Featured Article: The Guadalajara Experience|
Story and photos by Lawrence H. Freeman (copyright 2002)
For all of you that think of Mexico as a peon sleeping against a sunwashed stucco wall with a huge sombrero tilted over his eyes, I have news for you. That isn't Mexico anymore.
Yeah, I know what the average Joe in the United States thinks about Mexico. Third World Country. Backward. Don't drink the water. Maybe even Tijuana or Nogales. That isn't Mexico either.
Now, for all of you there in the land of Uncle Sam, let me introduce you to Guadalajara, the second city of Mexico with a population hovering around 5 million bustling Tapatios, which is what they call themselves. Oh, it has the usual Colonial center reflecting some 500 years of Spanish conquest, but the rest of the city reflects the new American conquest.
Look around and see a giant Walmart, right next to a giant Sam's Club across the road from a giant Costco, where you can get the best damn hot dogs in the whole country. But if you don't like the hot dogs, you can jump across the road to one of the Bonanza Steak Houses chain.
Oh, and don't forget to take a ride on one of the two spotless subway lines, where you will be treated to the latest American elevator music. And while you are downtown, stop in for a bite at one of the McDonalds, or a Burger King, or a KFC, or maybe even a Dairy Queen!
Of course, while you're in town, you can see the latest Hollywood movie in English, at the most beautiful stadium seating theaters you ever saw. And the movies are at some of the most opulent malls existing. They make most of the American malls look downright cut-rate. The only malls in the states that match these are the ones in Westwood and Beverly Hills.
Maybe Century City, although that one is actually an outside plaza. There is the Gran Plaza, all marble and brass, with a giant skylight in the center. Or there is the Centro Mundo, or Plaza Mexico with its huge Office Max that's in competition with the Office Depots that they've opened up. Then there is the Cinepolis downtown.
There is obviously a lot of money in Guadalajara and glittering Jaguar and Mercedes dealerships surround the Glorietta Minerva, which is the same place where the cops lay in wait for gringo license plates. All the American companies are here. Coke and Pepsi are battling it out with Xerox and Microsoft for the peso. Tree-lined paseos are everywhere, and Avenida Vallarta is marble-encrusted with mansions. 5-star hotels dot the city, vying with gourmet restaurants and smoking night clubs for attention.
Here you will find what have got to be the most beautiful women in the world. Slim. haughty, elegant young women with flashing black eyes, relishing the stunned looks of the men they pass. Here, stunning is more than just an empty phrase. And there are so many of them. Especially on the weekends, the malls call forth an embarrassment of feminine riches as they go in and out of the exclusive shops, fill the McDonalds and Burger Kings, chattering away, and then flit through the game arcades.
Here too is the Mercado Libertad, an enormous multi-tiered indoor market, so crowded at Christmas that it's all you can do to force your way through the crowds. The 3rd floor is a hundred restaurant food court where the cashiers yell at you to come in and eat their food, but you can also eat your way through the center-court fruit market where the colors are overwhelming.
My favorite is the Sunday flea market where thousands upon thousands of stalls stand cheek-by-jowl filling street after street, block after block with all the wares of the world dazzling the eye and emptying the wallet, but at surprisingly inexpensive prices.
Of course there is also the touristy Tonala, impossibly crowded on market days, but filled with furniture, wrought iron, glassware and crafts, and in direct competition with the even more upscale Tlaquepaque.
There is a large American population here, involved with Amsoc and the American Legion, but largely lost in the vastness of the Guadalajara millions even with its own weekly newspaper, the Guadalajara Reporter.
Chapala and Lakeside are something else. An hour from Guadalajara you are suddenly enmeshed in the sophistication of a rich suburb of Houston or Toronto. Half-million dollar houses dot the hills, lolling in the perfect year-round weather, and overlooking the beauty of the lake while gaga gringos race through the restaurants and arts and craft galleries. In the distance, aging white amateurs trying to emulate Tiger Woods chase little white balls around the rolling green hills of several local Country Clubs.
Here too, you can still experience the political viciousness of small-town America where the many gringo organizations with too many chiefs and not enough indians fight for primacy. The center may be the pretentiousness of the venerable Lake Chapala Society with its voluptuous grounds running riot with flowers and reflecting pools, but there are numerous upstarts elbowing for position. The Humane Society. Democrats Abroad. The Red Cross. Ninos Incapacitados. The Little Theater. The Ajijic Film Festival. Here, it is possible to do as much or as little as you want, or simply to fill your days with nothing except running from restaurant to restaurant, and there are plenty of them, and get tired doing it. Or you can read the news and the comings and goings of your neighbors in the Ojo Del Lago.
Ajijic is also fairly interchangeable with Puerto Vallarta and all the Pacific Ocean resorts, but that's another story.
Yes, Western Mexico is quite a place. You'll be amazed, but speaking for the rest of the gringos already here, I offer you a heartfelt wish. STAY HOME!
Editor's Note: Lawrence Freeman might sound like he's trying to shoo you away from visiting Guadalajara, but he's just trying to keep it a secret for himself. The Lake Chapala/Ajijic area near Guadalajara has the largest concentration of Americans living in Mexico, so it seems the secret is already out. Learn more about Guadalajara in a previous Feature Story or by visiting the Guadalajara Directory.
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