Noel and I love Mexico and have traveled there many times since the mid 1990’s. We like to explore the cultural riches of the country and indulge in its world class cuisine. We have always found the Mexican people to be incredibly hospitable, particularly in light of the recent attacks on its citizens coming from our current president.
I had been hearing some buzz about Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco for the last year or so. It is Mexico’s second largest city and has a large industrial base, particularly in the high-tech sector. It is Mexico’s “silicon valley.” We hadn’t been there before, but from articles I had read it seemed to have all the elements that we look for in a promising vacation spot – good hotels, great food and interesting cultural activities. It also didn’t hurt that it was still winter in Chicago, but 50 degrees warmer in Guadalajara. So we got out of Dodge on a 6 am flight the day before “the weather week from hell” as our friend Mark described the week we were gone.
I had booked a junior suite at Casa Fayette, a 37-room boutique hotel, which opened in September 2015. The rooms are in a newly built nine-story addition to an early 20th century adobe house. The original adobe house contains most of the public areas of the hotel, the restaurant/bar, outdoor porches and patios, the front desk and various meeting areas. The addition and the renovation of the adobe house are examples of excellent Minimalist architecture. Throughout the hotel in both the public areas and in the private rooms, the management has included many books and publications on 20th and 21st century art, architecture and design.
I am a fan of good architecture and love staying in a well-designed hotel like this one. My favorite from a few years back is the Camino Real Polanco in Mexico City designed by Ricardo Legorreta. Casa Fayette is located in the up-and-coming Colonia Lafayette neighborhood with tree-lined streets and vintage early 20th century houses with a growing number of small restaurants, shops and galleries.
Prior to arrival I had the hotel arrange for a car to pick us up at the airport. We had decided beforehand that we were going to wu wei this journey, that is, we weren’t going to book or preplan a lot of activities. We were just going to see what came our way and flow with it.
The wu wei kicked in immediately when we met our driver Carlos Castillo at the airport. Not only did he speak Chicago but he grew up there, Hanover Park, to be specific. We bonded immediately. Through a series of misadventures and bad luck, he had lost his green card and had to return to Mexico ten years before. We booked him to show us around for three of the six days we planned on being in Jalisco.
We checked in at the Casa Fayette and the bellmen took us to our spacious room that had a huge king-size bed, a large bath with separate toilet and shower areas and lots of closet space. But there was one problem. The chairs in the living room area were great to look at but really small and uncomfortable. Wu wei or not, this chair situation had to be corrected if we were going to be there six days. We were shown some chairs from the patio bar that met our needs. Problem solved.
Throughout our stay the staff at the front desk and at the bar and restaurant were extremely cooperative. Later that day while we were enjoying excellent margaritas on the restaurant’s porch, Simon, the day manager, stopped by to ask us if he could do anything more to make our stay pleasant.
The hotel seems to be a favorite location for photo shoots. There was one going on when we arrived on a Thursday afternoon and it continued through the weekend. Casa Fayette is designed to appeal to millennials. There was a lot of activity involving hip young people all weekend, many expatriates of various stripes as well as Mexicans.
Having had to arise at 3 am to catch our 6 am flight, we were pretty exhausted the first day. The margaritas knocked us out and we went to bed at 7:30 and slept twelve hours.
We had reserved Friday to explore Colonia Lafayette, the neighborhood around our hotel, so we didn’t engage Carlos the driver until Saturday. Someone at the front desk told us we should see a municipal building called Casa Zuno. After getting a little turned around, we found it but with a big sign that said closed for restoration. It’s an absolutely stunning building on the outside and was built by José Guadalupe Zuno, a former governor of Jalisco, as his family home in the 1920’s.
Walking around the building’s exterior, we came across an artisan repairing a traditional stone walkway with rajuela, a type of river stone that he was installing into the ground on its side rather than flat, thus giving the walkway a kind of corduroy effect. He let us know we were free to explore the exterior of the building but the interior was closed to visitors.
We wandered around Casa Zuno’s exterior, admiring the amazing artisanship that went into the concrete columns, the wooden doors and the grillwork. The building is a wonderful showcase for the artisanal skills of Jalisco’s craftsmen. While we were photographing a fountain in the garden, a woman was watching us very closely. As we started to leave, she approached us with an offer to show us the interior. Another wu wei encounter. We learned her name was Laura and that she worked as some kind of archivist/supervisor inside the building. The interior is just as stunning as the outside with gorgeous inlaid wooden floors and beautifully carved woodwork and doors.
