Mexico, travel

Sittin’ in a bar in Guadalajara…

All photos taken with an iPhone 5s

So, yeah, escapism.  I’m not actually sitting in a bar in Guadalajara, but after  30 days of home detention, doesn’t that sound pretty good?

Nights are sometimes still in the 20’s, here in Milwaukee, but in my mind…it’s a warm, sunny day.  A little table in front of a old, ocher-colored cantina, with a smiling waiter bringing some botanas to snack on, maybe a few pastes (kind of like Cornish pasties, but with mole sauce).

Side lanes like this fill the old city with cafes and life, almost like a little slice of Europe

Needless to say, I’d be sipping a Tecate, or Negra Modelo, or even a Dos Equis – – pretty much anything but a Corona.

The title is a line from a Kirsty MacColl song, about twenty years ago, “In These Shoes?”

You know it?  It’s great!

(MacColl knocked out some great pop tunes, and every New Year’s, I listen to her singing “Fairytale of New York” with the Pogues.  She died way too young, in Mexico, as it happens.)

But this post isn’t about pop music, it’s about my first visit to Mexico, just before the pandemic shut down travel.  Just for a few days, in the country’s illustrious and often-overlooked second city, Guadalajara.


The Cathedral has been built and re-built, after fire and earthquakes, for over three centuries, mostly 1541 – 1854. It’s survived countless earthquakes since then, at least a half-dozen of them notable.

It’s the capital of Jalisco, a state in the middle of the country, and bordering the Pacific, but the city is inland, a couple hundred miles east of Puerto Vallarta.

The city’s coat of arms, created in 1539. Colonial history in Mexico goes back many years before the U.S.

Guadalajara is known for being a hub of traditions we all associate as “Mexican” – – in many ways quintessentially Mexican, friendly and funny — perhaps less cosmopolitan than Mexico City, but not prone to the violence and brutality of some of the unfortunate states surrounding it.  Tequila comes from there, as does Mariachi.

While I had no problem avoiding the tequila, I was unable to avoid the mariachi.  One of those bands (guitars, violins, trumpets) camped out under my hotel window.  I can now attest, mariachi is both prevalent and just as monotonous-sounding in Mexico (at least to my uncouth ear) as it is in the states.

Apart from the mariachi, Guadalajara is pretty great.

I’m not claiming any major insights from a six-day visit, but I did learn a couple things, maybe one minor revelation, when we tried enchiladas tapatíos, and pozole, a kind of soup, a bit like hominy, but better.


Inside the cathedral. The gold decor is all from the Aztecs, melted down and used to decorate the church.

One of the things that struck me was how very little about Guadalajara I knew. Or really, Mexico in general.


I’ve read that even when we’re shown facts that counter a narrative that we’ve accepted, we tend to not believe them, preferring our own internalized misinformation.

I knew from reading up a bit beforehand, that Guadalajara was traditional, colonial, and sprawling. Driving to and from the airport, this urban sprawl is evident. It’s often described as a smaller version of L.A., (and the same number of places selling tacos).  It’s low-rise, mostly flat, with some mountains on its outskirts. Oil refineries and manufacturing ring the outer areas, but soon you come to the beautiful colonial core.

One thing I hadn’t expected were the blocks of modernity. I knew there’d be the always-present American companies-McDonalds, 7-11, Ford, Coca-Cola, and Walmart. I was more surprised to see Starbucks (many Mexicans still drink Nescafe), and even more to see skyscrapers.

It’s less of a Big City feel, despite the skyscrapers, but still a place with a super-modern (actually quite attractive) shopping mall, and a bike share program.  The city has invested heavily in these bikes, hoping to promote environmentally-friendly commuting, and has built miles of bike lanes.

I was also surprised by the beauty. I knew they had a large central cathedral as most Latino cities do, but the miles of colonial architecture were a pleasant surprise. And not too far away is Guanajuato, the silver city of colonial architecture, also a gem worth visiting.


The Palace of Justice

I was not surprised by the hipster area. I knew that there was a famous area full of cafes and bars, but even that was more pleasant than I expected, in many ways reminding me of the more stately La Starria neighborhood of Santiago, Chile than anything else.

In Mexico, there were things that were still exactly what I expected.

First, the locals are very friendly.  And very funny.

I personally hold the firm belief that Mexicans are the funniest and friendliest people in the world. There are close runners-up, but Mexicans really seem to excel.


