Category: Guadalajara, México


Avenida Vallarta on Sundays

The Avenida Vallarta is arguably Guadalajara’s signature boulevard, cutting through the west side to expose a time-stamped cross-section of the city.

From its starting point at Avenida Juarez and Del Federalismo (there’s a subway station there) to the Minerva Fountain is about four miles, and there’s no better day – or way – to see it than Sundays, when it’s closed to vehicular traffic and given over to bicyclists, joggers, and walkers.

On the Avenida Vallarta

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s Avenida Vallarta was a residential boulevard lined with the

On the Avenida Vallarta

elegant townhomes of Guadalajara’s well-to-do, and many of these structures still remain.

My plan is to travel the avenida east to west, beginning with the smaller, older homes that become progressively newer and larger as I go.

I start with the public architecture near the intersection of Avenida Enrique Diaz de Leon.

 

Templo Expiatorio, Guadalajara

 

University of Guadalajara

A block away on Lopez Cotilla stands the Templo Expiatorio and not much further on Vallarta the old University of Guadalajara.

On the Avenida Vallarta

Many of the grand old homes have been converted into restaurants.

If you’re not inclined to walk, run, or cycle you can pick out one with curbside dining and people-watch the passing promenade.

On the Avenida Vallarta

On the Avenida Vallarta

Chai restaurant, Guadalajara

Restaurants are plentiful along the route, and most have menus posted.

Chai restaurant, Guadalajara

Chai is a favorite of mine for a great latté, but the place also serves a Sunday buffet brunch that always draws a crowd, so it’s a good idea to grab a table early.

On the Avenida Vallarta

In one stretch of the avenida the old homes are now occupied by shops featuring bridal and quinceañera gowns.

Centro Magno shopping mall, Guadalajara

As the route nears its end it passes the Centro Magno urban mall (there’s a large and inexpensive parking garage there), which is full of specialty shops and restaurants.

Minerva Fountain, Guadalajara

The Sunday promenade ends at Los Arcos, on the back side of the Minerva Fountain.

Los Arcos, Guadalajara

The Los Arcos double arches were built in in 1942 to commemorate the city’s 400th anniversary. The arches clear 14 feet high and stand on the avenida just before the Minerva Fountain glorieta.

Los Arcos, Guadalajara

See my related posts on Guadalajara:Guadalajara south centro

Fishy in Guadalajara

Guadalajara’s heartbeat

Guadalajara’s Merado Libertad

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Just south of – and within a comfortable walk of – the central Plaza de la Liberation is an understated working class neighborhood dotted with very worthwhile sites… with inexpensive and very authentic local restaurants… and with great slice-of-life photo opps.

La Chata Restaurant, Guadalajara, Mexico

 

Restaurante La Chata, located on Ramón Corona between Avenidas Juárez and López Cotilla, serves throughout the day, but it’s is a great place for breakfast at the start  of a centro sur walk.

 

La Chata has been in business since 1942 and it’s now a city institution.

La Chata Restaurant, Guadalajara, Mexico

 

The kitchen fronts on the street, visible through a large picture window, and at lunchtime the waiting line stretches down the sidewalk.

 

It’s one of those places that leaves you with a sense that the waiters have worked there for their entire lives; the service is hospitable and efficient.

La Chata Restaurant, Guadalajara, Mexico

 

A stained glass tableau features images of Guadalajara’s iconic monuments:  Los Arcos, Minerva Fountain, the Catedral, and the Teatro Degollado…

Templo de Nuestra Senora de Aranzazu, Guadalajara

 

Only three blocks further south on Colon you’ll come to the Templo de Nuestra Senora de Aranzazu, built by the Franciscans and a marked contrast from the ostentatiously ornate central Catedral.

 

It’s surrounded by an urban pocket park where the benches are a great place to watch neighborhood comings and goings.

Birriera Los Compadres, Nueve Esquinas, Guadalajara, Mexico

 

Two more blocks south on Colon you’ll arrive at Las Nueve Esquinas – the Nine Corners – where you can enjoy great birria, Jalisco’s signature stew made with goat (del chivo) or lamb (del borrego).

Birriera Las Nueve Esquinas, Guadalajara, Mexico

 

The dish is served with corn tortillas, and seasoned by each diner to personal taste from a condiment plate of onion, cilantro, and lime.

Birriera Las Nueve Esquinas, Guadalajara, Mexico

 

 

There’s an abundant choice of birrierias here, but my favorite is the Birrieria de Las Nueve Esquinas.

