A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Lake Chapala is located in the state of Jalisco in central Mexico. Jalisco is a large state encompassing both Guadalajara to the north and Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast. The lake is the largest fresh water body in Mexico, some 20 km wide and 80 km long. It is ringed by beautiful mountains, volcanic in origin (think Appalachians, not Alps).
The area sits at 5000 feet elevation, the same as Denver. This accounts for the more moderate climate relative to the beach resorts, which are very hot in the summer, as well as the periodic outbursts of “Ah, shit!” (or worse) emanating from our kitchen as my wife masters the art of high altitude baking. (I know, I didn’t realize that was a ‘thing’ either but, apparently, it is!)
Surprisingly, there is very little recreational activity on the lake. In the first place, it is quite shallow. Secondly, it is also polluted as a result of agricultural runoff and increased development pressure. Finally, a number of years ago, the water receded dramatically for several years and, during this time, people reclaimed the shore and put up fences. When the water level rose again, the fences remained as underwater obstructions.
Still, on a windy day when I look at the lake without a single sail in sight I think, “Maybe it’s time for another boat”. Given how much I’ve lost selling boats over the years, my wife says no (not that I was asking permission, mind you). Oh well, she’s got to go back to Canada for a month to visit the grand-kids at some point; maybe she’ll come back to a half-built Ark in the driveway!
The area locally known as Lakeside runs from the town of Jocotepec at the extreme west end of the lake along the north shore for about 40 km to the town of Chapala. The towns are joined by a two-lane arterial road called the Carretera. Over the past 2 years, the municipality has constructed a bike path the entire length of the Carretera. Cycling is very popular here and, particularly on Sundays, there are many groups of cyclists tricked out like the Tour de France.
Starting at the west end, Jocotepec is the most traditional of the towns in the area and has the fewest number of expats. Founded by the Indians in the 14th century, there are currently about 30,000 residents in the town proper. The area to the west and south of town is extensively cultivated with berry fields growing fruit primarily for export. There is a beautiful old church and central square downtown and a malecon along the lake, as well as a number of nice restaurants.
The house we bought is on the outskirts of Joco. In our particular development, most of the houses are weekend residences (cottages) for people from Guadalajara. As a result, it is pretty quiet much of the time, something we were used to when we lived in Muskoka. Over the past few years, this trend toward weekend residences has accelerated and there have been several townhouse developments built nearby. The rental we stayed in from AirBnB on our first trip down was one of these.
Moving east from Joco, the next community is a town of about 7000 called San Juan Cosala. It, too, is fairly traditional, although there are a couple of large gated developments located here. Their other claim to fame are the hot springs and there are several hot spring resorts. They are a great place to spend the day swimming in the warm pools, eating fish tacos, reading and smoking a cigar or, if you’re so inclined, having spa treatments. Cost of general admission, about $16.
Ajijic (pronounced Ah-hee-heek) is east of San Juan and is ground-zero for expats. It has grown significantly in recent years and now has 12,000 permanent residents. In the winter, more than 50% of the population are American or Canadian. This is a mixed blessing; available services and variety of restaurants are excellent, however, prices are higher than average and midday traffic is horrendous. Nevertheless, the laid-back vibe reminds me of Grand Bend (Ontario) when I would visit in the late 70’s, but with less partying and more gray hair!
Chapala to the east is somewhere in the middle, more expats than Joco but not as many as Ajijic. A number of Canadians live here. I’m told the largest American Legion post outside the US is in Chapala. The Canadian Legion also meets Fridays for lunch at a local restaurant. The immigration office is here as is the eye doctor we use. The malecon along the lake is lovely and, yes, there is a Chapala Yacht Club, but the boats don’t seem to go out much from what I can see.
At present, the south side of the lake is less developed, although this is starting to change. There are a number of quaint, traditional villages along the south shore which makes for a pleasant drive. There is a small fishing village called Petatan about an hour from Joco. In the afternoons during the winter, there are hundreds of pelicans. You can buy a pail of fish from the local children for a few pesos and feed them (the pelicans, not the children!).
Another nice destination in the same area is Mazamitla, known as the ‘Switzerland’ of Mexico. Since it is even higher in the mountains, there are a lot of pine trees here. The town itself is very picturesque and there are many opportunities for hiking and eco-tourism in the area.
When we were down on our first visit, we took a day trip to Teuchitlan, the site of Los Guachimontones, the only round pyramids in Mexico. This UNESCO World Heritage Site dates to 300 BC. The archaeological park is well laid out and the visitor center is very interesting.
Finally, there is Tequila; the town, not the drink! Located about 60 km from Guadalajara, Tequila is the birthplace of the drink that bears it’s name. Surrounded by plantations of blue agave (a succulent plant and the principal ingredient in tequila), there are numerous opportunities for distillery tours and product tastings, as well as the National Museum of Tequila. Something that I didn’t know; good tequila is amber in color and can be sipped neat like fine whiskey.
Since the Lakeside area is not a major tourist destination, there are not the preponderance of souvenirs available that one finds elsewhere (mostly made in China these days, anyway). Wherever I’ve traveled in the past, I usually buy hats and T-shirts. Not so much here. However, there are a number of local artists and beautiful artisan crafts available at excellent prices. A trip to nearby Tonala or Tlaquepaque (aren’t these names great!) is also worthwhile for ceramics, woven housewares and art.
During our first trip in 2019, we were sitting on the patio of a coffee shop in the square in Joco with the dogs, trying to look like we belonged. Restaurants here are very pet friendly. This guy walked straight up to us, sat down and introduced himself. Turned out, he was a Canadian from northern BC who had been living here for a couple of years. He looked a bit like Willie Nelson and was an accomplished artist and photographer.
Following this, we started seeing him various places and we would have lunch or a coffee. When we went on the trip to the round pyramids, he and his girlfriend (from Brazil) went with us. After we decided to move here, I wanted to buy a lot and build a house. He was renting the casita from an American couple, the husband of whom was the Board Chair of their condo association. He introduced us and we met to talk about lots for sale in that development.
As we were leaving, our host remarked that the house across the street was for sale and that he had a key. Since we were already here, did we want to have a look? Driving away afterwards, my wife said, “I want that house!” I said, “But it’s not in Ajijic.” She said, “I don’t care!” I said, “But it doesn’t have a pool.” She said, “I don’t care!” And that was that; a week later we’d bought a house.
While we had originally thought to live in Ajijic, living in Jocotepec suits us very well. The pace is a bit slower and pretty much anything we might want is available locally. If we need to go to Ajijic, we can drive there in half an hour (or longer in the afternoon!).
As for the pool, we spent $30,000 to install a large pool (concrete, of course) including premium glass pool tile, concrete pool deck, stone retaining wall, all mechanical equipment, solar heating and a 2-piece washroom in the pool house. In concert with the weather, it’s just another case of twice the use for half the price. The pool guy comes twice a week!
Turns out your mother was wrong when she told you not to talk to strangers in coffee shops!
One thought on “Lake Chapala District”
Thanks, Steve. Fascinating! Gives us a feel for everyday life in Mexico. Do keep writing… we’ll enjoy reading. Best wishes. MnD