This is a representation of the Aztec creation myth

That doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to the problems in Mexico. When I was there, in honor of Women’s Day, a large-scale protest was held to remind us of the femicides. The central Fountain of Athena was dyed red to symbolize this.

And everywhere you go, there are guns.

I’m from upstate New York, and grew up surrounded by hunters and competitive shooters.  But in the US, at least where I’ve lived, guns are less constantly and openly present.  In Rochester or Milwaukee, for instance, most random storefronts don’t generally post two men in front, with flak jackets and Uzis. The central joyeria (jewelry store) had no less than ten men, dressed as if for combat — helmets, bulletproof vests, automatic weapons or heavy-duty large-caliber pistols.  Crime in Mexico is still extreme.

While I only saw it once, it was fairly jarring to see a truck-mounted machine gun and Mexican Marines driving by the central square, just a routine patrol.  That was a bit of a reminder of what Mexico is facing.

And despite this, perhaps because of this, there’s a sense of kindness.  When life may be short, better to be remembered for your niceness than for the bad.

One other thing I noticed, the Chinese restaurants!  I counted no less than 20 in the central area. Our portrayal of Mexico tends to be heavily focused on the influx from there to the U.S.. We often overlook, that for at least ten years, more Mexicans have returned to Mexico than gone to the U.S..  And of course, some of the people coming in from Mexico, aren’t Mexican (some aren’t even Latino – – Nigerians, and increasingly Indians, are making that trek).  Because we view them as a diaspora population, we forget that many people are moving to Mexico (including the nearly 500,000-1 million Americans living there full or part time!)  While I only saw three Chinese people in Mexico, there is a large Asian population, including Koreans.  And due to the rising IT industry, increasingly Indians are moving there, too. I’d read this, but seeing it for myself really seemed to blow my mind.

(Even the name of this place, if you think about it, has a hint of diversity.  Just as every time a Spanish-speaker says ““Ojalá” (Hopefully) they’re echoing an Arabic expression “If Allah wills it,” and these place names from Spain, beginning “Guadal…” also go back to the centuries that Spain was a Moorish kingdom.  Their term for a valley, “wadi”, as in “Valley of Stones” or “Wādī l-ḥijāra” -> Guadalajara.)


Chinese-Mexicans have been around a long time as it turns out, since the 1600s, showing just how little I know. Also present was DiDi, the Chinese delivery service that has made inroads across the globe. Chinese economic imperialism is starting to rival ours, and in Latin America I can understand why. For centuries our relationship has been largely one-sided and our rhetoric is bellicose. Why wouldn’t they want to let our rival in, as leverage?


Mexico’s oldest hotel – from 1610 – Hotel Francés

I heard some interesting stories about Mexican history. Some were dubious, lacking credible evidence. But often interesting – like the explanations for the hole in the face of a central clock, in the city plaza – caused by an assassin’s bullet from an attempt on the life of Zapata.  Though others say it was Pancho Villa.


The aforementioned bar I was sitting in. My favorite story arguably, is that a man couldn’t settle his tab so left his bike as collateral. We can assume he never paid it.

Just before I left, I got some first-hand knowledge of middle-class life.  I was in Zapopan (Guadalajara, like L.A. or NYC, is made up of several distinct cities that are all conglomerated now), in some ways, a cushier city than Guadalajara, with many middle class families and some real wealth on display.  BMW’s, Mercedes, a Tesla, Range Rovers, and the ubiquitous  old-school Mexican VW Beetles were all over.

Zapopan has its own central cathedral, and on its outer edges, there’s an enormous urban forest, full of fragrant pines and juniper. It felt miles from the city, and yet a few minutes out of the main gate, there are skyscrapers in the distance and streets full of cars and people.

Guadalajara Cathedral 1891, Library of Congress.  Looks like one of the towers was being re-built, again.

I think sights like this, might have something to do with the countless earthquakes in the region

The outer edge of Zapopan is more working class, but the folks I visited, live in an apartment building there, a very nice home, belonging to a middle-class Mexican family.  While the US and some parts of Europe are seeing their middle classes shrink, Mexico’s has been steadily growing for years. Many Mexicans travel abroad, buy houses, cars, TV’s. It was good to see how nice much of Guadalajara was.  Even the working-class areas, while not as shiny, and feeling like I had to be more cautious, seemed to be friendly, safe, and decent. There were no slums that I saw, though I know there’s some all around the edges of Mexico City.


