Author Justin Goldman Photography Alexis Lambrou
DAY TWO I wake up feeling a bit crudo, as they say here. Fortunately, I’ve got a driver—I don’t think I could handle the streetfight that is driving in a Mexican city today. Apprised of my condition, Vicente Rangel, of tour company Sin Fin de Servicios, takes me to the nearest Tortas Toño, a chain that serves the Tapatíos’ favorite hangover cure: the torta ahogada, a pork or chicken sandwich on crusty French bread that you dress to your liking with nuclear reactor–level red chile sauce. In my enthusiasm for the life-restoring properties of capsaicin, I go a little overboard with the pepper sauce. Seeing me sweat, Vicente passes along another remedy: a mini Corona.
Revived, I ask Vicente to take me across town to Tonalá, a suburb on the southeast side of the city, to see its famed tianguis, or open-air market. The main thoroughfare, Tonaltecas, is lined with handicraft shops, and twice a week these shops put up booths on the sidewalk to show off their wares: wood carvings, glass sculptures, tequila sets, flowers, tacos at five for 10 pesos (less than 60 cents). The market stretches most of the length of the town and is even more crammed than the Mercado San Juan de Dios. I can’t turn around without bumping into a hanging display of jewelry or a Jesus statue—my last collision causing a child riding on his father’s shoulders to point and laugh.
Sensing that I’m not handling the human crunch all that well, Vicente leads me onto a side street, to Galeria Bernabe, a ceramics shop that makes hand-painted tableware (a 94-piece set takes three months to make and costs $12,000). As I browse, Vicente gleefully recaps the previous night’s soccer match with Javier, one of the owners (they’re fans of Atlas, Chivas’s intracity rival). “I think I might be sick,” Vicente tells me. “I’d rather see Chivas lose than Atlas win.” As a Giants fan, I tell him, I feel the same about the Dodgers.
From Tonalá, we head to the neighboring suburb of Tlaquepaque, which features an upscale pedestrian ramble of art galleries. We stroll Calle Independencia, stopping at Galeria Sergio Bustamante to marvel at the paintings and sculptures; with their triangular heads, oddly stretched features, and lurid colors, Bustamante’s figures resemble characters from a Tim Burton nightmare. We also poke our heads into the Galeria Rodo Padilla, with its ceramic depictions of Mexican folk symbols, and Carlos & Albert, which features in its entryway a beautiful Día de los Muertos Catrina skeleton.
On the street in front of Restaurante El Patio, we encounter an all-female mariachi band playing to a crowd of photo-snapping tourists—some of whom pose amid the musicians midsong. We follow the band into El Patio and sit on the, um, patio as they serenade tables with songs ranging from the traditional “Malagueña” to a mariachified “New York, New York.” Afterward, I buttonhole Mayra Casillas and ask her about becoming a mariachi.
“Mariachi is a fundamental part of our culture,” she tells me. “When you hear a mariachi, you say, ‘Mexico!’ My uncles and my father liked to sing, and they gave me the love of Mexican music, but none of them studied it. I was the only one who became a musician.”
Inspired by Casillas, we walk a few blocks up to El Parian, a large patio ringed with cantinas. We grab seats and watch as roving mariachis and música norteña (another form of Mexican folk music) players—I count at least 10 bands—go from table to table, singing for tips. After a few songs, I’m ready to order food, but Vicente stops me. He has something special in mind.
“This is not a fancy restaurant,” he tells me as we head back across town, “but it’s real Mexican seafood, like they make in Nayarit,” his home state, Jalisco’s neighbor to the north. After about 30 minutes, he pulls onto a small street in the suburb of Zapopan and parks next to El Zarandeao. The warehouselike space is utilitarian, but the food? ¡Dios mío! We start with cups of shrimp soup, then plow through a plate of tender ceviche topped with chunks of avocado, followed by shrimp empanadas, a fillet of fish smoked over an open fire, and finally a plate of grilled shrimp that we eat shell and all—without a doubt, the best camarones I have ever tasted.
After lunch, we head to the center of Zapopan, home to a couple of Guadalajara’s signature attractions. We start at the 17th-century Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Zapopan, a huge, dual-towered church that looks more like a fortress than the convent that it was originally built to be. At the church gate, campesinos sell beaded jewelry, a simpler rendition of the mesmerizing beadwork inside the Museo Huichol, attached to the basilica. In the exhibit hall, I stop to consider a bright green-and-red frog—if I licked him, would I hallucinate? A stern look from an attendant discourages me from trying, so I scamper a couple of blocks away, to the Museo de Arte de Zapopan, a boundary-pushing museum for contemporary artists. At the moment it’s exhibiting performance pieces by Czech artist Jiří Kovanda. My favorite is a video of Kovanda at London’s Tate Modern offering a kiss to each passing patron.
There’s been a lot of walking—and eating—so I’m ready for siesta. Vicente drops me back at the Demetria, where my plan is to grab a quick nap and then a soak in the tub before dinner. But when I lie down I feel myself sink deeper and deeper into my cloudlike bed, and by the time I wake, a bath is out of the question. Sigh.
A short cab ride away, on a frontage road along the railroad tracks, is i Latina, one of Guadalajara’s best-loved restaurants. The place has a sort of found-object decor—every wall painted a different color and bearing a different style of art, no two tables alike. The food too is eclectic. Appetizers include fried-shrimp-and-mango tacos served on thin slices of jicama instead of tortillas. For an entrée, I opt for duck confit terrine in a peanutty mole sauce, washed down with a tamarind margarita. Early in the meal, the room is relaxed, Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” playing on the stereo, but by the time I’m finished, the place is filled with stylish people, and the music has switched to bumping David Bowie.
I could imagine a restaurant like i Latina in America, but my next destination could exist only in Mexico: the Arena Coliseo lucha libre ring. Lucha libre is a hopped-up version of the WWE, with far more rabid fans (the cheap seats are literally behind a chainlink fence). Masked wrestlers hurl each other around as vendors prowl the crowd offering white pork skins (no, thanks) and Coronas (yes, please). In some ways, it’s a family environment—kids crowd the edge of the walkway to high-five the wrestlers—and in other ways, it’s very much not. (To call the ring girls scantily clad would be an understatement, and spectators hurl insults that would make a Chivas fan blush.) At least once, a wrestler wades into the crowd to do battle with mask-wearing fans.
After the last match, the crowd pours out of the arena, a mass of humanity clogging the narrow street. Grinning men stop for photos with ring girls, smoke rises from mounds of carne asada on taco-stand grills, kids in brand-new lucha libre masks dash by, their parents close behind. It might not be the kind of scene you’d find in a guidebook, but this, right here, is Mexico.