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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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…