Ajijic con Encanto

Ajijic (ahi-HEEK) is considered by many the jewel in the crown of small towns that ring the northern side of Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest natural fresh-water lake. It is located in the state of Jalisco in central Mexico, which also includes the much-lauded, yet tourist-laden and overbuilt resort town of Puerto Vallarta.

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Jalisco is also the home the country’s second-largest city, Guadalajara, home of tequila and mariachis, but also some of the finest universities and performing arts venues in North America. Lake Chapala is situated at an elevation of just over 5,000 feet, with a temperate climate that is considered among the best in the world.

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Ajijic has been a draw for North Americans, predominantly, since the 1950’s, attracting a compendium of talented writers, performers, artists, retirees and world-weary wanderers of all stripes. To read more about this lovely town, go to: Facts – Ajijic.

Expats have made a significant contribution to the area via The Lake Chapala Society (Facts – The Lake Chapala Society), a group of part-time and full-time residents who have established their presence with an enormous array of activities, services, resources and educational opportunities. Their campus is located directly across the street from my board and breakfast, The Hotel Casa Blanca. The society recently celebrated their 60th anniversary and I’m proud to announce that I’ve joined the ranks of their 3,000+ members.

Having only arrived here a little over two weeks ago, I’ve spent a good part of my days walking for miles on the famed cobble-stoned streets and along the lakeside Malecon. The village is filled with charm, color, art and smells of coffee, chocolate and fresh tortillas!

One large church and a smaller chapel are visible reminders of the Catholic Church’s impact on Mexican life. Their bells ring out daily and serve as wake-up alarms to the town, animals, roosters – and all living things.

The center of town is the village square, or plaza. It was especially festive this past week during Holy Week, or Semana Santa, as the days leading up to Easter are known. This time of year is “bigger than Christmas”, as it combines the religious holiday with spring break and family gatherings. The plaza is festooned with banners, food stalls, musical groups and an abundant array of both beautifully detailed, handmade artwork and more mundane mass produced items, often for children and young adults.

Mexicans know how to celebrate – and they’re really good at it. During holidays, the wealthy gentry and the working class come together to drink, eat (the food!), listen to music and toast to health and happiness for all. Granted, the venues and level of grandeur may differ, but everyone shares the same key elements of the season.

As I’ve said, color is everywhere in Lakeside, the inclusive name for the cities situated along this side of Lake Chapala. The plaza and neighborhood leave no color underutilized – and often exhibited in bright and creative ways.

Along the lake is the Ajijic Malecon, a wide, elevated walkway dotted with play areas, food and art stalls and even a sculpture garden, newly opened just this past year. It is a unique delight to walk along the malecon any time of day, with the sunsets being a well-attended tradition for locals, expats and tourists alike.

A local photographer’s work is currently being featured in display all around the central plaza in the village. I found each one exceedingly charming, keeping in mind that the artistic blending of fresh young faces and local produce isn’t exactly a combo that should necessarily ensure such a stunning end result. I hope you’ll find them as enchanting as I do.

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Of course, the Lakeside community wouldn’t exist without….ah….THE LAKE! Lake Chapala is 50 miles long and roughly 8 miles wide. It’s a shallow lake with average depths of 10-15 feet and has had challenges retaining both optimal levels and water quality. A major initiative was put into effect this past decade to improve and maintain the lake’s sustainability and ecological standards. It’s not used widely for water activities or boating, although locals can often be seen wadding, swimming and fishing along the shore.

Without a doubt, it remains a gorgeously scenic body of water that draws crowds of families, largely from Guadalajara, on weekends and special holidays. Many of these families have owned homes in the area for generations. You can see why! Read more about it here: Facts – Lake Chapala

Birds are abundant, both on the water and in low-flying flocks that skim the shoreline.

As I mentioned before, seeing the sun set from the pier on the malecon is a memorable evening delight. I have done it twice now and especially love to see the parents who bring their young children down to view it for (maybe) the very first time. It’s a memory they won’t soon forget.

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I admit it. I’m really smitten with Ajijic and the Lakeside area. I’ve just secured a six month rental of a lovely house, into which I will settle on April 8. And I’m buying a smart car….no, not the brand…it’s smart because it’s the first simple sedan I’ve owned in a long while; cost-effective, non-glitzy, inexpensive to operate and maintain and with a good resale value. A Nissan with only 1000 miles on it, it was bought by an elderly expat who dropped dead two months later. I feel certain that she’d be happy for me, bless her soul.

I’ve begun to meet people who strike me as smart, sophisticated, culturally aware, socially adept, involved and well-travelled. I’ve attended the opening of the latest English-language theatre production here (Facts – Lakeside Little Theatre), a choral concert (Facts – Los Cantantes del Lago) and have been in contact with others who are well-connected to the community arts and philanthropy, both of which are huge. Whether on stage as a performer, or off, as a volunteer board member or fundraiser, opportunities abound. There is a magic realism to to this area that has drawn expats for decades. Whether they stay here six months a year, or relocate here permanently, they make a contribution to the quality of life in immeasurable ways.

But let us never forget that this is Mexico, with it’s own extraordinary culture and (at times) frustrating quirkiness. It’s a foreign country after all, in the coolest meanings of the phrase, with both a heavy European and indigenous Indian presence and influence. Expats have added greatly to the mix in towns like Ajijic, San Miguel and others, but the magic of Mexico predates them all.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite shots taken as I roamed the streets of this quaint village of just over 10,000 residents (up to 15,000 by some current estimates). It’s the spirit of the people and the smile (or in this case, quizzical look) of the children that capture the best of any country. Both are in ample supply here in Ajijic, my new home.

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Until next time….hasta que nos encontremos de nuevo.