Birriera Las Nueve Esquinas, Guadalajara, Mexico

 

 

As with La Chata, there can be a long wait here for lunch unless you avoid the rush which typically occurs early in the afternoon. (Note the goat’s head in the stained glass window!)

Birriera Las Nueve Esquinas, Guadalajara, Mexico

 

A kitchen open to the dining room makes for great entertainment.

 

One of the waitresses caught up with me a block after I’d departed to give me a small carving of a goat inscribed with the restaurant’s name.

Building facade, Guadalajara, Mexico

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Continue from the Nine Corners on Colon through a neighborhood dotted with vintage architecture and modest homes fronted by sidewalk workshops.

Building facade, Guadalajara, Mexico

Hotel Santiago, Guadalajara, Mexico

Butterfly House, Parque Agua Azul, Guadalajara, Mexico

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In less than ten blocks you’ll take a left on Niños Héroes and a block later a  right on Calzado Independencia Sur.

 

 

 

The Parque Agua Azul is one block further.

Parque Agua Azul, Guadalajara, Mexico

 

 

 

This is one of those great urban parks in which the the year-round floral display frames distinctive architecture and statues.

 

 

 

As I pass a yoga class, a nearby acrobat performs an airborne somersault.

Orozco bust, Parque Agua Azul, Guadalajara, Mexico

Parque Agua Azul, Guadalajara, Mexico

 

 

 

It’s a short walk from the park to Guadalajara’s Centrale Viejo bus station, where busses and arrive from and depart to Lake Chapala.

Parque Agua Azul, Guadalajara, Mexico

 

 

Hotel Plaza San Francisco, Guadalajara, Mexico

Hotel Plaza San Francisco, Guadalajara, Mexico

 

 

On the way back to el centro, drop by the restaurant in the Hotel Plaza San Francisco for drinks or snacks. It’s only a couple of blocks from the Aranzazu church on Degollado just south of Prisciliano Sánchez.

 

It occupies what looks to have once been three separate residences, and guest rooms front on each of its three courtyards. The place has a great Spanish colonial ambiance.

 

Take this walkabout and you’ll discover what I quickly learned on my first Guadalajara visit:  There’s more to see within easy walking distance of the city center than you can possibly cover in less than three or four days, so plan your Guadalajara visit accordingly… and watch for more posts on this great city, because there’s still more to see!

 

Check out my other Guadalajara destination posts:

Guadalajara’s Heartbeat

Guadalajara’s Mercado Libertad

Fishy in Guadalajara

To Mexico By Bus

Fish market in Zapopan, Guadalajara

The half day drive to Puerto Vallarta or Manzanillo puts the bounty of the Pacific Ocean within easy reach of Guadalajara, and nowhere is this abundance as evident as at the Mercado del Mar in the Zapopan section.

Fish market in Zapopan, Guadalajara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here restaurant chefs and housewives browse more than a city block of pescaderias and seafood restaurants that compare well with anything to be found in Boston or San Francisco… except for the price!

Fish market in Zapopan, Guadalajara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As at any fresh seafood market, the best picks are available early in the morning, but shops are still well-stocked when I arrive before noon.

Fish market in Zapopan, Guadalajara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are nearly 50 seafood vendors and half a dozen seafood restaurants from which to choose, and sifting through the choices is at least half the fun.

 

 

There are plenty of fish that shoppers from north of the border will recognize even if their Mexican names are unfamiliar, but there are also plenty of local varieties that beg to be tasted.

Fish market in Zapopan, Guadalajara

 

 

 

 

There’s not much English spoken here, but most of the shop owners will gladly explain their products at the slightest prompting.

Fish market in Zapopan, Guadalajara

Fish market in Zapopan, Guadalajara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The breadth of selection is staggering, and there seems to be something in almost every color of the rainbow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fishmongers expertly carve out filets and deftly shuck oysters.

 

Fish market in Zapopan, Guadalajara

Fish market in Zapopan, Guadalajara

 

 

The ceviche is about as good and fresh as any you’ll find anywhere without a beach in sight.

 

Get there from the Periferico on the northwest side.  Exit Avenida Los Laureles toward the city and drive less than two miles to its intersection with Avenida Piño Suarez.  The market is two blocks to the left.

 

Remember to take an ice chest.  In fact, remember to take two, because some of the best stuff is not even on your shopping list!

