Picture a Mexican cliché in your mind right now, and you are probably thinking about something from Guadalajara. This city gave birth to mariachi music, the Mexican hat dance, big sombreros and — let’s all give thanks — tequila.
Guadalajara still loves a good mariachi band with big sombreros, and it’s still the business headquarters for companies trying to get their brand of tequila onto your bar tab. Mexico’s second-largest city is also its main technology center, the manufacturing hub for many foreign companies and the commerce center for goods flowing north and south. With a population of around 4 million, the Jalisco state capital is easier to get a handle on than Mexico City.
The revered Chivas soccer team is based here, and the city hosts international trade shows on a regular basis. The annual International Film Festival of Guadalajara and the Guadalajara International Book Fair are big draws. In 2011, the city will host the Pan American Games.
Most travelers zip in and out, getting their business done from the lobby of a hotel and then returning home. There are plenty of reasons to stick around, however, even if you won’t find the wealth of marquee attractions that bless much larger Mexico City. Instead, you find a very walkable central core with interesting plazas, public sculpture gardens and grand churches. There are not any Aztec or Mayan ruins, but you can find some of the best handicrafts and decorative home items within a few blocks of each other in the neighborhood of Tlaquepaque.
The Cabañas Cultural Institute (Cabañas 8, Centro, tel 52 33 3818 2800, admission $1) is filled with dramatic and sometimes gruesome murals depicting Mexican history and the struggle for independence painted by José Clemente Orozco. The city’s most famous attraction has more local than international appeal, but it is worth joining one of the free tours in English to get some insight into the murals’ meanings. Outside, at the end of attractive Plaza Tapatia, are whimsical bronze sculptures from renowned local artist and Guadalajara native Alejandro Colunga. With many taking the shape of benches and chairs, these are sculptures meant to be touched — and sat upon.
Nearby are scattered parks with citrus trees anchored by churches, including the Metropolitan Cathedral, consecrated in 1616. Next to the University of Guadalajara, which is home to an excellent modern art gallery with free admission, is the 1897 Gothic church, Templo Expiatorio. If you arrive on the hour when the bells ring, you may see the Twelve Apostles march out from a steeple under the clock.
Since this is the city that gave birth to mariachi music and tequila, naturally the residents know how to party. Even on a weeknight, the good bars are hopping and there’s nothing laced-up about the crowd. Looking more California cool than East Coast business, it’s clear from the untucked shirts and designer T-shirts that this city cares as much about “playing hard” as “working hard.” Sure, deals are still being struck over three-hour lunches topped by a glass of añejo tequila, but Guadalajara is the Silicon Valley of Mexico, not its Wall Street.
This is a tech center emerging from its position flying under the radar, with companies like Hewlett-Packard, Intel and IBM staffing large centers. While the city lived through some migration of jobs to cheaper centers in Asia in the past decade, especially for contract manufacturing in electronics, locals say the trend is reversing, with companies like Oracle opening new offices and development centers.
Guadalajara produces more than half of Mexico’s entire computer output, but there is a booming, diversified economy beyond technology. Financial services, distribution, food, textiles, furniture and wood production are other key industries.
Apart from a few empty storefronts and office buildings, it’s hard to find much evidence of an economic crisis. Real estate prices keep rising, cranes are perched over new hotels rising 20 stories, and even at 11:30 at night the good restaurants are packed. Young 20- and 30-something office workers hit happy hours in big groups from Thursday on through the weekend in the popular Zona Rosa nightlife area.
The state of Jalisco is the center for tequila production, with the roads winding through fields planted with the spiky agave plants. Taking eight to 10 years to mature, these plants eventually produce a pineapple-like fruit that is distilled into tequila.
Like touring the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky or the string of distilleries in the Scottish highlands, a side trip from Guadalajara can give you a deeper understanding of how the good stuff is made. A tour may lead you to the attractive small town of Tequila — home of José Cuervo and Sauza — or to the steps of lesser-known artisanal producers making small batches with care.
The typical tourist way to get a taste of the process is to ride the Saturday Tequila Express train (tel 52 33 3880 9090), which makes its way to the Herradura distillery with a mariachi band playing music on the way. Renting a car and heading for the town of Tequila is another option, but the best bet is to book an excursion with Tequila Tours (tel 52 33 1357 5917) or ask at your hotel for a driver who specializes in the region. This is still mostly a word-of-mouth and relationship-based tour system, with the right driver being able to get you into the more special distilleries that give tours and tastings by appointment.
No matter how you arrive, a tequila tasting will usually include a clear blanco version, a slightly aged reposado version and an añejo version, aged at least a year in oak barrels. You will usually get to see the whole process: the mashing and roasting of the agave fruit, the distillation process, the barrel storage rooms and the bottling.
Tack an extra couple of days onto that business trip and take some leisurely strolls. Guadalajara will surprise and seduce you with its celebration of life, fun and good food.
Info To Go
Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla International Airport (GDL) is about 11 miles from city center. Buy a pre-paid taxi voucher inside the terminal for under $20 to almost any hotel in the city. The subway does not connect to the airport or bus terminals. Comfortable executive-class buses ($7–8 per hour of travel) run to every notable location in Mexico. Visit www.allaboutguadalajara.com.
Presidente InterContinental Guadalajara
This is the best of the big international chain hotels here, with 423 guestrooms, a business center, a fitness center, a pool and spa. Av. Lopez Mateos and Moctezuma, Ciudad del Sol, tel 52 33 3678 1234 $$$
Quinta Real Guadalajara
The first and best of this Mexican chain’s upscale business hotels offers local personality plus an onsite restaurant, a pool and a business center. Av. Mexico 2727 Col. Vallarta Norte, tel 52 33 3630 1797 $$$$
Villa Ganz Hotel Boutique
Considered by many the best hotel in town, the 12 distinctive guestrooms combine elegant old Mexico with lots of amenities. Lopez Cotilla 1739, tel 52 33 3120 1416 $$$
Anita Li / I Latina
Two retro-chic palindrome sister restaurants on the same block take turns with lunch and dinner, matching cocktails and fusion cuisine to whimsical décor. Inglaterra 3100, tel 52 33 3647 4757 and 52 33 3647 7774 $$$
Sample artful local cuisine and cocktails in a sunlit courtyard surrounded by hand-blown glass sculptures and punched metal lanterns. Independencia 211, Tlaquepaque, tel 52 33 1591 4735 $$$
Food arrives within seconds of ordering since your choice is which size of carne en su jugo (beef in its own juice, with bacon) you want. Garibaldi 1306, Zapopan, tel 52 33 3826 1286 $
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