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Three Perfect Days: Guadalajara

Author Justin Goldman Photography Alexis Lambrou

A sculpture of a Día de los Muertos Catrina skeleton

Picture 1 of 10

DAY ONE “It’s the coldest day of the year,” my cab driver says as we pull away from Guadalajara International Airport. “We’re all freezing.” I check my phone—it’s 72 degrees. A half hour later, still shivering, he drops me at the Hotel Demetria, in the city’s trendy Lafayette neighborhood. The Demetria is one of those places that is so architecturally incongruous that it somehow makes sense: a 1930s Mediterranean-style house with a concrete, steel, and glass tower tacked onto the back of it. I enter through a glass atrium, stepping across stone slabs set into a pool, like lily pads, and passing a cluster of Romanesque columns on the way to the elevator. In my suite, I find a white cereal bowl of a bathtub next to a picture window overlooking Avenida de la Paz. I’ll be back for that tub.

First, I have an appointment. I stroll a few blocks to Palreal, an open-air coffee shop and restaurant where hummingbirds (called chuparosas, or rose suckers) flit among bougainvilleas. I spot contemporary artist Jose Dávila sitting on the patio sporting a blue blazer, circular glasses, and slicked-back hair. At his urging, I order the house special, lonche de pancita, a pork-belly sandwich messily topped with green tomatillo salsa and avocado. As I napkin salsa from my face, he tells me about Guadalajara’s place in Mexico’s cultural history.

“Mexico City, for obvious reasons, has always been the big center of it all, but there’s always been a certain counterpart in Guadalajara,” Dávila says. “In the ’30s, at the time of the muralists, José Clemente Orozco was from Guadalajara. Luis Barragán, the famous architect, was from Guadalajara. Juan Rulfo, the writer, was from here. Even now, with the three famous Mexican directors in Hollywood—Iñárritu, Cuarón, and [Guillermo] del Toro—del Toro is from Guadalajara.”

After breakfast, Dávila takes me to his studio, a 10-minute drive (as in Los Angeles, access to a car here is essential) up the wide Avenida Federalismo to the appropriately named Colonia Artesanos. The studio, across a narrow street from a metalwork shop, is a multilevel marvel of abstract sculptures in various stages of completion, with several finished pieces—including a series of rotating metal squares hanging from the ceiling and a large pane of glass suspended from a steel frame—on display in an old wrestling gym. Later, as we say goodbye, I ask Dávila for a museum recommendation. “The Cabañas, where the paintings of Orozco are,” he says, “is a must.”

I take the short drive to the Centro Histórico and the nearly 200-year-old Hospicio Cabañas, a former orphanage with balustrades and pinnacles that reflect the palaces of France and Spain. Once the largest Spanish-built structure in the Americas, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inside, I lean back to take in the macabre Orozco frescoes that adorn the ceilings and the sunlit dome. “This is like therapy for the neck,” jokes my guide, Rubén, who explains that the murals depict scenes from Mexico’s often violent past: Aztec sacrifices, a robotlike Hernán Cortés carrying a huge sword, Philip II bearing a bloody cross to represent the Mexican Inquisition.

From here, I walk across the main square, Plaza Tapatía, to the Palacio de Gobierno to see more of Orozco’s work. On the ceiling of the palace’s stairwell looms a terrifying mural of Miguel Hidalgo (the leader of the Mexican Revolution) wielding a flame, surrounded on all sides by casualties of war.

I need some light after all that gloom, so I walk around the corner to sunny Plaza de Armas, where I settle under an ornate gazebo. Kids play by a fountain, old men in cowboy hats lounge under shade trees, and teenagers snap selfies. Across the street is the city’s centerpiece, the Catedral de Guadalajara, a Spanish Renaissance church with twin neo-Gothic bell towers that was completed in 1618 (though it’s been rebuilt several times due to earthquake damage). I step inside and watch from the rear as penitents knee-crawl down the long middle aisle toward the radiant stained glass windows in the gilded dome.

