Guadalajara & Lake Chapala deliver non-touristy culture and a surprising number of family attractions.
By Darya Mead
I’ve always loved the ring of “Guadalajara” but never thought much about visiting Mexico’s second-largest city. But when my cousin was invited to a conference there, I agreed to come along and care for her 16-month-old twins last March.
I didn’t have time to do much research so just figured I’d wing it, in the Mary Poppins kinda way that I had on our lovely trip to Thailand last year when the babies were just eleven-months old. Without jetlag and with my rusty Spanish skills, I looked forward to an easier time in Guadalajara – albeit I had no illusions of a restful getaway. I hoped for some sun, tequila, and mariachis, and thought churches, plazas and parks would be our hangouts – especially now that both twins were walking.
I was so pleasantly surprised by the city of Guadalajara. Five times bigger than my home of San Francisco, the city was percolating with energy, color and wonderfully warm people. Guadalajara is the cultural center of Mexico and very well-equipped to welcome tourists, although I met very few. What a joy it was to see a true picture of Mexican city life, unfettered by hordes of tourists and tourist traps.
In contrast to the locals, I stood out like a sore thumb – freckled, pale, and sweating from pushing a double stroller everywhere. But I really found my rhythm. Each day, I made a plan and stuck to it. The impressive quality of the city’s family-friendly attractions translated to me and the twins spending more time at each one than I ever thought possible.
The twins, Moses and Etia, had the time of their lives each day: playing and listening to music, getting up close and personal with a polar bear, and watching manta rays swim around until they passed out in the stroller. We returned to the hotel each night and they headed straight for the bathtub, drank a bottle of milk, and crashed hard.
We wanted to tack on a few days of vacation after the conference and settled on Ajijic, a resort town on Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest. The town is only an hour’s drive from Guadalajara and we decided to head there for some R&R rather than schlep four hours to the coast and Sayulita, the beachside/surf community highly recommended by many Northern California families.
As with Guadalajara, I had few expectations and was more than pleased with our lakeside getaway. The lake is big enough to feel coastal and the breezy quality of life in the area was very appealing – so much so that Canadian pelicans winter here and retirees flock to the area for cheap real estate, good medical care, and unbeatable weather.
Whether you are traveling with kids, looking for an off-the-radar urban adventure, or making a stopover on your way to a Mexican beach destination, spend a few days in Guadalajara. And if you are looking for a mellow getaway in nearby Jalisco, Ajijic is a sweet, manageable town on Lake Chapala, offering a genuine glimpse of what Mexican tourists appreciate.
The Good Stuff – Guadalajara
The Hotel Our hotel, Fiesta Americana, is modern and sleek, situated in the the posh Minerva district. With a 22nd floor room and great glass elevators with jaw-dropping views of the city, surrounded by mountains. We had a birdseye view of the Matute Remus bridge, which changes colors at night and was my go-to distraction for the twins.
The Zoo Although it takes a taxi ride to get there, the Guadalajara Zoo and Safari is one of the best animal parks in Latin America. Surprisingly empty, the fountain at the entrance and the hypnotic chimpanzee statues made it hard to even get into the zoo because the babies were so enthralled.
The kids were free and I got a ticket – including the train ride – for less than $10. It was quite open to the elements and hot, so make sure to have hats, cover-ups, plenty of water and good walking shoes. The zoo is vast and if I had it to do over again I would have taken the train to the far end and walked back. The terrain is hilly, so pushing a double stroller alone was quite challenging. There are kiosks around, but the zoo is quite far from any stores so if you need baby food, milk or even non-fast food snacks, bring them with you. We loved seeing the active polar bear, a jaguar, and a toucan. We also had a rousing romp in “Monkeyland” where you cannot bring in strollers. I had to remove Etia’s pacifier and pry Moses’ quarter of a soggy bagel from his grip, because apparently, the monkeys would steal them in a second. The train was worth it and I could do a round trip–since I had to leave the stroller when we got on. I would plan the zoo taking most of one day as it is quite an exhausting trip.
The Aquarium The Michin Aquarium just opened this spring and is quite an impressive attraction – despite its blatant and distracting sponsorship by Coca-Cola. The new venue is located in the Parque Alcade (a lovely park with swans, pedal boats, a zip line and play areas) that is definitely worth a visit before or after the aquarium. It’s small, spanking new and full of eye-catching exhibits, helpful docents, and surprisingly few visitors. There is an outdoor area, including an aviary and nutria pond! We got a picture taken with a big snake, which Etia seemed to love, but Moses was not so sure. The cafe features – you guessed it – a Coca-Cola kiosk! Definitely plan on spending a few hours to fully enjoy the sharks, rays, seahorses, octopi and other oceanic favorites.
