A Review: The 3 Day Shopping Tour of Guadalajara
by Rick Hepting
photos by Sarah Hepting
December 4-6, 2009
Guadalajara is a BIG city with a metropolitan population of approximately 5 million, plus or minus, depending on how many suburbs you include in the count. It is Mexico’s second largest city after D.F. This city sits on a high volcanic plateau at 1,600 metres (5,200 ft) elevation.
To say that Guadalajara is a cultural center is an understatement. The colonial construction of many of the older downtown buildings contrast sharply with the modern traditional “ramshackle” construction of the relatively newly emerging technical economy.
The most currently styled young professionals mix easily and fluidly with the dirtiest beggar. This is, of course, the condition of almost any modern metropolis but it’s worth mentioning to put the rest of this review in perspective.
I’m prejudiced. I love Guadalajara, its throbbing population and its sometimes enormous and glaring contradictions.
There are many ways to explore a new city and this is one. Although it’s billed as a shopping tour of the city, it is much, much more. The tour guide, Astrid van Dam was born in the Netherlands and is fluent in Dutch, English, Spanish and German. Since I am more limited, I can only verify her fluency in Spanish and English. What was more apparent to me than her linguistic skill is her youthful exuberance (she was born in 1975) and her European sense of reality. She has the broad view of culture and people without the often accompanying personal distance or disdain.
Her story of moving to Mexico when she was in her early 20s should explain it all: She and a friend threw a dart at a map and followed its lead. She liked where that adventure took her and settled in Puerto Vallarta, eventually earning her tour guide license and developing Superior Tours.
This tour included a bus ride from Vallarta to Guadalajara (and back) and 2 nights accommodations at the Centro Hotel Cervantes, an older hotel that had seen better days. It was ideally situated for this tour, being only a few blocks from the main square and major attractions and shopping areas. It was fine for the price.
The tour started with a pickup at central locations in downtown Vallarta and Bucerias at 8 am on a Friday. The bus was comfy and cold drinks (sodas and water) were available gratis throughout the trip. The bus ride is long and there’s no way to get around this basic fact, but the scenery is breathtaking and varied.
Astrid periodically talked about the culture and history of the places we passed and were going to visit as we traveled. The bus made rest stops along the way.
The first and only actual “tour” of this trip was at the Casa Herradura-Hacienda San Jose del Refugio Tequila Factory in Tequila. This place provides a stunning glimpse of the complexity of the history of inland Mexico. The tour is nothing like the “tequila tours” offered in Puerto Vallarta. Multiply those experiences by 100 and you get closer but you still don’t have any concept of the true nature and culture of tequila.
Herradura produces around 60,000 bottles of tequila a day. Everything is done on site from the initial water treatment to the bottling and labeling. Considering that this operation has been in existence at this location for about 140 years, seeing this traditional process integrated with modern equipment is a bit overwhelming. A large part of the hacienda is preserved as a museum and a larger part is devoted to producing an extremely large quantity of quality tequila. Unlike most tequila “tours” there is no pushing of the product. There is a small, hidden store but you have to look for the salespeople. Actually, the Herradura Hacienda, itself, is hidden and off the main road and you have to drive through some small-town Mexico back streets to get to it.
From Tequila the tour headed to the hotel in Centro. Check-in, of course, was a breeze, with everything arranged before arrival. Astrid runs a tight ship as far as the logistics are concerned and she is open and flexible on the personal level.
I should mention at this point that the tour I am describing has been changed a bit and anyone interested I would advise to go directly to Superior Tour’s Website for the current information. This tour was $150(US). The price has risen slightly and some of the destinations have changed.
After check in at the hotel and some time for freshening, Astrid led a walking tour to the Christmas holiday mercado in a nearby plaza. This was, more then anything, a getting-used-to the city walk, an ice-breaker, if you will.
I should mention here that Astrid’s tour of Guadalajara involves a lot of walking. Be prepared. No one complained about the quantity or speed, but this is no “hop-on a bus and gawk at the sites tour.”
After a bit of free time, a dinner was offered at at nearby restaurant, La Fonda de San Miguel, a very impressive old convent turned restaurant. The setting is magical but I thought the food only fair. Others disagreed with me about this meal, as anyone should with any review: There is no universal “best” or “worst.” People definitely have different tastes, likes and dislikes.
At the hotel, make sure you request an interior room if you value sleep. I requested a street-side room because I love to watch street life after I’m too tired to participate, and, in this case, that was a mistake because the main street by the hotel, Priscilliano Sánchez is a continuous traffic jam, with blaring horns and boom boxes, from 1 to 4 am. I don’t know why this happens but it’s very entertaining, combined with watching the quite theatrical hookers kitty-corner from the hotel, but it makes for a very disturbed sleep. People who had inside rooms said that they slept like babies.
The complimentary breakfast buffet at the Cervantes is more than adequate, with a fine variety of food and fresh juices. Some of the members of the tour are still debating the true nature of the fresh green juice (whatever this unusually colored juice was, it was good).
After breakfast we started walking on a tour of the Centro Historical District, including the Cathedral, the government building (housing some very impressive and not-to-be missed Jose Clement Orozco murals), and the lengthy Morelos street mall (pedestrian-only), leading up to the Mercado Libertad, one of the largest real mercados in Latin America. At 11:30 am we then boarded the bus and headed off to Tlaquepaque, a rather upscale shopping suburb of Guadalajara, not interesting to me but very interesting to others on the tour. My highlight of this part of the tour was seeing the arts and crafts museum (oh, if only these items were for sale…) and sitting in the plaza watching a few members of a mariachi band resting on another bench jamming pop-Mexican songs on their guitars and accordion.
On the way back to the hotel, Astrid dropped some of us off at the Mercado Libertad and some of us at the very modern and enormous Las Galerias Mall. I went to the Mercado.
The official name of the Mercado Libertad is Mercado San Juan de Dios. It’s a city unto itself, with 3 floors of small booths selling everything. Everything, that is, that is necessary for everyday life in this city. There isn’t much of interest for tourists as this is a working mercado. I could spend days there (and I will on my next trip to the city). The caution I have is that if you are claustrophobic or don’t like crowds or non-sanitized reality, don’t go. A couple of hours in this mercado and I was dead tired and missed the Los Lobos free concert in the evening that was part of the Guadalajara International Book Fair. I even slept through the late night/early morning traffic jam outside my hotel window.
Sunday morning we ate breakfast, packed up, checked out and hopped into the bus for a jaunt to the Sunday Tonala shopping mercado. This event is the closest I have seen to the traditional massive NOTB flea market. There were literally thousands of stalls spread all over the town and into several large fields. Thinking back on this makes me at once tired and excited. If I were to want to furnish a condo or house here in Vallarta, my second stop, and my buying stop would be this Tonala mercado. My first stop would be stores in Vallarta to fully understand the financial and selection benefits of Tonala. To be sure, there’s a lot of junk being sold there, but there’s also a lot of very nice furnishings at very reasonable prices.
When the bus was full, we started the trip home to Vallarta, stopping in Tequila (again) because some of the travelers knew about a small store that sold cheap, good tequila by the gallon. Astrid was very accommodating, making a special stop like this. We also stopped at a restaurant in town for lunch. I loved the food there and others didn’t. Wonderful ceviche tostados and smoked marlin tacos for pesos….
The rest of the trip back to Vallarta was a time of rest for me. I love coming home with new ideas and new places to visit again.