Mariachi music was born in Guadalajara, and the rollicking, foot-tapping tunes of Mexico's popular folk minstrels still dance through the historic city's cobbled streets as if every day is a fiesta. Listen to the music, and you may quickly succumb, as I did, to the city's old-fashioned charm. We tourists often travel in search of illusions, and in Guadalajara, I found the romantic Mexico of my imagination.

One lazy afternoon my wife and I lunched in a flower-scented garden where peacocks begged crumbs and the waiter plucked ripe sweet guavas for us from the tree shading our table. I awoke daily to the sound of the cathedral bells, pealing their morning greeting as they have for almost four centuries. We peeked into the loveliest of the city's many Spanish-colonial buildings, invariably finding quiet courtyards where fountains splashed in a profusion of bougainvillea, oleander and bright red hibiscus.

Twice we all but got lost in the crowded passageways of the city's sprawling Liberty Market, where we had gone in search of the decorative pottery for which the region is famous. At sunset, we lingered over tequila sours at a sidewalk cafe or joined the crowds strolling the city's splendidly formal plazas. Magicians, folk dancers and other street performers entertained. On our last night, we took a long horse-drawn carriage ride through the old city, waving at Mexican families who waved back at us from their carriages.

My favorite memory, though, is the Saturday afternoon we chanced upon a mariachi concert in Tlaquepaque, a picturesque little village within Guadalajara's borders that is noted for fine pottery and other handicrafts. We had just emerged from a shop when I heard the unmistakeable chorus of blaring trumpets and squealing violins. I'm a great fan of mariachi music, so off we went in pursuit of the boisterous sound, joined by almost everybody else on the street. A fiesta was in the making, and we weren't about to miss it.

Guadalajara is perhaps an unusual destination for a Mexican getaway, since it is nowhere near an ocean beach. The nearest beach resort is Puerto Vallarta, a long and arduous drive away. I was intrigued more by Guadalajara's lively colonial history and a reputation as Mexico's "most Mexican" city -- an indication that I would see more local folk than fellow Americans on the streets. The fact that the latest edition of the Encyclopedia Americana -- a good resource I always consult before I travel -- calls it "one of the most attractive of North American cities" clinched my decision to go.

Guadalajara sits in a high, sweeping valley about 300 miles northwest of the capital of Mexico City. At an elevation of 5,141 feet, it enjoys a dry, pleasantly mild climate throughout the year. Although we visited there on a long weekend in August, we left our hotel windows open at night to enjoy the cool breezes -- which, of course, is why I heard the cathedral bells at dawn. The cathedral's anthem was politely followed -- in deference to its age perhaps -- by the ringing echoes of first one and then another of the city's other churches. I found the bells a gentle enough alarm clock.

Guadalajara is Mexico's second-largest city, but this statistic can be misleading. Mexico City is swamped by a population that may exceed 20 million. Guadalajara's is only a quarter of that at 5 million, and so far the city has managed to escape the oppressive congestion of the capital. Indeed, in the historic colonial district, where traffic is banned from some streets and few structures rise above two stories, you might easily imagine yourself in a small (though sophisticated) village.

It is a very old city and a historical one, founded by the Spanish conquistadors in 1542, a good 78 years before the Pilgrims established Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. A regional capital, it was the jumping-off place for the Spanish exploration of California and other Spanish colonies in what is now the United States. Father Junipero Serra, who founded the first of a string of Franciscan missions from San Diego to Sonoma, made his departure from Guadalajara in the late 1760s.

Much of Spanish Guadalajara has disappeared, but in the past decade city officials have acted to preserve the colonial integrity of the historic district -- an area of several square blocks in the heart of the city. We picked our hotel, the comfortable little De Mendoza, because of its location within the district. It's nestled against one of the city's finest old chapels, the ornate Santa Maria de Gracia, a popular choice for weddings. I caught glimpses of at least three formal bridal processions from my third-floor window.

Large parts of the historic district are off-limits to vehicles, which makes it ideal for sightseeing on foot.

I found it an impressive place, a sort of architectural garden where a collection of handsome gray stone buildings and baroque-style churches are displayed amid broad plazas and well-tended gardens.

A modern element in the district that enhances rather than detracts is the seven-block-long Plaza Tapatia, an inviting pedestrian mall completed eight years ago. It is graced with arcades, fountains, hand-wrought iron lamps and statuary -- monumental and whimsical alike. The plaza is an attractive link between two ofGuadalajara's historical treasures, the cathedral and the Cabanas Cultural Institute. On our way from one to the other, we stopped for apricot-flavored ice cream cones at Helados Bing, a modern ice cream parlor tucked into one of the arcades -- yet another of the charms of Plaza Tapatia.

