Hello! In case you were curious, I did adjust back to my habitat of Chicago after spending a couple weeks in Peru’s grueling elevation. After the holidays and New Year, I got the travel itch again but wanted to do something more attainable. Mexico, being nearby and closer to me than even some parts of the U.S., has been on my travel wish list for some time.
I met a new friend Chav (Salvador Ascencio Sánchez) last summer in Chicago. Chav was spending a six-month stay in Chicago with his family in the Cicero neighborhood, a Hispanic-dominated area southwest of downtown Chicago. Chav is from the State of Jalisco, Mexico, the same state that is home to Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta. Throughout his time in Chicago, we compared our life experiences. Even though we grew up in different countries, we found common ground as we both grew up in small towns in agricultural regions, close to family and dreaming of what it was like to live in a big city.
On a random Thursday in March, I was curious how much tickets to Guadalajara were running, and to my luck, I searched on a day where one airline had a big sale for all flights. I called Chav and let him know I was thinking of visiting Mexico since tickets were so cheap. So, I booked my trip to Mexico right away and arrived in Guadalajara less than 48 hours after deciding to come.
March 14, 2015 – Chicago > Atlanta > Guadalajara
One of my favorite things to do (and I advise you to do if you can) is to travel to places where you know someone and use them as a guinea pig to show you the city and immerse yourself in the culture. Sorry Chav! My flight left midday Saturday and I had to fly to Atlanta before heading south to Mexico. While in Atlanta, I made a couple friends (mom & daughter) who used to live in Chicago and have family in Guadalajara. They actually gave me some great recommendations of Mexican eateries in Chicago – Lalo’s and Allende Restaurant. They were so excited for me to experience Mexico and to enjoy the food.
I had a pretty good flight to Guadalajara. The flight mostly consisted of Hispanics, most of whom were visiting family. I sat next to a middle-aged man who was visiting his wife and kids; we had an intermittent conversation. When dinnertime came around and the flight was passing out meals, I was joking that I wished they had pozole, a Mexican soup made with hominy, pork, chili peppers and seasonings that I’ve had at a few authentic Mexican places in Chicago. (Note: Pozole is a specialty dish and takes a lot of time to make). He chuckled and got a good kick out of my joke, and when the flight attendant came around, he joked with her and said (in Spanish), “This young man would like some pozole.” The attendant and people around engulfed in laughter and commented in Spanish. I felt like it was a great way to start the trip and being involved in Mexican comedy, even though it was at my expense!
When we touched down in Guadalajara, it was dark and I went through immigration and customs. As with most countries, walking through the doors to the public is like a runway for models, with crowds of people lined up waiting for their loved ones or friends to be home. Except this time, it was me, a 6’5″ foreign caucasian/Native American guy, generating several confused looks from the Mexicans. I looked through the crowd of 5’6 (+/- 2″) people for Chav, but couldn’t find him. I waited around 10 minutes, and then he arrived (luckily because my cell phone was not activated for international use). We loaded my bags in the SUV, and I was surprised to see that his sister Ivonne and her two girls, Isabella and Vanessa, had joined as well. Chav speaks pretty good English, although broken at times, but his sister and her kids do not know English, so I tried to put my classroom-taught Spanish skills to use.
Chav and his family live in Tepatitlán de Morelos, a city of ~100,000 about one hour northeast of Guadalajara. Upon arriving to “Tepa,” we dropped Ivonne and her kids off and went for some late-night tacos at a place called Tacos Rizo. THIS IS WHAT I HAD BEEN WAITING FOR: authentic Mexican food, freshly-made tortillas and fresh meat. I had my share of steak and pork tacos with the addition of salsas. Fun fact: In Mexico, red salsas are spicy, green salsas are not. Chav lives with his parents José (José de Jesus Ascencio Rojas) and Esther (Maria Esther Sánchez Jiménez) in a small, two level home in the city. When walking into his home, I noticed that Mexico doesn’t make tall-people friendly doorways, so I had to duck here-and-there.