The Children’s Museum The last kid-focused locale we explored was the best children’s museum I have ever visited. State run, sprawling, spotless and endlessly engaging I was forever grateful to the ever-present and cheerful guides who helped me wrangle the now toddling duo. The Trompo Mágico Children’s Museum was a gem – and entrance was just 20 pesos ($1). Granted, it’s of no interest unless traveling with kids, but I marveled at the facilities and creative, interactive exhibits. They had an entire miniature town where kids could grocery shop, run a restaurant, farm, care for newborns in a maternity ward, and experience bubble world. I don’t think anyone has ever spent as much time there in one day as I did, returning several times to each venue.
The Small “Towns” I had a mission to entertain and care for my cousin’s kids, but decided to venture beyond the kid-centric destinations. My research found the best areas to explore are the small towns which have been subsumed by the greater metropolis: Tonalá and Tlaquepaque. The former has a giant market on Thursdays and Sundays – I went both days. Just roaming the streets, stalls and squares was eye candy enough, but I did buy some great textiles, clothes and artwork. The colorful murals and storefronts, open-air restaurants, churches, and vibrant life in the public squares was tremendously uplifting; very few people were absorbed by their phones.
Tlaquepaque (a name that rolls off the tongue in an amusing way) felt more upscale and the pedestrian area housed some posh galleries and shops. The embroidered linens were to die for and I got a small piece to frame for my home as well as some adorable little girl dresses. We visited a number of churches because they were cool, welcoming and the kids liked to explore. Somehow they seemed to know they were in a “special place” but who knew climbing up on pews could be so fun? I was concerned it would seem disrespectful, but the culture is so welcoming of children, it felt ok when a service was not in session.
The Cultural Center One of my favorite outings in the historical center included a trip to the 200-year-old Hospicio Cabañas, an old hospital that is now a cultural center and a UNESCO World Heritage site. With four major exhibits, and stunning Orozco murals, this arts center is an architectural beauty. Twenty-six courtyards make the enjoyment of the varied art even more pleasant and less exhausting. Moses, absolutely adored the Orozco murals and joined a Mexican tour group, laying on the ground to get a better view. Here too, there was a great kid’s art space and on top of that, the girl in the cafe gave me milk for the kids’ bottles and wouldn’t accept payment!
The Food I was a bit cautious with food, given my mission, but was able to enjoy local favorites. The tropical fruit and drinks at the breakfast buffet were magical and I had -hands down – the best ice cream of my life: A double scoop of coconut and Bailey’s flavor from these barrels. I loved that the seller was wearing white galoshes and the chica size was 75 cents!
Two other restaurants of note were Santo Coyote, a hip fusion place with tremendous ambiance and a killer dessert bar, and a small family-owned spot in Tonala named El Rincon del Sol. Less upscale, this local eatery had a wonderful guitar player, and a courtyard featuring two fountains and parrots. If you are not traveling with kids, the tequila tours of the surrounding areas sounded very fun.
The Good Stuff – Ajijic, Lake Chapala
The Lake Resort We arrived at our hotel, Real de Chapala, a small resort popular with Mexican tourists and business groups. Right on the shore of the lake, the large airy rooms, verdant grounds, two pools, tennis courts and outdoor dining area were perfect for the twins, my cousin and me. Most guests were young families from Mexico City and Guadalajara and we soon met other parents and kids, a couple with a newborn (she recovering from postpartum depression) and another little girl who was sweet enough to share her pool toys with the twins. The view from our room and the pools was calming and the constant sound of birdlife, added to the ambiance. I had read that there were pollution issues, but the bird population seemed varied and robust, a positive sign, I hope. On the day we arrived, we saw a blindfolded group stumbling around the lawn and thought there might be some kind of hostage thing happening. Then via inquiries in my rusty Spanish, we realized it was a team-building exercise and treasure hunt – it was amusing, in a “had to be there” kind of way.
The Plaza The small town center of Ajijic (another fun one to pronounce) was a long walk on cobblestones with a double stroller, or a short taxi ride away. The jacaranda trees were in full bloom, and a constant source of purple charm en route to town.
Popular with the retired set, the town had an arty feel with many small galleries and artisans. The plaza features a gazebo with ironwork depictions of the bird life of the lake. The twins adored this and we spent a long time admiring each bird statue, saying hello to each one multiple times in a circular dance that felt a lot like a slo-mo carousel ride. With mountains on one side, the lake on the other, the temperature and breeze were pleasant. The best part of our visit included a walk on the malecon, the waterfront esplanade. Families ambled, picnicked, and rode bikes, balloon vendors sold bubbles, balls and kites, people swam, fished and skateboarded, while pelicans swooped back and forth.
