I’ve always loved the ring of the name “Guadalajara,” but I’ve never thought much about this teeming, second-largest Mexican city. When a conference in Chile fell through I agreed to accompany my cousin and her now 16-month old twins for another UN Climate Change Conference. Once again, I did very little research and just figured I’d wing it again in my Mary Poppins kinda way.
I speak some Spanish, although it is my third language, and I thought with jet lag as a minor issue, this would be easier than our wonderful Thailand trek last fall. I had no illusions of a restful getaway, and truth be told very few expectations beyond some sun, mezcal/tequila and mariachi music. I thought churches, parks and plazas would be my hangouts with the kids, while mom helped protect the earth.
I was so pleasantly surprised by the city of Guadalajara. Five times bigger than my home of San Francisco, the city was percolating with energy, color and wonderfully warm people. Guadalajara is the cultural center of Mexico and very equipped to welcome tourists, although I was happy to have met very few. In fact, the only Americans I met, besides the conference participants in our hotel, were dual citizens who had connections to the area.
What a joy it was to roam, unfettered by hordes of clamoring tourists. I, of course, stood out like a sore thumb — freckled and pale, in a sweat — pushing a double stroller everywhere, but I really found my rhythm.
Our hotel, the Fiesta Americana, was modern and sleek in the the posh Minerva district. In my 22nd floor room, the view of the city, surrounded by mountains, was spectacular. Guadalajara is at 5100 feet in the Atemajac Valley. Although it’s polluted and dry (your sinuses will let you know), the sunsets were beautiful, especially since we had a birds-eye view of the Matute Remus bridge, which changes colors at night and was my go-to distraction for the twins. The temperature was a perfect 75-80 degrees every day; warm enough to feel tropical but not stifling, never chilly.
Each day I had a plan and stuck to it, spending more time at places than I ever thought possible. Taxis were plentiful and affordable and despite the octomom act of keeping the duo safe without car seats, most drivers were helpful and charming. Guadalajara is home to the best zoo in Latin America, the brand new Michin Aquarium (brought to you by Coca-Cola) and Trompo Magico, the best children’s museum I have ever visited. It is state-run, sprawling, spotless and endlessly engaging. I was forever grateful to the ever present and cheerful guides who helped me wrangle the now toddling duo. The Trompo Magico Children’s Museum, which cost 20 pesos — or one dollar — to enter was a gem. Granted, it’s of no interest unless traveling with kids, but I marveled at the facilities and creative interactive exhibits. They had an entire miniature town where school-aged kids and younger could grocery shop, run a restaurant, farm, care for newborns in a maternity ward and experience bubble world.
I don’t think anyone has ever spent as much time there in one day as I did, returning to each venue a few times. Moses and Etia had the time of their lives each day, playing, dancing and listening to music, up close and personal with a polar bear, visiting churches, absorbing art and watching manta rays swim around till they passed out in the stroller.
I returned back to the hotel each night and unleashed them, and they headed right for the bathtub and a bottle of milk before they crashed hard.
I had a mission to entertain and care for my cousin’s kids, but decided to venture beyond the kid-centric destinations. The best areas to explore are small towns that have been subsumed by the greater metropolis; Tonala and Tlaquepaque were on my list.
The former has a giant market on Thursdays and Sundays — I went both days — and just roaming the streets, stalls and squares was eye candy enough, but I did buy some great textiles, clothes and artwork. The colorful murals and storefronts, open-air restaurants and vibrant life in the public squares was a tremendous uplift; very few people were absorbed by phones.
Tlaquepaque (a name that rolls off the tongue in an amusing way) felt more upscale and the pedestrian area housed some posh galleries and shops. The embroidered linens were to die for and I got a small piece to frame for my home as well as some adorable little girl dresses.
Once again I was a bit cautious with food, given my mission, but was able to explore and enjoy local favorites. The tropical fruit and drinks at the breakfast buffet were magical and I had the hands-down best ice cream of my life, a double scoop of coconut and Baileys flavor from these barrels. I loved that the seller was wearing white galoshes and the “chica” size was 75 cents! Two other restaurants of note were Santo Coyote, a hip fusion place with tremendous ambiance and a killer dessert bar and a small family-owned spot in Tonala named El Rincon del Sol. Less upscale, this local eatery had a wonderful guitar player, two fountains and parrots in the courtyard.
If you are not traveling with kids, the Tequila tours in surrounding areas sounded fun and there are plenty of day trips in the region. My next post will feature our 3-day adventure at Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest freshwater lake and less than an hour from Guadalajara.
Finally, one of my favorite outings in the historical center included a trip to the 200-year-old Hospicio Cabañas, an old hospital that is now a cultural center and a UNESCO World Heritage site. With four major exhibits, and stunning Orozco murals, this arts center is an architectural gem. Twenty-six courtyards make the enjoyment of the varied exhibitions even more pleasant and less exhausting. Moses absolutely adored the Orozco murals and joined a Mexican tour group, lying on the ground to get a better view.
At this point I have to make a shout out to “los rampas” (ramps). I am forever indebted to the compassion and foresight of Guadalajara for providing so many ramps in public spaces. It would be a doable destination for a disabled traveler and I was so impressed with the easy access given my double-wide.
Whether you are traveling with kids, looking for a seemingly off-the-radar, affordable urban adventure or making a stopover to a more glamorous beach destination, I would truly recommend Guadalajara for a few days.