Reflexions
on Lake Chapala
By Robert Ross

 

 

As we toured Lake Chapala, a common question we asked of the Americans who had moved to the area, was: "Why Chapala?" And, "Did the move meet your expectations?" The answers as to "why" varied, but most ex-pats focused on the ideal climate that Chapala offered. As to whether or not expectations were met, the answer was an overwhelming "Yes!"  In fact, almost everyone with whom we spoke, enthusiastically declared that the move "exceeded their expectations."

There are few places close to home that offer an idyllic natural setting, affordable home prices and a temperate year round climate. Lake Chapala, Mexico is one of those places. Yes, it's been discovered, yet it still maintains all the charm of a small village, with many of the benefits of a cosmopolitan city.

Lake Chapala, located in the state of Jalisco, has been attracting American retirees for many years, so... as one who is approaching retirement age, I felt it my duty to "check-it out."

We began our adventure by flying from San Diego to Guadalajara. Our destination was the village of San Juan Cosala, a few miles west of the village of Ajijic (pronounced Ah-hee-hick), which is a few miles west of the city of Chapala.

Lake Chapala is the largest fresh water lake in Mexico, approximately 50 miles long and eighteen miles wide. The lake is dotted with small villages, each possessing its own charm. It is estimated (a very rough estimate) that about 15,000 Americans live in the area.

We had prearranged to rent a home on a hillside overlooking the lake. It was about a forty-minute cab ride from the Guadalajara airport to our final destination. The cab ride took us through the towns of Chapala, Ajijic and then San Juan Cosala.   

After unpacking and getting accustomed to our new home (with a view of the lake that can only be described as magnificent), we headed into Ajijic to see why this village in particular was so popular amongst American retirees.

Ajijic is the center of gravity for ex-pats. This pre-colonial town, with its cobblestone streets, central plaza and unique shops and restaurants, is set on the lake, with a lush green mountain as a backdrop.

Nestled a few blocks from the lake, within the town of Ajijic, is the Lake Chapala Society.  LCS, boasting thirty-one hundred members, is where Americans and Canadians gather to socialize, form clubs and exchange information.  

It was no wonder why the LCS was so popular, with its tropical garden setting, large gazebo, library and meeting areas. I could have easily spent the entire day there, relaxing and enjoying the tropical gardens. While we were at the LCS, a Spanish language class was being conducted in the gazebo. A glance of the bulletin board indicated a host of activities - from volunteer work at various social agencies to bridge clubs and salsa dance lessons. We quizzed people about their favorite restaurants, health care in the area, and of course the big question: "Were they happy they had moved to
Mexico?"

From the LCS we walked along the cobblestoned streets towards the center of town, occasionally poking our heads into a shop or restaurant that looked inviting. Many of the exterior walls of the shops were painted in contrasting colors - an orange here, turquoise there, which made the town all the more appealing.

The following day we rented a car and drove around the lake.  Our destination was the town of Mazamitla, located in the mountains above the west end of the lake.  Mazamitla has been referred to as "the little Switzerland" with it rolling Bavarian looking hills. Mazamitla was founded by the Aztecs, and later rediscovered by Spain in the early 1500's. Today, it's a popular destination for the well-to-do from Guadalajara who may own a second home in the area or just come for a weekend get-away.

Guadalajara, also located in the state of Jalisco, is a large cosmopolitan city, with a population estimated at six million (including the surrounding area). We took a daylong guided tour of the city and learned of its rich history. To study the history of Guadalajara is to study the history of Mexico, with its revolutions, wars and conflicts. Today, Guadalajara is a modern city and is known as the "Mexican Silicon Valley," due to its electronics industry.  

Outside of Guadalajara is an area known for the production of tequila. Tequila is the national beverage of Mexico, so it is only natural that the town of Tequila is the focal point for tequila tours. There is a train that travels between Guadalajara and Tequila that includes a tour of the city, live music, food and tequila sampling. We were told by many that this was a "must-do" tour. Unfortunately, our schedule restricted us from taking the tour.  Next time!

One "must do" in the Lake Chapala area is soaking in the thermal baths in the village of San Juan Cosala, just minutes from Ajijic. The thermal baths are a series of pools, whirl pools, steam baths and saunas, located at the Balneario motel. The motel is on the lake's edge and has massage therapists, a restaurant and snack shop. It is customary to make the visit to the thermals an all-day event. We went during the week and thoroughly enjoyed it. Apparently, on the weekends it gets very crowded.

During our stay in Lake Chapala we walked, explored, and walked some more. There were markets to find food to buy for dinners, quaint restaurants at which to eat, and time spent on park benches, or in central plazas, watching the world go by.

Our journey to Lake Chapala came to an end way too soon.  In a perfect world (one in which I were independently wealthy), I would thoroughly enjoy living on a hill overlooking the lake, at least three or four months out of the year. It's that nice!

For further information on the Chapala area, you might want to Google "Lake Chapala" or "Ajijic"; you'll find a wealth of information. Or visit http://www.chapalaguide.com/ as a starting point. There's also a book at Amazon.com that received some very nice reviews: Mexico's Lake Chapala and Ajijic: The Insiders Guide, by Teresa A. Kendrick.

If you go, bring sturdy walking shoes and give yourself plenty of time to browse.  And, talk to the locals - both American and Mexican - who have settled in the area; they are eager to share their stories.

Robert Ross can be reached at: SanDiegoRoss@Yahoo.com  
 
Copyright  2008 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved


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