The Island Prison We enjoyed a good deal of time at the pool so decided to take an excursion to Mezcala Island, a prison near the remote town of Mezcala. After less than an hour’s drive to the small boat launch, we hired a boat and a guide (well, he kind of found us and said we could pay him what we thought he was worth at the end.) This sounded like a recipe for disaster, but in the end it was great to have the help with the kids and he really had a lot to tell us about the island and the site. We were the only ones there! The boat ride and guide were each 400 pesos, so about $20, as was the taxi each way. The boat took us by a squadron (yes that’s the term) of pelicans, and Etia was smitten. I earned my keep hauling her around in a front carrier, all over the island and ruins. I was chuffed that I didn’t twist an ankle!
The Meals We had two great meals In Ajijic – one in a traditional restaurant full of locals and expats from the US, Canada, the UK and Venezuela, and the other in a more chic place where we enjoyed one of the best meals of the whole trip. The first was on the plaza and recommended by a taxi driver, Chile Verde was perfect for hearty, yummy local fare and fantastic jamaica agua fresca – hibiscus punch. Little Moses loved this drink so much as did I; we shared two giant glassfuls! Our other meal was at Ajijic Tango. It lasted nearly 3 hours – a feat with twin toddlers! The street was closed off and outdoor tables and umbrellas meant attracted vendors, musicians and passersby. An upscale Argentinian eatery, it is one of the best in the area. I had a most amazing chili lime pulpo (octopus) that was presented like a work of art.
Good to Know
The Safety Everyone’s first question about this part of Mexico is regarding safety. And I have to say I never once felt tense. In Guadalajara, I didn’t feel any less safe than I did in Bangkok or Paris (where I actually witnessed a robbery on my last visit.)
For a more complete view of the safety of specific neighborhoods, check out Tellanto.com’s profile of the Guadalajara. The European company specializes in housing students in Latin America and works with locals and expats who live in specific cities to determine which areas are safe and which are not. Based on Tellanto’s research, there are only a couple of neighborhoods to avoid.
When we were at the lake disembarking the boat from the island, a troop of boys swarmed us, wanting to help us and earn some coins. But as a party of two women and two babies, we were such an odd target that they quickly hopped on their bikes and skedaddled. We found the other Mexicans we encountered in the city and country as very pleasant – even the toilet paper vendor at the public restrooms was chatty. (He spoke good English and had lived in Fresno.) Mezcala was less touristy than Ajijic and this lady with a wheelbarrow full of freshly caught tilapia was hard at work.
The Climate Guadalajara is at 5,100 feet in the Atemajac Valley. Lake Chapala is at a similar elevation. The temperature in spring was a perfect 75-80 degrees everyday; warm enough to feel tropical but not stifling, never chilly. Although polluted and dry, (your sinuses will let you know), the sunsets were beautiful. (Moses hid my saline nose solution as he had taken to removing items and hiding them. Luckily there was a pharmacy across the street and I could get a new bottle until I found it on the last day in the recesses of my suitcase along with a thumb drive and a barrette I was missing.)
The Food Hygene We drank only bottled water, but unlike a visit to Mexico fifteen years ago, I felt safe eating most foods that seemed prepared in reputable places. I had a few nibbles at markets and small stands but tried to pick carefully and at those places I was pretty conservative. At first I said “no” to all ice cubes but soon realized it was fine at most upscale places. I did start every morning with a prophylactic, Peptobismal tablet to coat my stomach because I had to care for two little people and could not be sub-par. I did not get sick and neither did they. It depends where you go South of the Border but it seemed like in Jalisco, things were pretty copacetic in terms of food hygiene.
The Shopping Definitely try to be in Ajijic on a Saturday when the pedestrian streets are in full swing, the malecon is a hotspot, and the pelicans are plentiful. Also, the Ajijic Walmart is normally a place I would most definitely avoid while traveling. But with the little ones, it was great to get supplies and snacks, so that we only had to go out for two meals a day. And one evening, we even feasted on freshly baked empanadas and fruit from the superstore!
The Access At this point I have to make a shout out to los rampas. I am forever indebted to the compassion and foresight of Guadalajara for providing so many ramps in public spaces. I was so impressed with the easy access given my double wide stroller and I believe it would be a very doable destination for disabled travelers as well.
The Taxis Taxis were plentiful and affordable around Guadalajara and Ajijic despite the octomom act of keeping the duo safe without car seats. Most drivers we met were helpful and charming, as were many of the other Mexicans we met along our way.
by Darya Mead, October 2017
Growing up in NYC and attending the UN International School gave Darya a head start as a global citizen. But her extensive travel and media experience now takes a back seat to raising two boys in San Francisco. Darya loves the outdoors, cooking, teaching yoga and the fact that her boys have taught her to be a sports fan. Follow her travels on Triporati. Read: To Thailand with Twins.
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