The 16th-century cathedral, its twin towers decorated in tiles of blue and yellow, dominates the western edge of the historic district near the intersection of two major shopping streets, Avenida 16 de Septiembre and Avenida Juarez. On the eastern edge, about a dozen blocks away via Plaza Tapatia, is the Cabanas Cultural Institute, occupying a former orphanage that was the largest colonial structure ever built in the Americas. It's a delightful, six-acre sprawl that hides -- by official count -- 23 charming patios. In one, we watched a group of eager youngsters learning local folk dances to mariachi tunes.

We spent most of a full day exploring the historic district, ate traditional Mexican meals within walking distance of the hotel and joined the evening crowds promenading on the Plaza Tapatia and the other adjacent squares. Guadalajara's handsome 19th-century theater, the Degollado Theater, overlooks one of them, the Plaza de La Liberacion. One night, the theater drew a glamorous tuxedo- and gown-clad crowd to a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet, which was visiting. The group added to the elegance of the colonial structures around us.

We found it easy to poke our noses into most of the old buildings, many of which house government offices. Built mostly of gray stone, they present a solid, imposing exterior. But it's all a bluff; inside, the buildings are far more inviting than they may seem. Arched walls encircle delightful gardens and cool, quiet courtyards decorated with sprightly fountains, wrought-iron balconies and tiled walkways. Orange trees, a local symbol, flourish among palms and other semitropical foliage. I liked to sit for a moment and soak in the aura of earlier centuries.

In our rambles, we inevitably reached the Government Palace, a large 18th-century colonial structure that faces the neatly manicured Plaza de Armas. We stepped inside, anticipating more of the pleasant courtyards that so appealed to us. Instead, we were all but stunned by a massive and fiery mural sweeping across the ceiling directly above us. It is the work of Jose Clemente Orozco, Mexico's famed artist. Completed in the late 1930s, it depicts Father Hidalgo, a Mexican revolutionary who in 1810 proclaimed the end of slavery from this very building. Carrying a burning torch, Father Hidalgo glares down in unrelenting anger -- probably well-justified by the injustices of Mexico's colonial past.

The Regional Museum of Guadalajara, on the north side of the Plaza de La Liberacion, occupies yet another fine old colonial building, once a seminary. I don't know whether I was more taken by its quiet, pillar-ringed courtyards or the exhibits of colorful Indian costumes on display. That evening, we would chance upon a group of folk dancers dressed in similar attire performing for the street crowds on the plaza.

We concluded the day's history lesson with lunch at Cafe Sandy, a second-floor restaurant with balcony tables overlooking the museum entrance and the colorful street scene. Guadalajara is famed for its traditional dishes -- tacos, tostadas, gorditas (meat pies) and pozole, a hominy soup -- most of which were on Sandy's menu. I opted for a chicken tostada, a fried tortilla topped with sliced chicken, chopped vegetables and a hot sauce. A large lunch for two (which included beer) cost about $14, reflecting the generally moderate prices in Guadalajara.

Afterward, we headed for Liberty Market, reportedly the largest public market under one roof in Latin America. About three square blocks in size, it stands just outside the historic district at its eastern end, easily within walking of the Hotel De Mendoza. The place is intimidating at first, a vast and confusing arena jammed to overflowing with individual shops selling almost everything from fresh fruits and meats to sombreros and hand-crafted guitars. We went in search of hand-painted pottery, which we found in overwhelming array. We had been advised to bargain, but the prices were so low already I didn't have the heart.

On our last day in Guadalajara, we ventured beyond the historic district to visit two nearby artisans' villages, Tonala and Tlaquepaque.

We might have gone by bus or taxi, but instead we hired a licensed guide with a car for the morning at about $12 an hour for four hours -- a reasonable charge, and not much more than what a taxi would have cost for the same trip. The villages are each about a 25-minute drive from the center of the city and perhaps 15 minutes from each other.

Unlike Tlaquepaque, Tonala has not yet been gobbled up by growing Guadalajara. To reach it, you ride through a bit of open countryside, where cattle graze in green fields.

By outward appearances, Tonala is a typical country village. Adobe buildings, painted in pastel shades, line dusty, cobblestone streets -- all of which seem to lead to the central plaza and the community church.

But Tonala is noted for its numerous, small family-run pottery factories, which produce a variety of colorful ceramics -- plates, animal figurines, tall vases and deep bowls. Much of the work is quite good, though some of it obviously is junk.

