I’ll get back to the tequila in the next post, but right now, let’s meander a bit in Guadalajara, shall we?
Although Guadalajara is the second-largest city in Mexico with about 4.4 million people in the greater metropolitan area, it didn’t end up being as overwhelming as I’d feared. It was actually a charming town to mosey around in. I mostly stuck to the large and rambling El Centro district with its plazas and fountains and cathedrals and palacios of government. Not to mention tons of shopping and huge mercados.
Guadalajara isn’t a big tourist destination (although I encountered a surprising number of them). It isn’t so much known for colonial grandeur or riveting history or for rich natural resources (except for tequila). But to me, Guadalajara sounded romantic. It sounded like a taste of authentic Mexico.
It was all that. Guadalajara was like those very genteel and slightly exotic neighbors who are also interesting and comfortable to be around. Guadalajara wasn’t fabulous or incredible. It was interesting, easy, navigable, genteel, and, yes, romantic.
I wandered a lot. I moseyed and poked around. I spent a week and was sorry to leave. Guadalajara is just like that. It sucks you in for no reason you can quite put your finger on.
My favorite spots:
—El Centro. Wandering in El Centro could occupy a couple of days at least. It’s full of truly lovely plazas and parks with buskers and crazy stuff happening all the time. There is the de rigueur cathedral and other ornate churches, the government buildings with their famous murals, mostly done by Jose Orozco, a contemporary of Diego Rivera and equally larger-than-life. The murals in the Government Palace and Las Cabanas are worth seeing. The pedestrian walkways lined with shops. The pretty side streets. The little markets loaded with food stalls.
—Instituto Cultural Cabañas. At first, I wasn’t sure what this imposing edifice was, but to my surprise it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built from 1805-10 as a home for orphans and invalids, Las Cabañas now is a kind of cultural center in a beautiful, sprawling colonial-style gem. It was sweet to think of children roaming thorugh the maze of colonnaded walkways and courtyards–dozens of them–and the swish of nuns’ habits and nurses’ gowns. Now, Las Cabañas is home to some of the best murals of the famous Orozco and artistic installations and occasional shows. Overall, Las Cabañas is all about the edifice and the murals, and it’s worth seeing just for those.
—La charreada. One Sunday morning, I set out from my hotel to find the rodeo. It was yet another long-ish walk, and I got a little panick-y when I reached the second-class bus station with no sign of the rodeo. (This is my MO–set out with great and positive energy, and just before I reach my destination, become very nervous and sure that I have totally missed it and that I am hopelessly lost. Shortly after, reach the destination.)
True to form, I soldiered on and soon began encountering horse trailers parked along the narrow, winding street.
The venue is neither grand nor large. But it’s dusty and horse-y. The show that day seemed more like a friendly gathering of local ranchers. But it was lively and fun to watch and very different from the North American version, from the big sombreros to the lively mariachi music to the huge pommels on the riders’ saddles. While this rodeo was a condensed version, the events were still the real McCoy. (For a more thorough description and photos, check out this post from Trans-American Journey. These seriously horsey folks can rattle off the Spanish names of the events I saw.)
—San Juan de Dios. This, folks, is the second-largest mercado in Mexico–a country that knows how to do its markets. Mexican markets are routinely a maze of tiny shops crammed with every food or craft item under the sun. THIS market is a mercado on steriods. It’s the King Kong of the Mexican market. It’s a sprawling, four-story edifice cram-jammed with the same maze of tiny stalls. The same crush of unimaginable quantities of stuff.
This is a market in which you lose yourself. You have to lay a trail of breadcrumbs if you want to retrace your steps to find that blouse you liked or a basket you thought you’d buy. Comparison shopping in this market is risky business-you’ll never find your way back.
After several visits, I gradually realized that there was some method to the madness, in this case, like with like. Fancy saddles and other leatherwork were in one place. The third floor was full of food kiosks. Electronics were here. Live animals there. Raw meat, fish, and poultry had its own stinky corner. There might be an errant leather shop among the dulces (sweets), but there was some faint nod to order.
To a visitor, the place was chaos. Delicious, colorful, entertaining chaos, and I visited a bunch of times, both to eat and to shop.
Eventually, however, I began to realize that I was dealing with dogged and top-flight bargainers, and I wasn’t winning. I decided to save my inept bargaining skills for the artisans themselves in their little workshops in Oaxaca or San Cristobal or wherever.
—Tonolá. This is a pueblo just outside of Guadalajara where the workshops are–glass, ceramics, tinwork, basketry. It will take you hours to wander down certain streets because you will have to poke your nose into every workshop. Each is different, and most of the time, the products are made right there. Sometimes the prices are so low you can’t in conscience ask for less.
Tonolá is an easy 45-minute bus ride from downtown Guadalajara. On market day, which happens twice weekly, the streets are choked with stalls and mobbed with people. Honestly, I didn’t like it. Most of the stuff could have been made in China if Mexican labor wasn’t so cheap. Plus, the workshops were buried behind the hubbub in front.
My second trip was on a quiet day when I had the place to myself. After some wandering to get the lay of the land, I hit the jackpot. I began finding workshop after workshop. Often these were tiny shops filled with goods made by the mama or papa. Ultimately, I found the pretty town square and the tourist information booth, which was very helpful now that I was almost ready to head back to Guadalajara with two large bags of handcrafts.
My advice to travelers–GO to Tonolá. Bring lots of money (not credit cards.) Go first to the information booth in the town square, then plot your course. Don’t visit on market day, unless you just want to see commotion.
Tlaquepaque is another artisanal town near Guadalajara. You have to go through it, in fact, to get to Tonolá. But it was billed as more upscale with galleries and fine restaurants. Probably worth checking out, but I only had so much time.
After a week, I was still sorry to leave Guadalajara. And I don’t think I’ll ever forget the experience of falling asleep every night to the sound of the mariachis in the plaza below.