Guadalajara, Mexico is a land of contradictions: women are held to incredibly high beauty standards, yet greasy taco stands occupy every street corner, the city is 90% Catholic, but you can’t drive for more than five minutes without passing an “Auto Hotel” (AKA: where you take your mistress on Saturday night before church with your family on Sunday), the city has a stereotype of danger, but I’ve found the culture and residents to be nothing but warm, welcoming, and helpful, many North Americans associate Mexico with poverty, but I see more name brand bags and German cars in Guadalajara on a daily basis than I can count.
Guadalajara’s contradictions are what make it so captivating and memorable. I’ve never been to a country, or a city, quite like it. If you’ve never been to Mexico (and I mean real Mexico, not Cancun), forget about every stereotype you may have formed, because I can promise you the country is nothing like what you’ve seen in the old Western movies. As an Italian-American who spent most of her childhood in the USA, I’ve admittedly harbored a far from favorable view of the Mexican people and culture through the way it is portrayed in The States. I’m very open minded, social, and incredibly interested in other cultures and customs… So harboring such an unwarranted view of another country made me quite the hypocrite. I’ve been living in Guadalajara since October 2015, and of all my stereotypes, the only one I’ve found to be true is that the food is in fact mind-blowingly delicious. That being said:
Prepare Yourself For:
- Guadalajara’s inhabitants are either really wealthy, or really poor; rarely will you find a middle ground. The amount of wealth in the city is something that really took me aback when I started my Mexican adventure. As Mexico’s second largest city, Guadalajara is bustling with energy, money, and poverty, all in equal parts. I would classify the city into three broad groups of people: the “fresas” (AKA: the upper-class super posh population, like the people you’d come across in a Ralph Lauren catalog, their typical hangout areas are Providencia and Andares), the hipsters (pretty self-explanatory, lots of tattoos, into rock music and man buns, they hang around the Chapultepec area in Colonia Americana), and the poor (the lower-class population tends to stick to the centro historico, which is the most traditionally Mexican area of the city). There’s a pretty intense divide between the groups; they rarely mingle. I would advise to make friends with locals who fit into each of the three categories. Each ‘type’ of Tapatio (a person from Guadalajara) has a new perspective to offer of their city.
- Mexico has certainly made a name for itself in the drug trafficking world. I won’t pretend that the country doesn’t merit its’ narco infamy, but it is nothing that tourists need to be overly concerned about. The narco’s save their violence for opposing narco groups, not for innocent travelers and citizens. Of course, violence is an issue in the country (as in any other part of the world) but it should be nothing that defers you from exploring it!
- Taxi drivers know you’re foreign, and 9/10 times they will rip you off. Take Uber: it’s cheaper, more reliable, and there’s a better chance your driver will speak English.
- Don’t fear the chile. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING is “enchilado”: street fruit bathed in chile and lime, the papas (chips) covered in spicy red sauce, candy and chocolate with pieces of chile sprinkled on top, every alcoholic drink under the sun accompanied with chile in some way (the most popular is arguably the Michelada, consisting of beer, lime juice, and assorted sauces, spices and peppers), and so much more. I initially was totally freaked out and overwhelmed by the seemingly excessive chile use, but you just have to embrace it, it’s part of the experience.
- The “Auto Hotels” (AKA: the sex hotels) are literally everywhere. Infidelity, undoubtedly a global issue, is much more in your face in Mexico than in many other countries. Italians and Americans are no less unfaithful than Mexicans, they’re just a bit more discrete about it. You’d be hard pressed to drive more than 5-10 minutes in Guadalajara without passing some sort of auto hotel. These “hotels” are automobile friendly, and the inside looks like a California suburb. You drive your car in, receive a number, go to the apartment corresponding with the number, pull into the garage, and have 6-12 hours to take care of business. I suppose you have to admire their efficiency?
- I’ve heard the expression “waste not want not” countless times from my grandmother, but this it took on a whole new meaning when I moved to Mexico. They eat every part of the animal you could imagine, so don’t be too taken aback when you see eye, esophagus, and tongue tacos on your menu.
- If you’ve spent your life living in first world countries, let go of the idea that everything needs to be clean at all times before coming to Mexico. While much of Guadalajara is very well preserved and well kept, a large portion of the city is older and less modernized than countries in Europe and the United States. Within a week of moving into the Colonia Americana area of the city I encountered bedbugs and two cockroaches in my shower. Yes, it’s disgusting, but yes, it happens.
