If you can imagine a regular Mexican town with cathedral, plaza, and market, with cobbled streets radiating out from the core, that is what the historic centre of Guadalajara looks like, except on a gigantic scale.
Some of the architecture is incredibly illustrious and others, just plain concrete. We read that, in the early 20th century, town planners tore down streets of old houses to widen roads and create plazas. This causes a curious effect when walking down an avenue with 18/19th century houses on one side and modern buildings on the other.
Beside the centro historico area is the business centre of town, with modern office buildings. The area extends out in a five point circle, with major roads connecting the outlying towns which have since been absorbed by the expanding central core.
In the south east part of the city is Tlaquapaque.
Street leading to the church at Tlaquapaque
This area is an artisans’ colony and a pedestrian walkway winds itself through the area fronted by galleries and shops selling incredible works of art from painting, pottery and sculptures to blown glass, silver and wood carvings. You could enjoy a cappuccino at a marble table under huge, elaborate paintings of Greek gods or Mexican village scenes.
Bronze figures of Hidalgo and other Mexican revolutionaries follow
the tourist up the pedestrian walkways
The transportation system is incredible and the city was designed with pedestrians in mind. We took a “first class” bus from Bucerias to Guadalajara. It cost approximately $45.00 return and was the most luxurious and comfortable bus I have ever been on.
It definitely rivaled first class on international airlines! We floated through spectacular scenery on twisty roads in air conditioned comfort. The only annoyance was the back-to-back movies (dubbed in Spanish and often violent) that blared all the way there and back. (If you take one of these buses, I highly recommend you bring your IPod to block out the noise!)
Four and a half hours later, we were dropped off at a bus terminal at Zapopan where we walked about 10 steps and boarded another comfortable bus, paid 6 pesos (about 50 cents), and rode for half an hour, all the way to the very centre of Guadalajara.
Although this bus was not air conditioned, it was comfortable and fast. We walked about 6 blocks to our hotel, the San Francisco Plaza, and were happily ensconced in our room 20 minutes later.
San Francisco Plaza Hotel, Guadalajara
We discovered that all the local buses cost 6 pesos. They come and go every 10 minutes or so, to all parts of the city. Most people use them and the traffic is kept to a minimum. A taxi is an inexpensive alternative. We took one from one part of the city to the other for the equivalent of $3.00.
On Sundays, the leafy main street is closed for bicycle traffic only! I haven't seen this since Ottawa.
Additionally, the centre of the city is riddled with pedestrian walkways and interconnected plazas making walking a dream. Many of these walkways are appointed with statues and sculptures celebrating the city's past. We saw statues of conquistadors, city fathers, priests, poets, writers and the pope, among others.
There were many fountains cooling the passages and many benches for weary walkers to take a break from the crowds.
There were cafes, street vendors, wandering musicians (no mariachi though!), clowns, mimes, and fortune tellers.
Creepy fortune teller. He stands as still as a statue with a Darth Vader-like golden mask on his face.. You put money in his hand and he fires up in a mechanical fashion, shaking a gold paper covered box. With a flourish he removes the lid and you choose your fortune on a piece of paper. I tried to read what it might say over the shoulder of this lady in the white pants - to no avail - it was in Spanish (du-uh!)
There were beggars, women trying to keep track of their many children, caballeros passing the time of day, transvestites and ladies of the night. (sorry, no pictures!) Like all cities, Guadalajara is a kaleidoscope of colour and sound.
I expected Guadalajara to be a lot like Durango. I was very mistaken. I found Durango to be sophisticated and urbane, clean and cultured. Guadalajara seemed to be rough and tumble, a little grubbier and hands on. Although there were many more exquisite buildings in Guadalajara, they didn’t seem to be celebrated in quite the same way. Many of them needed a good power washing or sand blasting. However, what was similar was both cities seemed very European to me – not North American at all. At one point over the weekend, I could have sworn I was in Paris!
We had heard that Guadalajara was not a safe place to be. We were careful to watch the neighbourhoods we were walking in and stayed in lighted areas at night, but at no time did we feel unsafe or see anything worrisome. People were friendly and helpful. I took the bus, alone, to Tlaqaepaque and one of the male passengers showed me where to get off and another took me to the pedestrian walkway. A teenager helped me to figure out how to get back to the centre of the city. We were treated courteously and respectfully.
As I mentioned, we stayed at the San Francisco Plaza Hotel. This was one of several colonial-style hotels in the centre of the city. There were more modern ones where I’m sure people on business stayed, but we were keen for more Mexican “flavor”. After doing research on the Net, I booked the room through Expedia for three nights at a total cost of $115.00! Even in all our motorcycle travel, staying at Mom & Pop style motels, have we ever been able to get such good value. The 2 story hotel had 3 interior courtyards surrounded by the rooms.
Each room had a grand wooden door and, if you had a second floor room, had balconies overlooking the courtyard or street.
Athough this wasn't our room, it is very much like it
We had an interior room and we looked over two courtyards. The room was gigantic with a king size bed, but a very tiny bathroom with shower. It was rustically elegant, though it was dark and the air a little close. There was no fan and, although there was an air conditioner, it cost extra to use it.
Each morning we had a delightful buffet breakfast in one of the hotel’s courtyards
The service was friendly and efficient, the food wonderful. We could have scrambled eggs, pancakes, yoghurt and fruit with home-made granola, or we could sample some Mexican breakfasts like grilled cactus, or tortillas soaked in tomato sauce and cheese. Fresh squeezed juice and adequate coffee rounded it out and the whole thing cost about $7. What a bargain!
During the day we wandered the many pedestrian walkways and spent time in the 3 block 3 story Mercado (which sold everything under the sun – to the extent that I couldn’t buy a single thing!).
Trying to find a hat - dazed and confused
Another narrow corridor - this market made Hong Kong look small!
We went to the Regional museum and followed the history of the area from prehistoric times to the present.
We viewed local artisan's work at the Art Institute near the university area.
We went to several streetmarkets
and found an Indian restaurant in the University area where we enjoyed Tandoori chicken for the first time since Berkley (yum!).
We found another restaurant – La Fonda de San Miguel – in the historical centro – in an ancient building that was a convent off and on for four hundred years!
I took this picture in the day when we made our reservation. At night, only the stars and candlelight from the tables illuminate the place.
Our table, looking toward the bar
The three days whirled past and we were pretty tired when we boarded the bus for our return. We were back on the boat in La Cruz by 4pm in the afternoon and hit the hay early. Mexico is an intriguing place – so diverse – so much to see. I hope to come back to this wonderful country again someday to explore it further.