A 6-hour bus took us from coastal Puerto Vallarta and into Mexico’s second most populated metropolitan area, Guadalajara. Home of tequila and mariachi music, we wondered what the capital of the Jalisco state had in store for us. Would it be as good as Mexico City? Would it be safe? Could Mexico really keep on delivering such incredible destinations? We checked into Hostal Nacional for three nights to try and find out what Guadalajara was all about.
Our hostel was super modern. Positioned on a street that appeared brand new, with hip restaurants and bars positioned either side, and clean pavements and palm trees, it already scored high on location. Throw in a cool bar (albeit in the process of being built), a pool table and a roof terrace, our stay would be a comfortable one. In the reception, we bumped into two cool Mexican guys, Charlie and Sergio who were on a ‘road trip!’ from Puebla – helpfully for us, their English was much better than our Spanish!
Kate and I then headed out to explore the nearby Paseo Chapultepec which is a modern, thriving avenue with hundreds of bars and restaurants on either side, and a wide pedestrianised central reservation. This is a perfect place to browse trinkets in the night market, explore the skies through a telescope, get a hair braid, have an outdoor massage, and for children to get involved in making collages. It is one of the most modern but organically grown streets like this that we have found in all our travels, and you could spend weeks exploring all of the venues on it.
We found a bit of a grunge bar with an American theme, neon lights and plastic car hanging overhead. There was a huge area out the back with around 20 pool tables, cheap beers and a live band. After several games of pool and some impressive covers of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Kings of Leon (the band, not us), we decided to call it a night.
We were up early the next day with Charlie and Sergio to take a private tour to the tequila distilleries. An air hostess on our flight over to Mexico had recommended the Tequila Express train that operates from Guadalajara to the Tequila Herradura Distillery, but we couldn’t find much information online. Our hostel, however, advised us that we could do an even better tour, taking in more distilleries (and more tequila!) for a fraction of the price by private car.
We had tried the vineyards of Argentina, so what did the Mexican tequila distilleries have to offer? As it turns out, a LOT of tequila tasting. For the £20 fee each for the tour, a private car picked up the four of us (including Charlie and Sergio) from the hostel, and drove for around an hour to the first stop: Tres Mujeres distillery. This was apparently named by the owner after the ‘three women’ in his life, his wife and two daughters. In the searing heat and surrounded by dusty roads, agave cactus plants and wooden tequila barrels, this is a place steeped in traditional and felt like the backdrop to a wild west gunslinger.
As the tour started, we learnt the process of turning the agave plant into Mexico’s favourite tipple and toured the various plant rooms, before entering the underground cellars where the barrels are stored. These were incredible and beyond the obvious storage function, had been turned into a well-lit tasting room. Knocking back 5 or 6 healthy glugs of tequila (lucky for me, I also had most of Kate’s samples) the tour was off to a great start and it wasn’t even midday.
For anyone in the UK who has tried a shot of tequila in a bar with salt and a slice of lime, this was probably the pretty awful Jose Cuervo tequila. Known as ‘Nacional’ or the traditional tequila in Mexico, this is for hardy souls who possess limited taste buds and a desire to wake up feeling abysmal. It is unfortunately the go-to tequila in any UK bar (especially Wetherspoons!) but it is a terrible, cheap and misleading version of tequila that would put most people off a potentially great drink. The good stuff, believe it or not, can actually be sipped and enjoyed. Try sipping a Jose Cuervo at your peril!
The next stop of Los Tres Tonos could probably best be described as a free-flowing distillery. Set in expansive grounds with some fantastic traditional architecture and one of the coolest bars I’ve ever seen, hard-hats were handed out, and we were quickly shown around the place before hitting the hard-stuff.
It’s not an exaggeration to say we enjoyed around 15 hearty glugs/shots of tequila here. And as soon as the first was downed, the next arrived within seconds. There was barely time to glance up at the bottle and see the brand name. When we eventually did get a chance to check out the bottles, they were brilliantly varied and come in all shapes and colours. Every single one could be purchased, and needless to say, I wanted to buy them all! In the midst of our early-afternoon tequila binge, I bought one of my best souvenirs yet – a bottle of tequila in the shape of a hot air balloon in a globe design (along with SIX other souvenir bottles). Kate had to stop me buying more! Charlie and Sergio were also loving it, and in true Mexican style were downing the different tequilas and buying a few bottles for later. Los Tres Tonos was a beautiful and generous distillery, lulling you into purchases by getting you to try each and every one of their tequila repertoire.
After a quick stop for some spicy lunch and large beers, we were on our way to a traditional distillery by the name of La Alborada. This had a smaller, more local feel and the production process definitely felt smaller-scale. It wasn’t without its charm though, or tequila samples. To give an idea of how drunk I was now feeling, I ended up eating a dead cricket off a dried orange(?) (a popular local snack in the area) which is not something I would have usually have reached for! From a hazy memory, it was very crunchy and dry – not particularly enjoyable.
