This article is from the August – September 1996 The Mexico File newsletter.
Lake Chapala, The Living and the Dead
by David Simmonds
One of the real bonuses of visiting Lake Chapala is that it is so close to Guadalajara, which is a great city of the world. I have always compared this region of Mexico to the Bavaria region of Germany, with Guadalajara the sister to Munich. Both areas are famed for their music, food and love of life. Mexico City may be the capital and political center and Monterrey the business locomotive of Mexico, but Guadalajara is the heart and soul of the country. But I’m not writing about Guadalajara just now, if ever. That job is best left for the guidebooks. Take one when you go for general information, then get out and explore. And if you decide to stay for a few years, you’ll be joining about 25,000 to 45,000 Americans and Canadians who have also decided that this city with its perfect climate is a good place to call home.I had heard in recent years that Lake Chapala’s north shore was becoming overrun with the expatriate population, that they were taking over and ruining what they came for in the first place. So I went to check it out.
I flew into Puerto Vallarta because the airfare is usually cheaper there from San Diego and because I’ll use almost any excuse to go to PV, if even for a day. This is especially the case in the rainy season when everything is green and the tourists are relatively few. So I rented a VW bug convertible and drove to Lake Chapala in about five hours. (I also spent a couple of days in Tequila which I will tell you about in a later issue.) For the more rational of you, it makes more sense to fly to Guadalajara, where the airport is only twenty miles from the lake.
I drove into the village of Chapala and it appeared identical to how it looked when I had last been there. There were a couple of tour buses down by the lakeside depositing Mexican tourists from Guadalajara, but I was surprised to see so few gringos. There are reported to be thousands of American and Canadian retirees on this north shore, mainly concentrated within a few miles around Chapala and Ajijic, four miles to the west. A drive on the road paralleling the shore would seem to confirm this, with many new upscale homes and subdivisions dotting the green hills that surround the lake. Evidently, the market value of homes has soared in recent years so that we now see prices ranging from $35,000 US to $500,000 US. But that’s because this is a pretty easy place to live. This was the rainy, humid season, however, and many transplants head north during this time of year where you don’t have to change sweat-stained shirts twice a day and the mosquitos are less likely to carry malaria.
The towns of Chapala and Ajijic are old and charming with a nice and easy pace. Approximately 6,000 North Americans (some estimates are 30,000, but the locals I talked to say that number is exaggerated) now have residences on this north shore which also includes the villages of San Nicolas, Vista del Lago. La Floresta, Chula Vista, San Juan Cosala, San Antonio and Jocotepec. Although the lake measures sixty miles long by sixteen miles wide, most of the gringos live within twenty miles of one another.
It would be a mistake, however, to expect this to be one huge, new American subdivision. The town of Chapala was founded by the Spanish in 1538 and it has been a tourist destination for the Mexicans for well over one hundred years. Ajijic, with its many narrow, cobble-stoned streets, has a colonial feel to rival any in Mexico. I never saw evidence of the Americans running the show or failing to adapt to the sometimes whimsical ways of the locals.
It seems that some are still trying to promote Lake Chapala as a recreational retreat. Sailing, swimming, water-skiing, and sail-boarding are touted for the active-minded tourist. Don’t even think about it. As beautiful an area as this certainly is, the lake ought to be drained and re-filled with something resembling clean water. In contrast to the abundance of life in the villages, the lake, if not totally dead, is on serious life support. Call Dr. Kevorkian and that goofy acting lawyer of his you see on TV all the time. Wasn’t it Dan Quayle who asked how long the Dead Sea had been dead? He should have been looking at this catastrophe. (My apologies to you Quayle fans. Both of you).
The main source of water to replenish the lake is the Rio Lerma, and due to increasing water demands upstream the lake has been shrinking for decades. The water that does flow in carries mercury, lead and other toxins from upstream industries. Also deposited are soils laden with fertilizers which have the unintentioned effect of providing a food source for the water hyacinth (lino) which is literally strangling the lake. And, of course, the masses of hyacinths create ideal breeding grounds for mosquito larvae and other undesirable organisms.
