NEWS
10/24/2011 06:23 EDT | Updated 12/24/2011 05:12 EST

Pan Am Games host city of Guadalajara offers mix of culture, food and sport

GUADALAJARA, Mexico - Five federal police officers stand by a hotel entrance in downtown Guadalajara, scanning the area as they hover near a metal detector.

Two other officers — wearing bulky vests and with automatic weapons at their side — are stationed near their truck a few feet away. They ooze intimidation as they keep a close eye on everyone who walks by.

Overhead, the whir of helicopters making passes over the downtown core is mixed with the frequent wail of sirens. With security officials outnumbering athletes at the Pan American Games by nearly two to one, this is the reality of life in the city this month.

And this is just outside a hotel, never mind an actual venue.

Games organizers pledged to make security a top priority in a country ravaged by drug violence. Most of the problems have been near the Mexico-United States border but the thousands of officers deployed here aren't taking any chances with the country enjoying its brightest turn in the sporting spotlight since hosting the 1986 World Cup.

"I believe Guadalajara is the safest place in Mexico right now," said Rafael Modenesi Do Couto, a manager at the main press centre. "Like 11,000 men on the streets and after one week, they didn't report anything bad.

"Everything is cool right now."

The sight of the odd officer with a Rambo-style bullet chain around his neck takes some getting used to here in the land of tacos, tequila and mariachi bands. Even the local Starbucks coffee shop has a security guard stationed at the door.

As a whole, the Games have gone off without a hitch. There have been some minor transportation issues but the venues were ready on time and the athletes and spectators seem pleased.

There is much to like in this sprawling city, with its rich culture and many beautiful landmarks. Mountains can be seen along the horizon and it's hard to beat the warm, sunny weather that has been the norm after a few days of rain at the start of the Games.

But like other big cities, it also has a gritty side.

There are several hard-scrabble neighbourhoods where the poverty is evident. Most homes have bars in front of their windows to prevent break-ins and many of the sidewalks and curbs are crumbling.

Driving in the city can be an adventure. Right-of-way on the streets essentially goes to whoever gets there first.

Finding seat belts in a cab is a bonus. Motorcycle helmets are a rarity instead of the norm. A car ride feels like a spin in an old wooden roller-coaster.

Passengers can forget about using a BlackBerry in a car. The constant bumps make trying to press the keypad an exercise in frustration. Even if you could, the screen is a blur thanks to the pockmarked pavement.

The fragrant aroma from restaurant kitchens is often negated by the cigar and cigarette smoke, which is as common as nachos and salsa on the table.

Instead of hot dogs and sausage, vendors sell tacos and quesadillas on street corners and outside venues. It's like a flashback for tourists as soda pop is often served in a glass bottle.

Street corners can often be a stage for buskers, who get creative to make a few pesos. Some dance in traditional Mexican costumes, others juggle and some guys even blow fireballs in the air. Street-tough kids as young as eight or nine will often try to clean car windows when traffic stops.

Jaywalking is only for the fleet of foot. Pedestrians have about as much respect as squirrels running across the road.

There is still much to like in the city and the friendliness of the people is evident. Many locals are thrilled to be hosting a big multi-sport event, which will wrap up Sunday with the closing ceremony.

Their hosting duties won't end there though. The Parapan American Games are on tap from Nov. 12-20.