Guadalajara Mexico, Part I

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This past October I had the chance to re-visit Guadalajara, Mexico.  The city was hosting the Pan American Games and I drove out from Mexico City with my parents to watch my husband Tony hopefully win the gold and qualify for the London Olympics (they did!) Like many cities in Mexico, Guadalajara often gets a bad rap, mostly due to the ongoing drug wars that are ravaging the country.  But if you don't happen to be part of one of these gangs or extremely wealthy (and therefore a good prospective kidnapping victim) you should feel relatively safe.

In reality, Guadalajara is a cultural center of Mexico, considered to be home to Mariachi music, host to a number of globally renowned cultural events, and a hub for artesania (traditional Mexican handicrafts).  I was pleasantly surprised by the city on my recent trip and have enough material for 3 blog installations, this being Part 1.

We stayed at the Old Guadalajara, a charming Bed and Breakfast set in a beautiful colonial building in the heart of the old city.  Once you step through the large wooden door entrance, you find yourself in a peaceful central courtyard shaded by tall bamboo shoots.  Upstairs there are only 4 suites, but each is large and airy with high ceilings and tile floors.  It instantly feels like Mexico without going overboard.  The best part about the Old Guadalajara is owner Paul Callahan-- he is an expert on the city and also a wonderful cook.  Breakfast begins with a huge bowl of delicious cut fruit, followed by fresh bolillos (bread) and homemade jam, and then eggs made in some style (my favorite were Paul's famous poached eggs with salsa).  Paul also brews his own special coffee that is served with a little cream and sugar and super-addicting.  We met two other very friendly and interesting couples at breakfast who had been staying at the Old Guadalajara for years, and I spent most of the meal laughing at Paul's hilarious jokes.

On our first day we decided to explore the centro a little with the goal of reaching the Hospicio Cabanas.  This sprawling complex is only about a 15 minute walk through the downtown area from the Old Guadalajara and an absolute must-see.  The building used to be an orphanage, then served as a hospital during the war of Independence, and today serves as a museum-- with the main attraction the stellar murals by Jose Clemente Orozco.  Even if you don't like art this is something you want to see, and they offer excellent guided tours in English and Spanish.

After exploring the Hospicio and the interesting art work and statues in the plaza in front of the structure, it's time to head somewhere for a cold drink.  Paul had recommended El Mexicano, a simple but traditional restaurant right down the street that has live music every day.

When we arrived, a singer was meandering around the room with a microphone, sereranding the local crowd with classic Mexican ballads.  We all ordered shrimp cocktails (Mexican style with tomato and avocado) and Mom got a little excited and ordered the biggest Margarita I had seen in a while.  The staff were super-friendly and it was the perfect stop for a little relaxation, music and good food/drink.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the three main plazas that make up the centro.  Each one is a little different but offers its own charm and attractions.  I stopped to pick up a cup of fresh mango from a local vendor, and then walked around admiring the different calaveras (life-size skeletons) dressed as Olympic Athletes.  It was nice to see the local families posing with the calaveras and imitating the various sports they were playing.  I couldn't find one representing water polo but I did pose with a few others just for fun.

For dinner we headed to El Sacromonte, an old-school restaurant not far from downtown.  It's alta cocina (gourmet) but the vibe is relaxed, the staff are very friendly, and the atmosphere is traditional, comfortable and a little eclectic.  Order "El Viejo Progreso" (a soup made with roquefort and chipotle) and the "Queen Isabel's Crown", giant shrimp woven together and covered with a lobster sauce and fried spinach.  We also did the mini quesadillas filled with rose petals as an appetizer.

For a drink after dinner head to Santo Coyote, a stunningly beautiful restaurant set in an old hacienda and filled with waterfalls, colorful folk art and hanging lanterns.  Order a tamarindo margarita and sit back and enjoy the live mariachi music.  There is also a fun nightclub that starts going off around 11pm.

If you feel up to hitting up another bar, it's worth it to stop in at El Fuente, one of the oldest bars in Guadalajara.  It's located back in the centro, a few blocks away from where we were staying at the Old Guadalajara.  It's still an old-school cantina, unpretentious and serving cheap beer and tasty bar snacks.  We asked about the bicycle hanging above the bar and were handed a printed story about the legend of the lost bicycle: there are many versions, but this one was that a patron was so drunk, he forgot his bike and then was to embarrassed to come back and retrieve it.  Another legend has it that a drunk patron left the bike in order to pay for his extensive bar tab.  In any case, the cantina is a fun and laid-back place to mingle among the locals.