 

Mercado del Mar has a web site which lists all of the seafood shops and restaurants (go to the Locatarios page), and as you scroll over each name more information – including individual web sites for many merchants – displays in the lower right hand corner. http://www.mercadodelmar.com/

Fish market in Zapopan, Guadalajara

 

If you’re uncomfortable with Guadalajara traffic, one of the Mercado del Mar merchants has opened a location just west of Ajijic on the Carretera  in the Plaza La Huerta.  I’ve found it to be among the best at Lakeside.

 

Buen provecho!

 

For more about the Guadalajara open market experience, see my related post Guadalajara’s Mercado Libertad

I’ve just completed my tenth round trip between Dallas and Guadalajara by bus.  At the end of each trip, tactful friends on both sides of the border question me about the experience with a combination of curiosity and skepticism.

Greyhound bus terminal, Dallas, TX

Tactless friends question my sanity.  After all, the driving distance – which varies depending upon the route taken – runs around 1,100 miles (about the same distance as driving from Dallas to Phoenix, Detroit, or Jacksonville).  By private auto the trip takes a bit over 20 hours.  By bus with occasional station stops it takes a little over 26 hours.

Greyhound bus terminal, Dallas, TX

There are otherwise some really good reasons to travel to Mexico by bus…

Mexico “gets” bus service.  There’s almost no passenger rail service in Mexico and outside of major population centers economics don’t lend themselves to air service a la Southwest Airlines.  The result is that Mexico – as in many other countries I’ve travelled – has refined bus travel to an art.  (See my related post on bus travel in Argentina.)

Border crossing, Laredo, TX (U.S. side)

It’s a rich experience.  Bus travel affords an opportunity to see the Mexico – and meet the Mexican people – inaccessible for air travelers.  Even after ten trips I still see something missed on an earlier trip, and I always make new acquaintances.  The route takes me through cities including Monterey, Saltillo, Zacatecas, and Aguascalientes, and since I’m not driving I have every chance to enjoy the views.

It’s comfortable.  In Mexico – as in much of the world outside of the U.S. – bus travel is the transportation of choice, and first class bus seating and service is on par with transatlantic airline business class.  Busses have their own dedicated lines for Customs and Immigration on both sides of the border, and often clear inspection more quickly than the long lines of passenger cars… particularly during rush hours.  There’s a restroom on the bus, and a rest stop with limited foodservice and more restrooms on an average of every 2-3 hours.

Rio Grande from the Lincoln-Juarez bridge, Laredo, TX

It’s convenient.  I book my trip with Greyhound and its Mexican affiliate Americanos, buy my ticket online with a credit card, and receive it by mail.  I’m even enrolled in Greyhound’s Road Rewards frequent traveler program… which earns me further travel discounts.

From Mexican Immigration & Customs, Nuevo Laredo

While air travel requires an hour of travel and car parking and another hour for security screening, I’m routinely on the bus in Dallas within an hour of leaving my home.  If you become bored with the passengers or the scenery, crack open that new novel you’ve been meaning to read or listen to your MP3 player.  I get lots of writing done on the bus.

Two bus drivers kibbitz while their busses await their turn for inspection.

Bus travel to and from Mexico is incredibly economical.  My round trip bus fare costs about one-third of the cheapest Dallas-to-Guadalajara airline ticket… and actually less than the cost of auto tolls alone for the same trip on Mexico’s excellent system of toll roads (the cuotas)… not to mention the cost of gasoline.

Outside the bus terminal, Nuevo Laredo, Mexico

Since there’s no overnight stay on the bus route – the bus changes drivers, but rolls right on through the night – there’s also no hotel expense.  While there’s a modest charge for extra luggage checked on trips originating in the States, there seems to be no such restriction for trips originating in Mexico.  Greyhound charges for ticket changes in the States, but a bus ticket in Mexico can be used at any time within 6 months of issue with no charge for schedule changes between the original ticket destinations.

Inside the bus on the Mexican side

It’s safer.  I view the risk of violence to Americans traveling in Mexico as grossly overstated by both the U.S. media and the State Department.  Particularly between dusk and dawn the risk of hitting stray livestock or pedestrians increases, and if you’re involved in a accident that causes injury or fatality you will go directly to jail until blame is sorted out… and much of what you’ve heard about Mexican jails is probably true.