Tonala is popular with the local folks, our guide told us, because prices are inexpensive. She shopped for a small gift for a friend, while we toured the shops to see what they offered. On Thursdays and Sundays, vendors from surrounding communities flock to the village, displaying handmade baskets and other handicrafts on blankets spread on the sidewalk.

There is homespun authenticity to the pottery trade in Tonala. But the best ceramics in the region are found in Tlaquepaque, a considerably more upscale neighborhood that once served as a country resort for wealthy families of Guadalajara.

Several shops along Calle Independencia, an attractive pedestrian promenade, occupy the former homes of these aristocrats. Many of the buildings enclose pleasant gardens. We toured the shops as much to see the interior of the old homes as the merchandise. A hand-painted vase, signed by the artist, may cost several hundred dollars, although much cheaper pieces also are available.

One of Guadalajara's finest restaurants, the No Name Restaurant, is just a few steps off Calle Independencia, and we sought it out for a late lunch after dismissing our guide. At least, we thought we were eating late at 1:30 p.m. Actually, we had arrived early by Guadalajaran standards. The restaurant really didn't fill all its tables until about 3, when we were leaving. With time on their hands, the waiters picked guavas from the trees, sharing them with us.

I couldn't help but like the restaurant. It was the romantic Old Mexico of my dreams. We dined outdoors in a tiled garden courtyard shaded by banana trees, bamboo and other lush foliage. Peacocks strutted past, and a guitarist serenaded us. The table was set with ceramic ware from a prestigious shop next door. To all appearances, we had stepped back into the 18th century. Lunch was as satisfying as the setting. I ordered a small grilled steak topped with sweet pecan sauce. A complete lunch for two, with beer, came to about $40.

Afterward, we strolled the streets of Tlaquepaque for a while longer, reluctant to leave. I ducked into a ceramics shop to buy a souvenir of our visit, and when I emerged I heard the mariachi band warming up in the plaza. The concert was just getting underway in a large, tree-shaded plaza ringed by more open-air restaurants.

All the restaurants had tables, maybe hundreds of them, spilling at random almost to the edge of a circular bandstand, which commanded the center of the plaza. On stage, a large mariachi group in traditional bolero jacket, tight black pants and silver trim played with the robust spirit the music invites. The tables filled quickly.

Mostly, the concert was a family affair -- large multi-generational families taking a dozen seats or more around the tables. Waiters scurried, carrying trays heaped with spicy dishes, steins of good Mexican beer and fruit drinks. Youngsters in fancy party clothes skipped to the beat, and the grown-ups called for their favorite pieces and applauded enthusiastically. I sipped my beer, listened to the tunes and watched the happy crowd around me.

Mariachi is the music of Old Guadalajara, and I was in the mood for a fiesta. If you travel with romantic dreams, why wake up before you have to?

WAYS & MEANS

GETTING THERE: Continental and American have convenient flights from Washington to Guadalajara. On Continental, you change planes in Houston; on American, the change is in Dallas. The flight takes about five hours. Continental currently is quoting a round-trip fare of $454 for weekend travel.

WHEN TO GO: Summer is the rainy season, when there is more humidity. But temperatures remain mild because of the altitude. Fall is regarded as the best season to visit because the weather invariably is crisp, dry and sunny.

WHERE TO STAY: Several luxury hotels, including the Fiesta Americana and El Tapatio, are located inconveniently on the outskirts of town. We chose to stay, instead, in the heart of the historic district at the delightful Hotel De Mendoza. We could walk from the hotel to restaurants, theaters and most sightseeing attractions.

The De Mendoza is a small, quiet hotel with an appealing style that reflects the historic setting in which it is located. The staff is friendly, the service attentive and the rooms cheery and immaculate. The restaurant is quite good and moderately priced. The menu is about equally divided between Mexican and international dishes. I usually opted for one of the spicy breakfast plates of eggs, refried beans, tortillas and hot sauce. A room for two is about $70 a night (tax included) in the winter high season; the rate is $46 a night the rest of the year. For reservations: Mexico Tours, Albuquerque, N.M., 1-800-255-8482.

WHERE TO EAT: Guadalajara has many fine restaurants serving the world's cuisines. We were interested in Mexican dishes, which were available practically everywhere. The Copa de Leche on Avenida Jua'rez, one of Guadalajara's old favorites, offers a Mexican menu on its mezzanine and continental dishes on the first level. The restaurant is about a 10-minute walk across the historic district from the De Mendoza. A full dinner for two is about $30. INFORMATION: Mexican Ministry of Tourism, 1911 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006, 728-1750. -- James T. Yenckel