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 ambiance 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).

"Birnbaum's Mexico." Another good basic book that I found only slightly less helpful than Fodor's. Birnbaum does a much better job interpreting the spirit of Guadalajara, but its hotel and restaurant sections are weak and generally unhelpful. A feature of all of Birnbaum's guides that has always impressed me is a section called "Diversions." The editors choose the best in a variety of vacation options. For Mexico, that means golf, beach resorts, spas, evocative small hotels, great museums, horseback trips, fishing and mountain climbing (692 pages, $14.95).

Michelin's "Mexico." Michelin has just published its first green guide to Mexico in English. Don't expect lodging or restaurant advice; the green guides concentrate on sightseeing attractions -- highlighting the most important ones. There's a good introductory section on the literature, folklore, art, food and handicrafts of Mexico. But overall, I find the prose stuffy (251 pages, $12.95).

"Mexico: A Travel Survival Kit." Fat but flawed. This hefty guide tries to be encyclopedic, but the good stuff gets lost in the excess. An example of detail not needed is the listing of flights from the United States to Guadalajara, information quickly outdated and readily available from any travel agent. The series aims at adventurous travelers on a budget. As a result, the Mexico guide contains a useful outline of the major city bus routes in Guadalajara and other cities (939 pages, $17.39).

"Fielding's Mexico." Is there life in Guadalajara? You wouldn't know it by using this tedious and confusing guide. The writing is atrocious. Pick another book (791 pages, $14.95).

"The Real Guide: Mexico." The "Real Guides" are an updated and Americanized version of a very popular British series known on the far side of the Atlantic as "The Rough Guides." They are aimed at people who travel on a limited budget and who are interested in the politics and culture of the place they are visiting. The "Mexico" edition succeeds in serving this audience. The description of Guadalajara captures the historic flavor of the city better than any of the other guides I consulted. Lodging information is limited to modest hotels in the city center, and details are provided on how to get around the city by local bus (420 pages, $11.95).

Bantam's "Mexico." Reasonably comprehensive, but the prose is bland. The guide is strongest in providing lodging, dining and shopping information (512 pages, $13.95).

"The American Express Pocket Guide to Mexico." I prefer this slim, easy-to-carry volume over Michelin's "Mexico." It is better organized, manages to include a good hotel and restaurant section, and is written with wit and enthusiasm (220 pages, $9.95).

"The Penguin Guide to Mexico." The Penguin series purports to be "selective," but "Mexico" manages to fill as many pages as any of the larger guides and isn't nearly as much fun to read as the American Express guide (559 pages, $14.95).

Sunset's "Mexico Travel Guide From Baja to the Yucatan." Sunset Magazine, an excellent family and home publication for Westerners, produces first-rate travel guides. "Mexico Travel Guide," a light-hearted guide to the best sightseeing in Mexico, is no exception. More than any of the other guides here, it makes exploring Mexico sound not only rewarding but fun. No how-to information is provided, but there's plenty of advice on what to see and do (160 pages, $10.95).

Also of Note

"Frommer's Mexico on $35 a Day." Skip the posh hotels and restaurants and see "the Mexico of the Mexicans," say the editors of Frommer's. It's cheaper and more interesting. The $35 figure is an estimate on what it will cost each person for moderately priced lodging, meals and transportation. Hotel and dining recommendations are ample, and the walking tour maps are excellent (658 pages, $13.95).

"22 Days in Mexico." Slender but fast-paced, this unusual guide describes a three-week Mexico itinerary that will take you from the colonial cities north of the capital to the Indian city of Oaxaca and the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula in the south. Lodging and dining suggestions -- budget to deluxe -- are included (119 pages, $7.95).

"Hidden Mexico: An Adventurer's Guide to the Beaches and Coasts." Don't buy this guide if you are looking for advice on luxury beach hotels. Its purpose is to direct you -- the offbeat traveler -- to the hidden beaches between the resorts, where you can camp or stay in small hotels or inns (413 pages, $12.95).

"Let's Go: The Budget Guide to Mexico." Published by the Harvard Student Agencies, the "Let's Go" series is aimed at college-age travelers on tight budgets. But older travelers pinching pennies find them useful also. Good cheap lodgings and meals are the focus, but "Mexico" also provides insights into the history and culture of the country (560 pages, $12.95).

"The Shopper's Guide to Mexico." A guide to distinguishing the best in Mexican handicrafts and where to find them (206 pages, $9.95).

"Insight Mexico." Insights are what this rapidly growing series offers best. Read "Mexico" as an introduction to life south of the border before you go. Some sightseeing suggestions, but advice on lodging and dining is minimal (380 pages, $15.95).

"The People's Guide to Mexico." All you ever needed to know about traveling or living in Mexico. This hefty volume is not a sightseeing guide, nor does it direct you to hotels and restaurants. Instead, it answers all the other questions you may have. A sampling: where to get your car repaired, how to barter, how to explore by bus, what to do if you get arrested, and drinking customs in cantinas (587 pages, $14.95).