The Teatro Dellogado by night. Inside is a beautiful old cafe, hidden away, serving coffee from Chiapas. An old opera singer, no voice left, saw me while waiting for coffee and told me of his days as a singer-traveling Europe and ending up back home in Mexico.

Like my flying trip around India, I only got a brief window into the lives and scenes of a country. Mexico is vast, with many different regions, with their own unique identities and culture. Landscapes range from desert to rainforest. It’s simply too much to claim that I “understand” Mexico, from going to one city for six days. But, I do feel I have a better understanding of what’s happening there now that I went. The news so often only portrays the bad. There is a lot of that. But it often ignores the little stories, like the emergent middle class, or the increasing pressure by women on society to improve the sexism that haunts them. Stories about green pathways don’t sell clicks, the way that bodies hanging from bridges in the border cities do. But I look forward to learning more and seeing more of Mexico in the near future.




A convent for former prostitutes

Within sight of the cathedral, a reminder of a pre-Christian tradition, Día de los Muertos


38 thoughts on “Sittin’ in a bar in Guadalajara…

  1. I really enjoyed seeing these photos. We have been to Mexico a few times with the kids when they were still kids. I like the Mexican people and the colonial architecture.

    • Hi Neil
      It certainly is. I read recently about the early 1600s trade routes between Acapulco and Manila. We are all interconnected and have been for a while, far longer than most expect!

      Milwaukee still has Miller. They keep merging but after leaving for Chicago they are now back to being headquartered in Milwaukee. And of course the brewing facilities have never left. Under license, Pabst and Schlitz are still being brewed as well by various breweries including Miller.
      But I have found some of the small local craft places are more my taste!

  2. Did you know that mariachi arose as the Spanish pronunciation of the French word mariage? There was a period in the mid-1800s when France controlled Mexico, and that’s how Mexican musicians who played at marriages (i.e. weddings) of the French ruling class in Mexico came to be called mariachis.

    I’ve never visited Guadalajara but have spent maybe two months total in other parts of Mexico, primarily Mexico City, which is one of the great cities of the world. Let’s hope you get the chance to go there.

    • Hi Steve, I didn’t know the origins of that word, though I am familiar with the French occupation of Mexico. Cinco de Mayo celebrates the French defeat at the Battle of Puebla.

      I would like to get to Mexico City one day. A good friend of mine from Mexico lives there and I hope to visit him once things are normal again.

  3. Now after having read your photo essay on a small part of Mexico, I understand how in your fantasy you are still dreaming about the Mexican experience you had very recently, Robert. It’s truly a nice escape from the depressing events associated with the pandemic. Best wishes! Peter

  4. Lovely variation of light textures in these photos Robert. Very enjoyable.
    PS. I only heard ‘In these shoes?’ for the first time a few days ago via the talented Debbie Wileman’s fb page. Great song.

  5. melissabluefineart says:

    I particularly like the first image. it is so evocative, with the flight of birds lifting off and the beautiful architecture, and just something.
    Thank you for taking us on such an inspiring journey as we shiver here. A bar in guadalajara….sounds amazing. You’re right. I read that the city (in fact, the whole country) is dangerous and I take it as read. We have treated them shamefully. I think it is interesting that China is moving in. Advantageous to both, I imagine.
    I’d completely forgotten the song! It used to be a favorite, back in the day. Thanks for reminding me! 🙂

    • Thanks, Melissa!
      That was one of those photos that you see later and didn’t realize you took it. The sun was shining right into my eyes and so I saw it after I was home and realized that there were the birds flying. It worked out well!

      I hope you’ll have some warm weather soon.
      There are many misconceptions still, and I had my reservations about going initially. I think there are some areas as bad as they say, particularly near the border. But I was pleased by how nice much of Guadalajara is and I suspect much of Mexico is probably more like Guadalajara and less like (insert violence plagued border town of the week).
      We haven’t been good to them, nor any of Latin America. I don’t blame them for looking to China, and China’s been moving into Latin America in a large way. In Chile, besides the program I was part of which taught English, they also had a Mandarin program.

      I love that song too!