The bizarre part of all of this is that Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest lake, serves as a major water source for both Mexico City and Guadalajara. That should be a tremendous incentive to get this situation under control and reverse the fate of this once beautiful jewel for the people of Mexico. And it can be cleaned up. There are ways to eradicate the hyacinth and the sources of pollution can be forced to quit polluting. Lakes and rivers have been dramatically improved in the U.S. for decades, but it takes an effort by the government and a public awareness through education to make an impact. Quite frankly, the Mexican government and the methods used for educating the public are painfully inefficient at times.
I have been told that there are organizations that are appealing to the Mexican federal government, as well as to the state of Jalisco, to address the problem… and this has been happening for some time. But like that sudden odor at a church gathering, no one wants to claim responsibility. I guess when your capital city is often described as having the worst air pollution in the world, everything else becomes secondary in concern. However, something has to be done.. .and soon. It may be that so many Americans have come and brought money and built homes IN SPITE OF the Laguna Cesspool.. well, why do anything? Hell, they’re too old to water-ski and sailboard anyway. They just want something to look at. They can still play golf, bridge and spend those pesos in our tiendas. So let’s just leave the lake situation alone. Could this be the reason for inaction or are these just the musings of a born cynic? Oh well, whatever. Let’s just hope someone or some force will be successful in doing the right thing. In the meantime, pass on the freshwater whitefish served at lakeside restaurants.. .and find a swimming pool.
Now that I’ve trashed the main feature of Lake Chapala, let me tell you about some things I liked. I’ll save the best for last because it can make the whole venture one of your best ever. First of all, it’s a very scenic place, especially in the summer when the surrounding tropical hills are verdant and lush. And the lake has a cooling effect in the summer and a warming effect in the winter to create a perfect climate at 5,000 feet.
In the town of Chapala I recommend the Gran Hotel Nido built about 100 years ago. It’s right on the main street, Madero, a block from the water. The first floor contains the lobby and an excellent restaurant with a sky-lit ceiling above. Many of the rooms are on the second floor, looking down either on the lobby or on the street. Although not super luxurious, the rooms are very nice and cost less than $20 US. There is a large swimming pool in the back. The central market is just a block away and there are several European-like sidewalk cafes nearby, as well as a bookstore to buy books and newspapers in English.
In Ajijic stay at the Nueva Posada which is located a few blocks from the town center on the lake. This is one of the nicest small inns I have found in a while. It is run by the Eager family from Canada and they do a first-rate job without charging a huge amount. And since there is not a whole lot to do at night around the lake, the restaurant and bar are a great place to eat, drink and get to know some of the local expats, this being one of their favorite hangouts. I sampled only a small portion of the food menu, but everyone assured me that everything is extremely good. The swimming pool and tropical garden are equally impressive. A double will run $40-$45 US, depending on the view.
The less touristy town of Jocotopec is known for the weaving of blankets and serapes. ..but the thing that would surely lure me back is the birria, a goat stew, the memory of which currently has me salivating all over my keyboard. There are several small outdoor restaurants surrounding the plaza and they all serve birria. . and as far as I could tell, that’s all anyone was eating. Served in a large bowl with all the fresh slapped tortillas you can eat, this is one great meal. Each bowl contains about a pound of goat, very tender, and is covered with a not-too-spicy-or-thick sauce to which you can add oregano, onions, lime, salsa or whatever else they have as options. This costs ten pesos ($1.30) and will fill you fully until you go back several hours later for another bowl. This experience takes place in one of the prettiest little plazas you’ll see.
There are a couple of boat trips you can take to two islands on the lake, but I didn’t do this. If I missed something special, maybe one of you readers would like to write in and tell us what I over-looked.