 

There are two drawbacks to Greyhound/Americanos.  One is that while busses on the Mexican legs of the trip have spacious seats, plenty of leg room, and video, the Stateside busses are about as (un) comfortably cramped as traveling in airline economy class.  The other is that the trip on Greyhound/Americanos requires anywhere from 2 to 4 bus changes, and while I’ve never arrived late or missed a connection within the Mexican legs of the trip the same cannot be said for the Stateside legs.

Central Nueva bus terminal, Guadalajara, Mexico

For a bit more than the cost of Greyhound/Americanos, travelers can instead book with one of several Mexican bus lines that require no bus changes from U.S. destinations and depart from locations as far-flung as Florida, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Illinois.  These carriers cater to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, cost a bit more than the Greyhound option, and typically locate their U.S. terminals in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods.  Just a few are Omnibuses de Mexico, Turimex, El Tornado, and El Conejo.

Central Nueva bus terminal, Guadalajara, Mexico

Bottom line:  Bus travel to/from Mexico is not for everyone, but if you have a spirit of adventure that craves more than a sanitized Epcot Center experience, it’s something you should do… at least once!

With a population of over 4 million Guadalajara may only be Mexico’s second largest city, but much of what the world knows of Mexico – including tequila and mariachi music – originates here and in the surrounding state of Jalisco.   Spanish colonial Guadalajara was already 250 years old by the time the U.S. won its independence in 1783, a point made amply clear by the buildings in the city’s historic centro.

Streetfront, Hotel Mendoza, Guadalajara

Less than an hour’s drive from Lake Chapala, an el centro tour is eminently walkable, thanks in part to the proximity of many sites to each other and in part to their connection by miles of pedestrian malls and plazas.

There are a number of good and reasonably priced hotels in the immediate area, but I’ve returned again and again to the Hotel Mendoza, a boutique hotel that’s within 4 or 5 blocks of every site visit planned for this day.

Lobby, Hotel Mendoza, Guadalajara

The Mendoza is on a quiet side street with underground parking, and while the typical rooms here are simply done, the public areas exude lots of elegant, Old World charm.

Dome of Templo Santa Maria de Gracia, Guadalajara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A small swimming pool sits at the bottom of the Mendoza’s open air atrium, and through my room window facing it I can see just next door the dome of the Templo Santa Maria de Gracia, the day’s first site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Templo Santa Maria de Gracia, Guadalajara

 

 

 

The simple style and modest scale of the Templo stands in sharp contrast to its younger successor, Guadalajara’s mammoth Catedral, which sits only a couple of blocks away.

Templo Santa Maria de Gracia, Guadalajara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The combination creates an intimate setting that makes Santa Maria a favorite site for local weddings, and many of its icons project an almost whimsical style.

Father Hidalgo, Plaza de la Liberacion, Guadalajara

 

 

 

 

 

Santa Maria de Gracia is adjacent to the expansive Plaza de la Liberacion, where the requisite statue of Father Miguel Hidalgo stands eternally forming the words to the Grito, the call that sparked Mexico’s fight for independence.

It’s a cry which is ceremonially repeated by every Mexican president on Mexico’s Independence Day.

(If you’re here on a day trip, there’s a pay parking garage underneath the Plaza.)

Catedral, Guadalajara

 

 

 

 

Guadalajara’s signature Catedral sits at the far end of the plaza.

As with many other Mexican cathedrals, the blocks at all four compass points around it are occupied by public spaces, a legacy of the expropriation of church lands that at their height accounted for up to one-fifth of all Mexican landholdings.

 

 

The Catedral is so massive that only a view from the rooftop deck of the Mendoza can take it all in.   The front view which showcases the two towers is an icon reproduced endlessly throughout the city.

Catedral, Guadalajara

The design and workmanship of this place evokes that of its European contemporaries so thoroughly that it could just as easily be located in Italy or Spain.

Catedral, Guadalajara

Catedral, Guadalajara

It’s worth it not only to walk its entire length and breadth, but to sit for a while in one of the pews and soak up the atmosphere.

Catedral, Guadalajara

Catedral, Guadalajara

A block from the Catedral to the northeast lies the Rotonda de Ilustres Hombres monument, a tribute to Jalisco’s favorite sons. Their statues guard the circle of columns. The subsequent addition of female honorees has led to a gender-neutral renaming of the monument as the Rotonda de los Jaliscienses Ilustres.

Rotonda de los Hobres Ilustres

Teatro Degollado (on right), Catedral (in distance), Guadalajara

The Rotonda pocket park is a tranquil setting, and a good place to give your feet a rest before returning one block to the Plaza de la Liberacion. where the Teatro Degollado sits directly opposite the Catedral.
 

