Travel: Mexico: Welcome to the spicy world of Latin America

Dubbed the most Mexican of cities and fuelled by tequila and mariachi, Guadalajara will make you happy. By Richard Naisby
Click to follow
GUADALAJARA IS best appreciated with the help of Tequila. Not the drink, you understand, though that helps too, but the region. The road from the coast climbs its sinuous way through the mountains and on to the high plains where the blue agave grows. The great fields of the spiky cactus lend their flavour to the spirit made in the huge distilleries that have made Tequila famous, but the vicious, sabre-like plants and the harsh, white light of the plains are a great way to prepare for the more genteel charms of Mexico's second city.

Perhaps it is the high, wide spaces of the approach that lend Guadalajara the curious and beguiling intimacy that is unusual for a city of five million souls. It is the cradle of some of the most famous Mexican traditions - mariachis, cockfights and lager, as well as tequila. Somehow, though, the scale is personal, the people are welcoming and the rhythm is intoxicating.

Guadalajara is not lacking in great buildings, but they don't have the formal stuffiness of so much monumental architecture. The city is dominated by the gloriously profligate domes, spires and columns of the cathedral. A spectacular confection of styles, it has evolved, rather than been designed, and is all the better for it. Especially since it has also evolved a quartet of lovely green plazas on all sides, havens from the snarl of traffic around them.

Most of the great cultural sights are clustered around here, including the Palacio de Gobierno. The father of Mexican independence, Miguel Hidalgo, issued his first speech abolishing slavery from here and the central staircase is now covered in spectacular murals depicting the struggles of the peasantry against Fascism, Communism and the Church. Outside, I dodged horse-drawn buggies, flatulent Volkswagens and smoke- belching buses to reach the sanctuary of the Plaza de Armas.

Rich evening light played golden games with the tracery of the cathedral facade, giggling kids swarmed over the bandstand, and a blind trumpeter busked a beautiful, sad melody. Squadrons of pigeons strafed the pavement cafe where I sat admiring the elegant women and sharp-suited blades who turned the evening stroll into a fashion parade.

Cheap entertainment was offered a couple of blocks away, where a huge scrum of lads had gathered around a TV-shop window to follow the national football obsession. Hawkers tempted fans with trinkets and cheap baubles. I moved on, down the Plaza Tapatia - cobbled, lined with bars and infused with a night-time joie de vivre. On a side street lined with bridal-gown shops, I was enticed into an upstairs eatery to become an instant celebrity, and the source of much confusion.

Possibly the first gringo to choose this unprepossessing cafe, I caused much amusement with my struggles with the defiantly local menu. Finally, I settled for tortas ahogadas. The waiter grimaced and blew out his cheeks in an elaborate mime. "Picante [hot], senor," he said. "Good," I replied with bravado. "Mucho picante, senor." "No problem," I said, and sat up expectantly. While my food was being prepared, I looked up the translation of what I'd just ordered: "drowning cakes".

Eventually my dish arrived and all was clear. A meat-filled roll lay in a dish of red liquid. The "soup" was purest chilli sauce, and the bread was drowning in it in Titanic style. I loved it. The cafe owner loved it, too, possibly because I nearly cleaned him out of all his soft drinks, before lurching, inflated and mouth ablaze, into the night air.

I wandered through quiet streets, past beautifully lit buildings, and heard my destination long before I saw it. The Plaza de Mariachis is the spiritual home for the legions of itinerant musicians found all over Mexico, and here they were out in force. Hundreds of men swaggered, clutching instruments, while yet more reinforcements lurked in blacked-out vans parked up alleyways. The atmosphere might have been threatening but for the absurdity of the costumes.

I found a seat at one of the grubby bars that line the elegant colonnade, ordered a beer and sat back to enjoy the show. Mariachi players outnumbered the punters by at least 20 to one and competed fiercely if anyone looked as if they required a song. A local opposite me asked whether this was the first time I'd been here. "Yes," I replied. "That's a shame," he said. "Things used to be so much better. Now, the bands are so expensive that only people wanting to impress someone can pay - maybe for a girlfriend, a mistress or a fiancee." Never, I noticed, for a wife.

Indeed, the ratio of musicians to customers means that for most, this is less a serious attempt at entertainment, more a social club for men who like dressing up. The costumes are all different, but share themes. The fashionable mariachi-player wears a shirt with lapels the size of bathmats and the kind of cravat rarely seen since Englebert Humperdinck was in the charts. Capacious beer-guts overhang eye-wateringly tight trousers and cowboy boots that breed a strutting John Wayne walk. The effect is topped off with the kind of facial foliage that would make Burt Reynolds blush.

The sound of competing bands swirls around the compact plaza, sometimes cacophonous, sometimes achieving remarkable harmony. Enticing smells drift from the kitchens under the arches, mingling with the odours of hot-dog stalls beyond the fountain. The elegant facade of the plaza contrasts with the mass of concrete across the main road. Mexico is an enticing mix of old colonial values and brash modernity, order and chaos, tranquillity and ear-shattering noise. Throw in beer and tequilas, and you realise why locals maintain that Guadalajara is the most Mexican of cities.