Guadalajara: Mexico’s “Lower East Side”

As the week comes to an end in Zihuatanejo, it’s time to say goodbye to my brother Don as he heads back to Texas to pimp out his Navion and get her ready for her maiden voyage into Mexico.  Meanwhile, I plan to keep on meandering…

I’m at a bit of a crossroads in leaving Zihua.  Do I continue south along the coastline, or head north?  Going north would mean retracing a familiar path, but experience is the only substitute for the guidebook I am lacking on this trip.   South is the more unfamiliar, but that also likely means more challenges with my lack of Spanish.  It’s not like me to chose “the road less traveled,” and I am a little disappointed in myself.  But I left Texas the day after Christmas, not knowing where I would end up or how long I would stay.  I brought a suitcase this time, so I’m missing the mobility of my backpack.  I have no travel guidebook.  And I am growing increasingly frustrated with my inability to communicate.  My struggle is not the ability to ask the questions, but rather the lack of ability to understand the answers.   I don’t have many regrets in my life, but not trying harder to master a second language is one of them.   So I’ve decided to retrace a familiar path and head north toward Mazatlan.   An added bonus will be getting to spend time with a dear friend.

Old Historic section of Guadalajara.

Old Historic section of Guadalajara.

Street vendors along Paseo Degollado, behind the theater.

Street vendors along Paseo Degollado, behind the theater.

This gentleman is getting a shoe shine while enjoying lunch.

This gentleman is getting a shoe shine while enjoying lunch.

One benefit to the northerly route is passing through another city in Mexico I’ve not yet visited.   In order to move long distances on the Mexico bus, one must typically connect through larger cities, often requiring a change of bus lines.  There are local buses that travel along the coastline, but again, there’s that challenge of the language barrier.  If I stick to the larger bus lines which offer schedules and booking online, I can make reservations and even seat selection online.   So in order to reach my northerly destination, I must change buses in Guadalajara, a city I’ve not yet explored…

Often times when I arrive in a place for the first time, I have a tendency to label it….to pigeon hole it, finding the similaritis to places I’ve been before.  “This looks just like Tuscon.  This feels a lot like Asheville.”  I get a little flashback or a déjà vu to another place that evokes a sudden vibe.  In the case of Guadalajara, that vibe feels a little like “home,” my years spent in New York.

Street artist takes "pastels" to a new level.

Street artist takes “pastels” to a new level.

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This nondescript telephone building is significant because of the bronze statue in front of Jorge Matute, Mexican Engineer, pushing against the building. In 1950, in order to widen the street, this engineer orchestrated moving the 1,700 ton building 36 feet back with the telephone operators still inside, so as to not disrupt service.

This nondescript telephone building is significant because of the bronze statue in front of Jorge Matute, Mexican Engineer. In 1950, it was necessary to widen the street. To do so without disrupting phone service for two weeks, this engineer orchestrated moving the 1,700 ton building 36 feet back with the telephone operators still inside, so as to not disrupt service.

Due to an overturned 18-wheeler, my bus is atypically late in arriving Guadalajara.  It’s dark when I arrive.  Don has left instructions on where to get a good draft beer and a pizza just around the corner if I am hungry.   I’ve been on the bus for most of the day with nothing to eat but a bag of Cheetos, so I drop my bags and head out straight away.

Guadalajara's cathedral by night,

Guadalajara’s cathedral by night,

Outdoor concert in the plaza.

Outdoor concert in the plaza.

The night air is brisk as I head out of my hotel. Just outside, bikes are chained to skinny tree trunks along the sidewalk.  The corner restaurant is a hip outdoor café serving craft draft and wood-fired pizza.  The patrons are a bit on the bohemian side, wearing skinny hipster jeans, spacers in their ear lobes, and “messenger bags” slung across their chests.  I send Don an email to say, “This feels just like my old ‘hood, Manhattan’s Lower East Side.”

Cafe next to Teatro Degollado, Guadalajara's neoclassical theater built in 1866.

Cafe next to Teatro Degollado, Guadalajara’s neoclassical theater built in 1866.

The theater's first inauguration was on September 13, 1866, with the opera "Lucia di Lammermoor", performed by Angela Peralta, opera soprano noted as the "Mexican Nightingale"

The theater’s first inauguration was on September 13, 1866, with the opera “Lucia di Lammermoor”, performed by Angela Peralta, opera soprano noted as the “Mexican Nightingale”

Another similarity to New York's horse-drawn carriages.

Another similarity to New York’s horse-drawn carriages.

As I explore Guadalajara, I continue to get those twinges of familiarity from my years as a city dweller.   Students dressed in all black.  Streets filled with people and parks filled with pigeons.  I think the cooler temps only add to it, as the weather feels like a quintessential September New York day with deep blue skies, no wind, and nights requiring a scarf to warm the neck from the cool night air.