 

 

 

 

 

The Degollado is a gem of an opera house that was dedicated in 1866 and has been renovated several times since.

Teatro Degollado, Guadalajara

The neoclassical façade is striking, but a beautiful stained glass dome makes a daytime visit to the interior a must.

Teatro Degollado, Guadalajara

The pedestrian mall continues eastward behind the Degollado (check out the great tableau sculpture which runs at street level for the entire length of its back side), leading toward the ever-present profile of the Hospicio Cabanas, and lined with shops, street vendors, and street performers.

Pedestrian Mall to Plaza Tapatio, Guadalajara

On the way I stop for lunch at Restaurante La Rinconada.  The food is good, but the setting is even better. It’s full of Old World panache, and the bar is a classic with a view out onto the street.

Restaurante La Rinconada, Guadalajara

The Hospicio Cabanas is now a museum which houses the giant-sized works of Mexico’s famed muralist, Jalisco-born José Clemente Orozco, but has served a number of functions over its nearly 200 year history, including that of hospital and orphanage. Orozco and his work deserve their own dedicated blog post, but the work speaks for itself and the admission charge is modest.

Hospicio Cabanas, Guadalajara

The Hospicio Cabanas sits on the edge of the Plaza Tapatio, a huge plaza under which passes the busy Calzado Independencia thoroughfare.

Plaza Tapatio, Guadalajara

 

Plaza Tapatio, Guadalajara

Contemporary sculptures in bronze cast eerie shadows over the landscape.

Plaza Tapatio, Guadalajara

 

 

If you wish to walk further, the Plaza Tapatio is within a block of the San Juan de Dios jewelry mart and the sprawling Mercado Libertad (See my separate post.)

La Fonda de San Miguel, Guadalajara

For dinner I’ve chosen La Fonda de San Miguel, which turns out to be a bit hard to find because the courtyard restaurant has almost no street-facing presence, and is reached by a short corridor.

At one time a convent, its rooms have been converted into a B&B.  It’s an intimate setting, and a nice break from the sounds of the street.
On the way back to the hotel I pass sites seen earlier in the day and find them much to my surprise surrounded by animated crowds enjoying the cool evening and magnificently lighted structures.

The Catedral, the Rotonda, and the Teatro all glow magically in the night air.

Catedral, Guadalajara

Rotonda des los Hombres Ilustres, Guadalajara

 

 

Teatro Degollado, Guadalajara

Teatro Degollado, Guadalajara

I pass through the hotel lobby I carry with me a memory of an outstanding day, and the knowledge that today’s sites are only the tip of the Guadalajara iceberg.

Mercado Libertad, Guadalajara

I hate shopping, but I love bazaars.

 

Where else can people-watching deliver such a cross-section of society and where else can you soak up such a rich gumbo of sounds and colors and tastes?

 

Even though big-box chain groceries can now be found throughout Guadalajara and most of Mexico, los mercados seem to capture the Mexican heart and soul in such an inimitable way that it’s impossible to picture a Mexico without them.

Mercado Libertad, Guadalajara

 

Guadalajara is only – in charitable traffic – a drive of around 45 minutes from the Chapala Lakeside, which puts the Mercado Libertad – arguably the mother of all mercados – within easy reach.

 

It’s located in the heart of the city on the Calzada Independencia,  and served by the San Juan de Dios subway stop.

 

Finding a parking spot in the Mercado’s garage can be dicey, but there’s a parking garage  under the Plaza Independencia next to the Catedral a short walk away.

Plaza de los Mariachis, Guadalajara

San Juan de Dios jewelry market, Guadalajara

 

The Mercado Libertad sits between the Plaza de los Mariachis and the San Juan de Dios Mercado de Joyeria – the mother of all jewelry markets – where vigilant and well-armed security makes it more difficult to snap a photo than inside of a Las Vegas casino.

 

Picture instead in your mind’s eye a department-store-sized building packed with the booths of hundreds of jewelry merchants selling a rainbow of precious metals and stones in settings of every conceivable style and you’ll get the idea.

 

Food court, Mercado Libertad, Guadalajara

Food court, Mercado Libertad, Guadalajara

 

 

To truly absorb the Libertad takes the better part of a day, so take a cue from locals who breakfast or lunch at a Mercado food court that makes Stateside mall food courts look like glorified vending machines.

 

As with most of the businesses in the Mercado, these eateries are family-owned and operated businesses.

