Choosing to visit Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, was a bit like closing my eyes and randomly pointing to a map. Yet when I got there, it was as if I’d known all along that this region would seep into my subconscious...casting a spell that even today, months after my visit, makes me stop what I’m doing, close my eyes and hear the mariachi in Tlaquepaque, feel Lake Chapala’s breeze in my hair, smell Jocotepec’s savory goat stew, and taste smooth tequila in the town where it was born.
I knew very little about Guadalajara before my husband and I arrived for our four-day visit last December. In fact, Mexico was a big blank slate in my mind. A quick trip to Cancun a couple years ago was all about pleasure-seeking, and the shiny resorts and brilliant beaches diverted my attention away from Mexican culture. On this trip I would discover how rich and diverse Mexico is. And Guadalajara and environs is the perfect destination to discover the real Mexico. Its combination of sights, sounds, scents, and flavors may even convert you to the Mexican way of life, as it has for the huge ex-pat community that lives in this region.
But beware: reading this story may do strange things to you. You might find yourself wishing you could see this magical side of Mexico, and perhaps you’ll book a flight. Once you land, it gets worse. You’ll fall in love with the rustic leather chairs and the colorful pottery and tiles and bathroom fixtures that brighten up daily life. You might even start dreaming about building your own little casa with views of Lake Chapala, where the surrounding mountains make you believe you took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in Switzerland.
And the climate is heavenly, and did I tell you the cost of living is about half of what it is here in the U.S.? Can you tell I’m under the spell? Watch out. If you read this story, you will be, too.
Think about a place where you can live well, spend less, enjoy an amazing climate, learn about a new culture, and meet interesting people. Sounds like a dream, right? For forty years or more, empty-nesters from the states and Canada have been relocating to the shores of Lake Chapala, about 30 minutes south of Gualalajara, to enjoy paradise. I’m not sure how I first heard about this community of ex-pats, but once I started researching it on the Internet, I knew I had to see it for myself.
Using vrbo.com, I found a rental apartment in Chapala with cheerful photos of magazine-quality décor—for the astonishing price of $30 a night. I emailed the owners, Bob Klug and Candace Spence, who said they normally require a three-night minimum but, with a little persistence on my part, let us stay two nights.
Following Bob’s directions, Peter and I drove from Guad, as the locals call it, to Chapala—about a thirty-minute drive, and parked in front of the colorful apartment building, located a couple blocks from the lake. I stood beside the walled patio and called out “Bob!” as I’d been told to do, and from within the lush gardens of the patio emerged a cheery 60-ish man with a full gray beard, ready smile, and hearty handshake.
“Come join us,” Bob said and pointed to a table, where eight Baby Boomers were enjoying a meal in his lovely garden. We gladly joined this jolly group, whose homelands included British Columbia, Oregon, California, and even Virginia Beach. Peter and I shared grilled garlic shrimp and beef steaks, wine and chocolates with this convivial clan until long past sunset. It was amazing. After just one evening, I felt as if I’d been magically transported to the place I’ve spent my life searching for.
MARGARITA WITH A VIEW
The next day, after a lovely Sunday brunch at Bob and Candace’s, where we met yet more lively, interesting people, Peter and I hopped into our rental car to explore the villages that line the lake. In Ajijic, another popular town for ex-pats, we discovered an art walk in progress, the perfect opportunity for strolling cozy streets, checking out art and architecture, and enjoying the warm sunshine that glinted off the lake.
As we drove from town to town, it became apparent that not every one is living the good life in Mexico. In fact, poverty is still a huge problem here. Bob and Candace, as well as many other ex-pats, help by donating money, time, and expertise to the villagers in need. Bob described one initiative he participated in that was promising. Since education is key to a better future for children from impoverished families, the Mexican government has begun a program where schools provide a hot, nourishing meal to children who show up and do their school work. The local ex-pats contribute fresh eggs each week, and Bob was happy to say that attendance was up at the local school.
Certainly such a large ex-pat community brings a lot of revenue to the area, and to ensure their continued presence, the local government meets with ex-pats to address issues on a regular basis. Crime is a concern, although this area isn’t affected by the drug-related problems closer to the border. During our visit, I never once felt unsafe. Most ex-pats, however, said they avoided driving after dark.
On our excursion around the lake, the sun gave everything a bright sheen. We found a resort I’d read about called Monte Coxala and decided to go check it out. At the top of a winding road, we found a gorgeous property with luxury accommodations, a restaurant, and a spa. The open-air thatched-roof restaurant overlooked the lake, so Peter and I decided to order a margarita and enjoy the magnificent view. Sitting there on the terrace as a gentle breeze blew and the sun warmed our bones, Peter and I talked about how much we liked this area and contemplated coming back one day to stay.
HINTS OF WOOD AND HONEY
Another picturesque town along the lake, Jocotepec, features a beautiful square surrounded by colonial buildings. Sunday was market day, and we wandered through a warren of stalls featuring everything from car parts to underwear. Besides the lovely architecture, Jocotepec is also renowned for its birreria, or goat stew, so Peter and I found a café on the square and decided to try some. The tables were filled, but a Mexican schoolgirl motioned that we could sit at her table. Moments later three of her friends arrived, and we enjoyed a cozy lunch with these pretty local girls, who practiced their English in between shy smiles.
The goat stew was served with lime wedges and tortillas. More like a soup than a stew, it consisted of onions and goat meat in a orange-colored broth that was a little on the spicy side, but very tasty. Together with a Negra Modelo, Mexico’s flavorful dark beer, the birreria made a perfect lunch. As we left Jocotepec, Peter spied a vendor selling freshly fried potato chips and couldn’t resist. That night we skipped dinner and just relaxed with Bob and Candace, drinking wine and sharing stories.
