By Judy Waytiuk
Travellers seeking some of the finest history and culture Mexico offers, along with a little kick-back vacationing surrounded by other North Americans, can’t do any better than Guadalajara and its neighbouring communities around Lake Chapala.
Charter packages don’t do this kind of trip, but it’s an easy assembly for any solid agent to provide: flight, car rental and hotel in Guadalajara along with a short-list of highlights to hit.
The tough part comes when selecting accommodations in the outlying lakeside communities. Chapala and Ajijic (AH-hee-hic), because there’s a stunning variety of hotels, B&Bs, and vacation home rentals on the market on the two towns. Fewer choices – but still plenty of options suitable for Canadian tastes – await in the lesser-known spa village of San Juan Cosala and traditional Jocotepec.
Mexico Tourism BoardGuadalajara Gotta-Do's
Hotels near this city’s historic centre are the best bets for travellers who don’t want to squander a small fortune on taxis to get to the tourism hot spot: the triplet pedestrian-only plazas of Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Liberacion, and Plaza Tapatia. The three plazas are edged by all the major cultural/historic features on any must-do list.
The magnificent cathedral fronting the Plaza de la Liberacion took three centuries to build and had its facade and towers wrecked during an earthquake, forcing major reconstruction in the 19th century. Adjacent to the cathedral, the Museo Regional de Guadalajara shows off everything from a complete mammoth skeleton to artwork by area artists.
Across from the museum, the Baroque, 1770’s-vintage Palacio del Gobierno is the operating seat of government, but it’s wide open to visits from tourists wanting to see the tumultuous, massive murals of Jose Clemente Orozco, celebrating local independence hero Miguel Hidalgo who put an end to slavery here in 1810. An ornate bandstand in the middle of the adjacent Plaza de Armas hosts free concerts on Thursday and Sunday evenings.
This is also the spot to pick up a calandria – horse-drawn carriage – for a comfortable tour of the area by hoof.
But footwork yields a lot more local flavour; all along the string of plazas, office workers nosh down on bagged lunches, mothers watch children playing in fountains to cool off, and peddlers hawk wares from balloons and Mexican flags to packaged snacks with dubious best-before dates.
Mexico Tourism BoardWorth a peek inside as well as from the outside is the Teatro Degollado, with a red and gold interior and dome boasting a fresco of scenes out of Dante’s Divine Comedy; it seems Guadalajarans are traditionally fond of artwork writ large in their public buildings. More evidence of this fascination turns up at the Instituto Cultural Cabanas, where the prolific Orozco, a favourite local artistic hero, covered the interior walls and ceiling of the former orphanage’s old chapel with flamboyant murals, culminating in the central Man in Flames depiction of his favourite subject, Hidalgo.
Cristian Lazzari/iStockphotoTime a visit for the annual, 10-day Mariachi and Charro Festival in late September, and the city is layered in mariachi music from bands from all over the world (even the Japanese have a few entries in the competitions) as well as displays of traditional charreria – Mexican rodeo performed by charros, or cowboys. Parades that combine both take over main streets, and throngs of thousands line the curbs to experience the wonder of two favourite cultural features mashed together into one very noisy celebration.
Add tequila to the mix, and you’re guaranteed a world-class hangover, which will be made all the worse by street-roaming eight-man mariachi troupes blasting their horns and singing at the tops of their frighteningly-powerful (though, thankfully, melodic) lungs.
More sedate pursuits outside the city centre include a visit to the Basilica de Zapopan, once a separate town but now effectively a suburb of sprawling Guadalajara, where one of Mexico’s most revered relics is housed – the Virgin of Zapopan, a small, unassuming statue that’s believed to stave off natural disasters.
Shoppers inevitably head to tony, pedestrian-only TlaquePaque (TLACK-ay-PACK-ay), once a small crafts village, now the in-crowd dining, souvenir and crafts shopping hotspot for tourists. Almost three dozen restaurants ring the once-tiny town’s main square, and the crafts sold here are generally of better quality than can be found elsewhere.
Bill Perry/ShutterstockOn a smaller scale, the also-absorbed village of Tonala houses thousands of artisans turning out crafts and ceramics. A few of their studios are open to the public; somehow, buying glassware or pottery right where you saw the stuff being made carries a special cachet.
Onto The Lakeside
With a rented car, a good map, and a little curiosity, visitors to Guadalajara can open up a whole new world of vacation exploration by heading south to Lake Chapala. Thanks to its water being diverted elsewhere for agricultural irrigation, the lake is drying up, very slowly. Once a livelihood source for fishermen, it’s now the backdrop for a string of small, wildly-charming villages that once were vacation spots for wealthy Guadalajarans and have in recent decades attracted hordes of ex-pat, retired Americans and Canadians who live here happily for much of the year, and, when they decamp back “home” briefly, often rent out their homes to short-stay vacationers.
Plenty of websites offer real estate rentals – and purchase possibilities – listing these available little casas. But there’s a wide range of hotels and B&Bs to be found in the towns through Google-able websites as well.
In Chapala, luxury B&B Casa Mis Amores is a member of Historic Hacienda Inns of Western Mexico, and the Lake Chapala Inn and Quinta Quetzalcoatl are clean, comfy and decent quality locations. Bear in mind Mexicans vacation here, too, and often opt for more bargain-oriented, much simpler accommodations, like the Chapala Hotel – really a three-storey motel. Clean, but very definitely not fancy.
West of Chapala, Ajijic offers a broad assortment of higher-end hotels and B&Bs, like La Nueva Posada, with groomed gardens and top-notch restaurant, or Los Artistas B&B, complete with swimming pool. The simpler, less expensive, and more traditionally Mexican-style Ajijic Suites (this writer’s favourite) is right off the town square and offers small kitchen facilities.
The primary charm to these villages, Chapala, Ajijic, San Juan Cosala, and Jocotepec, is a laid-back, manana atmosphere. Nobody here hurries, though occasional visiting bus tour groups do blast brief moods of souvenir-seeking urgency through the little crafts markets, delightful shops, quaint restaurants, and quiet lakeside boardwalks. In Chapala, the recreation of choice often involves a covered water taxi trip out to one of the lake’s small islands – the fish restaurants of Isla de los Alacranes, or the ruins of an old fort on Mezcala – and a water tour around the lake’s edge.
Once you get west of Chapala and Ajijic, you’re in no-guide-book country. These are villages that qualify as genuinely-undiscovered by most North Americans, though they are popular secluded vacation hideaway locations for well-heeled Mexicans, and a stay in any of these spots will confer adventurous bragging rights on those intrepid enough to try something just a little out of the ordinary. Friends need not necessarily know that they are safe, friendly little places where some English is even spoken, especially in the hotels and B&Bs.
San Juan Cosala’s fully heated: the place is crammed with hot springs. Along with a few other small hotels, the Hotel Balneario San Juan Cosalá, probably the best choice for North American tourists, offers a full range of spa therapy and massage in addition to its own water park. But for upscale travellers, the 11-suite Monte Coxala Spa, starting at well over $220 a night, offers top-notch facilities and high-end honeymoon-romantic suites.
At Jocotepec, on the western tip of the east-west stretching lake, Los Dos B&B, a member of the Historic Hacienda Inns Association, offers solar-heated pool, extensive gardens, and four full suites (with kitchens) filled with Mexican craftwork and charm. The 12-room Quinta San Carlos fairly drips high-end Mexican charm, with the public areas far more upscale than the rooms – which are lovely, just not spectacular. And 10-suite Casa Del Chante is inexpensive (less than US $100 a night) with free internet access and a spa.
For more information, click to www.visitmexico.com