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Trying to Get a Read on Mexico With These Books Was Real Challenge

October 14, 1990|JAMES T. YENCKEL | WASHINGTON POST

With about 25 guidebooks to Mexico in front of me, it should have been easy to pick an appealing hotel in Guadalajara. In truth, most were of little help for this particular task. Only one of them, "Fodor's Mexico," hinted at the real charm and convenience of the place where I ultimately stayed.

How good are the guides to Mexico?

Bound for Guadalajara, I decided to put the standard guides to a test. Which ones would I find most useful in my first visit to Mexico's second-largest city?

Practically all the major series--such as Fielding, Frommer, Insight, Bantam, Penguin, American Express, Let's Go, Lonely Planet and Birnbaum--offer a countrywide guide to Mexico. And there are numerous other specialty guides, such as "Hidden Mexico: An Adventurer's Guide to the Beaches and Coasts" and "The Shopper's Guide to Mexico."

Obviously, I couldn't tote all 25 with me. "Hidden Mexico," good as it is, was quickly eliminated because Guadalajara is nowhere near a beach. The informative Insight guides, superb sources for historical and cultural details, are the kind you read before you leave home. The "Let's Go" series is for adventurers on a tight budget, and I was inclined to a more comfortable style on this trip.

Finally, I trimmed my list to 10, a manageable number. They are the ones I considered the most comprehensive. They also are the ones most commonly found in bookstores. The majority provide details on all aspects of travel in Mexico, including lodging, restaurants, recreation and sightseeing. They tend to be updated with some frequency.

In quality, however, they range from excellent to awful. Mexico is a popular destination for Americans, as reflected in the abundance of Mexico guides on the market.

So far, however, most publishers have tried to squeeze the whole country between the covers of one book. Given the size and diversity of Mexico, this is an all but impossible task. For this reason, I didn't find any single guide that answered all my questions about Guadalajara.

Perhaps the time has come for publishers to bring out regional guides to Mexico, as they do for the United States and Canada.

Most travelers, I suspect, visit only a limited area of Mexico on each visit, rather than try to make a sweep of the whole country. Two regional guidebooks, "Guide to the Yucatan Peninsula," a Moon publication, and "Baja California: A Travel Survival Kit," from Lonely Planet, are a good start.

Knowing where you are going to stay in a foreign country is important to many travelers. So perhaps it is time, too, for publishers to commission specialized guides describing Mexico's best city hotels, its best resort hotels, unusual lodgings, ranch accommodations and good budget hotels. The only guide like this I have been able to find is "Romantic Inns of Mexico," by Toby Smith.

Not surprisingly, the thickest guidebooks tend to be the most useful because they contain more information. The primary exception to this rule is "The American Express Pocket Guide to Mexico," a quite slender volume. The expertly edited American Express series has the knack of pinpointing precisely the details you need to know, and doing it concisely and intelligently.

Among my chosen 10, the best of the lot proved to be "Fodor's Mexico." It was the only one that came close to adequately describing Guadalajara's hotels, including the Hotel De Mendoza--one of the few good hotels located in the city's attractive historic district.

I doubt my stay in Guadalajara would have been quite so rewarding if I had picked one of the luxury places on the outskirts of the city that most guidebooks recommend. (They are fine hotels, but their location is inconvenient if you are seeking Guadalajara's colonial past.)

But even Fodor's was restrained in its endorsement, noting that the De Mendoza was preferred by "mature travelers" from the United States and Canada. I suspect the editors mean that older travelers like the hotel because it is situated on a quiet street.

I preferred to interpret "mature" as meaning culturally sensitive travelers who like to stay in places that reflect the ambience of the city or country they are visiting. In fact, the De Mendoza seemed to attract mostly prosperous Mexican families.

If you are headed for Mexico, these are the books you're likely to find in your neighborhood bookstore.

Although most try to be comprehensive, each is written with a particular audience in mind, and each has its own distinctive features. Some will be a big help to you and others won't. Among them are editions from 1988 to 1991.

The 10 guidebooks:

--"Fodor's Mexico." The best of the group, primarily because of its practicality. It covers the basics well.

Hotels and restaurants are reviewed at length and with a critical eye, and sightseeing recommendations are extensive. The primary drawback is that historical and cultural material is limited. Guadalajara's dramatic history rates only one introductory paragraph (524 pages, $13.95).

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