  6. Darts and Letters says:

    We have friends in Mexico City who’ve come in and out of our lives but this year we thought it was really when we were finally going to get down to see them, I’ve been promising for a long time (when the boys get older, I kept saying) and now the pandemic is descended upon us, so it’s quite a disappointment for now. They came up to see us ten years ago, it was their first time so far north and it was wonderful to be together, it was a really happy reunion and they loved the outside here but they were taken aback by the Seattle vibe…. found people here aloof, austere (that came back to me, the way you described some of your impressions in this essay). Also, it was a shoulder season and they were devastated by how cold it was, lol. Really enjoyed this, Robert. Glad you had the chance to be down there before things turned pale.

    Btw, yesterday Oliver Fern was absorbed by an old picture book by the illustrator Peter Spier (iiv;e always loved his work) about the Erie Canal, we were boxing up some books to give to a friend for reading to her grandchildren, but we kept that one out and later in the day, lay back on the sofa and very deliberately traced the path a barge might’ve taken to Buffalo, starting on the Hudson (went past Washington Irving’s old house!). Have you written about the Canal Museum in Syracuse? I can’t remember from the past couple years. Hopeyou’re having a good weekend, try to get out of detention for a leg stretcher. Parks are open here this weekend but only for exercise, no picnics or bocce ball

    • Hi Jason
      Glad you liked it but sorry to hear abut the canceled trip, hopefully you’ll be able to get there this time next year.
      My friend Esteban came up to visit a few years ago and remarked similarly about the people here, though he also was stuck by the cleanliness and the good air quality.

      I don’t know if I’ve written about it, I may have mentioned in in a comment to you a few times. There is a weigh lock right outside of Syracuse which is the one you’re talking about and then Rome NY has a museum I visited once as a kid. It’s pretty neat.
      Your son can take a barge on the Seneca Cayuga canal in my hometown which joins up with the erie canal and then on to Buffalo.
      The mules will get wet but that’s the price we pay.

      I did get out a bit, had some sun today which was nice to take advantage of. They have limited many of our parks here too because people refuse to listen to the directives and not cluster in groups.

      • Hi Jason
        We have so many canal relics I totally forgot, there is a canal museum in downtown Syracuse, I have only been once I think I went there two years ago or so. So, you’re correct, my mistake.

  7. There are as many little thoughts that came to me as I read your post as there are details in your post! The line I like most might be, “When life may be short, better to be remembered for your niceness than for the bad.” There are a lot of nice gestures being offered and received today, and every one is a bit of light in a very dark situation.

    I smiled at your reference to Nescafé. We can find the made-in-Mexico version in some stores, and I have a friend who refuses to drink anything else. Occasionally, one of my dock-worker mates, who’s from Mexico, says things like, “Think I’m gonna stop for a while and have a Nescafé.”

    And I share your opinion of the mariachis: probably because I’ve encountered them one too many times inside a restaurant. On a patio? Better, though not always perfect. On the other hand, there’s Metalachi, a local group that can be a little raucous live, but whose meld of metal/rock/mariachi I do enjoy.

    I do love the Spanish Colonial architecture, and you have some fine photos. I really enjoyed this post, and will make another trip or two through it, just to see what I’ve missed.

    • Hi Linda,
      Thank you!
      I agree for the need to count all the tiny joys in this often terrifying world, at least it’s starting to feel like Spring here.

      That’s funny about the Nescafe, I can’t say I care for it, I had it a fair deal in Chile and it didn’t sit right with me, but it’s nice that with global trade people can always have a taste of home.
      I’ll have to check out Metalachi, I have never heard of such a thing but it seems too unique to not give a listen to!

  8. Thanks for a wonderful travelogue, Robert. Like you, maybe more than, I was unaware of so much of Mexico’s more positive attributes. When most of our knowledge comes from news reports and the bulk of that is related to crime it is hard to visualize the people as other than tormented.
    The buildings are beautiful although it seems a shame, at least from afar, that so much Aztec gold was used for trim and decoration rather than stored for posterity.And I really enjoyed your photographs and their subject matter.

    • Thank you, Steve!
      It was a pleasant surprise, but that is why we travel I guess, to challenge our views. I think it’s also a shame to have melted down all the gold, and of course how they obtained it to begin with.

  9. What a terrific post, Robert. You really are one of my main go-to people when it comes to travel – I mean, if you’ve been there and I want to go, I would ask you for advice. The photos are first-rate, the text is fascinating, the myth-busting excellent, and yeah, I’d like to be sitting there, too! I’m hoping you are well, if not basking in the sun. 🙂

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