 

 

 

They typically take the form of an open kitchen circled by a lunch counter and tables.  While the kitchen equipment may be old and battered, it’s always spotless and everything is freshly prepared daily.

Mercado Libertad food court booth

 

Mariachis, Mercado Libertad food court, Guadalajara

Mariachis, Mercado Libertad food court, Guadalajara

 

As the day progresses diners are likely to be serenaded by bands of strolling mariachis; Guadalajara is the home of mariachi music and tequila… each of which is a whole ‘nother blog post!.

 

 

 

 

The Mercado is loosely organized into neighborhoods of like-merchandise booths arrayed around two cavernous atriums, one covered and the other open to the sky.

The impression quickly forms that some of these stalls have been operated by generations of families.

There are “neighborhoods” for shoes of all sorts, leather goods, woven textiles, designer fragrances, jewelry, consumer electronics, and more. Even the casual browser will soon realize that there are more than a few knock-offs among them.

Haggling over merchandise prices is almost an obligation, and even the uninitiated can quickly become consumed by the sport of it.

Mercado Libertad aviary, Guadalajara

Mercado Libertad aviary, Guadalajara

 

 

In the open air atrium toward the rear of the market is a pet market stocked with birds of every type and color.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fresh produce at the Mercado Libertad, Guadalajara

Fresh produce at the Mercado Libertad, Guadalajara

 

 

 

There are neighborhoods for fruits and vegetable vendors…

 

 

Spice merchant, Mercado Libertad, Guadalajara

Spice merchant, Mercado Libertad, Guadalajara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…neighborhoods for spice merchants…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…and neighborhoods for butchers.

Tripe & pigs' feet, Mercado Libertad carniceria, Guadalajara

Tripe & pigs’ feet, Mercado Libertad carniceria, Guadalajara

 

Mercado Libertad carniceria

This place recalls for me the Egyptian Bazaar in Istanbul.

 

Extending from broad aisles are narrow, Casbah-like passages of merchants packed in cheek-to-jowl.

 

Every flat surface is covered with merchandise and even more merchandise hangs like stalactites from overhead hooks. The visual clutter is an avalanche.

 

Every time I go to the Mercado I see something unnoticed on a past visit.

 

Every time I go I get into delightful conversations with the vendors.

 

Every time I go I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.

If there’s such a thing as Mercado overload it has to be in my far distant future.   If you can’t find what you’re looking for at the Libertad, it’s probably unavailable elsewhere or you probably don’t really need it!

Today U.S. stores are wrapping up the business of Christmas gift returns and poised to promote – with hardly a pause in between – Super Bowl party food, Valentine’s Day candy, and Easter bunny baskets.  Christmas may already be history for Americans, but in the villages along the shores of Lake Chapala the sacred season enters its third week.

Observances began on December 16 with daily Posada reenactments of Joseph and Mary’s search for a room at the inn.   Entire neighborhoods turn out to watch costumed children re-enact this timeless drama nightly through Christmas Eve, punctuated by a live nativity scene.  As in much of Latin America, observances in Mexico will continue through the twelve days of Christmas, ending on the January 6 Kings’ Day holiday.

Anyone who’s experienced Christmas in Mexico, though, will testify that it doesn’t just last longer, but often feels far more tangible.

Mexican folk art crucifixes

It’s admittedly easier to keep the fires of Christmas cheer stoked in overwhelmingly Catholic Latin America.  Within U.S. government agencies and many large corporations it’s now widely considered a faux pas to offer holiday best wishes that are a reflection of any particular religious faith. The separation between church and state in Mexico has been a pillar of governance since the Catholic church leadership ended up on the wrong side of the Mexican Revolution over a century ago, but religious icons are routinely displayed in government offices and other public places.  Can it be that Mexicans have more ably resolved the relationship between personal faith and politics than their cousins to the north?

The biggest difference between Christmas in Mexico and the U.S., though, may be the role of gift-giving.  While every U.S. holiday has long been a retail event it is only this year that I noted for the first time in Mexico extensive retail advertising for Black Friday.  It was as disheartening as first seeing not that long ago the retail assault on the venerable Dia de los Muertos observance, seeking to replace homages to departed loved ones with superhero costumes and trick-or-treat candy.

