Things to Do in Jalisco
Like most boardwalks, Puerto Vallarta’s promenade, known as El Malecon, is dotted with sightseeing opportunities, cafes, shops, galleries, and performers. Overlooking the Bay of Banderas, the mile-long stretch offers scenic views during the day. And in the evening, the waterfront nightclubs and discos open their doors to party-seeking locals and visitors.
The small, uninhabited Marietas Islands (Islas Marietas) are located in the Bay of Banderas off Mexico’s Pacific coast. Making up a UNESCO-listed biosphere reserve, the islands are famous for their abundant wildlife and provide a chance to escape the crowds of many Mexican beach resorts, hop on a boat, and explore the islands’ natural delights.
The heart of every Mexican city is its cathedral, and Guadalajara is no exception. Officially known as the Basílica de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora de la Santísima Virgen María, the Guadalajara Cathedral towers over the city’s central plazas. A mishmash of Gothic, baroque, Moorish, and neoclassical styles, the building is atypical for a Mexican cathedral, and its unusual design has made it an emblem of the city.
Since 1561, the massive cathedral has weathered eight earthquakes, two of which did serious damage. An 1818 quake demolished the central dome and towers. The distinctive tiled towers you see today date back to1854. The interior is awesome in the original sense of the word; the stained glass windows are reminiscent of Notre Dame, and 11 silver and gold altars were gifts from Spain’s King Fernando VII. But it’s not all just finery --- the cathedral also has its share of macabre relics. Under the great altar you’ll find the crypts of bishops and cardinals, which date back to the sixteenth century. And to the left of the main altar you’ll see the Virgin of Innocence, which contains the bones of a 12-year-old girl who was martyred in the third century, forgotten, and rediscovered in the Vatican catacombs 1400 years later. The bones were shipped to Guadalajara in 1788.
Head to the Jose Cuervo Distillery (Fábrica La Rojeña), and discover one of Mexico’s most famous traditional drinks. From the agave to the bottle, learn about the process of making (and tasting) tequila. A popular attraction in a tiny town, the terracotta-colored distillery is busy but accommodating, and the shop is the place to stock up on factory-priced tequila.
At Los Arcos National Marine Park in Puerto Vallarta there are islands to visit, reefs to dive, tunnels to swim through, and caves to explore, providing plenty of the arches that give Los Arcos (the Arches) its name. This protected area is famous for its abundant wildlife, both above and below the ocean’s surface, and is a popular snorkeling spot.
Located near Puerto Vallarta on Mexico’s Pacific coast, Banderas Bay (Bahía de Banderas) is famous for its 42-mile (68-kilometer) stretch of picturesque coast. Jungle, sandy beaches, and rich aquatic life define this area, which is ideal for watersports and land adventures alike.
Ancient structures can be found throughout the country, but the tiered, circular pyramids of Guachimontones (meaning “place of the gods”) stand as one of the most important prehistoric settlements of western Mexico. An easy day trip from Guadalajara, this UNESCO World Heritage Site isn’t as well-known as others, yet it’s a unique place that transports you back in time.
The 13,045-foot (3,976-meter) Acatenango volcano towers over the colonial city of Antigua. While many travelers opt for the more-gentle ascent of the Pacaya Volcano, this twin-peaked volcano offers incredible views of its nearest volcanic neighbor, Fuego, which regularly spits out plumes of gas, ash, and hot lava.
Across from the Guadalajara Cathedral, the Teatro Degollado looms in stony, neoclassical glory. Corinthian columns form a massive portico topped with a marble relief of Apollo and the nine muses. The length of the building’s rear wall is adorned with a stylish sculptural depiction of Guadalajara’s history; a fountain runs along the base.
The inside is even more over-the- top, with five tiers of gilded balconies and a ceiling frescoed with scenes from Dante’s Divine Comedy. A red-and-gold color scheme is augmented with frippery, including a fearsome golden eagle above the stage. The eagle holds a chain in its beak: as legend has it, the theater will stand until the day the golden eagle drops its chain.
The theater was completed in 1866, at the height of Mexico’s great theatrical renaissance. Today the lavishly appointed building is home to classically Guadalajaran institutions, including International Mariachi competitions, the Philharmonic Orchestra of Jalisco, the Ballet Folklorico of the University of Guadalajara, and the Guadalajara City Ballet, as well as traveling performances and limited run shows.
Past the eastern end of the Plaza Tapatía, you’ll find the Hospicio Cabañas Cultural Institute. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the massive stone building was constructed in 1805, but its fortress-like appearance gives it a more ancient air.
Bishop Juan Cruz Ruiz de Cabañas y Crespo founded the institute as an orphanage and home for the elderly and homeless. He called it la Casa de la Misericordia, or The House of Mercy. Interrupted occasionally by major wars and revolutions, the building functioned as an orphanage for nearly two hundred years until 1980, when the children were moved to a more modern location. Today the gracious old building hosts art exhibits, art and music classes, and an art cinema.