One more stop in the Centro: I enter Mercado San Juan de Dios, a three-story warren of stands selling jewelry, candy, mariachi suits, lucha libre masks, even caged birds, their songs mingling with the sounds of competitive commerce. Retailers hawk their wares aggressively here—witness the guy who lifts a horse saddle off a counter and shakes its leather tassels in my face.

The market’s second floor is a maze of taco stands, so many that I can’t make a choice. So, in the classic fashion of the indecisive traveler, I go somewhere else. A short drive down Calzada Independencia leads me to one of Guadalajara’s most pleasant areas, Las Nueve Esquinas (The Nine Corners), a tangle of cobblestone streets that’s home to several restaurants proffering a Guadalajaran specialty: birria, or goat stew. I take a seat in the open-air, blue-tile Birrieria Las 9 Esquinas, where I watch a woman hand-press tortillas as I’m served a bowl of the spicy, hearty stew. The meat, spooned onto those tortillas and topped with creamy refried beans and fiery salsa, is divine. I finish it off with a sweet little egg custard called a jericalla.

Pleasantly stuffed, I head back to the city center for a quick digestif at Guadalajara’s most venerable dive bar, La Fuente, sometimes called “The Bicycle Bar” due to its decorative centerpiece: a bike that a drunk patron abandoned here back in 1957, and which the owner then mounted on the wall. I kick back a couple of Pacificos and consider the bike, coated with 50 years of dust, trying not to think about all the things I’ve left in bars over the years.

Consider those chelas (beers) a tailgate of sorts, because my next stop is Estadio Omnilife, home to CD Guadalajara, or Chivas, Mexico’s most popular soccer club, in part because it’s the only team that exclusively fields home-grown players. I’m a sports fan, but the passion here is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Behind one of the goals, supporters cram themselves into a standing-room-only section where they wave flags and chant throughout the game and jump all over each other in an orgy of thunderous joy when Chivas scores. Late in the game, when the opposing team scores to earn a tie, these fans also employ some of the most colorful profanity you’ll hear in any language.

After crawling through an epic post-game traffic jam, I pop back into the Demetria to change clothes. A few blocks from here is Hueso (Spanish for “bone”), a two-year-old restaurant with an all-white interior that feels like a brightly lit version of a Gothic bone church, its walls cluttered with cow skulls and assorted animal bones. The food, served at a long communal table, is more, um, lively. Courses of seafood (scallop ceviche; mussels and shrimp in squid ink; gravlax with avocado sauce) and meat (rack of lamb with mole, short rib topped with thin-sliced roast beef) pair with an excellent Pies de Tierra red wine from Baja California. 

After the meal, chef Alfonso Cadena—who, with his long hair, bandanna, and pointy goatee, has a Jim Morrison air about him—steps out of the open kitchen to say hello. “For me, ‘bone’ means flavor,” he says. “The challenge was, how are we going to make the perception of something repulsive, like a skeleton, into something pretty? It was kind of risky for Guadalajara, which in some ways is very conservative. But you can find a lot of artists, musicians, architects, and I think it’s an advantage to have a restaurant here, because I truly believe that Jalisco has this global connection. Jalisco talks about the Mexican culture itself.” 

By the end of the meal, I’m a little buzzed, more than a little full, and about ready for bed. My waiter has other ideas. He brings me a carajillo, a shot of espresso poured over a sweet Spanish liqueur, Licor 43, on the rocks. I’m suddenly light and bouncy on my feet, so I walk up Avenida Chapultepec and over to the Black Sheep, a popular bar affixed to a backpacker hostel on a small pedestrian plaza. After shooting a few games of pool, I take a seat on the streetside patio, where I sip Don Julio 70 and eavesdrop on the multilingual crowd around me, reflecting on chef Alfonso’s words: There truly is a global spirit here.



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