This Mexican Art Town Is Like Alice in Wonderland Meets Palm Trees

And the artist is like a surrealist mad hatter.

The garden at Galeria Sergio Bustamante. | Photo by Nick Hilden
The garden at Galeria Sergio Bustamante. | Photo by Nick Hilden

You’re wandering the streets of downtown Tlaquepaque—a charming little district on the southern edge of Guadalajara, Mexico—where you check out the wares offered by street vendors, poke your head into shops owned by local craft makers, and take some photos of the looming cathedral on the edge of the bustling central plaza, all the while keeping an eye out for which of the many restaurant terraces catches your fancy. Then you come upon something… unusual: a blue and purple-lit block, at the head of which stands a bronze statue of a face emerging from what appears to be a sort of half-sun. Intriguing. You continue on.

The further down the colorful block you venture, the more strange art you find: A figure with a triangle head holding the hands of a similarly-triangled person, the former preventing the latter from blowing away. Another triangular person holding an umbrella in one hand and waving with the other. A triangle-headed woman, her dress falling about her legs like the ridges of a clamshell. Turns out you’re in luck—you’ve stumbled upon the gallery of the renowned Mexican surrealist Sergio Bustamonte, and now you’re in for a real treat.

No matter if you’re coming to Guadalajara (or the greater Jalisco state) for the tequila, turquoise agave fields against purple mountains, ridiculously good tacos, colonial architecture, or to get into some mind-bending art, you should definitely consider dedicating a few days of your itinerary to the gorgeous magic town of Tlaquepaque. We’ll tell you everything you need to know—plus what to eat and where to stay—to intentionally throw yourself into a surrealist wonderland.

See what ideas grow from his mind. | Sergio Bustamante

Meet the mad hatter: Sergio Bustamante

While many visitors to Mexico make their way to Guadalajara, few foreigners know to check out Tlaquepaque. Largely a residential region, it has a pleasantly local vibe that suggests you’ve meandered off the beaten tourist track. We’ll dive into Tlaquepaque more below, but first we have to ask: who is this mad hatter genius and the town’s most famous resident, Sergio Bustamante?

Well first off, he’s one of Mexico’s most renowned artists. Bustamante’s surrealist sculptures lean into fantasy and a somewhat playful sense of whimsy, and many if not most boast his iconic triangular-headed imagery. You'll see his work lining the streets of Tlaquepaque, though you can also go directly to his gallery in town as well—which you absolutely should do. There, you can purchase his work in a variety of formats, from small items of jewelry to expansive sculptures and furniture pieces. But more importantly, just by walking around, you can submerge yourself in a trippy dreamworld.

Is anyone else getting dizzy? | Sergio Bustamante

Enter a Mexican Wonderland

Visiting Galeria Sergio Bustamante is an outright delightful experience. The further you descend into its rabbit hole, the deeper into wonderland you are.

At the entrance you find a more or less typical salesroom in which you can browse jewelry and smaller statues. Venture into the next room and the surrealism cranks up a notch thanks to its abundant array of larger-scale statues portraying a variety of fantastic imagery. But you’re just getting started.

Follow the hallway into the depths of the building, and you encounter more and more strange, fun, beautiful art. And then you emerge into the garden: a dazzling landscape of smiling astrological figures hanging from tree branches; a stream flanked by lights and faces and smaller statues; bamboo and a little bridge; and of course a smattering of the triangle-headed people standing (and sometimes hand-standing) here and there.

La Villa del Ensueño Boutique Hotel
Works from Bustamante line the street of Tlaquepaque. | La Villa del Ensueño Boutique Hotel

Navigate the shops and art of Tlaquepaque

The Tlaquepaque Centro region isn’t large—you can likely experience most of what it has to offer within a day or two. Pop down if you happen to be visiting Guadalajara, or fly in for a couple of nights if you’re staying in Mexico City.

Calle Independencia runs through the heart of the Centro area, and it’s going to provide the majority of your shopping, eating, and general enjoyment opportunities. It’s here—in the Plaza Pavo Real stretch—that you’ll find the block boasting the Bustamante statues and his gallery. Next door, you’ll also find Almacén Central Arte en Cobre Tlaquepaque: a mall containing several smaller galleries where you can browse a wide variety of art and handicrafts from local creatives. Just down the street is Gallery el Dorado, where they offer outright gorgeous handmade furniture, as well as smaller art pieces and crafts.

Once evening arrives, the sidewalks of Calle Independencia become lined with handicraft vendors and food stalls, and the whole place becomes a vibrant bustle of shopping, eating, and general merriment. Music and booze flow freely in a festive atmosphere.

El Patio Tlaquepaque
Taco meets fondue. | El Patio Tlaquepaque

Eat birria and tacos with a side of guitar

Speaking of eating, music, and booze, it’s imperative to do all three at once. The state of Jalisco is famous for its mariachi music, which is often played during meal times. Get a taste of the tunes by sitting down to eat at either El Patio Tlaquepaque or Real San Pedro, which are side by side along Calle Independencia and offer a wide selection of regional and national deliciousnesses. At El Patio Tlaquepaque, you can order juicy birria or try a stuffed chile with decadent creamy sauce and sprinkled with pomegranates. Meanwhile at Real San Pedro, venture into some duck tacos or wild boar loin, and top it off with some cheesecake drizzled in passion fruit.

Or if you’re in the mood for pizza with a view, head over to La Valentina Pizza Santuario, a multi-storied joint with a stunning vista of the cathedral and plaza from the rooftop seating. In fact, rooftop bars and restaurants with charming vibes abound in this area, so look up and keep an eye out for whichever snags your interest.

La Villa del Ensueño Boutique Hotel
Frida Kahlo would approve. | La Villa del Ensueño Boutique Hotel

Where to stay in Tlaquepaque

There are a number of hotels in the area with quality reputations—Hotel Tlaquepaque, La Villa del Ensueno, and Quinta Don Jose Boutique Hotel being among the standouts.

La Villa del Ensueno has some fun pops of color along its neo-colonial architecture, reminiscent of Frida Kahlo’s La Casa Azul in CDMX. It has just 20 rooms spread across two mansions, full of terraces, patios, fountains, and gardens—not to mention a bar, pool, and jacuzzis. You’ll find couches outside in the many corridors, inviting guests to spend as much time outdoors as possible in the ideal weather.

Over at Quinta Don Jose, you’ll see vines and all kinds of plants climbing the walls of the hotel and pool, all the way to the terracotta-shingle roof, looking like gorgeously preserved ruins swallowed up by a jungle. Many of the rooms have warm brick ceilings and a splash of colorful Mexican print pillows, plus an on-site Italian and Mexican restaurant.

If you end up going the Airbnb route, just be sure to find a place with close proximity to Calle Independencia or the Centro region in general. That way you’ll always be within a few steps of the vibrant action.

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Nick Hilden is a contributor for Thrillist.