This piece is 15 years old now, but it is still good advice to gringos! However, in those years, the prices will obviously have gone up and the current exchange rate needs to be checked.
Guadalajara, Mexico - Just Do It!
Brian Steel (May 1996)
Thinking of going to Mexico? The exchange rate is extremely favourable to most foreign visitors, due to the disastrous slump in the value of the peso 18 months ago. Worried by the reports of extreme pollution, high level unemployment and escalating street violence? Relax. Forget teeming Mexico City. Even if it doesn't really have the alleged 20 million inhabitants, it has enormous social problems, including several murders a day and a daily reported crime rate of 548 incidents. There's no need to take those risks. Simply make your base in Mexico's second largest city, Guadalajara (pronounce the `j' as an `h'), the capital city of the State of Jalisco, 500 kilometres to the west of Mexico City (and named after a much less significant city in Spain).
If you still need to go to Mexico City, for example to see the Aztec ruins at Tenochtitlan or for the Museum of Anthropology, you can travel cheaply in comfort from Guadalajara in an air-conditioned luxury bus (7 or 8 hours, for $15) or, inexpensively, by plane. In three to five hours, you can also make side trips from Guadalajara by de luxe bus to a number of beautiful and interesting colonial cities in neighbouring states, like Guanajuato (highly recommended), Aguascalientes, León, Querétaro, Morelia or Uruapan in the Central Highlands of Michoacan State. And if you wish to see the sort of fashionable and more expensive beach resorts that attract the bulk of tourists who visit Mexico, Puerto Vallarta or Manzanillo are only 4-6 hours away by luxury bus, or an hour by plane.
If mountains and volcanoes are your thing, there is an easy excursion from Uruapan to the Purépecha Indian town of Angahuan and from there a guided 4 kilometre pony ride through volcanic ash to the church of the village of San Juan de las Conchas, which was slowly buried by lava 50 years ago when the Paricutín Volcano began to rise from a local farmer's paddock. Also, only just over 2 hours south of Guadalajara, you can visit the Colima Volcano. (Go to Ciudad Guzman by bus, then hire a taxi.) Other more distant areas of archeological interest, like Yucatán and Oaxaca, are just as accessible by plane as from Mexico City. Should you wish to venture even further afield, 4 day trips to Cuba can also be made.
Believe me, Guadalajara is an absolute gem, a well-kept secret, a real find! After many years of travel in Spanish-speaking countries, I quickly warmed to its qualities and its practically hassle-free nature. Where else can you find a city of 4 million people, whose historic central tree-lined squares and malls (in the Cathedral area) are traffic-free, uncrowded, safe and clean, relatively unpolluted, without the all-too-familiar belching traffic fumes and noise of many other large cities, and, moreover, with a warm to hot climate which is bearable because it is not humid, a fact probably due to the city's 1,500 metre altitude? The two classes of buses (economy at 15 cents or `first-class' at 45 cents) are the most modern and uncrowded (except at the brief morning and evening rush hour) that I have seen in any Hispanic city. Although, inevitably in the current economic conditions, a number of beggars are also in evidence on the pavements of the central streets, they mostly sit or lie there, asking or simply hoping for your donation but without the insistence of their brethren in other cities.
With a foresight that many other cities must envy, the Guadalajara City authorities have wisely routed their traffic (and placed the central car park) under the historic central Cathedral and adjacent squares, and in this area no tall buildings have been allowed. This has made the fine old colonial buildings, some housing museums, or murals by a famous native of Jalisco, José Clemente Orozco, more accessible to the inhabitants and tourists, who can stroll around unimpeded and it has surely contributed to their preservation. It has also made it possible for tourists, Mexican and foreign, to be driven sedately around the central area in spruced up white horse-drawn carriages (or `calandrias'). Around the squares are plenty of trees, mainly jacarandas (orange-red as well as blue) and parks. (South of the Centre the Parque Agua Azul is a must.) Another of the city's assets is the soft rock on which it is built. Apparently, the name of this rock, jal, is the origin of the name of the State, Jalisco. The rock's main property is that it acts as a shock absorber in earth tremors in this earthquake-prone country. Following the catastrophic 1985 earthquake in Mexico City (something else to worry the potential visitor to that megalopolis), many nervous inhabitants of the capital moved to Guadalajara.
