Will the Real Guadalajara Please Stand Up?

With one day’s notice, AFAR sent writer Wells Tower  into the mazelike markets and Lucha Libre dens of Mexico’s notoriously misunderstood megalopolis.

I'll confess: When, only 24 hours ago, I was told to pack my bags for Guadalajara, Mexico, what I felt was not jubilation. Admittedly, what I knew about this city wouldn’t stuff a chili pepper. And I’m not much more enlightened about Mexico itself, a nation I’ve somehow never visited before. But if, like me, you happen to have spent the past several months deep in a research project about cartel violence in Mexico, it’s hard to keep certain nativist, Trumpian delusions from tainting your mental image of the place. On the ride from the airport, still under the spell of half-baked northern paranoias, I half wonder when the cabdriver will get around to ransom terms.

And then I debark at the Plaza Guadalajara in the city’s Centro Histórico on a winter night of perfect temperature, and my shameful preconceptions implode. Here is a place of life and beauty. On the terraces of a fountain aglow with a purple light normally found only in nail salons, toddlers grapple, sweethearts neck, and old men sit and pinch their chins. Stone saints, socketed in the gold-lit facade of the cathedral, watch tourists board a motorized tequila bottle on the street below. Under a bandstand no frillier than a 19th-century corset, a troupe of female dancers performs in striped, flouncy getups, resembling lionfish. An organ grinder churns woozily, hitting about every third note. Keeping the quaintness in check, a protest rally chants in universal hell-no-we-won’t-go cadences. In front of the church of Our Sister of Mercies, a wedding party poses for photos. The bride’s mother is head-to-toe in gold sequins, which, when the flash goes off, makes everybody laugh and put a hand to their eyes as though they stared too long at the sun. A sidewalk evangelist with a stadium-grade P.A. disturbs the peace with some ravings about pecado, sin, but no one pulls his plug or tries to run him off.

Nor does anyone seem to mind me, a lone gringo. My wholesale ignorance of this city is cause for unease, yet here I do not feel (as I sometimes do abroad) trapped in a china shop of national proprieties, that glass will shatter if I am slow with the currency or misgender a noun. I like it here already. This is a place that lets you get by.

I wake on my first morning in a room at Hotel One without such familiar anchorages as a concierge or a safe. The corridors are thrilling and mysterious: vast, dim, silent. At the front desk I turn up neither a person nor a street map to burden my day with plans, so off I set, at total liberty, into a morning of immaculate blue.

Out on the street a current of pedestrians is flowing somewhere, and so I join it. It ends at the Mercado Libertad, a multitiered pavilion where everything a person could want to pet, eat, watch, smell, or wield is available for purchase: cowboy boots ornamented with the heads of cobras, hand-tooled leather beer coozies, jewelry, lunchboxes with speakers in them, jugs of stuff for smoke machines, brand-name shoes of dubious provenance, bootleg DVDs, soccer balls, bath scrubbies, casters, fresh fruit juice, golden lobes of fried something, scythe heads, Christmas lights that not only strobe but wheedle, all manner of caged birds, from parrots down to the common pigeon. Some of the birds look suicidal, sparsely feathered, disheveled past all caring. But these hard-luck birds express the market’s buoyant message: This is a place where all things—cobra boot or secondhand pigeon—eventually find their buyer.

The only trouble with the market is that to slow one’s stride anywhere inside its walls is to bring onto one’s head a high-intensity sales pitch that cannot be rebutted, only fled. Confused and merchandiseless, I get out of there. But I did sort of want those boots.

Start Discovering Your Own Private Mexico

Guadalajara, I come to discover, is a Los Angeles sort of a town—not one city but a necklace of smaller districts strung together in between car dealerships, strip malls, muffler shops, and other ventures obscured by high graffitied walls. The most charming of Guadalajara’s townlets, the Internet suggests, is Tlaquepaque, on the city’s southeast side.

An Uber deposits me in the square of a village that could be the backdrop of an Audrey Hepburn movie about Mexico. Rose gardens! Espaliered trees! A swanky pedestrian mall! And also enough credible Mexicanness—adobe structures, stands selling miniatures of Jesus, Mary, and skeletons—that one doesn’t feel guilty for finding Tlaquepaque pleasant just because it resembles Boulder, Colorado.

For a couple of hours, I drift along comely streets thronged by tourists and prosperous-looking locals. I wander into handicraft shops, but retail interactions are awkward for me. A linguistic circuit keeps shorting such that I answer salesfolk not in my nonexistent Spanish but in my very horrible French. Mercifully and surprisingly, no one sneers.