Before heading back to the hostel, there was still time to call in on the town of Tequila itself and we couldn’t believe, yet again, how attractive and traditional it was. From the colourful buildings, courtyards and bars, to the tour buses in the shape of tequila bottles – the place was just cool in every sense, especially when drunk. And that was the end of our tour; we were on our way, leaving Kate to suffer the journey back squashed between two blissfully happy snoring drunks.
After some resting and sobering-up time back at the hostel, we headed out onto the modern streets of Guadalajara for some food and drinks with our new Mexican friends. Where best to kick it all off, but the York Pub, based entirely (and convincingly!) on an old English pub. After eating, went to a hipster-style bar where, unbelievably, it was only 18 pesos per drink, whether it was bottles of beer or measures of branded spirits. Working out around 75p per drink on the exchange rate, this was pretty much the cheapest place we had seen on our backpacking trip to date. After a few final tequilas, we headed back to the hostel as there was no time for bad hangovers the next day.
Guadalajara’s historic centre is packed with sights almost at every corner. Horse drawn carriages parade around the cobblestone streets, whilst the Guadalajara Cathedral dominates the city centre, overlooking a large square on each its four sides. The latest incarnation of the cathedral was completed in 1618 and has done well to last this long, having survived earthquakes in 1932, 1957, 1979, 1985, 1995, 2003 and the latest one in 2017. We had lunch overlooking Plaza Guadalajara, and although it was an obvious tourist trap with run-of-the-mill food and service, it provided some respite from the heat, was super cheap for its location, and provided a great view.
The Government Palace was next, as we went to see the huge murals of Miguel Hidalgo – a man who would feature a lot during our next few stops across the Jalisco state (known locally as the Cradle of Independence). A Mexican Roman Catholic priest and leader of the Mexican War of Independence, Don Miguel Hidalgo gathered an army of 90,000 poor farmers and civilians and lead them against the Spanish rule. After marching his army across several battle locations in Jalisco, Hidalgo established a government in Guadalajara, abolishing slavery as well as taxes on alcohol and tobacco products. He played a key role in Mexico’s fight for independence, which was eventually achieved in 1821, long after Hidalgo’s execution by firing squad and decapitation in 1811. For his efforts, Hidalgo has been hailed as the ‘Father of the Nation’.
The external courtyard and Congress Chamber of the Government Palace were very impressive and it was great to get some historical context on the area and what Miguel Hidalgo did for the country. Like a lot of parts of Mexico however, Guadalajara isn’t resting on its history. Outside the Government Palace, we could see a brand-new metro line (Guadalajara’s third) being constructed in the city’s centre, due to open in April 2018. There was also a Macrobus system added to the city in 2008, which is a ‘bus rapid transit (BRT) system’. Imagine double-length bendy-buses, but following a designated route through the city much like a tram does. We had seen the same public transport system in Lima, Peru and there are currently only thirteen BRT systems in the world that are rated at a ‘gold’ standard; Guadalajara’s Macrobus being one of them.
Continuing our self-made wandering walking tour, we found the Rotonda de los Jaliscienses Ilustres – a circular neoclassical stone monument that is based in one the four squares adjacent to the cathedral. Commemorating the illustrious people of Jalisco state, the impressive monument is surrounded by countless statues paying tribute to the leaders of the arts, sciences, politics, education and human rights. The 24 bronze statues are set in all manner of poses, holding all kinds of objects. The Mexicans do have some fantastic and quite creative statues.
Walking through to yet another impressive plaza (Plaza de la Liberacion) lined with green and purple flowering trees, now behind the cathedral, was a pop-up arts and crafts exposition. After meandering through the market, we found the best statue of the lot: Miguel Hidalgo himself looking furious as he breaks the chains of slavery, on the way to liberating Mexico.
There was still time to see the imposing neoclassical Teatro Degollado (theatre) built in 1866, and pass through the immaculately landscaped pedestrian streets with fountains and to find the stunning Hospicio Cabanas: one of Latin America’s oldest and largest hospital complexes. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the single-story complex was founded in 1791 and operated up until 1980. As time deserted us, we took a few photos before rushing onto our final spot and one of Guadalajara’s tourist highlights, the market. No time for photos, Kate bought some leather shoes for a bargain price of £8 before we were rushing back in a taxi to Hostal Nactional.
Guadalajara has a fantastic historical city centre, and it makes a change to be able to comfortably walk from one end to the other. With the museums and countless historical buildings, there is plenty here for a real culture fix, whilst a trip out of the city to the home of tequila can open your eyes to the rural side of Mexico (and you can get very merry!). It also has some really modern, buzzing areas that are full of nightlife as well as some of the cheapest prices you will find. Three nights was a push for us to see everything here and ideally, we would have liked more time to explore at a leisurely pace. But it is yet another of the country’s fantastic cities; Mexico really is the gift that keeps on giving.