Guadalajara (and Jalisco) is the original home of the mariachi bands, the well-known popular song, Guadalajara, and the even-better known Mexican Hat Damce (Jarabe Tapatío; tapatío means ``from Guadalajara''). This cheerful mariachi music, alternately strident with its brass instruments and romantic or sentimental with its violins, can be heard everywhere from early morning on, in shops, on the radio, and in restaurants. On Friday evenings at 7 o'clock, following a long-standing custom called Callejoneada (strolling the streets), a band of mariachis and dancing couples tour the main streets around the Cathedral, followed by a crowd of locals and tourists. They stop to give a short performance in the main square and another in the patio café (or cantina) of the Hotel Francés in nearby Maestranza Street.
On Sunday mornings at 10 a.m., in the central Degollado Theatre, there is a performance of Mexican Ballet Folclórico. About half a kilometre along the pedestrian mall to the east of the Cathedral is an enormous open-air market, San Juan de Dios and, a $3 taxi ride away, others in outlying Tonalá or more upmarket Tlaquepaque (both previously independent towns, now absorbed into the rapidly-expanding city). In all of these (and other) markets you can find a full range of stalls or shops selling Mexican and local crafts of all kinds, colours and prices, but mainly cheap souvenirs. In the open-air markets it is OK to haggle a bit, but not in the more elegant shops of Tlaquepaque. In addition to these colourful street markets in central Guadalajara, on Sundays there are Mexican cowboy shows (Charreadas), bullfights (in season) and, gulp!, cockfights. (No, I didn't go.)
Everywhere you go, people seem genuinely friendly, including waiters, taxi drivers (very reasonable in their pricing, usually agreed on before setting off for the destination, and not expecting a tip) and shoeshine men (70 cents per shine). Food, at a variety of levels of restaurants is either very cheap or at least inexpensive, with a meal at the best restaurants not costing much above $15, unless a bottle of foreign wine is included. For this reason, there is not much point in trying the cheap and very basic tourist meal (menú turístico or comida corrida) offered by some restaurants and hotels unless you are extremely short of cash, or masochistic. In more modest establishments, the usual precautions with water and vegetables have to be taken in order to avoid Montezuma's Revenge, but there is a huge variety of Mexican foods with exotic Aztec and other names like huanzontle, mixiote, chilaquiles, huitlacoche, or birria which may be sampled with care. If, after a few days, the hundred and one ways of preparing corn pall on your taste buds, or elsewhere, try the many other Mexican items on the menu.
In this apparently too-good-to-be-true-city, perusal of the local papers and many of the very Mexican sensationalist and lurid popular magazines (which routinely display grotesque close-up photographs of dead bodies) will quickly reveal that there is much violence in parts of Guadalajara and Jalisco, as in the rest of Mexico. Recently, for example, in addition to ``normal'' murders, there has been a spate of drug-related executions carried out with AK-47 rifles on gang members. This reflects Guadalajara's role as the crossroads for drug importation into the United States (now in steep decline after the alleged pressure on the Mexican authorities by the US Drug Enforcement Agency). However, the prudent tourist is unlikely to witness anything like this, unless he is extremely unlucky. Neither is the Guadalajara airport shoot-out which resulted 2 years ago in the death of the local Roman Catholic Cardinal Posadas Ocampo likely to recur. If the tourist is at all nervous on hearing of such goings-on, he can easily go to stay at the more conventional `International-style' hotels in the newer, middle-class areas of Guadalajara which have sprung up a few kilometres to the west and south of the historic colonial centre. In these suburbs tourists will find contemporary cinema complexes ($3 entry fee), smart discos and restaurants, but they will still need to take a taxi or a bus into the old city centre if they are not to miss the heart of Guadalajara, and the flavour of traditional Mexico.
To discover more about any foreign city and the surrounding areas, it is always wise to take the local organised tours. In Guadalajara, there are three of these, organised by a firm called Panoramex, for which tickets (costing approx $14) can be obtained from the major hotels. The guides are knowledgeable and and helpful (particularly Alberto Romo) and speak excellent English. Tours offered are: the City Tour; the Tequila farm and factory Tour to the town of Sauza (fascinating), and the Tour which goes to nearby Lake Chapala. Here, an hour's drive south of Guadalajara, particularly in the pretty hillside village of Ajijic, several thousand US citizens have built their holiday or retirement homes to take advantage of the year-round balmy climate. April this year in Guadalajara and Lake Chapala was a constant 28-30 degrees, with some respite at night, and mercifully, no mosquitoes or humidity.) The Americans, usually retired couples, are thus able to enjoy a healthy climate, and because of the strength of the dollar, a far higher lifestyle than at home. On the steep streets of Ajijic, overlooking the huge Lake Chapala, $200,000 can buy a very pretty house, surrounded by bougainvillea. I found it interesting (and a little sad) that some of the American and Canadian couples I talked to had not ventured into Mexico until their retirement because of the negative stereotype of Mexico prevalent North of the Border. They only regretted they had not come South sooner! This permanent expatriate community is closely-knit and publishes a weekly newspaper in English and carries on many social activities.