Guadalajara Must Do’s:
- Tlaquepaque is unlike any other part of Guadalajara, as it has a super European vibe. The cobblestone streets, the architecture, and the colorful buildings are very reminiscent of France or Spain. As always, however, Mexico adds its’ own spicy flare. Street food, overpriced restaurants, indigenous art work, art galleries (my favorite of which is the Rodo Padilla exhibit) are scattered through the enchanting streets of this area of the city. I would also highly recommend trying pulque at a little restaurant/bar called Tlaquepulque. Don’t ask what’s in it, just drink.
- You need to experience Lucha Libre (AKA: Mexican wrestling) in Arena Coliseo. It doesn’t get much more authentic than Tecate beer, street vendors, and 7-year-old kids and grandparents alike screaming obscenities in Spanish at the top of their lungs for three hours while Mexican men beat the shit out of each other. GO.
- Calle Chapultepec (and the Colonia Americana Area in general) is a hipster’s heaven. The area is flooded with students and artsy types, bars, cantinas, clubs, cafes, book stores, etc. One of Guadalajara’s main roads (Avenida Vallarta) that runs through Chapultepec closes from 10 am to 4 pm every Sunday to allow bicyclists, skateboarders, pedestrians, and runners enjoy this boho part of the city. Colonia Americana, the centro historico, and the several blocks in between, are undoubtedly the best in the city for graffiti lovers. Some of the murals are strikingly intricate and powerful. I would highly recommend the 35-40 minute stroll from Chapultepec to the downtown area.
- Ohhh, the Mariachi… Undoubtedly one of the most well-preserved, loved, and authentic traditions of the Mexican culture. This musical expression dates back to 19th century Western Mexico. The Mariachi’s of Mexico are like the opera singers of Italy, a total cultural staple, and something you need to experience. Regardless of age or social class every Mexican aging from 10 years old to 90 years old knows every word to every Mariachi song ever written. Their outfits are adorable, their voices are incredibly unique, the eclectic instrumental mix of violin, trumpet and guitar make the melody catchy, and nothing beats live music. If you’re lucky, you may even be able to snag one of their sombreros. Hit Plazuela de Los Mariachis in the historic center of Guadalajara any day of the week to experience the Mariachi’s firsthand.
How To Make Your Trip Authentic:
- EAT THE STREET FOOD. Seriously, it’s life changing. Nothing you buy in restaurants compares even remotely taste wise, OR price wise. You can buy the four best tacos of your life for 36 pesos (AKA: 2 USD), or blow several hundred pesos (still, only about 15 USD) in a super posh restaurant for a mediocre meal. The Guadalajara street food noms are perfect for budget travelers and backpackers because you don’t have to sacrifice taste for price.
- Go to the “dodgy” areas of the city. Before I sound like a complete psycho, let me start by saying that the locals are incredibly lovely, but ridiculously paranoid. If you ask them about 99% of the city they’ll tell you, 1) stay away, 2) don’t go at night, and/or 3) don’t go without a man. I’m in no way advocating traveling unsafely, but as long as you’re not running around with a $1,000 + camera, your iPhone 6 on a selfie stick, and a Chanel bag, there are few places in the city that you really have to avoid for safety reasons. The centro historico of Guadalajara is incredibly vibrant and something every traveler must experience. From the San Juan de Dios street market to the Cabañas museum and UNESCO world heritage side, there’s a surprise waiting around every corner in this part of the city. Be smart, and be cautious, but if you limit yourself to the touristy areas of the city, you won’t get a real feel for the Mexican culture or people, and isn’t that what traveling is about?
- Talk to the locals. Please, please, please don’t come to Mexico with a posse from your home country just to drink tequila and take a picture in a sombrero. Not that I’m in any way against tequila or sombreros, but the country has so much more to offer than that. Strike up a conversation with a street vendor, ask your waiter/waitress where they’re from, buy a drink for a stranger. A little goes a long way here; a simple question or a “Hola” can prompt a two hour conversation about cultural stereotypes, the pros and cons of traveling, whether monogamy is possible, or something as simple as an amateur sign language conversation because of the language barrier. It is through interaction with the local people that you really get a feel for the country, don’t deprive yourself of such a rich opportunity to grow.
- Try to speak Spanish. Even if your extent of knowledge of the language doesn’t go beyond “Hola” and “Gracias”, do it! The locals really appreciate any amount of effort and it and will instantly be much more welcoming.
Guadalajara is a cultural labyrinth; within a block you can feel Western, Spanish, and Arabic influences. Nowhere else have I felt the modern world functioning so fluidly with indigenous tradition. Mexico is unpredictable, passionate, and paradoxically old-fashioned. If you’re looking for a relaxed, by-the-book, organized type of trip, Mexico (aside from the Yucatan resorts), would be the last place I would recommend. However, if you’re seeking spontaneity, vibrancy, and flavor, put Guadalajara, and Mexico in general, at the very top of your list.