When I was planning my trip to Guadalajara, I found very little information was available. There’s a handy wikitravel article, but that’s about it.
So I put together a Guadalajara travel guide: an account of my experience as an unassuming tourist, stumbling around town scarfing down tacos and 40 cent frappuccinos, getting utterly lost, and making really strange friends.
I’m ashamed to admin it, but I was a little worried about travelling to Mexico. All the bad press kinda got to my head.
Guadalajara is 1,300 km from the border with the US where all the gang violence is going down. It’s one of the fastest developing areas in a picturesque province full of Aztec ruins, farmer shanties and neoclassical cities.
Seriously, it’s a safe place.
Look at it this way.
I’m a 5’4 lady with gigantic fake red hair running around on foot almost at random through the city. The reactions I got ranged from mild curiosity to a couple high fives.
Guadalajara don’t give a damn.
Exercise basic self-preservation precautions and keep your eye on your sh**. You’ll be fine.
Guadalajara is the Silicon Valley of Mexico with many IT companies headquartered there. Young entrepreneurs flock to this city and have transformed parts of it to luxurious suburbs sprinkled with Starbucks and five star sushi chefs.
It’s also considered the home of Mariaci music; and people there really dig Mariaci music. The weekend markets were full of locals and tourists alike, relaxing in the shade of CocaCola umbrellas watching live music performances.
Mariachi and geeks.
Yep, it’s a weird place.
If you’re looking for a sunny resort destination, hit up Cancun or go further south to one of the all inclusive venues in Cuba.
Frankly, I find the gilded cage experience of all-inclusive venues bland and unfulfilling. I like to get hands on with my travels and really put my finger on the pulse of a city.
Guadalajara is a spectacular place for walking tours – you can easily get from one end of the city to the other in about 3 hours and there’s lots to see along the way.
So before I begin a little 411 on the logistics…
Booking and pricing
All in all, the round trip flight cost $1500 for two people in October. Rates likely vary thrpoughout the year but I think we hit the sweet spot with our travel date. We booked through the Inspiring World Voyages agency and had a pleasant experience – Teo looked after us and even sent me reminders of the logistics the day before leaving.
Our accommodations were arranged through a specialty agency but there are lots of hotels in all four major districts of Guadalajara which provide reasonable room rates starting around $40/night.
The historic town centre is a great location if you want to be in the midst of all the action. However we stayed in a gorgeous villa in Zapopan which is in the north east quadrant of the city.
Zapopan had a much more relaxed feeling and was a lot quieter than the downtown core, which made for some wicked sunny patio mid afternoon naps. I took my fair share of siestas – mostly because even in late October it was too hot to go exploring at high noon.
Let me give you a little practical advice:
Yo Tiengo MB!
First things first, snag yourself an offline dictionary app for your mobile device. There’s free WIFI at most restaurants and coffee shops but Google Translate won’t do you much good in the middle of an open air market. I personally used this offline translation app for iOS and Android. WordLens is also so awesome that it borders on witchcraft – though it will require data.
I managed with the smattering of Franco-Itali-Spanglish I can muster but it’s always good to have a dictionary on hand. Making Siri concisely enunciate “dónde está el baño, taco es muy picante” will save you from a comedic and awkward game of charades.
If you bring a gadget with you, your first stop should be a Telcel store. They’re sprinkled all over the city, but it helps to locate a specific one near your hotel or the airport and get this done as soon as possible. A gig of data goes for about 5 bucks, SIM card included. If you’re a walking tour person like me, that’ll be more than enough for GPS and maps around town and dozens of 8MP selfies posted directly to Facebook.
Your Chariot Awaits
There are plenty of distinctive yellow cabs around but keep an eye out and make sure they have the meter running or agree on a price in advance. To give you a frame of reference, Zapopan to the historic core in rush hour traffic (Ie. I could’ve walked faster, but I like those shoes) cost me about 10 bucks (90 or so pesos).
To my disappointment, cabbies don’t really know where anything is – if you ask for something as specific as the Cathedral or Mercada Liber they’ll drop you off, but asking them for a street address won’t get you very far. One driver I spoke with explained that Guadalajara sprouted like a virulent weed overnight and half the streets are so new nobody keeps track anymore; store fronts change with such frequency that it’s impossible to pinpoint anything. This is the part where you whip out your phone, point at the map and say “Aquí!”
Public transportation exists but I would honestly avoid it. A lot of bus stops are unmarked and at any rate they are packed like sardine cans and crawl along as does most of the other traffic.
Like I said you can walk the whole city in 3 hours and if you’re in a hurry taxis are cheap. If you insist on a genuine public transit experience, the bus costs anywhere from 50 cents to two bucks, here is a map of all their transit routes and good luck.
The bus system is not state owned and individual operators can set their own rates depending on the comfort level of the accommodations but they all follow the same routes across town. It’s outright Babylonian for such a small city. You can usually pick out unmarked stops by watching for pockets of people anxiously waiting on the side of the road. Most OXXO convenience stores sell transit maps.