It was with great pride and a certain mischievousness that Laura made a point of showing us the very impressive wooden front door with its carved panels commemorating the struggles of workers against capitalism and extolling the virtues of socialism and communism.
The door knocker is a clenched fist with a hammer and sickle on it. A commie door! How fabulous and unexpected is that!
It turns out that José Guadalupe Zuno was a close friend of muralists José Clemente Orozco and David Siqueiros and embraced the radical leftist politics that dominated the intellectual thought of revolutionary Mexico of the 20’s and 30’s.
We thanked Laura for her generosity and made our way back to Casa Fayette for late afternoon cocktails and yummy camarones a la plancha (grilled shrimp on risotto). To us a good hotel has to come with a good bar and restaurant so we can relax after a day of sightseeing and then stumble up to our room. Casa Fayette has both the bar and the restaurant.
Tequila and Blue Agave
The next morning Carlos was waiting for us outside the hotel. We had decided we wanted to tour a tequila making facility like José Cuervo. Carlos said he would be happy to take us there, but he recommended that we first visit La Cofradia. According to Carlos, most of the tequila produced by José Cuervo is sold abroad, not in Mexico, because it’s not considered high quality tequila. That was good enough for us, so we agreed.
We drove about an hour or so to the town of Tequila. Tequila the drink is named for the town where much of the production is done. La Cofradia which means “brotherhood” in Spanish is no small boutique facility. Surrounded by acres of blue agave, the facility is much more than a tequila making facility. It also includes a hotel consisting of casitas of various sizes all in the shape of tequila barrels.
In February when we were there most of the tourists were Mexican, so there was no formal tour for English speakers until later in the year. There were three Mexican tourists in our small group. I was surprised at how much of the Spanish I could follow without much trouble. Overall, the tour was excellent with lots of sampling.
The main thing we learned is that real tequila must come from the state of Jalisco and be made from the blue agave plant. Other alcoholic beverages like mezcal are also made from agave, but not blue agave. Pulque is the Aztec predecessor of tequila and is fermented from various kinds of agave, mainly in the states of Hidalgo and Tlaxcala. Tequila is made by fermenting the sweet juice of the piña, the succulent core of the agave plant, and then the fermented sweet juice is distilled at least twice to produce the clear liquid known as tequila. After that, it is aged in French oak barrels where it mellows and takes on an amber color.
Our tour ended in the gift shop, of course, which offers tequila of many different qualities and brands and the opportunity to taste. The best tequila is sold in decanters manufactured on the premises in La Cofradia’s ceramics factory. There is even a workshop that manufactures wooden furniture out of the mango trees growing on the property. The ceramics factory also makes dinnerware of all kinds plus lamps (?!), all sold in the gift shop. Carlos Santana, a son of Jalisco, is apparently a fan of La Cofradia’s Casa Noble brand of tequila. This day the shop was offering a buy two, get one free special. So we did and gave the third bottle to Carlos who was rapidly becoming our good friend.
Naturally, La Cofradia has a large restaurant to go with its barrel hotel. We ate lunch there and we thought it was a pretty good buffet, but Carlos said it was mediocre. We let him know that for the next two days he should take us where he likes to eat. Another wu wei opportunity.
On our way back to Guadalajara we stopped at a roadside stand selling “cantaritos,” a blended cocktail made with tequila, agave nectar, fresh lemon, lime, grapefruit and orange juices and finished with a dash of salt and a splash of Squirt, a grapefruit soda. It is served in a clay jar called a “jarrito.” Quite refreshing and delicious. I have to confess that by then I was a little tipsy from the tequila samples as well as the cantarito.
The countryside around Tequila is quite beautiful in a high desert way with fields of blue agave, hills and lots of mango and avocado trees all of which grow well in this somewhat arid climate that is warm in the daytime and cool at night. Before arriving back in Guadalajara, we made one more stop to buy some agave “honey” which is thick like bees’ honey and is used as sweetener in tea and poured on pancakes as syrup.
