The first thing that almost everyone asks when they hear you’ve just got back from Mexico is, “Was it safe?” Apparently so, seeing as we’re still standing! Our standard answer is, “Yes of course.” We then try to resist the urge to show them the Facebook album named ‘Guadalajara’ – because then the next question is usually, “Guadala-where-a?”
Unless your geography is better than most, you may well be asking yourself the same thing. Guadalajara is Mexico’s second largest city, with 4.5 million inhabitants – second only to mega-metropolis Mexico City, at 20 million – and it’s also the capital of the state of Jalisco, which lies mid way up the country’s Pacific coast.
Not your usual holiday destination? Perhaps not for Brits – but tourism from North America is big business to Mexico. Many head for coastal resorts, including Puerto Vallarta, where gay and lesbian tourists have been flocking for decades. But Jalisco’s main city also attracts its fair share of visitors.
For most people, Mexico conjures images of beaches, and thankfully this time you can believe the hype. The country boasts 9,330 kilometres of coastline lapped by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean on one side, and the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California on the other. The latter has justifiably earned the nickname The World’s Aquarium.
But Mexico is also not JUST about beaches either, which isn’t surprising considering that it’s the 14th largest country in the world, and roughly the same size of Spain, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany combined. That’s quite a landmass, stretching from the dry desert border with the USA, all the way down to the steamy jungles and beautiful Caribbean beaches of the Yucatán Peninsula, bordering Guatemala and Belize. As far as diversity of landscapes, experiences and cultures goes, Mexico has a lot to offer.
This area of the world has an interesting mix of Old World charm and pre-Colombian mythology, many strong traditions and unique cultures. The booming economy here also means that Mexico is also a contemporary and modern country that is growing rapidly, and also one that is extremely welcoming for LGBT visitors.
Our base during our visit to Guadalajara was the beautifully appointed Hotel Casa Pedro Loza (casapedroloza.com.mx), which is situated downtown, in one of the Colonial-style buildings for which Guadalajara is famous. This elegant Hacienda is set around a tranquil open air courtyard in the traditional Spanish way.
Inside the hotel is a mix of classic and contemporary – reproduction French furniture is a nod to Mexico’s strong historical links with France, while the acid green satin upholstery gives a distinctly fun and funky Mexican makeover to the decor. The building is grand enough to carry off the eclectic mix of furnishings, and it’s difficult not to adore the results.
The hotel is located on the edge of the Old Town, or Centro Historico, which makes it easy to head out to explore on foot. We were lucky enough to be accompanied by a fluent New World Spanish speaker, but would recommend anyone take at least a few Spanish phrases of their own, as well as the address of their hotel, and a map of course.
Life takes place on the streets in Mexico, and you get a real sense of the country from the buzz that you encounter as you just walk around. Hawkers and street markets crowd the pavements and squares, and the air is thick with the smell of spices and smoky grills.
Most of the sights in the city are in the vicinity of the cathedral, which is surrounded on each side by the Plaza of the Crosses. A tour round all four gives a glimpse into the cities rich colonial past, and offers some respite from the busy streets. A visit inside the cathedral is essential, as is the Palacio de Gobierno – or Governor’s Office – to the east of the cathedral, to see the José Clemente Orozco mural. Our guide proved to be a sound investment and gave a real insight into Mexico’s history, which includes tales of independence from Spain and revolution.
It’s not all about history downtown, though. A visit to the huge Mercado San Juan de Dios market is excellent for souvenirs, spices and just about everything else, too. And as with most things in Mexico, it’s extremely affordable – as are the shopping streets around the market, which we’d have stayed browsing in longer had we not been so hungry.
Food is important here. But it’s not just about eating, it’s part of the whole social experience. The street food – called antojitos or “little cravings” – is delicious, and can be sampled from many vendors that all draw crowds, who chat away while eating tamales and quesadillas. There are also numerous Taco restaurants – one of our personal favourites – where a choice of grilled meats are served with salsas, avocado, grilled onions and, of course, chili sauce – hot, and extra hot.
Formal dining is an option, too. Mexican cuisine is going through something of a renaissance, and Guadalajara is now home to some excellent bistros serving contemporary Mexican food with a twist. For us the seafood ceviches, meats smothered with mole – which is a sauce made up of of chocolate and chili – and fresh spicy salsas were particular highlights of food that never let down on flavour or originality.
When it comes to nightlife, Guadalajara also had a few surprises in store. Handily, the majority of more than 20 gay bars in the city are located in the Zona Rosa, which is also just on the edge of the Old Town. The city prides itself on having a progressive and visible scene to rival even Mexico City, and has become something of a gay Mecca for locals and increasing numbers of visitors. We were assured that the thriving scene was a sign of the laid-back attitude of the locals of Mexico’s second city.
Although Angels is the place to head for an after-party, for those with enough energy, our evenings usually finished at nightclub Babel. This multi-floor dance club is well known throughout Mexico and hosts DJs from all over the country, as well as putting on extravagant weekend shows for the punters, too. Mexico turns out to be full of surprises. Just leave your pre-conceptions at home.
Words Luke Smith