Even though American-style conspicuous consumption is simply not an option for the many, many Mexicans of modest means, the holidays here seem particularly joyous.  It’s the time of year when many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans make their sole yearly pilgrimages – often riding busses for 20 or 30 hours – to visit their Mexican relatives.  When they arrive they’re as likely as not to find two or three generations of the family still living in close proximity within their ancestral villages.  On Christmas Eve the villages seem like extended block parties as people take the edge off cool night air around curbside fires, street vendors cook at sidewalk stands, and children light firecrackers until the dawn.

Christmas is certainly what we choose to make of it, wherever we may happen to live, but Christmas in Mexico is effortlessly hospitable and universally inclusive… a truly communal experience.

Old-fashioned as it may seem, the words “Happy Holidays” just don’t seem to convey the spirituality and heartfelt sincerity implicit in holiday greetings now out of fashion, and we’re all arguable poorer for it.  How can it be lost on so many that the sentiment common to all of these greetings is a wish that the spirit of peace and harmony rekindled over each faith’s sacred holidays grace the lives of others throughout the year?

So… regardless of your religious tradition I wish you Feliz Navidad, today and every day throughout the coming year!

Industrial recycling of everything from grocery stores’ delivery cartons to manufacturers’ scrap metal is big business in the U.S., but household-level recycling is still for many Americans too often only a matter of local trash collection mandates or choosing “paper-or-plastic.”

In contrast, Mexico’s recycling emphasis seems less about sorting weekly household trash and more about repairing and re-using what many Americans would label “junk”.  In fact, Mexicans seem to have more of a penchant for squeezing more utility out of just about every imaginable piece of equipment than a Cuban auto repairman nursing a 50’s-vintage Chevy into roadworthiness on the streets of Havana.

Vintage VW Mexican beetle

In Mexico it’s more likely to be the exception than the rule that “it’s cheaper to replace it than to repair it.”

While it may be tempting to attribute the differing approaches to divergent cultural perspectives and values, the truth is that both reflect a shared reality:  Ecologically sustainable practices at the household-level are far more widely embraced when they pay out immediately, meaningfully, and personally.

The paradox is that despite America’s ample public resources for clean-up and ongoing waste management – not to mention a standard of living adequate to pay the higher costs of environmentally friendly products – America lags its neighbor to the south in one important way when it comes to sustainability: Replacement is frequently more cost-effective than repair because mass production – increasingly robotic and/or offshore – drives down the cost of parts and the price of American labor often renders repairs cost-prohibitive. ‘Green’ in America is still too often about advertised perception rather than reality.

While Mexico’s globally competitive wages may be about to propel it into the ranks of the world’s top 5 auto manufacturers, the purchase of many common consumer goods remains well beyond the reach of most families.  The result is that few Mexican villages – including those of the Chapala Lakeside – lack an ample complement of repair shops in which products are continually patched for the owners’ re-use or resale by electricians, carpenters, metalworkers, leatherworkers or painters.  Owners benefit from extended lives of repaired products and an untold number of families are supported by the craftsman who have dodged the rote repetitiveness of the assembly line and instead embrace the trade guild tradition of apprenticeship to master craftsman.  Mexico’s ubiquitous repair industry has created hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs and sustainable careers.

Organic & renewable!

If this sounds familiar it’s because it’s a model that began its American demise only after the Second World War.

There are many ways to reduce humans’ impact on the environment.  American attention has been focused on the appropriate disposal of toxic or non-degradable products, and the recycling of commodity waste into the manufacture of new goods.  In the meantime planned obsolescence and conspicuous consumption continue to lace American landfills with discarded consumer goods rendered inoperative by a single malfunctioning component.  And plastic trash is reaching epidemic proportions in underdeveloped nations which lack the resources to manage it, to produce more ecologically friendly alternatives, or to incent more responsible consumer behavior.

Too many stateside Americans have long accepted as fact inaccurate representations of the Mexican people fueled by years of dismissively stereotypical portrayals in movies and limited impressions of Mexican immigrants.  These stand in sharp contrast to the reality of life in the villages along the shores of Lake Chapala, where ordinary Mexicans daily live out values which have been a long-standing part of America’s national identity.

Three generations

These are communities in which family values are bedrock.  The extended family is alive and thriving in Mexico, where it’s still not uncommon to see three generations of women walking arm in arm on Sunday promenades in plazas and along the malecóns.

These are communities in which self-reliant needn’t mean self-centered.  The gaps in Mexico’s social safety net are staggering, but Mexico’s extended families form powerful mutual support networks that often provide everything from senior care to child daycare.  Mexican families take care of their own, often at significant personal sacrifice.