Liberation Square, favorite home of the pigeons.

Just like New York, no shortage of pigeons.

Plaza de Armas

Plaza de Armas

Liberation Square

Liberation Square

Another similarity is the “walkability” of Guadalajara.  It’s easy to get around, with plenty to see on foot.  It’s the first city I’ve been to in Mexico where every single street has the street name signed.  This has become like a game for me…find one street without a signed name.  I can’t.

Although fish tacos are a regional specialty of Baja, these were some of the best I've eaten.

Although fish tacos are a regional specialty of Baja, not Jalisco, these are some of the best I’ve eaten.

A Taco Pescado, as well as a Dorada empanada, or taco fried golden brown.

A Taco Pescado, as well as a Dorada empanada, or taco fried golden brown.

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Espinado translates to “Thorns.” Not very appetizing…

Just like Manhattan, things in Guadalajara are on a grand scale.  And they tend to be laid out in “districts,” like the lighting district, the jewelry district.  In fact, there is an entire mall dedicated to nothing but jewelry, Magno Centro Joyero, with over 600 stores offering the finest gold and diamonds, right down to trays of tiny plastic beads.   I take the escalator to the top and back down, just to look out over the maze of booths all displaying shimmering merchandise.

And Guadalajara’s Libertad Market is massive, reported to be the largest indoor market in Latin America.  With over 2,000 stalls among three floors, selling everything from saddles to shoes to sombreros, it could take hours to fully explore.

The three story mall with nothing but jewelry stores.

The three story mall with nothing but jewelry stores.

Mercado Libertad, the largest indoor market in Latin America.

Mercado Libertad, the largest indoor market in Latin America.

Can you smell the leather?

Can you smell the leather?

Typical “Mexican food” varies from region to region, each with its own specialties, none of which represent the stereotypical Taco Bell, or even “Tex Mex.”  Guadalajara is the capital city of the state of Jalisco, which has a couple of unique regional specialties I’d not sampled in other states.  One of these specialties, “Tortas Ahogadas,” or “drowned sandwich.” is billed as a hangover cure for that other Jalisco specialty from the surrounding fields of blue agave, tequila.   Made from crusty sourdough, the fried carnita (pork)-filled torta smothered in a vinegary tomato chili sauce offers a great excuse for a hangover, just for the savory-saturated sandwich. Tortas Ahogadas are as ubiquitous around Guadalajara as Whataburger in Texas, but “Las Famosas” behind the Teatro Degollado is probably the best known.  Go on a Tuesday or Thursday when it’s “2 x 1” and you can cure two hangovers for the price of 35 pesos, or about $1.70.  Don’t miss the giant fridge full if ice cold beer for a bit of the “hair of the dog.”

Nueve Esquinas, or Nine Corners plaza, with Birrieria de Nueve Esquinas restaurant in the background.

Nueve Esquinas, or Nine Corners plaza, with Birrieria de Nueve Esquinas restaurant in the background.

Indescribably delicious!

Indescribably delicious!

La Fuente, the oldest cantina in Guadalajara, founded in 1921.

La Fuente, the oldest cantina in Guadalajara, founded in 1921.

But the best regional specialty in my opinion can be pinpointed right down to the area of town known as “Nueve Esquinas,” or “Nine Corners,” dating back to the 13th century where four streets intersect, giving the plaza its name.  This area is famous for “birria” or spicy goat stew.    The aromatic blend of spices like cumin and cinnamon, steeped with chilies wafting up from the bowl is intoxicating.  But it doesn’t stop there, as the waiter brings bowl after bowl of accoutrements to spice it up to your liking.

Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento, one of Guadalajara's newer churches.

Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento, one of Guadalajara’s newer churches.

17th Century Templo de Santa Mónica

17th Century Templo de Santa Mónica

Templo de Santa Mónica by night.

Templo de Santa Mónica by night.

Every major Mexico town typically centers around the cathedral, church, or basilica, faced by a main square, jardin or zocolo.  If you can find this, you’ve found the heart of the town,  no matter how large or small.  In Guadalajara, there seems to be a cathedral every few blocks.  Not having done much research, I really didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, so in fact, I visited three of them before I finally found “The” cathedral.

Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady, built between 1558 and 1616. The towers were rebuilt in 1848 following an earthquake.

Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady, built between 1558 and 1616. The towers were rebuilt in 1848 following an earthquake.

Inside the cathedral

Inside the cathedral

Somehow, the battery-powered candles don't have the same effect...