March 15, 2015 – Exploring Tepatitlán, Guadalajara and Zapopan
After a long day of traveling, I took advantage of sleeping in. Chav’s mom owns a restaurant called “Las Cazuelas” near the city center of Tepa, so we hung out there for a while and had enchiladas and chilaquiles for lunch. Because it was Sunday, everyone in the town was out and about in the streets. Like all Latin American cities, the town had a prominent “plaza de armas” flanked with grand churches. It was a beautiful small town where everyone knew everyone. After a while of walking around, I had somehow lost my debit card (likely when I pulled something out of my pocket), so I had to find a phone to call and cancel it. Crisis averted.
We borrowed Gerardo’s (husband of Ivonne) truck to make a quick trip to Guadalajara for the evening. Seeing the Mexican countryside in the daylight for the first time was breathtaking. The variety of lakes, hills, plains, mountains and rivers made driving an hour through rural areas not so bad. When we arrived, it was raining, so Chav took me on a quick tour through downtown Guadalajara and then to Zapopan, a wealthy city connected to Guadalajara. For dinner, we ate at Las Alitas and had spicy salads; then off to a coffee shop for a late night smoothie. Back to Tepa we headed to end the day.
March 16, 2015 – Rain-washed Tepa
When Chav was in Chicago last year, we often got brunch at a place called Stella’s near my apartment. So, on Monday we decided to catch brunch at a local cafe. I had an omelette with cheese, onion, potatoes and peppers with chilaquiles on the side.
Chav showed me around some of Tepa’s key landmarks including the San Franciscan church and Temple of San Antonio. The city is painted in a variety of colors, which probably keeps people so happy! In Chicago, all of our buildings are either brown, black or glass. Maybe we should invest in some paint colors! Later in the day, it rained quite hard, flooding water down the hills of the city. For dinner, I finally got what I had previously spoke about – pozole. I also ordered a couple enchiladas, a salad and atole, a creamy sweet corn drink. The food coma later knocked me out earlier than usual.
March 17, 2015 – First Job Interview & A New Favorite Mexican Dish
Before this trip, I had been looking for my next career adventure after working at an ad agency for more than three years. I wasn’t expecting any interviews for the week in which I was in Mexico, but something came down where I landed a phone interview. Given that my cell phone did not work, Chav’s sister allowed me to use her home phone for my interview (she gets free calls to the U.S.). I called my interview contact from the Mexican land line and performed a phone interview, which would later end up being the job I landed when I returned to the U.S. So, I can thank Maria de Guadalupe for all the luck!
Chav’s sister, Ivonne, has a beautiful home with tiled floors and modern design. They have a golden retriever dog named Gaston, a beautiful well-behaved family dog who will give you a handshake. Once lunchtime rolled around, we headed to downtown Tepa, where we ate in a two-story market. Here I discovered one of my new favorite dishes, a gordita. It consisted of a thick homemade corn tortilla covered in cheese, refried beans, nopales (sliced cacti), cut steak and french fries. SO GOOD. And the Taco Bell “gordita” is not even real. To drink, I had freshly-squeezed guayaba (guava) juice.
After my excitement subsided from that amazing meal, we toured El Señor de la Misericordia church’s art and history gallery. The exhibit showed modern paintings from local artists and old artifacts from La Guerra Cristera (Cristero War).
I noticed that the city shuts down from 2-4 p.m. for their “siesta” or rest time. Most stores open back up at 4 p.m. and stay open to 6 or 7. For dinner, we tried sushi at Du Bar (I won’t lie, I was a bit skeptical), but it was actually quite delicious. As a palette cleanser, we went to Bistro 77, a cute New York-style bistro, for a coffee before calling it a day.
March 18, 2015 – Daytime in Guadalajara & Nighttime in Tlaquepaque
Las Cazuelas tended to be our first stop of the day to grab coffee and a quick lunch. I wanted to head back to Guadalajara to see the city in the daytime and explore. It is tough for Chav to travel sometimes, as he had sold his car a while back to help out his family financially. All family cars were occupied, so we took a bus from Tepa to Guadalajara. We hopped off at the side of a main road in the city and negotiated for a taxi to take us to the place where we were renting a car. The car had a manual transmission, which is a key travel skill that I lack, but based on the insane Mexican driving, it was probably a blessing in disguise.
