With side trips to Tlaqapaque, Tonala, Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo
In the past ten years, we’ve adopted a tradition of traveling over Thanksgiving weekend. Till now, we’ve been visiting Italy and France. Having amassed way too many Delta miles, we decided to go where Delta had an available flight: Guadalajara!
It’s a shame that most North Americans never get to experience the “real” Mexico. Inclusive resorts provide sanitized versions of the rich Mexican culture – at best. The real Mexico is as varied as Europe: the cosmopolitan cities, the touristy Silver Cities, small Indian villages, Mayan and Aztec ruins, and the slow-paced small towns each have their own charm.
One of the things one immediately notices about Mexico is that the entire town is outside every evening, socializing in the plazas. Children play outside together while adults mingle and talk throughout the evening. It is a much more relaxed, friendly atmosphere than American and Canadian cities.
Guadalajara is Mexico’s second largest city with over 3 million people. It is a middle-class city with extreme beauty, a family atmosphere, colonial-era buildings, vibrant and colorful markets, superb restaurants, and one of the best archeological museums in Mexico. Although this city has a busy pace, it is impressively livable; each day we would explore the city, visit its treasures, stroll thru one of the many public squares and pedestrian-only streets.
Guadalajara is known as the home of Mariachi and Ranchera music. Almost every evening, we visited the Plaza de los Mariachis and listened to the groups serenading people eating and drinking at the restaurants.
Music seems to pervade the Guadalajarans’ culture. Stores blasted Norteña, Ranchera, Banda, and Marimba music. Roving “conjuntos” serenaded diners in the market’s many stalls, and once, while we were walking on a backstreet, a fellow was pushing a well-worn marimba along. When we stopped and smiled at him, he serenaded us for ten pesos (about US$1).
Guadalajara’s main square has the main Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana) the Government Palace with exquisite murals by Orozco, the Museo Regional de Guadalajara, and the city’s four main plazas.
One day, we decided to see a bullfight. We discussed this for days: should we expose ourselves to such cruelty? Finally, we decided it was part of the culture and we would do it. After some searching, we found our way to the arena, and discovered that “bullfight season” ended for the year just the previous week. With some relief, we decided that we were better off.
We attended a performance by the Ballet Folklorico, a superb show – for Mexican and non-Mexican tourists. (This is not where the guidebooks listed it – it’s a few miles north of town while the theatre is undergoing renovation.)
Tlaquepaque and Tonala
A few miles outside Guadalajara are Tlaquepaque and Tonala – now both suburbs of Guadalajara’s sprawl.
Originally a separate village, Tlaquepaque became the center for the wealthy. It now boasts large art stores targeted at middle-class Mexicans, not foreigners. Tlaquepaque is a quiet town, thanks to some streets being designated pedestrian-only.
Tlaquepaque’s stores specialize in silver, pewter, ceramics, copper, paper-maché sculpture, glass, furniture, and wrought iron – both new and antique. On our second visit there to see a crafts fair, we snacked on a large serving of flan. I used to believe that there was no difference between good flan and bad flan. Now I realize that all I’ve ever tried is bad flan, and I’ll never have flan this good again.
The author of the guidebook mentioned that he preferred to visit Tonala during non-market days. We went there first on an off day – and then came back on market day. We soon figured out why. The market, relatively small by Mexican standards, was packed with sellers of ceramics, woodcarvings, kitchen goods, pets, food, furniture, and just about everything you could possibly imagine. Unfortunately, unlike other markets, the items weren’t segregated by area – except for a huge Christmas decoration market that was at least as large as the main one.
Guanajuato is small – with a population of about 300,000. It’s about 3 hours from Guadalajara by first class bus. Originally a silver mining town, the city planners solved their traffic problems by building – what else – tunnels! In fact, the entire city is crisscrossed and connected by underground tunnels. A city beneath the existing streets has also been discovered, and excavation is promised at some future time. The city is nestled in the mountains and has a small market, large university, an extraordinary number of internet cafés, tee shirt shops, cheap bars, and bookstores. We were charmed by the cobbled winding streets, the views from the top of an overlooking mountain (reached by funicular), and the great musicians in the main square each evening. The mountain view has a statue of “El Pipila” – the hero who burnt the Spanish armory, located in the local granary, during the fight for independence. Guanajuato is well known for its “Museum of Mummies”, but these grotesque figures weren’t the highlight of our trip, although we did feel obligated to visit them. We also visited the birthplace of Diego Rivera, which has a superb collection of his works.
Dolores Hidalgo is most famous for its production of “Talavera” style ceramics. Our kitchen is decorated in Talavera tiles; and this same style of pottery is used in serving pieces, objets d’art, and just about anything that one could imagine. The village was a short bus trip from Guanajuato – about 1 1/2 hours, over rolling hills, thru mountain passes, and beautiful Mexican countryside. Dolores Hidalgo was the site of Mexico’s struggle for freedom from Spanish rule. It was here in 1810 that Padre Miguel Hidalgo delivered his famous September 16th “Cry for Freedom” – and it was near here – in Guanajuato, where he was executed.
Small factories and ceramic shops line the streets of the town. We did ceramics shopping to Susan’s heart’s content – and she carried nearly 20 pounds of beautiful pottery home with us, including a large colorful ceramic gecko. In the town square is Dolores Hidalgo’s other claim to fame: strange ice cream. Aside from the usual vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, are avocado, beer, shrimp, corn, tequila, and sapodilla – which we tried. Some of the smaller stands in the square had even more exotic flavors, but we were also concerned about surviving the experience
Recommended Hotels, Restaurants
Guadalajara: Hotel San Francisco was perfectly situated near the center of town and the market – and not adjacent to a disco. The rooms were nice, quiet, and the management couldn’t have been nicer. Cost for a queen was about $44.00 US. Reserve in advance by phone – they don’t have email.
Transport: Around Guadalajara and its suburbs, the buses are cheap, clean, frequent, and easy to figure out (particularly if you speak Spanish). The long-haul buses all leave from the HUGE intercity Guadalajara bus terminal, which is about 20 minutes from the center of town by taxi. We used Servicios Coordinados (Primera Plus). There was even a fancier bus, but it’s no faster. The buses are all video buses, and the movies are easily the WORST movies ever made. Most of them are English with Spanish subtitles and impossible to ignore. Be sure to pre-purchase your tickets, available at the bus station and at the foot of the stairs of Ave16 de Sept Metro.
Metro/Subway: Nobody will tell you about the Guadalajara Metro. Maps are at www.allaboutguadalajara.com