujeres and around Merida and that area).