Lake Chapala and the towns of Chapala and Ajijic make an easy day trip or weekend trip from Guadalajara. Busses leave the Central Vieja about every fifteen minutes, and the trip to Chapala takes less than an hour (thirty pesos, which is about $2.75 US/CAD). Once you arrive at Guadalajara's main water source and the place with the highest concentration of Canadians outside Canada, you'll love the fresh air but be hard-pressed to find things to actually do. Chapala is a bit bigger than Ajijic, and it's a good place for taking boat trips. Boats are large enough to fit a group, so join up with some others who are going out if you want. There's not much to do on shore, so hop on a city bus and head to Ajijic, another pictueresque town on the lake with more cute American-owned boutiques and jewelry shops. The colors in Ajijic are breathtaking, and it's worth wandering around town just to check out all the cool houses and the murals painted on buildings. I have to recommend eating at Ajijic's coolest restaurant, called The Secret Garden. It's right off the main square and serves fresh, healthy food all day.
If you enjoy sitting on benches and sending mail (see my infamous Mexico City tips), you'll LOVE driving under a big, yellow arch! Los Arcos del Tercer Milenio are huge yellow arches that cross the road where Mariano Otero and Lazaro Cardenas meet (west of the city center). These huge yellow arches were constructed in 2001 and designed by architect Enrique Carbajal González (working under the pseudonym of Sebastian). They consist of more than 1000 tonnes of metal and have a surface area of 17,000 square meters. They truly are a sight to see, so if you happen to be out on the west side of the city, ask your taxi driver to drive past Los Arcos del Tercer Milenio on your way home.
Zoologico Guadalajara is a decent zoo (no cement pits a la Vancouver's Stanley Park in the 1980s) feautring a wide variety of animals, Latin America's largest herpetarium (reptile house), beautiful views of the canyon to the north of the city and a safari ride where visitors can get up close and personal with the animals. My friend and I recently spent an entire Saturday at the zoo, enjoying every minute. Make sure to wear sunscreen as you'll be doing a lot of walking and not all of it is shaded, and you may want to bring in your own bottled water as it costs 13 pesos ($1.25 US/CAD) for 500ml inside the zoo.
We really enjoyed the safari ride, although we did have to wait in line for about half an hour. Once you board the large vehicle you are driven around a large, open space where you can interact with ostriches and giraffes, and see animals like rhinos, buffalos and even cheetahs without having to peer through metal bars. The kangaroo enclosure also allows you to interact with the kangaroos (if they feel like coming over to see you), and there is a bird enclosure where you can buy bird food to feed to budgies and lovebirds. Less interactive exhibits include a gorilla enclosure, several different types of bears, gazelles, crocodiles and hundreds of exotic birds.
We paid about 85 pesos ($8.35 US/CAD) for a ticket that included zoo entrance, one trip on the safari ride and unlimited rides on the train that circles the zoo (but only stops three times), in case we got too hot to walk any further. I would highly recommend purchasing the complete package.
Beside the zoo is Salva Magica, an amusement park with thrill rides and children's rides.
Tequila makes an easy day trip from Guadalajara. We got there by taking a bus from the Central Vieja (old bus station) in central Guadalajara, although it would have been a lot faster to have departed from the Zapopan bus station (much closer to my house- and Plaza del Sol for that matter- but not close to the center). Busses leave about every fifteen minutes and can take anywhere from one to two hours, depending on the number of stops they make. Once you arrive in Tequila, it's an easy walk down the small-town streets to the very center of town and the main plaza with a church on either side. A few blocks further down the street is Mundo Cuervo, the home of Jose Cuervo tequila and the place where distillery tours leave hourly (the only guaranteed English tour is at noon, but if a large English tour group happens to at the site, they will let you join up). There other other distilleries in town, including Sauza's distilllery (just a few blocks from Mundo Cuervo), and other attractions include the National Museum of Tequila.
Parque Agua Azul is a great place to escape the hustle, bustle, noise, pollution and general unpleasantness of Guadalajara! It's located south of the center on Independencia (entrance at #973) and is open from about 10:00 am to 6:30 pm, daily. Entrance to the park is five pesos ($0.50 US/CAD), which is an absolute steal considering all the cool stuff inside the park! The highlights are definitely the butterfly enclosure and the bird enclosure, where our flying friends move freely. Considering that a ticket to the butterfly gardens in my Canadian hometown is about $10, Parque Agua Azul is an amazing value! In addition to the free-flying birds, a large number of exotic birds are kept in cages around the park. Most the cages are sufficiently large to keep you from feeling guilty, although we noticed on peacock who didn't have room to spread his tail feathers. There is also an orchid garden in the park (closed when we visited), lots of playgrounds and nice walking paths. Many young girls come here for their quinceanera photos, so you'll likely see lots of fifteen-year-old girls in beautiful ball gowns strolling around.
