Of all the places in the world that embody the intersection of tradition, progress, and history, few offer as striking a compilation as the state of Jalisco, Mexico. Located in the middle of the western coast of Mexico, Jalisco provides some of the most vivid contrasts of sky and land in North America. Rich tones of earth serve as warm supplements to brilliant blue skies and expansive clouds.
In addition to beautiful landscapes and pristine beaches, Jalisco also boasts the reputation of being the birthplace of both tequila and mariachi music. Both of these are synonymous with Mexican culture and are represented in the form of vast agave fields which Tequila is derived from as well as vibrant town festivals.
Coupled with its sheer physical beauty, Jalisco’s identity is also fueled with deep spirituality. Roman Catholicism is the primary religion in the state as a result of colonization by the Spanish in the 16th century. The influences of this history are evident in the form of towering baroque cathedrals, ample religious imagery, and a devout populace. Life is varied in Jalisco and it would be impossible to obtain any significant insight into the state and country by visiting just one or two cities. From the innovative metropolis of Guadalajara to the charming and family rooted town of Pegueros, Jalisco paints a compelling portrait of Mexico’s past, present, and future. Over the course of 10 days I was fortunate enough to experience a small portion of what this region embodies.
The capital of Jalisco, Guadalajara, has a population of close to 1.5 million people and is a cultural hub of Mexico. As the home of the Chivas football team, mariachi music, and the Guadalajara International Film Festival, Guadalajara is a hub not only to Mexico but the wider international community. It is recognized as a progressive city with a significant tech industry rooted in a well educated and diverse population. The grandness of the city can be felt in its center where large cathedrals intermingle with many historic structures against the backdrop of towering business buildings. While these architectural works are marvels in their own right, it is in regards to the various plazas they surround that they can be truly appreciated.
The Guadalajara Cathedral is surrounded by plazas adjacent to each of its four walls. Known by few, the plazas and cathedral form a symbol of the holy cross when viewed from above. The plazas forming the cross are the Plaza de Armas, Plaza Guadalajara, Plaza de la Liberacion and the Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustres.
Near these grand structures is Mercado San Juan de Dios, a massive 3 story indoor market. The marketplace is nothing short of overwhelming as roughly 3000 vendors all share a communal space while selling a diverse selection of products ranging from meat cuts, seafood, toys, clothing, toiletries, and much more. However, this market is not for the claustrophobic as on the ground level there is no semblance of structure or reason. This works to the market’s favor as visitors can lose themselves in a uniquely chaotic experience. Make your way to the top and you will be able to see the sheer magnitude of this robust operation.
Tlaquepaque & Tonala
Just outside Guadalajara are the cities of Tlaquepaque and Tonala. In keeping with Guadalajara’s identity as a cultural hub, Tlaquepaque is respected for its pottery and glassblowing artists. The streets of central Tlaquepaque allude to these masteries in the manner of colorful shop fronts that accent expansive spaces and aged architecture. Littered between statues integrated into the streets, are vendors selling a wide range of crafts from small trinkets to intricate home decor.
Follow the cobblestone path and you will come across a liquor store named El Buho which means ‘the owl.’ In this small space is arguably the most impressive and varied collection of tequila in the world. Due to the limited shelf space, each tequila bottle is carefully screened before being awarded a spot. Tequila aficionados have the opportunity to come across rare bottles here, making this gem a must visit.
For those who enjoy the hand-crafted art pieces of Tlaquepaque but desire the thrill of bartering, consider visiting the city of Tonala to the east of Guadalajara. Tonala is well known in the region for its vast open air market where one can find various hand crafted goods as well as food stands. There is a wide selection to choose from here but be wary as the market draws a large crowd and is only open on Thursdays and Sundays.
Further east of Guadalajara and tucked in an area known as ‘Los Altos de Jalisco’ lies Tepatitlan, a city known affectionately as ‘Tepa.’ Significant in the state of Jalisco for being the largest producer of eggs and milk in Mexico, Tepa is a core piece of the country’s livelihood. Tepa’s contribution to the country lies not just in its agriculture but also in its education. With one of the highest literacy rates in the country and a significant output of doctors and lawyers, Tepa holds status as one of the most educated cities in Mexico. This status translates into the charming downtown and boundless surrounding farmland.
