Guadalajara: Plaza-filled city teems with tradition

Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers forsook the azure waters of the islands for the fountains and traffic circles of Guadalajara. Here is her report:

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- It's Mexico's second-largest city after Mexico City. It contains colonial homes, baroque churches, markets, mariachis, monuments and a surprising number of shoe stores.

Yet Guadalajara is not a destination that often pops up on tour packages or FIT itineraries, although it should. I spent three days here this spring and could have spent more.

The Centro Historico, featuring four plazas laid out in the shape of a cross, was my starting point. Plaza Tapatia, Plaza de la Liberacion, Plaza de Armas and Plaza de los Laureles surround the cathedral, the heart of the old city.

This is people-watching bliss, especially along Plaza Tapatia, whose seven-block-long promenade is Guadalajara's gathering place day and night. Vendors sell everything from candy to canaries.

On Sundays, Plaza de la Liberacion is the setting for dressed-up families parading up and down after church services.

Flowers, colonial architecture and wrought-iron balconies typify many of Guadalajara's residences and shops. Plaza de Armas is Guadalajara's traditional square, where free concerts of Jaliscan (from the state of Jalisco) music take place on Thursday and Sunday evenings -- as they have done continuously since 1898.

Planted with Indian laurel trees, Plaza de los Laureles is a nice place to rest the mind and body between excursions.

Anchoring the four plazas is the cathedral, whose twin 200-foot towers, emblazoned with yellow and blue tiles, are a conspicuous and famous landmark.

Begun in 1558 and consecrated in 1616, the structure is almost as old as the city itself, and remains one of its top attractions.

In fact, Guadalajara's churches in general seem to draw crowds. The city center alone has 14 churches along with the cathedral.

Even more plentiful are monuments and buildings, whose architectural styles run the gamut from baroque to colonial.

The Instituto Cultural de Cabanas is a huge, neoclassical gem near Plaza Tapatia that once served as an orphanage for 3,000 children. The Regional Museum of Guadalajara near the cathedral is quite cool -- literally. Its thick stone walls function like air conditioners on hot days.

The exhibits of the charros (Mexican cowboys) and a fiberglass replica of a 1,700-pound meteorite discovered near the city in 1792 were fascinating.

Other highlights of my visit:

  • Mercado Libertad (Liberty Market) near Calzada Independencia is an enormous maze of vendor stalls under one roof.
  • Haggling is permitted for everything from fruits and vegetables to tortilla presses and herbal potions.

    Anyone who is squeamish should avoid some of the food stalls, such as those selling tripe stew and calves' heads.

  • Plazuela de los Mariachis, near the Mercado, is known for the mariachi bands that play day and night.
  • Cafes and restaurants line the plaza, and bands stroll, strum and offer a song to their customers for a price.

  • Casa de las Artesanias de Jalisco, located near the Parque Agua Azul 20 blocks from the center of town, contains more handicrafts than I'd ever seen in one place.
  • This excursion set me back many pesos, but both the quality and quantity could not be beat. It's open daily and admission is free.

  • Tlaquepaque (teh-lack-ee-pack-ee), about eight miles southeast of town, is home to high-quality and distinctively hand-painted pottery, tiles, blown glass, furniture and carved wood.
  • Many shops and galleries are housed in refurbished old mansions with thick stone walls and iron gates.

    Prices are high, haggling is a no-no and most shops close for siesta between 2 and 4 p.m.

  • Just before Tlaquepaque is Tonala (toh-nah-lah), another pottery center with lower prices and less flair.
  • The best days to visit are Thursdays and Sundays, when the open-air market takes place. Items are spread out on the sidewalks, and street entertainers mingle with shoppers.

    Some of the glass-blowers invite visitors to watch them at work in their studios behind the shops.

    There is a bus (No. 275) that departs regularly for Tlaquepaque and Tonala from Guadalajara's historic center. The trip takes about a half-hour.

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