In downtown Guadalajara, the main city center was bustling with people, even on a weekday. The city plaza again included a large church, Catedral de Guadalajara, and a large fountain. This city seemed more tourist-friendly but Chav said most tourists are from within the country (so I continued to stand out). GDL seemed like the hub for shopping and dining in the area, attracting many visitors from surrounding towns. I noticed in a beauty store that you can buy face cream by container size. You basically scoop out Nivea, for example, from a huge bucket based on how much you want. It seemed somewhat odd, but why not buy your beauty products in bulk?!
As the sun began to set, we got caught up in rush hour traffic on our way to nearby Tlaquepaque (such a fun name for a city!). The small town is known for being a destination for late-night activities or for a nightly stroll. We saw many couples enjoying street food, relaxing at the dimly-lit city square and sharing laughs. One of the street vendors was selling fresh corn, cream and cheese, so we got a cup of that along with soybeans (similar to edamame). I purchased a ceramic painted skull (common art in Mexico) and some gifts for friends as well. Back to Tepa for the night, the eve before we took the rental car for more adventures.
March 19, 2015 – Lake Chapala & The Movies
Now that we had a rental car, we were a little more free to explore Jalisco and beyond. Before coming to Mexico, I noticed a large body of water near Guadalajara called Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest freshwater lake. We made the drive from Tepa to Lake Chapala, giving me ample opportunities to take some photos of Mexico’s beautiful and ever-changing terrain. Over the few days I had been there, I noticed the clouds were so strikingly white and large. I’m not sure why this is; it might be due to the 5,000 ft.+ elevation.
We drove over a large hill and could see the outstanding views of the lake, the sun creating picturesque reflections on the water’s surface. We parked and ate lunch at one of the restaurants that overlooked the lake. Cows grazed on the grass next to the water, water fowl posted up in the sun and white cranes gathered together on perches. A pier allows people to walk out on the water to take in the views. I purchased a replica boat from a street artist for cheap, and we spent another hour or so looking around the area before headed back to the city. In Guadalajara, we went to see a movie called “Focus” featuring Will Smith. Lucky for me, the audio was in English with Spanish subtitles. The movie popcorn options were buttered or spicy chili flavored – SO Mexican.
After a long day away from Tepa, we grabbed some late-night tacos from a street vendor before going to bed. I think I might have gained 10 pounds by this point.
March 20, 2015 – Road Trip to the State and City of Guanajuato
We woke up with the intention to put some more miles on the rental car and explore. Chav is originally from an area east of Tepatitlán, so we drove that way to check out some more of Jalisco. We arrived in the city of Arandas, a town of about 45,000 people with the stereotypical look and feel of a Mexican city. A large spired cathedral and Liberty-looking bell stood at the front of the main square while a primary school band marched around the square to practice their songs. For a quick snack, we grabbed some tequila-flavored ice cream before moving on to our next pit stop.
The region is also known for its blue agave fields which are crucial to the production of tequila. Months ago, Chav and I randomly ate at a restaurant in Chicago called Tecalitlan where they serve 3G (Los Tres Garcias) tequila. Part of the Garcia family owns that restaurant in Chicago and the other part of the family works at the 3G tequila factory near Arandas!
We drove off of the main highway over a few hills to Chav’s original hometown, Josefino, a town of about 1,000 people. It reminded me of my hometown in Kansas, where everyone knows everyone and they double-take at anyone new to the town. It was so eerily quiet like a ghost town.
Back on the road we stopped at an area where we could get some water out of a well. I noticed large clusters of prickly pear cacti growing nearby and scooped up a few baby ones that I hoped to take back home with me.
