A Driving Tour of Lake Chapala: Mexcala Island, Chapala Town, Ajijic

I had enjoyed my personal tour through “El Centro Cultural El Refugio” in Tlaquepaque and gotten good insight into the historical and artistic highlights of this Guadalajara neighbourhood. Now it was 3:30 pm and it was time for an out-of-town excursion. My local expert, professional tour guide José Orozco, had arrived and was ready to pick me up for a tour of Lake Chapala.

Located less than an hour south of Guadalajara, Lake Chapala is Mexico’s largest freshwater lake and measures roughly 80 km from east to west and 18 km from north to south. The lake is an important source of fresh water and has been overexploited in recent years, leading to a dramatic decline in water levels. Water levels have recovered in the last few years because several unauthorized dams upstream have been removed. Not surprisingly, real estate values around the lake fluctuate with the water levels.

José Orozco, my expert local guide, in front of Lake Chapala


The climate surrounding Lake Chapala is nearly perfect with warm winters and not overly hot, dry summers. As a result, Lake Chapala has become a popular retirement destination for Americans and Canadians who have congregated in towns like Ajijic and Chapala. The topic of retiring abroad has fascinated me for a long time, and for this reason I was really looking forward to my excursion with local expert José Orozco.

José was born in Guadalajara and specialized in exporting furniture and pottery all over the world. In his line of work he came into contact with many Americans and Canadians and decided to expand his services. He started to offer relocation assistance and tour guiding services as well. His services are in great demand because the Chapala region attracts many newcomers from northern regions every year. Some of them are in search of a winter getaway while others desire to relocate permanently to this region.

Lake Chapala shoreline


As we started driving southwards on a busy multi-lane highway, José explained that the favourable climate, the great international transport connections in Guadalajara and affordable real estate have created a big demand for expatriates to relocate permanently to this area. Talking about affordability, José mentioned an example of a North American retiree who had rented a two bedroom house for US$400 a month. The cost of living in the Chapala region is quite reasonable, particularly since there is no need for heating or air conditioning.

According to my expert José, about 50,000 people live in the Chapala region, including many thousands of expatriates. After San Miguel de Allende, this is the second most important Mexican retirement destination for Canadians and Americans. And the Lake Chapala Region is still more affordable than San Miguel de Allende. Safety, an important factor for retirees, is very good and the region also offers a wide array of restaurants, culture and activities.

Boat on Lake Chapala


Many Americans and Canadians who are considering to relocate to the Guadalajara region contact José who helps them with tour guiding services. He can also provide them with practical advice and assistance for relocating to Mexico. José’s English is excellent – although born and raised in Guadalajara, he lived for many years in the United States, in places like L.A., San Diego and more recently in Birmingham, Alabama. He went to school in the United States and has a good linguistic and cultural understanding of his clients.

Our program today was first going to take us to an island in Lake Chapala. Mexcala Island, virtually untouched by commercial tourism, was an important site in the Mexican War of Independence. After that it became a prison island and then lay abandoned for many years. Over the last few years the Mexican government has designated Mexcala Island as an important historic site and has started to restore some of the structures on the island.

The church and bandstand of Mexcala town


In addition to Mexcala Island, Lake Chapala also has other islands. Scorpion Island, for example, is a popular weekend getaway for urbanites from Guadalajara. Many city dwellers come to this area by car or even public bus which runs every 15 minutes from the south side of the city. Bus travel in general is quite well developed in Mexico; while there is virtually no passenger railway service left in the country, all major towns and cities are connected by a large network of frequent buses. I could attest to this myself as this past weekend I had gone on a 3.5 hour excursion to Guanajuato from Guadalajara, in a luxury bus with airplane-style seating and a Wifi-Internet connection on board – luxuries I had not even seen in Canada… Of course bus service in Mexico comes in several classes, from extremely basic transportation to luxury vehicles with first-class amenities.

Lighthouse on Lake Chapala


As we were driving through a local village called Santa Cruz we started talking about Mexican food. José gave me an overview of local delicacies in the Guadalajara area: “bírria”, for example, refers to goat meat in a tomato stew. “Tortas ahogadas” are sandwiches with pork and beans that are drenched in a spicy chili sauce, a rather messy yet tasty meal. “Chiles en nogada” are poblano chiles filled with a mixture of ground meat and spices, topped with a walnut-based cream sauce. I enjoyed the virtual culinary tour of Jalisco with my guide José.

Statue in Lake Chapala


We started approaching the village of Mexcala from where we would catch a boat to Mexcala Island. Children were playing in the street, people were going about their daily business – this was definitely not an affluent or touristy village. Down by the waterfront we approached a young man with a boat who was going to take us across to the island. The clouds were getting dark now and it was noticeably getting cooler. Rain was definitely in the air. To get us to the island, José was even able to negotiate a discount for us from 250 Pesos to 200 Pesos (about $20).

Our water taxi is ready


After our 15 minute boat ride we started walking up the slopes of the island and started to see stone formations that had all formed part of the former prison. A circular structure, José explained, was a “foco tonal”, a ritual location with healing powers. Two vortexes of energy are said to converge in this location, one coming up from the earth and the other one descending from the heavens. Mexcala Island definitely has a bit of a mysterious feel to it.