The next day was Sunday and our day to do the mercados. Our first stop was at the Sunday Antique Market in the city, not far from our hotel. This is one of the best antique markets I’ve ever been to in terms of the variety of items, the quality and, of course, the pricing. Naturally, you are expected to bargain which I always enjoy.
I didn’t buy anything really pricy, but I did find a couple of folk art crosses which I collect and a lovely “danced” reyes mask for bargain basement prices compared to the States. To collectors of masks, a “danced” mask is more desirable than a brand new one, even though the older mask may be banged up a bit and patched. It has been used ceremonially and acquired a unique patina and has a spiritual dimension about it. There was even a terrific female singer/guitarist performing live at the market. We had a fabulous time.
From there, Carlos drove us to a town called Zapotlanejo for lunch at a carne asada restaurant called Don Ramon. He said it was one of his favorite places and clearly it is also a favorite spot for Mexican families to come on Sundays. There were several large tables filled with extended families enjoying the delicious food coming from the grills.
We ordered three large platters filled with thin sliced arrachera beef (skirt steak favored for its flavor, not its tenderness) and grilled chorizo made in-house from the best cuts of pork. The platters were accompanied by six different salsas, beans and, best of all, hot fresh corn tortillas right from the griddle. One of the woman servers kept bringing us hot tortillas throughout the meal. They were so hot we had to handle them with care like the oshibori towels you get in upscale Japanese restaurants. God, it was good!
Carlos may miss the food in Chicago, but he has places like Don Ramon in Jalisco. I have to confess I never tire of Mexican food that is well prepared. In my opinion it’s one of the world’s best cuisines.
From Zapotlanego we drove into Tonolá to its famous artesanias or craft market. Tonolá is famous for crafts like blown glass, ceramics, and papier mâché as well as wooden furniture. The market is open on Thursdays and Sundays. It’s a huge market and well worth spending time there. However, because we’ve been to Mexico so many times and because I had closed my gallery, I’m not really looking for crafts any more. The market can get very crowded. We were there about an hour when the wu wei told me I had had enough. Carlos seemed relieved although he was certainly a good sport about going there. I think I was spoiled by the antiques market in the morning.
On our way back to our hotel we stopped in Tlaqueparque, a section of Guadalajara, known for its crafts, up-scale cafes and music clubs featuring mariachi musicians and folk dancers. It reminded me a bit of Coyoacán, the neighborhood in Mexico City where Frida Kahlo’s house is located. We took a beer break in a large restaurant complex where we watched a mariachi band and dancers perform. Then back to our hotel. It had been an excellent day thanks to Carlos.
On Monday, the next day, Carlos drove us to Lake Chapala, the largest fresh water lake in Mexico. Chapala supplies most of the water for Guadalajara and has had many issues because of pollution, deforestation and overuse. It’s a relatively shallow lake and in the 1990’s and into the current century its water level shrank precipitously. However, after 2007 the water level began to rise somewhat and water treatment plants along the rivers feeding into the lake have improved the water’s quality.
We made two stops to walk along the malecons or walled esplanades in the towns of Chapala and Jocotepec. We caught the tail end of a two-week festival that was set up along the malecon in Chapala, but we were there pretty early in the day, so folks were still setting up for the last evening of festivities.
There is a pretty impressive sculpture of Jesus pescador or “Jesus the fisherman” installed along the malecon. Apparently, the lake’s pollution has had a devastating effect on the fish population and threatened the livelihoods of the local fishermen.
Our second malecon stop in the town of Jocotepec was the more interesting of the two because of all the birds we saw. I started noticing numerous large white pelicans hanging out in boats in Chapala, but Jocotepec with its marshes is a birder’s paradise. The lake as a whole is a critical habitat for many species of migratory birds including the American white pelican as well as many indigenous species.
In the short time we were there we saw lots of herons, egrets and red-beaked birds that look a bit like a duck. I never realized how social herons are because we had only seen them alone in the parks around Chicago and even in Alaska. There were dozens of them roosting in trees and clearly interacting with each other. According to the Audubon Society of Chapala, the number of species it has identified over the last decade or so has increased significantly, so perhaps this is a positive sign.