Anyone wishing to make an extended stay in Mexico on a medium budget, particularly retired couples, could well copy the example of the American residents of Chapala by renting a small one-bedroom apartment in Guadalajara (for $260 per month) and using it as a base for further explorations. If you are really keen to learn Spanish properly, you could also attend one of the special courses organised by the University of Guadalajara, either self-catering in these congenial surroundings or living in a Mexican family. (Fax: 52 36 16 4013)
And that's just a taste of sunny, friendly Guadalajara, B your new gateway to Mexico. Enjoy it!
Hotels: Ask whether 15% Sales Tax (I.V.A.) is to be added to the rate or not.
In the Old City Centre most medium and top hotels seem to have four stars, but there is quite a range of different prices and amenities.
(For hotels in the newer and more fashionable suburbs of Guadalajara, consult your Travel Agent.)
Hotel Fénix (one of the Best Western Group; favourite with U.S.citizens and other `gringos', and tour bus groups). Fax: 52 36 13 4005.
Hotel Plaza Génova, on Avenida Juárez, a similar type and price, but with an impressively rich buffet breakfast, also available to those staying in more modest hotels.
Hotel Aranzazú, which seems much more geared to local sports teams and tour buses. It has an American style cafeteria. Fax: 52 36 13 6650.
Smaller and with an adjacent Spanish (Galician) restaurant, the Rías Bajas, is the Hotel Santiago de Compostela. Fax: 52 36 58 1925.
In a class of its own, though still with only 4 stars, is the very stylish Hotel de Menzoza (Fax: 52 36 13 7310), on the northern side of the main square, near the main Post Office (which does not offer a sea-mail service, by the way, and charges quite heavily for airmail, which should be sent by registered post).
Of the many cheaper hotels in the centre, the following middle of the range traditional Mexican hotels are worth consideration by the tourist who likes to experience more local flavours (including the odd prawn-sized cockroach in the shower).
The lively Hotel Francés, founded in 1610, is within a few yards of the open walking area behind the Cathedral. Just inside the entrance, it has a noisy (and enjoyable) café, or cantina, in the old stable area, now converted into a patio with a fountain. Less fortunate for guests is the busy disco 2 doors up the street. Fax: 52 36 58 2831.
The Hotel San Francisco Plaza, in a little square between Degollado and Prisciliano Sánchez streets in the San Francisco church area, offers a full typical Mexican breakfast (for which a strong digestive system is required). The hotel has two cool leafy inner courtyards to sit in. Fax: 52 36 13 3257.
Just down the street, the Hotel Don Quijote, a smaller budget hotel, also has a a small patio.
Fax: 52 36 14 2845.
For visitors to the University of Guadalajara, the Hotel del Parque on Avenida Juárez is inexpensive and, as its name indicates, pleasantly situated, 2 kilometres west of the centre.
Among the best in and around Guadalajara are:
In the old centre, La Rinconada, in Plaza Tapatía; the one on the first floor of the San Juan de Dios Market. In Tlaquepaque, the famous Restaurante Sin Nombre (No Name Restaurant), with its cool, stylish leafy interior, is well worth a prolonged visit, which should not break the bank. Ask to see the Wine List with its very detailed tasting descriptions in Spanish and English. Also worth a visit in Tlaquepaque are the restaurants Los Abajeños, and El Patio, which offers the novelty (excuse me, girls) of a female mariachi band not a whit less lively and strident than all the others, but nicer to look at. Finally, for the Tour visit to the Lake Chapala area, in the predominantly American-populated) Ajijic, the best restaurant is the Nueva Posada (New Inn).
When to go.
The most popular times are Easter (for the Holy week celebrations, as in Spain) and Christmas. Easter, in particular attracts many foreign visitors. In 1995 there were an estimated 75,000 of them in Guadalajara. However, those seeking lower hotel prices should visit at off-peak times, but taking care to avoid a visit in the rainy months of June (also, like May, very hot), July, August or September.
By air, Guadalajara is only 3 hours away from Los Angeles, and bargain fares are available by shopping around.
Faxing the Folks back Home: Use COMPUTEL offices rather than the much more expensive Post Office or Hotels.
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