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Catch the Lingo: A guide to life in Guadalajara

March 24, 2011

Amidst my ongoing efforts to make it as journalist I was lucky enough to actually get paid to write a couple of articles last year.

A  mutual friend kindly put me in touch with Catch the Lingo, a new website for anyone interested in learning Spanish, volunteering, teaching or travelling in Latin America. They were looking for people to produce destination guides, so up I stepped to write one on Copacabana, a Bolivian town which sits next to the ginormous Lake Titicaca.

This was written after staying just a few days there, but I also penned a more comprehensive guide to Guadalajara, which benefited from the 12 months I spent in this Tequila-soaked town. The Copacabana guide was published but an apparent change of plan at Catch the Lingo meant the destination guides have yet to be updated beyond South America, leaving poor old Mexico out in the cold. Well not actually in the cold, it’s pretty hot there, but you get the idea.

So, not wanting it to go to waste, here’s my guide to living in the big GDL, in all its resplendent glory:

Guadalajara: A colonial city that has embraced modernity yet still epitomises Mexican culture.

Expect: Tequila, tacos and Mariachi music.

Pack: Bribe money, sunscreen, a strong stomach and a stronger liver.

Mexico’s second city is a leafier, more tranquil option than the hectic and polluted capital. Wealthy, modern and Americanised, Guadalajara is a rare realisation of Mexico’s first world aspirations. But somehow it remains quintessentially Mexican, retaining a sense of identity through its two most famous exports: Tequila and Mariachi music. Far from Cancun and the typical tourist trail, it offers an authentic insight into modern, middle-class Mexico.

Nestled low in the mountains of central Mexico, Guadalajara is blessed with a perfect climate of year-round sunshine. Yet to be suffocated by the growing number of American-style malls, the city’s diverse cultural legacy lives on in its iconic cathedral, Zapopan’s basilica, and Orozco’s vivid murals that adorn several buildings in the historic city centre. For souvenirs check out the local artisan produce in the markets of Tlaquepaque and Tonala, or to find out where your hangovers come from, embark upon a factory tour in the nearby town of Tequila. Despite the affluence on display, this remains a very affordable destination; everything generally costs around half what it would at home, sometimes even less.

Forget the fajitas and nachos served in “Mexican” restaurants back home. Real Mexican cuisine is found on the street. Taco stands are cheap, tasty and ubiquitous – look out for the “Calle de los tacos” (taco street) for a post-clubbing kebab alternative. Or indulge the next morning in a local speciality: the “torta ahogada”. Guadalajara’s finest hangover cure, this “drowned sandwich” is a roasted pork baguette doused in so much salsa it can only be eaten with a spoon. I soon discovered that there is literally nothing so sacred that Mexicans will not swamp it with lime and chilli: beer, mango, ice cream – it’s all been done and it’s rarely any better than it sounds.

Although both economical and enticing, dining on street food is like indulging in a delicious game of Russian roulette for the bowels. A dodgy taco one night left me with a nasty stomach infection, and anyone not raised on a diet of industrial-strength chilli will inevitably suffer at some stage from a bout of the infamous “Montezuma’s Revenge”.

The native “Tapatíos” – as local residents are known – have an insatiable appetite for fiestas. Owing to its large student population, Guadalajara is blessed with a wide range of exhilarating nightlife. Avenida Chapultapec is awash with trendy bars and cafes, while the rest of the city is sporadically dotted with hedonistic nightclubs and hidden salsa bars. Once you’ve recovered from each weekend’s exertions, prepare yourself to do it again midweek, as many places offer free bars or one peso (three pence) drinks promotions on Wednesday nights.

Looks matter in Guadalajara. Birthplace of Latino heart-throb Gael Garcia Bernal, the city is also famed for being home to the hottest girls in Mexico. On any night out you may encounter fashionistas, posh “fresas”, or even narcos, while the Zona Rosa has earned Guadalajara its reputation as Mexico’s gay capital. Meanwhile, in every district you will hear the brilliant local slang which takes traditional Castilian through a meat-grinder, peppering the Spanish language with hilarious obscenities and crude euphemisms.

Despite Mexico’s dangerous reputation, this is as safe a city as any in Latin America. Muggings and petty theft are rare providing that you are sensible, but ironically it’s the police that you must watch out for. The city’s notoriously corrupt cops are best avoided and will target locals and gringos alike in order to augment their earnings with a cheeky bribe. The consumption of alcohol in public is strictly forbidden – something I learnt the hard way when I found myself with hands flat against a police car, forced to pay the “official fine”.

So there you have it. Guadalajara, done.

*On a side note, anyone interested in travelling in South America should check out the rest of Stephen’s destination guides. Well worth a read, even if he is a dirty Gooner.

As all this was written some time ago, a few things have changed in the interim. The good news is that Guadalajara is set to host the Pan American Games this year. The bad news is that the drug-related violence that has devastated certain areas of the country has finally and perhaps inevitably begun to surface in the Jalisco state capital.

But there’s plenty enough negative media attention on Mexico already, so why not focus on some positives? For example the fact that three local citizens have become superstars of their respective fields during the past 12 months.

Most notably, Guadalajara’s favourite son Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez captured the world’s attention with goals against France and Argentina in the South Africa World Cup. Then he even  put one past Spain’s world-beaters in a summer friendly, before joining up with his new Manchester United team mates and  out-scoring and generally out-performing  a certain Wayne Rooney over the course of the season.

Meanwhile, local racer Sergio Pérez is about to become Mexico’s first Formula One driver in three decades. Pérez has joined Sauber’s team for the forthcoming season, which begins in Melbourne this weekend. Last but not least, Tapatía beauty Jimena Navarrete was crowned last year’s Miss Universe, a competition taken very seriously round the Latin American neck of the woods.

So it’s not all doom and gloom and grenade-chucking, road-blocking narco carnage down Mexico way these days.

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