I pause for a midday bite at Casa Luna, whose inner courtyard has a splashing fountain where a stone head drools into its beard of ivy-like pothos leaves. A beef molcajete (that three-legged mortar of dark porous stone) comes to my table volcanically seething and does not quit for a full 15 minutes. Even while the molcajete sputters, the dish can magically be tasted (delicious!) without sloughing the flesh from one’s tongue. How shabby by comparison are the Mexamerican eateries in my hometown, where enchilada-taco-burrito trios cower under boiling ponds of orange cheese.

A note on the stiff margaritas at Casa Luna: Don’t let the innocuous Gummi Bear garniture fool you—drink one of these things and your head feels as though it’s on the end of a 50-foot jack-in-the-box spring. Drink two and you will spend a long interval pinching your nose and gulping to relieve the pressure in your skull before you finally retreat to the hotel to collapse on the creaking bed.

By day three, I have begun to sleuth out all sorts of bombshells about Guadalajara. A big one is that Guadalajara is the capital of the state of Jalisco, which is shaped like a man reclining in a La-Z-Boy with a deformed tulip jutting from his lap. A notable thing about Jalisco: 99 percent of the global tequila supply flows from here, hence those tequila-bottle buses idling in the square. For the probably insane sum of $125, I arrange for a guy from the Internet named Dave to take me on a tour of agave country.

Dave is a Guadalajaran who speaks perfect English. Having uttered hardly a word in 72 hours, I get overexcited in Dave’s company, and I start prattling on about some of my cartel research discoveries, e.g., that in the 1980s, the Guadalajara Cartel was the biggest drug organization in all of Mexico and helped give Chapo Guzmán his start. I’d also like to know if he’s got the story behind the 26 bodies that were dumped in Guadalajara in 2011 or the seven heads left by a local roadside in 2013. But as it turns out, in these parts mentioning anything about the cartels is a great way to get someone to say, “So what’s the weather like where you live?”

And off we spin into the pointy hill country of Jalisco, which looks like a cross between midcoast California and Patagonia. All along the brown-green slopes are the spiky bluenesses of agave fields. Every roadside retail shanty sells not only hermetically sealed glass fifths of tequila, but also bulk-rate stuff in forbidding, unlabeled plastic jugs.

Our destination is, appropriately, the town of Tequila, an adorable, boozy village with cobbled alleys and a caramel-brown river that steams with distillery by-products and smells inexplicably of hot dogs. Tequila is home to such titanic operators as Jose Cuervo and Sauza, though it gets its name from the Tecuilos Indians, who first settled the territory back in 300 B.C.E.

Conducting me through a suite of distilleries ranging from big hits (Jose Cuervo) to worthy B-sides (Tres Mujeres), Dave explains the difference between tequila’s classes: Silver, or blanco, is to tequila what moonshine is to whiskey—raw, unaged hooch bottled more or less straight from the still. The smoother, more robust reposado tequila spends three to 11 months in whiskey or rum barrels, taking some color and flavor from the charred oak sugars. Darker añejo tequilas are the sweetest, smoothest, and priciest of the lot.

My guide’s most dire teaching is that one should never fool with any bottles that do not bear the notice 100 percent agave. Others are nothing but base grain alcohol with tequila-flavored additives, a recipe for vile mornings-after. Even so, I am doubtful that even the first-rate tequilas I’ve tasted today can be sipped from breakfast until sunset and leave no migrainous residues.

“This is a place that lets you get by.”

At around four o’clock, Dave returns me to my hotel. I pass out, prepared to wake the following noon with a category 4 hangover. But after a 90-minute nap, I awake refreshed, clear-headed, and hungry.

I head off to dinner at La Docena Oyster Bar, a cosmopolitan seafood shack in a fancy part of town near the country club. Here, I order the Kumamoto oyster, a sweet and briny contrivance cultured in floating plastic bags by Japanese engineers. I also order the aguachile de camarón, which is six raw shrimp in cold red juice. The creatures are electric with tasty acids and, in their rawness, impart the extra thrill of being a bit of a digestive gamble.

Mid-chomp, I spot my doppelgänger at a nearby table: a middle-aged, soft-jawed American adventurer dining alone, wearing heavily zippered travel pants, his copy of Confederacy of Dunces splayed open with the spare set of flatware. This apparition returns a pang of loneliness I’ve been feeling these past days. Is there not something rather bleak about us, we solitary voyagers, moving wordlessly through our itineraries, ticking off Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, or Guadalajara? Is it an act of despair, trotting the globe in search of an expansive life only to find oneself at silent, far-flung tables, a mute and lonesome receptacle for meals and dimly comprehended experience? I chew on this and, in my mind, I decide: Nah.