The drive past this point was interesting. The highway had so many potholes that it was almost dangerous to drive, especially in our small economy car. As we neared the Jalisco-Guanajuato border, I became a bit nervous as I’ve heard stories of Mexican drug cartels guarding state borders and creating havoc with drivers. To our luck, the state line was noted with just a welcome sign and we entered Guanajuato. The terrain quickly changed to low plains surrounded by bluffs and lakes. Irapuato was the next largest city on the trip and was bustling with traffic and people; quite the change from the small towns we had just witnessed.
Our main stop of the trip was next: Guanajuato City. Upon arriving, I noticed colorful houses on the high hills/mountains that looked similar to the favelas of Brazil combined with the beauty of Cinque Terra in Italy. It was such a beautiful sight and photo opportunity to capture the colors of the homes with the backdrop of the green mountains.
We walked around the narrow stone streets of the city; it had the villa feel of Paris and had the stone quality of Cuzco, Peru’s streets. Guanajuato City had a lot more tourists from all over the world, as it seemed more of a destination for honeymoons and family trips.
After having a plate of enchiladas, we walked down through the people-filled streets, encountering street artists, bands, students and people hanging outside. The beautifully-lit Teatro Juarez was hosting a show that evening, so a lot of people were waiting around for the event. As darkness came around, we needed to get back in the car and head toward Tepa, as we were quite far away from home. The route home went through the well-known city of León, Lagos de Moreno and San Juan de los Lagos. I had a wonderful day exploring so much more of Mexico.
March 21, 2015 – Saying Goodbye to Chav, His Family and Mexico
Well, my week in Mexico had come to an end. My flight was later in the day, so I had some time to stick around and enjoy the warm weather for a bit longer. We of course ate breakfast at Las Cazuelas, and I sadly said goodbye to Ivonne, Isabella, Vanessa and Esther. We grabbed some food at a taco stand on the outskirts of the city, where we ran into Ivonne’s husband Gerardo.
Chav and I headed toward the airport in GDL where we returned the rental car and waited for my flight. Chav’s friends were picking him to go to a friend’s house in León later that day. I said goodbye and thanked Chav for such an authentic experience for my first time in Mexico. My flight home was direct, so that saved some time even though I arrived at 2 a.m. the next day. Remember those cacti that I brought from Josefino? I marked them on my customs form, but the customs officers did not care and let me go free. Now I have two thriving cacti in my apartment to remind me of this trip.
Final Thoughts & Extras from the Trip
Tepatitlán was such an authentic Mexican city. After a few days there, I started to notice things that were not normal to me as an American. There was a recurring time every day that I heard what sounded like bombs going off. The sound was so loud that it rattled the neighborhoods and woke you up if you were sleeping. Chav said that there is a cannon that goes off to signify church service. Sort of a, “Get the hell up and come worship Maria de Guadalupe!”
That was not the only noise that came to be all-too-familiar. Every morning I would hear the same noises that seemed so weird to me. The first one was a truck that drove through the neighborhood blasting what sounded like a jingle, “Ze-ta Ze-ta Ze-ta Gas!” If you needed gas for your home, again, you better get moving and flag down the truck. Their were also certain songs that signified the milk and water trucks that came by within another hour or two. They still have a milk man! How cool.
In terms of expenses, everything in Tepa was so cheap. Unlike Chicago, eating out might actually save you money! Young kids walked around trying to sell little candies or trinkets while their parents worked at the family business. Here, you are known by who your family is more so than who you are as an individual.
My life goal, as many of you know, is to be as culturally and professionally diverse as possible. This trip was eye-opening to me for many reasons. Like I saw in Peru and Costa Rica as well, people are so happy with their ways of life and seem to love and enjoy everything regardless of status or wealth. Chav mentioned that he sold his car to help his mom and sister buy things that they wanted. They would do the same for him. It’s being selfless to another level. I would definitely help out family and friends if needed, but would I go out of my way to sell my car? Probably not. After being in Tepa for a week, I didn’t want to leave. I felt so welcomed and happy in the city despite my appearance and lack of Spanish fluency. I would find myself taking pauses throughout my time there to witness the happiness and pride of the Mexican people and wished America would be more like it. This experience in west central Mexico will always stay with me, and I hope it reminds me to enjoy life and maximize happiness. Until the next adventure, adios!