Guadalajara is the second biggest city in Mexico (right behind the country’s capital: Mexico City). Yup, and you know what? It doesn’t get credit for that, at least not from people who visit Mexico, which is kinda disappointing. When I told my friends where I was going, they at first didn’t know where that city was. “Do they have a beach?” I was frequently asked, since most Westerners need a beach to relax, especially when they go to Mexico.
No beach here, and aside from Ajijic, it isn’t really close to the water either. True, Puerto Vallarta is only a 4-hour-drive away. Together with other great cities, too (such as Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende). But by itself, this town has a lot to offer, especially for people who are interested in culture and arts.
I do have to say that it is best if you own a car or know someone who does. “What? I would never recommend public transport!” my friend cried out when I suggested to her to go easier on her responsibility of driving me around and telling me where the next bus station was. And sure enough, after seeing the overcrowded “chicken” buses on our way into the city, I wasn’t too eager, after all.
In total, I spent a good 2 weeks in Mexico, and my main stay was close to Guadalajara. So over the course of 10 days I got to see quite a bit. My first trip involved taking the tourist bus with my friend.
“El Tapatio takes you to all the old sites worth seeing. We could do the same in my car but then I wouldn’t know what to say about the buildings!” my friend announced when we were planning our few days together. So our first trip involved taking the local tour bus. After parking at a mall, we actually waited a full 1 ½ hours until El Tapatio showed up. Even after calling the agency every 20 minutes, we got the same answer: “You just missed the bus, the next one will pick you up in 30 minutes,” an impatient female voice answered our question. At first we thought we were turning crazy. “We missed it? How could we have missed it?” we kept questioning ourselves. And then, finally, the red, two-story bus came raging down the busy road. Once we saw it, we knew there was no way we could have missed the London-type bus, not even from a mile away. So be aware that Mexican tours are not very… well, punctual, at least not this one.
After paying our 120 pesos ($9) for a ride on the exotic Tapatio tour, I was handed a German headset (yes, they had quite a few languages), and we drove past some of the landmarks in the city. The Minerva, a warrior woman with a harpoon surrounded by a fountain, one of the city’s symbol, was our first stop. Then the University of Guadalajara and a street in which you can see the oldest buildings in town. We stopped at the Plaza de la Liberacion and went to check out the Catedral. In it, you will find a child’s mummy of a young girl, sent here in 1786. The girl’s remnants are said to stem from the third century and her story is that she died while protecting her virginity. The Cathedral also hosts many other things, such as old Roman-Catholic statues, a white Altar, and beautiful ornaments.
The church tends to attract many beggars and street kids, who try to pin a heart-shaped sticker onto your arm and then demand money. I once didn’t even notice that a girl had done so and was vehemently telling her that I didn’t have any money before I noticed she just wanted to retrieve the pink heart from my arm. It is tough to say no, especially to the young ones, but in the end we all know that the money won’t go directly to the kids but rather their parents. My friend also pointed out that it would be better to give them food than any valuables, but we had neither with us that day.
While walking through the city, we stumbled across a few street artists here and there, one of which was drawing a woman’s eye onto the pavement. After a while, we decided to take advantage of our tour ticket. It was valid all day long and went to Tlaquepaque and Zapopan at no additional cost. Since it was 4PM, we could only do either and opted for Zapopan, which wasn’t necessarily on our list in the following days. Our ride there was already adventurous: The bus was too tall to account for all the trees and branches standing in its way and at times the entire crew had to duck heads to avoid being hit in the head by yet another tree branch.
The Tapatio bus took us past a rather hideous neighborhood and my friend was already contemplating about why they would even do that, when we stopped in front of the zoo and were able to check out parts of it from high above. We then rode past some more street beggars at the Olympic stadium, which hosted the Pan American Games in 2011. When reaching Zapopan, I was barely able to get a picture of one of the most beautiful churches I’d seen on my entire trip. The bus raged past it, turned, then drove past it again, stopped briefly to let a few tourists in, and then transported us back to Guadalajara. On this tour, there was no translation available, so I was dependent upon my Spanish-speaking friend to translate the few bits and pieces she could make out coming from the speaker.
Luckily, I was able to check out more sights in Guadalajara during my second week. Another friend brought me here on Tuesday. Tuesday equals free days for museums. We first went inside the Teatro Degollado. Here again I was lucky to be with a local as she was able to convince the doorman to let us in, even though there was a rehearsal going on inside. We snuck in, checked out the beautiful ceiling, and snuck back out. My next stop was a sombrero store, where I was able to acquire a traditional Mexican sombrero for only 31 pesos ($2). We then went on to the local market and observed a salesperson with baby iguanas.
The Cabanas Cultural Institute was a highlight on that day: Formerly used as an orphanage, it was turned into an art institute with beautiful paintings by Orozco on the walls and ceilings. A beautiful fountain leads towards it and on that particular day an artist was displaying automobile-related works (such as a tires piled on top of each other). It is certainly worth checking out on the free Tuesdays. More paintings by Orozco can be seen in the Government Palace, which was also free to get in. It was here that we saw a traditional Parliament room, still in use sometimes. The entire history of Jalisco’s governors together with their portraits are displayed in the palace. Together with this fancy assortment of old Tequila bottles. Since a trip to Tequila was planned the following day, I was excited to snap pictures of these.
Another great thing about Guadalajara are their car-free Sunday mornings. From Sunday morning until 2 o’clock in the afternoon, cars are not allowed to drive, starting from the Minerva towards the downtown area. My friend, her sister and I checked it out on one of my last days here. It was great to see so many happy faces riding their bikes, skateboards, or simply walking down the car-deserted streets of the city. I don’t know why it only lasts until 2PM, but they have it every week, which is a good thing.
Guadalajara – the Pearl of the West – has not failed to impress me during the time I spent close to Jalisco’s capital. What really astonished me was that I seldom saw any English-speaking tourists, but more so from other states in Mexico. Or rather, my friend pointed out to me that this and that person had a different accent (Ugh, they speak ugly in Mexico City!), of course I myself would never be able to tell with my sparse Spanish knowledge. I don’t know if this is true throughout most of Mexico, but it was rather nice to be close-up to the country’s culture without too much interference from other cultures. Of course you are always treated like a guera (a white person; and sometimes like a gringa, too) and ripped off when purchasing goods on the local market but it didn’t bother me as much as it should have. If that is the trade-off I get for authenticity, I am willing to take it.