The Tequila Express is "the" Guadalajara day trip. You need to book your tickets at least a week in advance, but preferably earlier. I booked mine in person at a Ticketmaster in Guadalajara, but I understand that you can buy them from outside Mexico IF you have an American Express card (use Ticketmaster Mexico). Tickets cost 850 pesos ($85 US/CAD) plus an eighty-peso ($8) service charge.
On the day of your trip, eat a good breakfast! Head to the station for your 10:00 registration, then listen to live mariachi music as everyone gets organized. We had tickets for the blue wagon, so we boarded the cart at the front of the train. Seats swivel so that you never have to face backwards, but the blue wagon was good because we were the first group to get off the train and begin the tour of Casa Herradura, the distillery. On board the train, in both directions, it is all-you-can-drink tequila, beer, New Mix coolers, soda and water. There are also light snacks on the train.
Once you arrive at the distillery (it's actually in Amatitan, just outside Tequila) you will tour the grounds in either English or Spanish, seeing the modern production facilities and antique production facilities. You'll see how the agave is harvested, taste the cooked agave, watch educational videos and generally have a good time... all while drinking even more! Later in the day, a buffet lunch is served (some vegetarian choices are included) and entertainment includes more mariachi music, charreada (a type of rodeo), singing and an opportunity for everyone to do a cheesy dance. After that, you board the train again and head back to the city, arriving in Guadalajara at 8:00 pm.
At the Museo Regional de Guadalajara, you and your kids can imagine what Guadalajara and the surrounding area was like many, many, many years ago. To do this, you can view everything from piles of stones in a sandbox (see first picture), the carriage part of horse-drawn carriages (second picture), works of art (third and fourth pictures) and random weaponry (no photos... highly-guarded area). Everything is totally random and all the explanations are in Spanish... but hey, it's free on Sundays! What else are you going to do?
The Instituto Cultural Cabañas is located at the very end of Plaza Tapatio in the historic center of Guadalajara. Originally, it was intended to be a shelter for people in need, and today it is a cultural center celebrating everything creative.
The heart of the instituto is the chapel, which is filled with breathtaking Orozco murals (fifty-seven of them, to be exact), including his huge, famous Man of Fire. The chapel is surrounded by a maze of rooms (one hundred and six total) and picturesque courtyards (twenty-three in all). Bring your kids and try to count all the rooms or courtyards! Some of the rooms are closed and locked, while others are filled with various art exhibits (and one children's activity room). The souvenir shop on site is one of the nicest in the city. In 1997, the complex was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is probably the most expensive tourist attraction in central Guadalajara, with admission around 60 pesos ($6 US/CAD) per person and 30 pesos ($3 US/CAD) per camera.
A market has been on the site of Mercado Libertad since pre-Colombian times, but the current, massive, three-story market building was built in the late 1950s. Today, Mercado Libertad (known as San Juan de Dios by the locals) is a maze of stalls selling everything from live birds to pigs' feet for soup to running shoes to saddles to sweet, glazed pumpkin to pirated copies of PhotoShop... you get the idea. You want it, you can find it here. The market is crowded and a few of the stall owners can be pushy, so keep cool and stand your ground. If you can, test things before you buy them. Bring small bills and leave your valuables at home (as with any big market). Don't hestitate to stop at one of the many food stalls on the second floor- they're busy all the time and food turnover is quick. The market is a fun place to spend an hour or two, and the earlier in the day the better your chances of finding all the stalls open.
Teuchitlan is a nice day trip when you want to escape the hustle and bustle of Guadalajara. You can get there by bus for 50 pesos, with the trip taking two hours from the Central Vieja (near Parque Aqua Azul) or ninety minutes from the Zapopan bus depot (but service is more frequent from the Central Vieja).
Once you arrive in the town, you have the choice of walking up to the pyramids (a fairly steep, shadeless thirty minutes), or hopping in a taxi for about 50 pesos (relatively expensive, but look for other tourists to share a taxi with). Either way, stop at the information kiosk at the bottom and pick up a free pamphlet with information about the site (English and Spanish). As you enter the actual grounds, you will be greeted and asked to sign a guestbook, but entrance is free (as of March 2008).