These are communities for which backbreaking labor defines a powerful work ethic.  From broom-brandishing street-sweepers, gardeners, cooks and maids to construction workers and other tradesmen who often ply their trade with few or no power tools, a full day’s pay is hard to shortchange here.

These are communities in which entrepreneurial spirit thrives; unemployment compensation is not an option.

Street vendor on the Plaza

Street-facing rooms of private homes are commonly converted to corner tiendas and workshops.  Impromptu businesses sell everything from fresh produce to furniture from curbside pickup trucks or wheelbarrows.   At dawn in nearby Guadalajara, vendors push battered but proudly burnished lunch carts to secure a prized street corner and bootblacks arrive on busses at rows of shoe-shine stands on the plazas.  For the length of a red light the driver of any car can have windows washed or be might be entertained for pocket change by crosswalk mimes or flaming baton jugglers.

These are communities in which sense of personal honor leads people to do the right thing in the face of a poverty which might easily dictate otherwise.  Not long ago in a moment of distraction I left in a waiting room lobby a backpack containing my passport, visa, and cash amounting to several months’ worth of Mexican wages.  I returned in panic twenty minutes later to find it being held for my return, contents fully intact.  Imagine in the States building a custom home from ground up with an outcome that exceeded expectations on nothing more than a rough set of floor plans, a written quote, and a handshake!  The Mexican architect, whose family has lived
for generations in the village, stood behind his work to tweak paint, tile and
fixtures for more than a year after at no added charge.

These kinds of personal experiences make it hard not to appreciate Mexicans’ personal values, or to realize that they are the same values which built America.

Back in the day when Tex-Mex was the closest I’d ever come to tasting Mexican food, the thought of dumping a sweet dessert onto the glob of spicy carbs and fats already percolating in my stomach was the furthest thing from my mind.

Some sort of culinary feng shui always urged me instead to top off any Mexican food with a frozen margarita, and so several tragic years passed until I came to appreciate the difference between Tex-Mex and Mexican and in the process where ‘sweet’ fits into Mexican food.

Tropical tastes at the Mercado Libertad, Guadalajara

Tropical tastes at the Mercado Libertad, Guadalajara

My experience has been that sweets are to be found in abundance just about everywhere on Mexican menus except the center of the dinner plate.

On market days in Mexico it’s not unusual to see children sucking sweet syrup from short lengths of fresh sugar cane sold by street vendors.

In the mercados sugary concoctions made from every imaginable flavor of fruit are stacked like multi-colored bars of bullion.  Guava.  Mango.  Tamarind.  This is, after all, the land that gave chocolate to the world.

Then there are the baked goods and pastries.  Sweet pan dulce.  Sugar-dusted churrosTres leches cake.  Empanadas stuffed with every imaginable kind of tropical fruit.

Bakery case, Mi Tierra Bakery & Cafe, San Antonio, TX

You can get a Mexican sugar fix in the States at Mi Tierra Mexican Bakery on the Mercado in San Antonio, where acres of glass display cases are chock full of the most amazing range of pastries and confections.

The sub-tropical climate must surely help to make frozen treats – nieves – the most popular of all Mexican sweets.

Homeward bound schoolchildren and mothers with very young children cluster around ice cream shops in the height of afternoon heat.  Up until quite recently the town square in my little Mexican village boasted THREE shops and there are at least as many more within blocks.

The most popular items include ice  cream (helados) and ice pops (paletas), as well as the sno-cones (raspados) commonly sold by street vendors.

In Dolores Hidalgo, where Father Hidalgo sparked the Mexican war for independence by uttering his famous grito, ice cream shops are overabundant and there’s a sense of competition among them to introduce the next original flavor.  Avocado.  Jalapeno.  Tequila.  Nopalito.  You get the idea.

Ice cream vendor on Guadalajara’s Plaza Hidalgo

Michoacan, though, seems to be the acknowledged capital of Mexican ice cream.  Entire villages collaborate on the making and distribution of ice cream.  A chain of Mexican retail shops bears its name and Michoacan-style ice cream is widely sold at shops in U.S. Latino neighborhoods.

The striking thing about all of these sweets, though, is their richness of flavor.  Maybe it’s because there’s less need for preservatives because so much of this food is still made from fresh products in small batches very near where it’s sold.

Mostly, though, it’s the vibrant and distinctive flavors extracted from native fruits, nuts, and berries stamp these sweet concoctions as indelibly and indisputably Mexican.

Dulce!