Located throughout the city are stellar budget friendly restaurants, such as Playa Azul and their substantial offering of meat cuts and sizable burritos. With relative ease, one can find good mariscos, carnitas, and even the occasional sushi restaurants. For the indecisive, there is no going wrong with a visit to the downtown mercado. It is at the mercado where one can experience some of the best shrimp cocktails and menudo in the state.
While downtown, there are several pristine examples of Spanish baroque architecture to enjoy. One of the most notable works is the Parroquia de San Francisco de Asís (Parish of San Francisco) which has been a major hub of the city since it was built in the mid 18th century. While its budget friendly food and beautiful architecture is reason enough to visit Tepa at any point in the year, consider visiting in April when there is a city wide celebration called Tepabril in honor of its patron saint. If you find yourself here in May when the rain season starts, you will experience some of the grandest thunderstorms in North America. This does not deter the locals and you will notice that the city continues its pace of life despite flooded streets and heavy torrents of rainfall.
Pegueros & Jalostotitlan
Located north of Tepatitlan are the small towns of Pegueros and Jalostotitlan. Just as Tepa has a city wide festival in April honoring its patron saint, Pegueros has a festival at the end of June for its respective saint. While Tepatitlan and Guadalajara are glimpses into the future of Jalisco and Mexico, Pegueros and Jalos offer a striking view into the past. One of Pegueros’s most distinctive landmark is its main plaza located in the center of the town. After mass on Sundays, the plaza serves as a communal and social space for the townspeople. It is here that a long held courtship tradition takes place. Young women will walk in the center of the plaza forming a moving circle. Surrounding this ring of women is a ring of stationary men who will ask a woman of interest for a walk within the inner ring.
Further north past Pegueros is the city of Jalostotitlan, known by its residents as ‘Jalos’. In additional to their geographical locations, another distinction between Tepa, Pegueros, and Jalos is their correlated colors. One of Jalisco’s most memorable traits is the color of the landscape. Tepa boasts a cinnamon red while Pegueros and Jalostotitlan sport a subdued brown and gray color scheme respectively. The contrasts make for a memorable drive between the cities. Jalos, like Pegueros, is clearly rooted in its past.
However, Jalos’s history coincides with more bloody affairs in that it was it was significant during the Spanish conquest, Mexican War of Independence, and Cristero War. There are several locations in the city tied to Saint Toribio Romo Gonzalez who is known as the patron saint for Mexican immigrants. In addition to its historical relevance, Jalos is also the location for two major festivals that draw in visitors from across Mexico. Carnaval is a festival that is held in February while Fiestas De La Virgen De La Asuncion is held in August.
San Juan de Los Lagos
It is easy to marvel at Jalisco for its physical beauty in the way of its diverse landscapes and impressive cities but sometimes overlooked is its spirituality. However, you do not have to go far to witness first hand the importance of faith in Jalisco. Further north is the city of San Juan de los Lagos, a city whose charm is only rivaled by its importance for practitioners of Catholicism. Every year, millions of pilgrims make the journey to San Juan to pay respects to the image of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos.
The image gained reverence due to its role in a number of miracles in the region. It is said that the image brought back to life, a child acrobat that was impaled by spears due to a fall during a performance. After this event, the image was revered and eventually given a canonical coronation by Pope Pius X in 1904. This image of the Virgin Mary can be found in the Basilica of San Juan de los Lagos which has been recognized by the Catholic church for its significance. For millions of people, the pilgrimage to San Juan is a deeply profound one. It is a vital part of the city in that it is a tremendous act of faith for its participants but also as a source of income and community for shopkeepers and vendors.
The basilica overlooks a plaza that is surrounded by a bustling marketplace. Here, you can find dozens of stands selling Mexican candies and treats. One such treat is Cajeta, a Mexican staple, formed using a caramelized mixture of goat and cow milk. Many sellers will give free samples of the different types of cajeta and San Juan de Los Lagos is the perfect place to take advantage of this.
Author: Kent Huynh
Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.