The site itself is small and doesn't compare to Chichen Itza or Teotihuacan, but for someone who has never seen pyramids before it's pretty cool. The focal point of the site is the huge, round, stepped pyramid that is surrounded by nine (or ten, depending on the source) small structures. Around this central point are smaller pyramids and the remains of other structures. Guachimontones is an active archeological site, and you may find archeologists busy at work uncovering new artifacts, structures and information.
Afterwards, it's an easy walk back into town. Teuchitlan has a great small-town vibe, and you'll see everything from wannabe cowboys practicing their lasso skills to children zipping around like devils on their tricycles. On the opposite side of the main road there is a large lake, and if you walk about 100 meters to the left from the town's sign you'll find a road that leads to a dozen or more lakefront restaurants, all with beautiful views of the cranes, frogs and fish that call the lake home. Caution: These restaurants are EXTREMELY seafood-focused and do not have food suitable for vegetarians.
To the north of the city center lies the Basilica of Zapopan (Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Zapopan), a basilica housing a wooden statue of the virgin that is said to have miraculous powers. Every year, on October 12th, a procession of everyone from regular Mexican Catholics to dancers in pre-Colombian attire carry a statue of the virgin from the Cathedral in the city center all the way to the basilica in Zapopan. Any day of the year you can visit the basilica to attend a service (almost hourly) and check out the architecture, and on Sundays there are street markets surrounding the chuch, as well as performances by Huichol dancers in the late afternoon.
Although Tonala (a small suburb of Guadalajara) has a market every day, the biggest and best days are Thursday and Sunday. On these days, hundreds of vendors fill the city's main street and sell everything from ceramics to tacos to pirated DVDs. If you can, go with a local who will be able to point out what is authentic and local, and what was likely made in China. To see all the stalls, you will need at least four hours, and you may want to factor in some more time to check out the furniture and crafts shops that line the market's streets. The market is dense and crowded, with lollipop-licking children clinging to their mothers' hands, severely disfigured people crawling along the ground begging, wealthy couples seeking decorations for their weekend beach houses, and everything in between. Pack light, bring lots of small bills (don't even dream of breaking that 500-peso note on a 50-peso purchase) and keep your money close to you at all times.
The Barranca (Canyon) de Huentitan is a huge canyon running parallel to Guadalajara's north side, pretty much limiting the city to expansion in other directions. There are a variety of places you can go to view the canyon (for example, at the very end of Independencia there is a viewpoint for 3 pesos), but the best (and sweatiest) way to view the canyon is to walk to the bottom and hike back up.
The best place to hike the canyon is from the Barranca de Huentitan entrance, which is to the northeast of the zoo. We just told a taxi driver what we wanted to do, and he took us to the right entrance. The return trip took us five hours, including approximately a one-hour rest at the bottom. The trail is 10 km (5 miles) round-trip, and it's very, very steep. You'll want to bring lots of water, healthy snacks, sunscreen, bandaids, hand sanitizer and tissue to use as toilet paper. Enjoy the lovely walk down...
... then ask yourself what you were thinking as you stand beside the river, looking up. The hike back up is extremely strenuous. We elected to follow the river until we saw the train tracks, because we'd seen a "town" there. This town has no plumbing, but you can buy bottled water there before your ascent. From the town, we did the first half of the ascent straight up the train tracks. It was the most exhausting thing I'd ever done, but it was quick and direct. From the mid-way point, we joined the main trail and zigged and zagged our way back to the top.
It was one of the most tiring days of my life, and probably the most strenuous hike I'd ever done (the crosses marking the spots where previous hikers had died should have clued me in on the way down), but it was a great feeling of accomplishment to be back at the top and looking down at the canyon we'd just conquered. Approximately 5,000 people hike the canyon every week (according to tourist information), however we noticed that most people only go down partway, and few make it all the way to the river. Think long and hard about whether you can make it back up!
Buy some souvenirs all around the most visited places in Guadalajara, you'll find in many points this women making Typical Mexican Art craft, that can make great souvenirs. The best way to get great deals while shooping in the street is ask for the price and offer less, is OK to make offers, if you're a good negotiator you can get a price as low as 50% of the original. consider that if you look like a tourist odds are they add to the price.
Another place to buy hand made art crafts is to visit the street market of Tonala, open Sundays.
The main Cathedral in Guadalajara, also referred to as the Metropolitan Cathedral by locals, is a very imposing mixture of architectural styles, with the lower parts of it dating back to as early as 1571. When it suffered a devastating earthquake, the original towers collapsed, so the unique yellow tiled towers date back to the early 19th century. There is a wide open plaza area in front of it, and on some sides, as well as a fountain.