Tapatío underworld

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By Joy Hepp

Photo: Joy Hepp

According to some Tapatíos, or natives of Guadalajara, the entrance to hell lies beneath Jalisco’s secretary of tourism office.

The average tourist strolling through the colonial streets of Guadalajara is surrounded by cultural history; from the cobblestone roadways, to the spires atop the centuries-old Catholic churches, it’s easy to take in something magnificent at every turn.

What many may not realize is that some of the city’s greatest historical curiosities lay hidden underground.

Although the tunnels are off limits to tourists, the story is facscinating and adds another level of mystery to Guadalajara.

Guillermo Gomez Sustaita is an investigative journalist based in Guadalajara. He decided to investigate the city’s subterranean history after hearing stories about the mysterious series of tunnels for his entire life.

“I’ve written about everything,” he says. “I had to investigate so I could find out the truth about Guadalajara’s tunnels.”

Mysteries abound

While legends about the tunnels abound — some say the river Jordan runs below the Cathedral and there’s also that entrance to hell — Gomez says that the real history is as fascinating as anything inventive Tapatíos have made up.

First built by Franciscan priests during the colonizing of the city in the late 1500’s, the  brick-lined tunnels was utilized to travel and communicate between the many cloisters that surrounded the city.

During the time of the Mexican Revolution many of the city’s elite used the tunnels to hide valuables from raiding revolucionarios, including young women who hid to avoid being raped.

Finally, during the time of the Cristero War, the tunnels made for perfect escape vehicles for persecuted clergy. There was even one that lies under the modern day Club Jalisco big enough to celebrate Mass in.

When Gomez began his underground investigation in 1998, he enlisted the help of several experts, including an engineer named Jose Manuel Vargas Sanchez. The engineer’s job was to maintain the city’s storm drains and sewers.

“I never had an encounter with Batman or the Bat Cave, nor hidden treasures; this is all pure popular imagination,” Vargas told Gomez.

What this tunnel expert did find were real bats of all shapes and sizes. Sadly, Vargas ended up dying from a rare disease from exposure to guano.

Special places

A geologist named Julio Alvarez Jaramillo guided Gomez’s first venture into one of these caves. Alvarez — reluctant about bringing along a curious journalist — only agreed to the trip on certain conditions.

“You have to pray with me when I tell you, you can’t joke about what you see, and don’t ask any questions while we’re down in the tunnel,” he advised.

Gomez agreed and met the geologist at eight the next morning. Alvarez showed up dressed in a full Franciscan monk outfit complete with a large golden crucifix on his chest and a modern miner’s helmet on his head.

“I couldn’t ask any questions,” Gomez says.  After a short prayer he followed Alvarez and was impressed that the architecture was still intact. However, he didn’t see any ghosts or treasure.

When they emerged from the darkened depths he was finally permitted to ask Alvarez about his unusual get-up.

“You have to protect yourself from the evil that reigns down below,” he replied.

Despite never finding anything out of the ordinary, Gomez is still in awe of the tunnels.

“First of all, they have been here for centuries and now there are whole houses and buildings on top of them,” he says.

“Second, Guadalajara sits on top of very delicate pumice stone that would have been very difficult to work with. Finally, there were no computers or construction technology back then and everything is measured out to the millimeter.”

Unfortunately, Guadalajara’s tunnels will likely not become a tourist draw anytime soon. Those who know of their locations are wary about divulging the information, and rightly so. In 1936, a tailor known as “ El Calavero” discovered a bounty of gold underneath his kitchen. He tattled his tale and was later killed by a pair of greedy thieves.

On the chance any adventurous soul finds a way to enter one of these tunnels, Gomez advises they take along a surgical face mask and a good sturdy cross.

Tunnel locations

• The Hotel Frances tunnel. Near the Palacio del Gobierno, this also branches off from the tunnel under the Guadalajara Cathedral and the Teatro Degollado.

• The Calle Angulo tunnel. It’s located underneath a modern-day residence across from the Escuela Manuel M. Dieguez and believed to have belonged to the San Diego Convent.

• The Cine Variedades tunnel. During construction for the Museo de Ciudad a passageway was discovered near calle Ocampo.

• The tunnel under Teatro Degollado, which today is used as a underground furniture storage area.

• The Patio de Los Angeles tunnel in Analco. It’s believed that this tunnel is connected with the temple of San Sebastian.

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