Not much is left of the officers’ barracks


Walking around the grounds we saw different structures of the former prison. Not much was left of the officers’ barracks other than crumbling walls of irregular boulders. The restoration efforts will aim to put the boulders back up in their rightful place. A round structure inside the former officers’ barracks was an oven for melting cannon balls.

On top of the hill is the actual rectangular-shaped prison which is in much better condition and has been partially restored already. The prison is surrounded by a moat, similar to many medieval European castles. A door had been installed at the entrance and José commented on the “Home Depot” style of the door. This modern wooden door certainly seemed a bit out of place compared to the historic structure surrounding it. The central prison courtyard is surrounded by walls on all four sides. A look at the former prison kitchen revealed a stone floor, but not much else. None of the rooms we saw had any furniture in them.

The prison actually has a moat!


We walked up the stone staircase to get to the stone roof of the prison and enjoyed a phenomenal view of Lake Chapala and the surrounding mountains. Other islands were visible from our vantage point. We came down again and walked from the jail building to the former prison chapel. There was no roof on the structure and all interior ornamentation or furniture had disappeared, but at the front of the chapel we could see the remains of a stone altar.

View from the prison at Lake Chapala


Our ferryman took us back to the mainland from where we drove to the town of Chapala, with about 43,000 residents a major population centre on Lake Chapala. Since the 1960s Chapala has become a popular destination for Mexicans and foreign tourists, and in recent years Chapala has attracted a significant number of expatriates. It is a very pretty town with a beautiful malecón, or waterfront promenade. Today a big fair was going on, all part of the carnival in Chapala.

The waterfront in the town of Chapala


A Victorian villa called Casa Braniff today holds the Restaurante Cazadores – I was quite surprised to see a Victorian-inspired building in Chapala in Mexico. Mountains surround the lake and together with the palm-fringed promenade make this an extremely pretty town. After a brief look at the church on the main street we walked to the pier on the waterfront.

Sculpture off the shoreline of the town of Chapala


The sun was now setting and casting a beautiful golden glow on the mountains surrounding the lake. The view from the pavilion at the end of the pier was phenomenal and reminded me a bit of the lakes in Northern Italy. No wonder Chapala has long been a popular tourist destination with locals and foreigners alike.

The town of Chapala has a beautiful waterfront promenade


As the sun was sinking lower and lower on the horizon we drove on to Ajijic, centre of the expatriate retirement community on Lake Chapala. Ajijic has about 15,000 residents and is less than 5 km from the town of Chapala. Its rectangular grid pattern street layout features many hotels, restaurants, galleries and boutiques, and many of the entrepreneurs are foreigners. We had parked our car by the main street and walked down to the waterfront where we found a restaurant called “Tequila Republic” on the pier. The tables and chairs at this restaurant provided a great vantage point to enjoy the surrounding lake and mountain scenery.

The Tequila Republic restaurant on the pier of Ajijic


From the waterfront we walked back up to the main square which is surrounded by shops and restaurants; it also features a bandstand, a traditional “quiosco”, in the middle. A few steps further east is the parish church which we peeked into as well. It was a rather simple stone building with little ornamentation. Back on the square a young boy caught my attention: he was manually grinding coffee and selling fresh Mexican coffee.

Coffee grinder in Ajijic


It was completely dark now, so we started our return journey to Guadalajara through the mountains. As we reached the peak of the mountain chain we could see the lights of this huge metropolis twinkle in front of us. As Mexico’s second largest city, Guadalajara has about 4 million inhabitants and is an important economic and technological centre. José talked about its nickname as the “Silicon Valley of Mexico”, based on the many companies that produce computer and electronic assemblies here. He added that Guadalajara often models itself after Houston, Texas, and has also become a popular destination for medical tourism. Many people come here for cosmetic surgery and even regular surgery. As one of Mexico’s most developed cities, Guadalajara is a center of higher education and has numerous public and private universities.

The church of Ajijic


We were now coming back to Tlaquepaque and José dropped me off on the main street – Calle Independencia. This is a popular pedestrian street with cobble-stones and attractive stores, galleries and restaurants. It was still a very beautiful warm evening; at about 8:30 pm it was still about 20 degrees Celsius. I had a look at many of the restaurants; attractive eateries like Casa Fuerte, Real San Pedro, and El Patio were lining the street. But many of them were in the process of closing down for the evening, somewhat surprisingly because it was not even 9 pm yet. I guess on a Tuesday night restaurants close down earlier.

The bandstand of Tlaquepaque


So I ended up heading to the main square, picked up a slice of pizza and watched the action on the plaza for a while. Families were strolling around or sitting on some of the benches, young couples were walking hand in hand, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. After my pizza I ended up buying some boiled peanuts rolled up in newspaper from a street vendor. I had never had boiled peanuts before, but they actually tasted delicious and probably qualify as semi-healthy street food. I had spent another interesting day in Guadalajara….

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