Rodeo, it comes to my attention, ranks near tequila in Jalisco’s regional obsessions. All manner of horse art, rope art, and bull art are on offer Sunday afternoons at the Campo Charro Jalisco, not far from Agua Azul park. I arrive for the warm-up act: kindergartners in flak jackets prancing on ponies, their (the children’s) sombreros buckled uncomfortably at the lower lip. The crowd in this covered concrete nonagon is at about 6 percent capacity. Nevertheless, an eight-piece band is on hand in full costume, knocking us dead with classics of mariachi, a folk music not even our American bluegrass can touch for melodic tidiness and overall note count.

The pony parade concludes to scattered applause. The violins go into a frenzied pizzicato spree, heralding, I expect, the high-speed entrance of a full-grown, professional rope and saddle corps. But a chute creaks open and what comes out is a hornless, prepubescent bull with yet another small boy on its back. The bull seems to understand that today is not the day to turn in the performance of a lifetime. Three steps into the ring, it sits on its haunches and will buck no more than a carousel swan. The next bull is a little saltier. It throws its tiny rider immediately and then tours the ring for several minutes, expressing snorting contempt for the faces at the rail.

During the next event, a roping derby in which every competitor is, again, about age 12, I finally understand why my neighbors have been giving me suspicious looks. Today is peewee day. I am quite obviously the only spectator here without a child in the action. I really did want to stick around long enough to flag down one of the roving vendors selling potato chips doused in hot sauce and lime. But courtesy gets the better of me before the chip man comes around, and I go on my way.

Though my brush with the rodeo failed to achieve epic scope, the good news is that Guadalajara is well supplied with high-bounding physical entertainments. Chief among these is Lucha Libre wrestling, which goes down every Tuesday evening at a coliseum in an excitingly seedy part of town.

One can buy either a rico (rich) ticket close to the ring or a cheaper pobre (poor) seat behind a chain-link fence. If clothes and grooming habits are reliable testimony, the actual class differences between the ricos and the pobres are merely burlesque. Yes, there is much insult-slinging, laying heavy stress on people’s mothers, but it is all in good fun. The point of the whole thing is to let the audience and not just the wrestlers get in on the joys of mock hatred and faux tribal loathing. When I take my seat among the ricos, I glance behind me to see a middle-aged man demonstrating his middle finger and yelling “Puta madre” at, I suppose, me. He looks disappointed and apologetic when I have nothing to yell back.

The wrestling itself is a good deal less nuanced than rico-pobre relations. Each match is a showdown between good and evil. The evil wrestlers declare their wickedness via Ku Klux Klannish masks or T-shirts that read things like Sons of Hell. The good ones turn out in shirts that say 1000% guapo (handsome), or they come to the ring carrying teddy bears or ukuleles or other totems of decency. The undercard wrestlers have bodies to ease the conscience about one’s beef, cheese, and corn chip intake these past few days.

The pugilistics are gentle to the vanishing point. The faintest grazing touch sends combatants into long periods of lumbering tractability. Not that anyone’s supposed to think it’s a real fight down there, but tonight’s belligerents deliver knockout blows with enough daylight between fist and jaw to ride a mule through.

Late in the evening, into the ring troop wrestlers whom even I can recognize as the marquee performers by their steroidal, fat-free musculature. Taking up the cause of good is one Marco Corleone, a chiseled blond Adonis with abs like a cobbled street. His antagonist is a fellow with long devilish Jheri curls and a blue jumpsuit. The melee also includes a dwarf dressed as a crow and an aging wrestler with bleached hair and what are almost certainly breast implants.

Bodies bounce from the ropes and fly from the ring. Coins, puta madres, and worse fly back and forth over the chain-link fence. At first, Marco Corleone and the other good guys appear to be getting the worst of the beatings. This wears on until the hero gets the shrewd idea to simply flex his excellent stomach and pump his pelvis at his enemies, which sends the wicked reeling back in envy and confusion.

Now the fight has turned. The evil grapplers cower, swiveling their eyes in fear. Marco and his pals are poised to visit a righteous beating on the bad men. And then something unguessable happens. Though the contest is far from settled and the just drubbing we’ve been waiting for has yet to come, “We Are the Champions” comes over the P.A. and everybody suddenly gets to their feet. Perhaps the fans prefer to keep visions of a perfect victory pure in their minds. Whatever the reason, when the Queen cranks up, the entire audience— good and wicked, rico and pobre—quick as a wink rushes out into the night.

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