The cultural institute now contains 23 courtyards, a theater, a collection of folk art and a regular roster of temporary exhibits, but it’s best known for a chapel adorned with 57 frescos by world renowned muralist José Clemente Orozco. The site also houses the world’s largest collection of the Orozco’s drawings. Guided tours of the building and murals are available on the half hour.
More Things to Do in Jalisco
Puerto Vallarta's Romantic Zone (Zona Romantica)—also called the Old Town, South Side, or Old Vallarta—sits away from the hotel zone and just steps from Los Muertos Beach. With artisan shops, streetside taco stands, and lively cantinas, this area of winding cobblestone streets maintains a more traditional, laid-back feel than the rest of the city.
Puerto Vallarta’s Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe was built over the course of several decades in the first half of the 20th century. Built in rustic pink stone, to a neo-baroque design, one of the prettiest details is the crown that tops the church bell tower.
The liveliest time to visit the church is December 1 to 12, when crowds celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe with street processions, festive food and mariachi music. The festival coincides with the anniversary of the founding of Puerto Vallarta, so locals have even more reason to celebrate.
The culture of the plaza, or town square, is central to Mexican life: the plaza is a community gathering place where school kids flirt, couples promenade, and everyone catches up on the latest gossip. Guadalajara contains many plazas, but the heart of Guadalajara’s historic downtown is the Plaza de Armas. The Plaza de Armas has all the trappings of a classic Mexican jardin: wrought iron benches, prim topiary, strolling vendors, and the requisite Sunday social scene.
Classical statues that represent the seasons of the year preside over the four corners of the square, which is ringed with historic buildings, including the Palacio de Gobierno, a baroque monster that houses two famous murals by the social realist artist Jose Clemente Orozco.
The centerpiece of the scene is a belle époque bandstand. A gift to the city from the dictator Porfirio Diaz, the gazebo was built in Paris in 1909, and features a hardwood ceiling that enhances sound quality. The wrought iron roof is held aloft by eight columns that depict curvaceous beauties with musical instruments. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday nights, the gazebo is the focal point of free concerts from the state band and other traditional Jaliscan groups.
Spiked with spindly spires and decorated with fine stonework, the Templo Expiatorio is one of Guadalajara’s iconic churches and a striking example of neogothic style. The first stone was laid in 1897 and construction was completed in the 1930s. Inside, the ambiance is dreamy. Graceful multilayered arches frame an altar backlit by massive stained glass windows and crowned with a giant yet simple gold chandelier. Beams of colored light cast by the stained glass cut through smoke and dust motes, and the air smells of incense, candles, and flowers.
On the north side of the Guadalajara Cathedral, you’ll find a little park that contains the Rotonda de los Jaliscienses Ilustres, or the Rotunda of the Illustrious Jaliscans. Ringed by bronze statues and flowering trees, the neoclassical rotunda houses the remains of the state’s luminaries. Inside the rotunda, the coffin of Enrique Díaz de León, the first rector of the University of Guadalajara, sits in state. You’ll also see urns containing the ashes of Jalisco’s honored dead; additional empty urns await their occupants. A crypt below the floor contains the mummified remains of General Ramón Corona, who defended Mexico during the French invasion, served as a popular reform governor, and was murdered in 1889.
Statues of Jaliscan movers and shakers encircle the monument. Wander the park to gaze upon the great muralist José Clemente Orozco, the architect Luis Barragán, the governor Ignacio Vallarta (of Puerto Vallarta fame), and the writer, philosopher, avant-garde landscape painter and Nazi sympathizer, Dr. Atl.
Just south of the cathedral and facing the pretty Plaza de Armas, you’ll find the imposing governor’s palace. The two-story building is massive, baroque, and beset with snarling gargoyles, but the façade is far less interesting than the building’s illustrious history and unique interior.
The palace was completed in 1790. Father Miguel Hidalgo occupied the building in 1810, during the Mexican War of Independence. A radical priest with a taste for wine and women, Hidalgo crusaded for human rights; it was here in the governor’s palace that he issued his famous proclamation to abolish slavery. Later, during one of Mexico’s numerous small civil wars, Benito Juarez, “Mexico’s Abraham Lincoln,” also occupied the building. When opposing forces entered the city, Juarez was captured outside the palace and very nearly executed. The guns of a firing squad were lined upon him when the novelist Guillermo Prieto jumped forth to shield Juarez. Supposedly he cried “los valientes no asesinan,” (the brave don’t murder) and the soldiers lowered their rifles.
The interior of the Palacio de Gobierno reflects the building’s storied past. The principal stairwell is emblazoned with a dramatic image of Father Miguel Hidalgo, backlit by the fires of revolution. The mural wraps up the stairs, depicting the history and imagined future of Mexico. The paintings are the work of one of the world’s preeminent muralists, Jose Clemente Orozco, and offer a good crash course in Mexican history. A smaller upstairs mural depicts Hidalgo signing the decree to abolish slavery—this mural was Orozco’s last work.