This time Carlos took us to a lakeside palapa-style fish restaurant called Mariscos El Carnal in the town of Ajijic, an expats’ paradise. More on Ajijic later. El Carnal is part of a small chain of seafood restaurants. We had oysters Rockefeller to start and a whole grilled huachinango (red snapper) for our main course. Carlos and I vied for the delicious grilled skin, the best part in our opinion. I didn’t see any lake fish on the menu, not a positive sign. However, we enjoyed our lakeside seafood immensely.
On our way back to Guadalajara Carlos drove us through the main drag of Ajijic which has become an American and Canadian senior citizens’ enclave. According to Carlos there is a sprinkling of drug cartel bosses living amongst all these foreigners. Apparently, you can buy a very nice property for much less than in Canada and the US and live cheaply in a temperate climate most of the year.
We did see a lot of government housing for Mexican workers. The houses are small but look quite nice. Again per Carlos, the government finances the loans for the housing. I guess workers are needed to tend to all the foreign senior citizens. We ran into a Canadian retiree on one of the flights home who had just rented a condo in Ajijic and was looking to buy eventually.
We said our farewells to Carlos at our hotel. We would have had him drive us to the airport in two days, but he isn’t one with whom to book an early morning run and we had another 6 am flight. He is an extremely skillful driver and is very honest and street smart. We learned a lot seeing Mexico from the point of view of an immigrant to the US who then had to return to Mexico. He is not having an easy time of it, but he certainly made our journey informative and pleasant, particularly in the food department.
The Orozco Murals
Tuesday was our last full day in Guadalajara. Through the hotel we hired a driver to take us to see the José Clemente Orozco murals in the Museum Cabañas in the center of the city. Unfortunately, the zocalo or city center was all torn up because a subway system is under construction.
First called the House of Charity and Mercy, the Hospicio Cabañas, the building housing the museum, is considered one of the most important examples of neo-classical architecture in Mexico. It was built at the beginning of the 19th century by an enlightened Spanish bishop named Juan Cruz Ruiz de Cabañas y Crespo as a facility providing care, shelter and vocational training to the poor. Unfortunately, the Spanish crown was not so enlightened in its colonial policies toward Mexico and a long period of revolutionary struggle against colonialism ensued. As a result, the building was turned into military barracks several times over the next 50 years or so.
In 1937 the state of Jalisco invited the muralist José Clemente Orozco to paint the inside of the main chapel. The resulting murals are considered to be Orozco’s masterpieces. In 1980 the building complex became the cultural institute that it is now dedicated to the dissemination of the arts. It is a beautiful property to walk around in with its 23 different sized courtyards surrounded by long shady corridors. Guillermo del Toro, the director of the Academy Award winning film The Shape of Water and a son of Jalisco, built a movie theater in the facility.
When we visited, there was a wonderful monumental piece of contemporary sculpture by José Rivelino, another son of Jalisco, on display in the central courtyard entitled “You” or “Tú.” It consists of two 45’ long index fingers cast in bronze, painted white and pointing at each other. It is Rivelino’s comment on the complexity of equality. When it was installed in London in 2015, the artist said, “In a world that is self-evidently unequal, ‘You’ calls upon viewers to question their attitude towards the highly significant issue of equality between human beings.”
We saved the best for last – the Orozco murals. Although Orozco shared the leftist political views of his contemporaries, he did not share the idealism of Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros. For example, he does not glorify Mexico’s pre-Columbian civilizations, nor does he condemn them. He depicts their leaders as blood-thirsty and war-like as the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés while celebrating the grandeur of their temples and pyramids. While the Spanish conquerors enslaved the indigenous population, the Spanish priests brought literacy with them. Octavio Paz writes about Orozco’s frescos, “The cross frees as it teaches to read, and opens the mind to the new knowledge. It also enslaves, deceives, robs and kills.”
It was almost a heart stopping experience being among Orozco’s 57 frescoes. On a monumental scale they brought to my mind the woodcuts of Expressionist artist Kathe Kollwitz. Both artists were working on the eve of World War II with all its horrors. Noel thought the frescos were a prescient warning of the coming world war, especially its mechanized terror. Quite apropos to our current political era.
We ended our last full day with a quiet afternoon stroll and then sat out on the patio by the very small swimming pool listening to the pleasant cacophony coming from the high-rise construction next door mixed with some very cool music emanating from our hotel’s ground floor. The contradiction seemed appropriate. We loved it.