OXXO became my best friend on day two when I ran out of menthols and snack bags I pilfered off the plane. They sell everything from bandaids to zippo fluid and twenty unheard of Doritos flavours.
If you’re feeling romantic, you can commandeer an actual horse drawn carriage in the historic centre. It may seem like a good idea at first, but shortly after boarding you’ll realize they’re uncomfortable, you’re baking in the sun and horses smell terrible. They nevertheless add quaintness to the atmosphere of the city.
Around the city
I learned later that the spatial organization of this city is typical in South America – everything occurs in pockets. There is a specific niche district (meaning a few blocks or a major intersection) for every necessity. Calz Federalizmo Notre and Avenida Juarez were a massive amalgamation of wedding dress stores. Just south on Hiladgo were all the fabric stores and little else.
Kettles, pinwheels, and skateboards each had their own strip that sold those items exclusively. On the first trip across town I took Avenida de las Américas and saw little other than ceramic tile shops and kitchen fixtures for kilometres.
The first sight I incidentally came across was Casa José Guadalupe Zuno. Originally built in the 1920s, it became the home of the university historical archives in 1993. The building is distinguished for its Tezontle façade – a red volcanic rock commonly used for construction in Mexico.
Guadalajara is full of traffic circles, distinguishable from the roundabouts in the UK by the presence of traffic lights. It still took me 15 minutes to cross this intersection. There are multiple merging streets and a steady flow of rather slow moving cars that just don’t give a damn about lights or pedestrians.
Most rotondas host historical monuments. I found myself standing before Monumento a los niños heroes. I snapped a picture and ran across the street to read the inscriptions.
If the name sounds creepy, you’re spot on. Juan Olaguíbel’s intent was to honour young soldiers who fought for the glory of their patria. There are in fact four separate monuments to warrior children scattered about Guadalajara, every one more imposing and terrifying than the last, a vestige of colonial presence in Mexico.
I should mention, my first stroll across the city was on a Tuesday morning.
I had heard much about the Mexican mercado but found none. At the opposite end of the city on Calz Independencia Sur, I came across a large open space surrounding an artesian fountain. It looked like prime real estate for an outdoor market, and was in fact marked on my map as the site of Tianguis Cultural de Guadalajara – yet that afternoon it was deserted. I learned later the larger markets only assemble on weekends.
A bit disappointed, I bookmarked the location and headed over to the Paleontology museum in Parque Agua Azul.
I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this, but I’m a dinosaur nerd. I developed a fascination with the prehistoric monsters when I was about 8 years old and it stuck all the way into adulthood. To this day I thoroughly scour any city I visit for bone exhibits. Guadalajara did not disappoint; Museo de Paleontología de Guadalajara, Federico A. Solórzano Barreto was a wonderful experience even though I had to negotiate my way through throngs of school children.
Most of their fossils came from Jalisco, particularly the Lake of Chapala 50 kilometres south of Guadalajara and were dated somewhere around the Miocene period. You won’t find gigantic sauropod skeletons here. This was a period of ice ages, the rise of primates, really freakin’ cool 25 foot wing-span Argentavis and 3 tonne crocodiles.
Anyway, I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside the museum, but you can amuse yourself with the photo gallery from their website and take my word for it, it’s a really cool place to check out.
Almost as cool as the Panteón de Belén.
I don’t believe in any superstitious gunk, but when someone tells me there’s a “haunted” 19th century pantheon, colour me there.
The sun was setting by the time I made my way up Calle Belen and I glued myself to an American group going in for the last tour of the evening. Had I know that they organize midnight tours on Saturday I would’ve waited for the full effect, but it was nevertheless interesting to experience the cultivated morbidity of the place.
I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
On the third trip downtown Katie joined me and we took Ave Hidalgo towards the central Cathedral. Hidalgo started off as a residential street, then transitioned into the fanciest collection of funeral homes I’ve ever seen and then dissolved into wedding dress stores. Make sense of that.
Three blocks east the streets suddenly took on a lot of colour. We came across a strip of body mod places, followed by skateboard shops, alternative clothing stores, and finally something that legitimately looked like a goth club.
Yep. There are freaks everywhere. It always warms my heart to find the subcultures I’m so accustomed to in unlikely places. I must admit Guadalajara was a bit alienating; it’s a beautiful city but I was the weirdest looking thing for miles and sometimes I just crave a little sense of community. Seeing pierced and tattooed people browsing Bauhaus shirts was just the familiarity level I needed.
We continued on Hidalgo to the old historic centre.
I love motorcycles and scooters and Guadalajara is full of them. It makes sense: traffic is slow and congested so swinging around on two wheels is just more practical. Interestingly enough, the biggest bike I saw in the whole city was a 500cc Kawie.
This part of Mexico prefers small engines, the whole city centre was littered with itty-bitty Italikas laden with boxes, cases, bungeed milk crates and other makeshift storage containers. At one point I saw a tiny moped with a large stone angel unceremoniously strapped to a board across the backseat.