One of the major attractions in Puerto Vallarta, Marina Vallarta is a self-contained stretch of boardwalk, white sand and retail outlets that has become so well-known for its beauty and success that it was a model for its sister cities of Cabo, Mazatlan, Ixtapa and Cancun. Easily identifiable by its large, 450-slip marina and lush 18-hole golf course, Marina Vallarta’s main attraction is its beautiful promenade, whereupon you’ll find numerous boutique beachfront shops and restaurants, including a lighthouse that makes for great viewing of the bay.
The country’s second-largest metropolis and capital of the Mexican state of Jalisco, Guadalajara retains a vibrant historical center (centro histórico) filled with colonial plazas, churches, and stately buildings. This downtown area includes some of the city’s top tourist attractions, such as the Palacio del Gobierno, Teatro Degollado, and the Instituto Cultural Cabañas.
Once a quaint outlying village, Tlaquepaque has been swallowed whole by Guadalajara. That said, the “town” retains its identity and feels more laid-back than Guadalajara proper. Tlaquepaque was originally known as a shopping Mecca for traditional ceramics and glass, and the town still boasts some of the best high-fire ceramics in the country. In addition, the area now abounds with galleries and boutiques selling Oaxacan rugs, Guerrero masks, fine leather purses, high end jewelry, antiques, traditional clothing, and all manner of rustic furniture.
Tlaquepaque is touristy but pleasant. Many shops and galleries are housed in Colonial mansions, and the pretty town plaza is worth a stroll. If shopping gets old, check out El Parian, an enclosed plaza ringed in bars and eateries where you can order local specialties like birria, a spicy beef or goat stew. El Parian is also a good place to hear mariachis, especially on Sundays when the locals flock and sing along.
Two local museums, the Museo Pantaleon Panduro and the Museo Regional de la Ceramica, have excellent displays of artesania, or folk art. Both museums are housed in old buildings that are worth a wander. Entry is free of charge.
Maybe it’s the soulful sound of the horn or the iconic sombrero-and-charro-suit performance clothing, but there’s something timeless about mariachi, the playful music of Mexico, and something great to be said about a visit to its cultural center. While the exact origins of the music are disputed, Guadalajara’s Mariachi Plaza, or Plaza de los Mariachis, is a particularly famous musical location and the best place in town to experience the custom, where bands of musicians offer up tableside serenades.
Visitors to the plaza can grab an outdoor table in this working class part of town, request a tableside song and sit back to watch, unwind and sing along with the locals. Often paired with tequila tastings or food tours, a stop in Mariachi Plaza can be a spirited way to spend an evening in Guadalajara.
For an authentic and lively Puerto Vallarta beach experience, Los Muertos Beach (Playa Los Muertos) can’t be beat. Located just south of Olas Altas Beach in the Romantic Zone, this gay-friendly stretch of sand fronts a pier and is lined with bars and restaurants. Locals and families also love this beach and its diverse crowd.
Lush tropical foliage, hummingbird-watching hot spots, and orchid sanctuaries are just three of the attractions you’ll find at the Vallarta Botanical Gardens (Jardín Botánico de Vallarta). A rich and diverse array of flora and fauna—mostly native—dominates the 20-acre (8-hectare) expanse of jungle. Follow jungle paths, wander curated gardens, and marvel at the koi pond as part of a scenic Puerto Vallarta day trip.
If you walk west from the Centro Historico along Avenida Juárez, you’ll come the University of Guadalajara campus and the University of Guadalajara Museum of the Arts. A two-story neoclassical building of white brick, the museum is designed on a cross formation and is home to two important works by Jose Clemente Orozco. The murals are located in the auditorium: Stone columns support a domed ceiling emblazoned with the dramatic "El Hombre Creador y Rebelde,” or “Man, Creator and Rebel.” Behind the lecture stage is Orozco’s famous fresco, “El pueblo y sus falsos líderes” or “The People and their false leaders.” The clever use of space creates the impression that you are inside an Orozco mural. In typical Orozco fashion, the effect is mesmerizing but slightly unsettling.
The museum also houses a rotation of traveling exhibits and a fine permanent collection with works by important Jaliscan artists such as Martha Pacheco, Javier Arévalo, and Carmen Bordes.
Every year Mexico holds a prestigious nationwide ceramics competition. The tradition was started in 1977, and the contest has nine categories and a coveted President’s Award. If you are at all acquainted with Mexico’s fine folk art traditions, it should come as no surprise that the winning entries exhibit great innovation and a mind-blowing level of detail.
The Museo Pantaleon Panduro in Tlaquepaque houses over three decades of winning entries, and the collection is a true testament to Mexican ingenuity. Centered around a courtyard, vaulted hallways branch out into 27 galleries, where visitors can view everything from avant-garde crucifixes to the finest examples of traditional pots and dishes. Highlights include elaborate nativity scenes, skeleton figurines wearing hand-tailored clothing, delicate lattice work pots, a selection of miniature churches, and amazingly detailed candelabra, including one covered in ceramic figurines that depict scenes from Moby Dick, Romeo and Juliet, Le Miserable and other classics of literature.
The museum is named after Pantaleon Panduro, a 19th century artist who created playful clay busts and figurines that cemented Tlaquepaque’s reputation for true artistry.
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