After promising our new friends we’d return one day, Peter and I hit the road for Tequila, located about an hour east of Guadalajara. As we drove through the countryside, rows of spiky agave plants began to appear, turning the hillsides a mystical blue. Soon we arrived in the sleepy little town of Tequila, where different distilleries offer tours. Mundo Cuervo’s tour came highly recommended, so after donning caps and slippers, we joined a small group to learn about all things tequila.
In 1758, José Antonio Cuervo. Sr., became the first licensed manufacturer of tequila, so the tour includes history about the Cuervo family, as well as the tequila-making process. We learned that the best tequilas are 100% agave; just check the bottle if you’re in doubt. Much of the Cuervo tequila exported to the U.S. is not 100% agave, so the tequila we’re used to falls short of the quality Mexicans demand.
Tequila comes in many forms: bianco, which is young tequila, clear and sharp; reposado, aged and peppery; and the older anejo, smooth with a deep amber color. Like fine wine, aged tequila gains some of its flavor from the oak barrels in which it reposes. Peter and I enjoyed the Reserve Tour, which included a tequila tasting in the Cuervo family’s reserve cave. The guide led us downstairs into a dark area, where wooden barrels of tequila lined the walls. Here the Cuervo family holds gatherings and samples their company’s finest tequila. Peter and I got to taste it, too. Like a smooth cognac, the tequila slid down our throats, leaving hints of wood and honey in our mouths.
We lunched across the street at Fonda Cholula, also owned by Mundo Cuervo, and found the food to be quite good and reasonably priced. For appetizers Peter and I shared guacamole, a unique blend with hints of pomegranate that was oh-so good, and cream of squash flower soup. For my main course I tried sabana de las animas, which translates to a “sheet of beef.” Paper-thin slices of grilled beef served on a bed of refried beans covered my plate, topped by melted cheese, chiles, and a choice of green or red salsa—a savory combination of textures and flavors. Peter had the pork chamorro, marinated spiced pork cooked in a banana leaf. Everything was divine.
Afterwards we walked to the main square, where a beautiful, old church beckoned. We decided to go have a peek inside and rest a minute in its cool darkness. Before we knew it, the pews began filling up with people, and I asked Peter if he minded staying for Mass. He didn’t, but it turned out this was no ordinary Mass. It was someone’s funeral. By the time we realized this, we couldn’t leave, so we stayed for the service, feeling a little sheepish about crashing a funeral. No one seemed to mind us, though, and when it was over, I felt a sense of connection to the people in this small community.
A MAGICAL PLACE
Our final day would be spent exploring Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, so we headed to Villa Ganz, a Mexico Boutique Hotel in a quiet neighborhood with tree-lined streets, where we would lodge our last two nights. Formerly an elegant residence built c. 1930, Villa Ganz features nine stylish suites set amid all the comforts of home. Our spacious room overlooked a lush walled garden, the perfect place to enjoy a home-cooked breakfast in the morning or unwind with a frosty margarita at day’s end.
To get the most out of our time in Guad, the folks at Villa Ganz recommended a guide who could show us around. Melchor, a friendly Mexican who spoke excellent English, arrived promptly at nine a.m. to show us the city sights. We’d arranged to spend a half day, which proved to be a perfect window for getting an overview of the city. Melchor showed us the historic city center with its Gothic cathedral, governor’s palace, and Liberation Square. Inside the governor’s palace Melchor pointed out amazing murals by Jose Clemente Orosco, who lost his left hand and left eye, yet continued to paint astonishing murals—most with political and historical themes—until he died at age 80 in 1949. “He’s like a Mexican Leonardo da Vinci,” Melchor said reverently.
Shopping is a huge pastime for visitors to Guadalajara, and you can spend days exploring the shopping districts. Besides acting as a tour guide, Melchor also provides shopping services, particularly useful for ex-pats who are new in the area and need help finding building materials, furnishings, or antiques. One area we only had time to drive through was called Tonala, a warren of narrow streets where you can shop for anything and everything. Melchor recommended visiting Tonala on Thursday or Sunday when a huge flea market fills the streets.
Tlaquepaque, another popular shopping neighborhood, appears to cater to a more upscale shopper with fine antiques, leather goods, ceramics, and handicrafts. Here we said goodbye to Melchor with a promise to let him know the next time we’re in town. Then after sauntering along tree-lined streets, we decided to dine at a restaurant Melchor recommended called El Patio. As the name suggests, the restaurant features a huge, flower-filled courtyard with a romantic fountain in the center. While it’s only a few feet from the busy shopping street, inside El Patio is a peaceful haven, where hungry visitors can enjoy a relaxing lunch of authentic Mexican dishes.
Peter and I experimented with a few unusual offerings including huit la coche, or corn fungus, which has a truffle-like flavor that’s surprisingly tasty, and found everything to our liking. The sun-lit patio provided a perfect backdrop, and we enjoyed just sitting and watching the people around us relish their food. Soon an all-female mariachi band wandered in and serenaded us with their energetic music that’s somehow soulful and playful at the same time.
Though I’d never been to this corner of the world, Guadalajara felt so familiar to me—as if all the pieces of places I’d connected with throughout my life coalesced in this one location, like a jigsaw puzzle that finally comes together. Whether I’ll end up retiring in this magical place one day remains to be seen, but in the meantime, I left a piece of my heart in Guadalajara and soon I will return to look for it.
- Accommodations in Chapala: www.rentchapala.com. Please tell Bob & Candace that Peggy & Peter said hello!
- Guadalajara Tourism Information - www.vive.guadalajara.gob.mx
- Accommodations in Guadalajara – www.villaganz.com
- Excellent resource for accommodations throughout Mexico: www.mexicoboutiquehotels.com
- Mundo Cuervo – www.mundocuervo.com