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Although Mexico is an enormously popular destination for U.S. visitors, the city of Guadalajara seems to attract only a small number of international tourists, despite it being both particularly attractive and the country's second largest city.

Although many a Mexican city may lay claim to this distinguished title, it is actually Guadalajara that's home and place of origin to both mariachi bands and the infamous Mexican hat dance. The city plays host to the annual International Mariachi Fair around late August and early September with mariachi bands from around Mexico and the world descending upon the city for a series of parades, competitions, and public performances on the streets and in various venues around the historic center.

What to Do

But mariachi is by no means Guadalajara's only attraction. The historic center is quite beautiful, including the impressive Plaza de Armas and stunning colonial buildings like Palacio de Gobierno, the Virgin of Assumption Cathedral and the UNESCO World Heritage listed Instituto Cultural Cabañas. Mercado Libertad is also located in the historic center and is often cited as being the largest market in Latin America under one roof. It consists of a crowded labyrinth of stalls and small shops selling food, souvenirs, clothing, leather goods, and household items. It's also a great place to pick up picnic items or to eat a quick meal.

Of course, no trip to Guadalajara is complete without an evening stroll through Plaza de los Mariachis. Parque Agua Azul in the city's south is huge with open grassy fields, a butterfly enclosure, an orchid house, aviaries and entertainment venues like the large outdoor auditorium known as "La Concha Acústica" where theatre and concerts are performed. Local musicians, both amateur and professional also perform along an area within the park known as "Musicians Boulevard". There are bullfights at Plaza de Toros Nuevo Progreso (www.plazanuevoprogreso.com.mx) most Sundays from October to March and entertaining "charreadas," Mexican rodeos at Lienzo charro de Jalisco opposite Parque Agua Azul every Sunday. The month of October sees the city come alive with the annual Guadalajara Festival featuring music, cultural activities, artistic exhibitions and crafts displays.

Where to Stay

There is a wide selection of accommodation in Guadalajara but many are rather dull relics of the 1960s and '70s. Then there is the elegant romantic three-star Frances Hotel (tel. +52/33-3613-1190; www.hotelfrances.com) located just off the Plaza de Armas. This early 17th century building exudes elegance and colonial architectural features. Built around a central enclosed courtyard with a birdcage-style elevator, the colonnaded halls overlook a grand fountain on the ground floor and a massive chandelier. Rooms are simple and don't have air-conditioning but you will absolutely love staying here and the view from the roof terrace is superb. Double rooms start from $65 per night and suites from $72.

Hotel De Mendoza (tel. 800/361-2600; www.demendoza.com.mx) is a larger four-star property with a heated pool, up-market restaurant and rooftop cocktail lounge also located in the heart of the historic downtown area. Double rooms here start from $110 per night.

Outside Guadalajara

Although there is enough to keep you entertained within the city itself, it is the peripheral towns that offer visitors some exceptional Mexican experiences. Just outside Guadalajara, you'll find two must-see towns that embody a combination of Mexican colonial charm and exceptional craft shopping -- Tonalá and Tlaquepaque.

I thought I had died and gone to market heaven when I stumbled upon the town of Tonalá. Located about 15 miles from the center of Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco, this artisan's paradise is home to ceramics and pottery, glassware, metalwork, papier mâché, hand made furniture, textiles and just about any other craft else you can think of. The shops are like miniature galleries, each displaying work by local artists and craftsmen. Perhaps the best part is the affordability: Here you will pay only a fraction of what a similar imported item would set you back at home.

Each Thursday and Sunday, the entire central district of the town is transformed into a massive open air market, selling everything from Tupperware to traditional earthenware, brightly colored woven rugs to children's clothing. I made the mistake of only allocating one day to discover the marketplace and surrounding shops. You definitely need at least two days and I would even suggest that if you decide to base yourself in Tonalá, you could arrive early on Thursday morning and stay until late on Saturday to take advantage of two market days. I would also suggest that you don't see something and decide to come back to that stall later to purchase. Chances are you will never find the stall again as the market tends to overwhelm you by its enormity with one main street and hundreds of smaller laneways running off it. Some store owners can arrange shipping of your goods back to the U.S. but unless you are purchasing something particularly oversized and heavy, just bring an empty suitcase, and lots of bubble wrap, then fill up. Tonalá has quite an informative website featuring links to various businesses including galleries, factories, restaurants and hotels at www.tonala.com.mx.

Only a few minutes drive from Tonalá you will find the colonial town of Tlaquepaque -- hard to spell and even harder to pronounce. This is more of a touristy town with brightly colored houses and stores selling high quality souvenirs and hand-made goods. It's small enough to spend half a day walking around, meandering along streets lined with boutique galleries, museums and craft shops. Prices are generally higher than in Tonalá but it is still well worth a visit.

Other Lodging Options

For a relatively small town, Tonalá has a few decent moderately priced hotels. You won't find the ambience and romance of a restored hacienda here, but the hotels are well priced, clean and quite comfortable -- plus all are walking distance to galleries, workshops and the market.

Hacienda del Sol (tel. + 52/33-3683-0275; www.hotelhaciendadelsol.com) has double rooms starting from $32 a night (pay an additional $4 a night for air-conditioning). A king bedroom is priced from $41 a night and a room with two double beds is $53. Although the rooms are simply furnished, the hotel is very centrally located, there's free WiFi and a large indoor parking area.

You won't miss Casa del las Palomas (tel. 52/33-3683-5542; www.casadelaspalomas.com) as it is painted a bright pink color and stands out amongst the otherwise muted colors of surrounding buildings. The hotel features 22 bright and sunny rooms with sofas and king-sized beds. A room for two people is priced at $40 per night or four people pay $50. Hotel Tonala (www.hoteltonala.com) has basic rooms with fans and televisions priced at $32 or large rooms that sleep six people in three double beds priced at $63 a night.

Quinta Don Jose Hotel (tel. 866/629-3753; www.quintadonjose.com) is a 15 room boutique property in Tlaquepaque with a bar, pool, and small restaurant. Double rooms here are priced from $80 including a full cooked breakfast or $100 for a two bedroom deluxe suite.

Getting There

You can fly to Guadalajara on Delta (www.delta.com), Continental Airlines (www.continental.com), Mexicana (www.mexicana.com), American Airlines (www.aa.com), US Airways (www.usairways.com), Alaska Airlines (www.alaskaair.com) and Aeromexico (www.aeromexico.com). Airfares are comparable or often less than flying to Mexico City, Oaxaca, Cancún or other Mexican hotspots, and even in peak season you're likely to find seats available. Sample round-trip fares including all taxes and fees for the months of September and October 2008 include:

  • From Chicago for $399 flying Continental
  • From Dallas for $421 flying Continental
  • From Los Angeles for $459 flying US Airways
  • From Miami for $476 flying Continental
  • From New York for $533 flying Continental