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They Traveled Fearlessly in Friendly Guadalajara

June 22, 1986|DOROTHY FREEMAN | Freeman is a Placentia, Calif., free-lance writer.

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Say "Guadalajara" and think of mariachis singing.

"There's another place we'll never seen," I said to my daughter, who's always my willing traveling companion. "Why didn't we go when we could?"

Then we read about a special bargain trip. "Let's go!" my daughter said.

We didn't know the hotel listed in the offer we were considering, so we upgraded to the Guadalajara Sheraton and added an extra night. The move cost $42, and was a happy one.

We stopped at La Paz, where a walk through the airport took us through Mexican customs. A polite question, "Do you have anything to declare?" and a shake of our heads eased us through.

The welcome continued at the Guadalajara airport where the Sheraton bus was waiting for us. Smiling, rotund host Humberto had our names on his list of expected passengers. He gave a welcoming speech on the way to the hotel.

The lobby of the Sheraton was an introduction to Colonial Mexico. It has marble floors, Oriental rugs, white walls and dark, heavy furniture. Plants, flowers, paintings and pottery added bright colors.

Flowers and a Drink

A quick check-in included red carnations for the women. An envelope with our names on it contained a welcoming letter and an invitation for a complimentary drink in any of the hotel's restaurants or bars.

We made a reservation for the fiesta in the restaurant that evening. The food was delicious and plentiful, similar to California Mexican food but with delicious sauces whose seasonings were unfamiliar, and tropical fruits we don't get at home. The audience was responsive to the dancers, who stamped and twined in folkloric patterns, and the mariachis--singing and playing better than any we'd heard.

Bargain Cab Tours

A guidebook said that taxis were reasonable, that fares were negotiable and should be arranged before entering the cab and that no tipping was expected. This was all true. In addition, cab drivers offered to conduct tours for little more than what bus tours cost.

For us, Rudy Vasquez was cab driver, tour guide and guardian. His station was next to the hotel, which made it easy for us to find him even when it wasn't his turn in the hotel driveway. For about $6 an hour he took us on a tour to small towns around Lake Chapala, about 35 miles southwest of Guadalajara.

Rudy watched over my smiling blonde daughter, who attracts strangers like a friendly puppy. When we wandered in a market that sold handcrafts and embroidered clothing, I could see him watching her from about 10 feet away. When she bought a blouse, he came close and bargained for the best price for it.

Whitefish and Wovens

He took us to the dining room of a small hotel in a town with a name like a hiccup, Ajijic. The lunch entree was whitefish, a sweet, firm fish from Lake Chapala. After lunch he led us through a garden to a shop where weavers were spinning thread on a spinning wheel and weaving cloth on a handmade wooden loom. The cloth was as beautiful as it was expensive. The dresses made from it cost well beyond $100, and some of the heavier material was $45 a yard.

We visited Chula Vista, a retirement community of Americans on a hillside by the lake. A house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms on a quarter acre would cost about $40,000, Rudy said. Americans can own property here; it's only oceanfront property that has restrictions.

We had wondered how far our American money would stretch in pesos and soon found that for food, transportation, leather goods, pottery and other indigenous handcrafts it would go twice as far as in California. For example, dinner at the hotel was about $6; a pair of women's high-style leather shoes, around $25.

Convenient Currency

It was handy to have Mexican coins and bills for small purchases. The most useful ones to carry are the 100-peso coin, worth less than 50 cents, and the 1,000-peso note, worth a little more than $4. There is a 15% tax on purchases and in restaurants. Because the expected tip is also 15%, it is easy to look at the sum added for tax and leave the same amount for tip.

At the end of the second day we realized that people at the hotel and on the streets were looking at us and smiling. We visited the ornate cathedral and sat reverently as five white-and-gold-robed priests finished a Mass.

The Degollado Theater, with its ornate decor, crystal chandeliers and gold-and-red lobby, could be a building in Florence or Paris. We regretted that we'd miss the folkloric ballet performance put on by students of the University of Guadalajara on Sunday at 10 a.m., at which time we'd be flying over Baja on our way home. We wished that we had known to plan our visit to cover Sunday, because many entertaining events happen only then.

Fun in the Park

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