THE BACKSIDE AND THE SHAFT TOMB
Like people, all lakes have a backside, and some are nicer than others. I think you could call Lake Chapala the Dolly Parton of lakes. Everyone is acutely aware of one side (north), but barely knows the existence of the other (south) side. And that’s a shame (not Dolly, the lake) because the south side of the lake provides some gorgeous scenery and a few small, very unspoiled villages. So I encourage you to drive the south side and explore. There are only two hotels, both very basic, to choose from. One is in Tuxcueca and the other in Tizapan el Alto. You won’t need a reservation. No one goes there.
But now for the real adventure. I’ll describe mine from many years ago and you’ll see that it can still be done today. One summer I had driven a van from San Diego with my then-girlfriend and another male friend (Stephanie and Joe). Stephanie was a school teacher in San Diego and one of the kids in her school
(Vincent) had been brought to the States to continue his education in high school. By the way, this kid didn’t speak a word of English when he came and ended up getting straight A’s through graduation. He had come from San Cristobal Zapotitlan, a small village on the lake’s south shore. He had traveled home to be with his family for the summer and we stopped in for a visit. Of course there was no place to stay. Their palapa shack consisted of two rooms with a dirt
floor, and there were a few chickens running the grounds. The father had a small cornfield near-by and a little boat which he used to catch fish. Pollution hadn’t devastated the lake yet. The family’s yearly income was the equivalent of $300.00 US.
We camped next to their house and I were awakened each morning by the sound of slapping tortillas, even before the rooster’s revelry.
The mother insisted that we have what they could ill afford to share, a raw egg in a glass topped with a little hot sauce. She grew the chiles right there and they could tear your head off. When we left, we tried to give them money, anything that would make life easier for this gracious and proud family, but of course, they wouldn’t accept. Outside the house we left our beer, food and a little clothing, and although it was not acknowledged, I know it was much appreciated.
One evening I asked the father if there were caves in the area, something to explore. “Sure,” he said, “we’ll go in the morning. Early.” I was developing an interest in the pre-Columbian civilizations at the time and wanted perhaps to see an unexplored site.
In the early morning light we packed his two burros and off we went, the father, Vincent, and the three gringos. The muddy trail took us up into the I mountains, overgrown with vegetation, and afforded us views more commonly seen at the movies or from an airplane. We hiked all morning, Stephanie on the back of the burro. I remember how quiet it was when we stopped and how it must have looked to the original inhabitants of the region.. probably not much different than now, because where we were, no one ever came. And yes, there was a cave, but not what I was expecting. This was just a shallow cave, maybe fifteen deep, entirely unremarkable. But then we heard,”No, not there, over here,” as the father pointed to a hole in the ground. “This is the cave.” (Uh yeah, right.. we were going to drop ourselves into this hole. No problema.) “You first,” Joe and I pointed at Vincent. And that’s how it happened. Vincent disappeared down this ten-foot chute, slimy with bat guano, and the two of us followed. Stephanie wisely decided one of us should stay up top to notify next of kin. Armed with a flash-light and a whisk broom, we landed in a room maybe ten feet by twenty feet. The floor was layered with large rocks that it seemed had fallen from the ceiling over the years. And in spite of our flashlight we could scarcely see a thing. It was explored that day in the hole in the ground.
Was it really an ancient site or just a picnic area for the hill dwellers of more recent years? Well, now I had an answer and it has made the memory of that time in that place all the more special. And I want to tell you, it can still be done today. Although I couldn’t find Vincent’s father and family on my recent trip, there are others in the villages who know of the caves. Go to a village on the south shore and ask around. Spend a little time to build some trust and then offer a fair price for a guide. You will have an experience you’ll never forget. One word of caution: don’t take tools for excavating.. just go for the thrill of being there. Digging around archaeological sites can get you in a lot of trouble. Besides, most of the sites will have been thoroughly looted long before your arrival.