The first thing a lot of people have asked me when they hear that I’ve just got back from Mexico is “was it safe?” I can honestly say that this has taken me a little by surprise as this was my second trip to the country, and it’s one of the most hospitable places that I’ve ever been to. So my standard answer is “yes of course”, and I then try to resist the urge to show them the photo album named ‘Guadalajara’ on my Facebook.
Guadala-where-a? is usually the next question everyone asks.
Unless your geography is better than most (including mine) you may well be asking yourself the same question. Guadalajara is Mexico’s second largest city, with 4.5 million inhabitants (second only to mega-metropolis, Mexico City at 20 million), and it is also the capital of the state of Jalisco – which lies mid-way up the country’s Pacific coast.
Not your usual holiday destination you might think. Perhaps not for all countries just yet – but tourism from North America is big business to Mexico, with nearly six million US citizens visiting the country in 2012. Many of these 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.
‘So how come it’s so popular’ – you might be asking yourself – ‘if it’s so dangerous?’ Well – the reality is it isn’t, not for the vast majority of tourists at least. In fact the capital of Mexico, Mexico City is four times safer than the capital of the USA, Washington D.C. Certainly food for thought.
The truth is the much publicised violence in Mexico is largely gang related, and most of the problems take place along the US border, far from any of the main cities or tourist destinations. That doesn’t stop them being widely reported in the media of course – but simply put, the ‘war on drugs’ sells papers. If you need more information check this site for some interesting stats – howsafeismexico.com..
That’s not to say that tourists shouldn’t take care in Mexico of course, but that would be sensible advice for any destination.
For most people Mexico will also conjure 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 not just about beaches either, which isn’t surprising considering that Mexico is 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, that stretches from the dry desert border with the USA, all the way down to the steamy jungles, and beautiful Caribbean beaches of the Yucatan 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.
My base during my visit to Guadalajara was the beautifully appointed Hotel Casa Pedro Loza, which is situated downtown, in one of the Colonial style buildings for which Guadalajara is famous. This elegant Hacienda style building is set around a tranquil open air central courtyard in the traditional Spanish style.
Inside the hotel is a mix of classic and contemporary – reproduction French furniture is a nod to Mexico’s strong historical links with France. The acid green satin upholstery however 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.
Located on on the edge of the Old Town or Centro Historico makes it easy to head out to explore on foot. I was 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 the city too 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 city 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. My 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. As with most things in Mexico it’s extremely affordable, as are the shopping streets around the market which I would have stayed browsing in longer had I 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 while eating tamales and quesadillas. There are also numerous Taco restaurants, my favourite, where a choice of grilled meats are served with salsas, avocado, grilled onions and of course chili sauce – both hot, and extra hot.
More formal dining is of course an option too. Mexican cuisine is going through something of a renaissance currently, and Guadalajara is now home to some excellent bistros serving contemporary Mexican food with a twist. For me the seafood ceviches, meats smothered with Mole (a sauce 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 over 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 increasingly visitors too. I was assured that the thriving scene was a sign of the laid-back attitude of the locals of Mexico’s second city, which I had already experienced first hand.
My evenings usually finished at nightclub Babel, although Angels is the place to head for an after-party for those with enough energy. 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, and Babel certainly pulls in the crowds and knows how to throw a party. Mexico turns out to be full of surprises, just leave your pre-conceptions at home.
Jalisco further afield
Tequila – Hire a guide for a day, or take the Tequila express train for a tour of this historic town – home of course to Tequila.
Tlaquepaque - A beautiful district 15 minutes southeast of the city. Excellent traditional and contemporary crafts and art in a wonderful setting.
Puerto Vallarta – Mexico’s coastal resort hugely popular with LGBT visitors. Direct flights with Thomson from Gatwick and Manchester start in summer 2014.
Costalegre – The remote and pristine coastline located to the south of Puerto Vallarta.
More information can be found at www.VisitMexico.com
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