Somehow, the battery-powered candles don’t have the same effect…

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By far, the best bargain in Guadalajara is the modern, fire engine red double-decker tour bus, Tapatío Tours.  For the ridiculously low price of 120 Pesos, (about $6) one can purchase a “hop on/hop off” ticket good for the entire day of touring.  And for us “seniors,” that rate drops to 70 Pesos, about $3.50.    Even if one never gets off the bus, this is still a fantastic way to see the city!    Though the narration is in Spanish, they also offer headphones for the English version of the prerecorded tour.   Three itineraries are offered, all included in the price:  the historic city tour, and two other routes to nearby suburbs of Tlaquepaque and Tonola.

Tapatio Tours, a bargain at $3.50 to hop on and off all day.

Tapatio Tours, a bargain at $3.50 to hop on and off all day.

Buy the ticket for the Tapatio Tour in front of the "Rotunda of Illustrious People of Jalisco."

Buy the ticket for the Tapatio Tour in front of the “Rotunda of Illustrious People of Jalisco.”

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There’s lots to explore in and around Guadalajara.   Day trips to the nearby Pueblo Magico, or Magic Town of Tequila can be booked on the bus.  Or if you’re a partier, there’s the weekend “Tequila Train.”  The nearby expat enclave of Lake Chapala is also only an hour away.   But I’ve got to draw the line at some point and move on, lest Guadalajara turn out to be like my two year plan for Manhattan that turned into ten…

Amor por Morelia

I’ve written about the merits of Morelia before.   It’s a great city that offers an abundance of options for many.  But Morelia gets a bit of a bad rap as a tourist destination with “guilt by association,” being the capital of the state of Michoacan where cartel activity has been reported in the surrounding countryside. Even the scariest piece of non-fiction you will ever read, the US State Department travel warning excludes the city of Morelia from its state-wide Michoacan warning.  So worrying about being targeted as a tourist by cartels in the historic centro is like my worrying about getting tetanus from a scraped elbow. Could it happen?  Yes. But not likely. Continue reading

Getting the Shot in Guanajuat-Oh!

Just about an hour drive west of San Miguel de Allende is another UNESCO World Heritage town, Guanajuato.  But unique from every other town you will find in Mexico, Guanajato is more “European” than Mexican.   The town was originally founded all the way back in the 1500’s.  Having been built around the silver mining trade, the town still has some active mines.  These mines lie buried within the steep hills, flanking the main thoroughfare.  If you’re looking for a destination to stay fit, this is it!   Most of the roads Continue reading

Closing Doors

In years past, San Miguel de Allende has been a regular destination for National Geographic’s week-long photography workshops. While buildings in the main section of historic “Centro” in San Miguel are restricted by the Regulation of Construction to shades of ocre and earth tones, vivid accent colors abound in the form of bougainvillea, hibiscus, and greenery planted in brightly colored pottery. But no accent is more intriguing than the doors of San Miguel. There’s even a book of photography featuring only photos of the ornately carved doors. Continue reading

Waltz Across Texas

The Winnie traveled across ten different states in 2016, the last being the least desirable. No offense to my family, athough Texas is my birthplace, anyone who knows me knows I’m not a fan for many reasons. If my Mom and niece would only relocate, I’d be like Thelma and Louise, driving across the four contiguous states just to avoid driving through it.

It’s 500 miles from the state line to the family farm, every one of them Continue reading

Soaks, Snow, and a Sea of Sand

The US Dept of Interior recently posted on Facebook, “Moonlight brightens snowy dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado. Experience the park after dark by stargazing, listening for owls along the foothills or going for a full moon walk on the dunes. Cold temperatures are the norm in winter, so bundle up with warm clothing and sturdy footwear for an unforgettable nighttime adventure.”

I find this an odd promotion, considering the park is miles from nowhere, and they have closed the one and only campground within the park.  Continue reading

The Roads to Chaco

I’ll admit I’d never even heard of Chaco Culture National Historic Park until I visited Mesa Verde National Park in 2015 when a Ranger on one of the guided tours said “If you think this is something, you should visit Chaco Canyon!”    So to learn that it was once considered the center of all ancestral Puebloan culture came as quite a surprise.   How could this ancient hub of civilization, just one state over from my childhood home, be a complete unknown to me?  After all the road trips of my youth across the great southwest, Continue reading

If A Tree Falls in the Forest…

NOTE:  Thanks for all your wonderful comments and support on my “Dear Mr. President” post.   I’ll get back to life in Mexico soon, but first, I have a few posts to catch up on, lest I forget the last days of my southerly winter migration…

If a tree falls in the forest and I can’t remember seeing it, does it still count?  If I visited a national park but can’t remember a thing about it, does it still count?

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a national park junkie.   I have lofty aspirations to visit all 59 with the official “Park” status. Continue reading