The convoluted side streets around Plaza de Armas were packed with shoppers and the sidewalks lined with vendors of all sorts. From popcorn, to hats to cellphone chargers, the whole core was a large bazaar. We emerged near the Guadalajara Cathedral front garden which was full of milling crowds and performers, musicians, jugglers, and all sorts of junk food vendors.
After resting briefly outside the cathedral we circled it and came across a large courtyard full of icon sculptors. If I ever need a stone carving of Mary and her spawn I know where I’m going. There were dozens of craftsmen at work carving and selling their finished products.
We came back the next day and went further beyond the cathedral into the Plazuela De Los Mariachis.
Like I mentioned Guadalajara is the prophesied home of Mariachi music and the tradition is very much alive. Resting on a patio with our cervezas in hand, we watched a dance performance and then a feisty soprano entertain the crowd.
I found it fascinating that the vast majority of the market occupants were locals. This is genuine, wholesome, weekend family fun for Guadalajarans. They sung and clapped along, children joined in to the dances and the performers stopped to personally greet some of their favourite patrons as they arrived.
I’m so used to being surrounded by foreigners when I do “touristy stuff” in a new city; seeing practiced culture was quite refreshing.
The Mariachi were something else. There were roving gangs of them in their distinct attire hustling around the market. Every corner I ducked into there’d be one hanging out in the shade of a door way.
“Hey lady want a song? Come on, you know you want a song”
It was pretty hilarious. It dawned on me that being a Mariachi is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle.
The style of the music and accompanying dance performances incorporate elements of polka, waltz and cuban music. Mariachi music was popularized in the 1920s when government radio stations began broadcasting it in an attempt to establish a distinctive Mexican cultural identity. In 2011 UNESCO recognized the music as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, joining six others of this list from Mexico.
Editorial disclosure: I wrote this section first because I was so excited about it
Mexican food kicks ass.
I ate my weight in tacos and then smuggled more chorizo sausage back home because I was so hooked.
There are many places to get delicious food around town ranging from five star seafood restaurants with tiny portions on gigantic plates, to wheelbarrow taco stands.
The latter were by far better.
In my strolls I stopped by every taco shanty and gorged on them every few blocks like PacMan’s wife on a rampage. Our villa provided three meals a day but I quickly abandoned the catered food in favour of a little shop down the block which served 12 different kinds of fresh tacos and all the guacamole and pico de gallo you can stomach – which in my case is a lot.
Mexican tacos are quite different from their bastardized TexMex North American counterparts, and they are delicious, quite filling for such a small size and fairly healthy when you think about it: BBQ meat, chopped cilantro, tomato and onion, avocado in a small corn tortilla.
*wipes drool off keyboard*
By far my best meal was in a small artist alley near Ave Hildago and Mariano Barcena. As far as I could tell people gathered on this side street to work on their crafts. Across from an art gallery, a hole in the wall restaurant served up these gorditas that shattered my mind.
If you’re a fish fan, you’ll want to hit up the taco stands early in the day. They typically get fresh fish deliveries at dawn (you can smell it across town) but they can only store it for so long, and by afternoon most places no longer offer seafood.
Deprived for several consecutive days I caved and went to an uppity seafood restaurant in Zapopan called Blue Fish.
That was an interesting experience.
For one, I showed up for dinner around 7 and the place was deserted. It was a beautiful location though – like most other modern architecture in Mexico, it was an open environment with large suspended beams interspersed with lighting and no walls to speak of but bordering vegetation.
The shrimp cocktail and ceviche quenched my fishy craving, but I was a bit underwhelmed. I could taste the effort but not the raw materials. I wanted local fish, which I got, but in an attempt at haute cuisine they drowned out its delicate flavour in over seasoned sauces.
Anyway, by 9pm I was three martinis in and chasing my last scallop around the plate when the place suddenly started filling up. I mean really filling up. The lights dimmed, the music went up 40 dB and the place echoed with peels of laughter and the staccato of stilettos on their cobblestones.
Restaurants are the hotbed of nightlife.
In my late night strolls I found the streets empty and the whole time I was there I came across only a couple places that looked like they might be clubs or bars. Late dinner parties seemed to be the primary entertainment.
I couldn’t believe how quickly Blue Fish got packed – especially for 10pm on a Wednesday night. It also dawned on me that the place was set up for live music with an adjacent stage and a dance floor area right in the midst of the restaurant floor. In fact most of the restaurants I walked past late night seemed to have loud live music or DJs and an eclectic mix of quiet diners, loud barflies and dance-party-animals.
Oh man I can’t wait to go back – to Guadalajara or perhaps some other part of Mexico.
My only regret is not getting a chance to check out some of the wilder parts of the province. I really wanted to visit Guachimontones, but the day trip just didn’t line up. I got to explore the city thoroughly, but there is much more to see in the periphery and I’ll definitely revisit the area some time soon.
Regardless, the weather was beautiful even through their rainy season, I ate my weight in tacos and left footprints all over town which is exactly what I wanted from the excursion.
I hope this guide helps others discover Guadalajara.
Comment with any questions you have I’ll be happy to share!