A visit to Tlaquepaque

Story and photos by Patricia Alisau

Now that the December rush of gift giving is becoming a distant memory, why not zap crowded malls and long lines from your agenda and plan for stress-free holiday shopping on foreign shores? For next winter’s festive season, that is, when you can snuggle up in front of a fire with an eggnog instead of blitzing the stores in your pajamas for midnight specials. 

Pick any time of year for jetting down to Tlaquepaque (Tlah-kay-PAH-kay), one of Mexico’s famed shopping Meccas no more than a few hours away by plane from most U.S. gateways.  Foreigners are drawn to Tlaquepaque by what’s Mexican. Mexicans come here for what’s cutting edge and international.

At first sight, few visions are as arresting as this quaint colonial village nestled within the urban sprawl of Guadalajara. Tlalquepaque may look like something you’d find in the countryside outside Madrid or Barcelona but this enclave of artisans is as much at home in the State of Jalisco as its tequila and Mariachis.

Tlaquepaque's main plazaAn arts and crafts center, it’s known for stylish hand-decorated ceramics (it’s considered the leading center of pottery production in the country) and hand-blown glass, especially red water glasses, dishes and decorative figures of animals in contemporary design. Metalworkers use bronze, tin and brass to create lamps, candelabra, picture frames and other home accessories as well as imposing sculptures. Exquisite jewelry, silver and copperware, hand-carved wooden furniture and hand-woven clothing are other offerings. Several hundred shops – many of which are run by families with centuries-old traditions of craftsmanship – line charming pedestrian streets and plazas.                             

The artisan heritage of this town began around the 16th century when native Tonaltecan Indians began making decorated pottery from local claybeds. In 1821, the treaty ending the War of Independence between Mexico and Spain was signed here and the town gained national prominence. Afterwards, wealthy families from Guadalajara began building summer mansions, many of which have been turned into shops, galleries and restaurants. More jewelers, glass blowers and weavers arrived to set up workshops.

In the 1880s, a self-taught artist named Pantaleon Panduro exhibited his sculptures at the Paris Exposition, which jettisoned Tlaquepaque to international fame. Today, the plastic arts have grown way beyond Panduro in such names as Sergio Bustamante, one of the town’s celebrity artisans, who sealed his reputation with his whimsical, surreal sculptures, which are sold worldwide. His local gallery explodes with color, showcasing, in addition, engaging silver and gold jewelry and elegant custom-designed furniture.

Another local favorite is Agustin Parra who relies heavily on the unique Baroque style of 17th century Mexico in his carved wooden pieces and ceramic figurines. Specializing in sacred art, Parra fashioned a chair for Pope John Paul II during his visit to the country a few years back and has been commissioned by the Vatican to design nativity scenes.                              

Parra’s religious sculpturesAmong sightseeing musts is the Panduro Pantaleon Museum, honoring the father of modern ceramics in Jalisco. Each June, the museum displays winning pieces from Tlaquepaque’s national ceramics contest, which fill several salons and some of which become permanent acquisitions. For a quick rundown on what’s what in the world of  local pottery, drop into the Regional Ceramics Museum, which exhibits different-colored clays and techniques used by area artists through the ages including the labor-intensive stoneware developed by the American ceramist Ken Edwards.

A colorful bit of history says that one owner of this old colonial house was known around town as Burro de Oro (Gold Donkey) because of his wealth from a gold mine and because he was practically illiterate. He supposedly used his wealth to attract 50 wives, which he dressed all alike. Apart from this eccentricity, he was a supporter of Maximillian, Mexico’s ill-fated French emperor of the 19th century. Inviting him to his home, he prepared for the visit by hiring 100 seamstresses to sew a canopy several miles long to shade the path of His Highness to the door. But, alas, the emperor never showed up.

Once a military barracks during the War of Independence, the 250-year-old Casa Historico (Historic House) is a typical palatial home of the period with 28 rooms and almost as many patios, where part has been sectioned off as a gallery with beautifully detailed miniatures of nativity scenes and Mariachi bands. You’ll be met by Salvador Martinez, who runs the gallery and who looks much younger than his 88 years. Attributing his good health to the ancient trees on the grounds, each day, he said, he wraps his arms around them, absorbing what he called their positive energy. Visitors are welcome to try it.

“Wired” Mariachis

When you’re ready for a break from shopping and sight seeing, head to the famous El Parian for a margarita or meal served around a charming gazebo in an airy courtyard.  Mariachi musicians play continuously and the management claims it has the biggest bar in Mexico.

Staying there: Although there are a couple bed-and-breakfasts in Tlaquepaque, nearby Guadalajara – about a half-hour's drive away --  has more options for hotels.

More info:  The tourist information stand on the main square has brochures and guides to the area.

Free bi-lingual tours can usually be arranged by calling the Tlaquepaque Tourist Office at least a day in advance at 35-62-70-50, ext. 2320, 2321 or 2318. The tours last two to three hours. Tlaquepaque can be reached by taxi from downtown Guadalajara.

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