Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A quiet morning stroll through Chapala

The Chapala Pier. Early on a recent morning, I found myself with three hours to burn in Chapala, the Lake’s namesake town. Chapala lies along the north shore of the Lake, less than ten miles east of Ajijic. Carole was off to Guadalajara to get her FM3, the “resident, non-immigrant” visa which transforms us from mere visitors on a tourist visa into full-blown residents of Mexico with many new rights, most important of which is to become members of the Mexican national health plan, called the IMSS. At any rate, I brought her to Chapala to meet a group of fellow Gringos heading to the Immigration office with the same goal in mind. Since she would not return for hours, I took the opportunity to drift around Chapala with my camera to see what might turn up. Mexico never disappoints in this respect.

First, I headed for the waterfront which, in many ways, defines Chapala. This has always been fishing town, from boats or shore, and with pole or hand net. Many fishermen anchor their boats in the lee of the Chapala pier. The vegetation seen the foreground of the picture is water hyacinth, a floating plant that drifts in and out with the waves and wind.

Bringing home the catch of the day. Fishing is still practiced here, although it is unsafe to eat most of the catch because of pollution from factories located on the rivers that feed the lake. Not to be deterred, the fish restaurants have largely shifted to catch brought in from the Pacific Ocean ports such as Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo.

Tourist transportation. Many of the fishermen (I’ve never seen women crewing a boat) get a big portion of their income taking tourists out for rides on the lake. Carole and I have yet to see life jackets or any other safety provision, so we’ve been a little hesitant to go for a ride as yet.

Fishermen at work. The fishermen's fountain commemorates the history of Chapala as a fishing town. The statues in the fountain very realistically portray the strength and effort needed to handle the nets. I have seen this very activity along the north shore of the Lake on many an evening walk.

Lake front elegance. While Chapala has spread out and up the sides of hills which are extinct (hopefully) volcanic cinder cones, the heart of the town lies within a few blocks of the lake shore. Included are the Parroquia (parish church) named San Francisco, the main plaza, and the line of elegant old lake shore haciendas. Some of these homes are still residences, others have become restaurants such as Los Cazadores which was originally the home of Albert Braniff, who founded Braniff airlines. The steeples of San Francisco can be seen behind Los Cazadores.

Kiosco, the center of the center. The plaza is the heart and nerve center of most Mexican communities, and in the center of nearly every plaza is the bandstand, called the kiosco. It functions as center stage for fiestas, political rallies, and other community events, as well as providing a shady spot for the elderly and young lovers. The Chapala kiosco is quite elegant and well-cared-for, obviously a symbol of community pride. In the background is one of the extinct cinder cones.

Meet the newlyweds, Mr. & Mrs. Death. The recent Dia De Los Muertos fiesta left behind a fine example of Mexico’s humorous, lighthearted attitude toward death and the dead. The two large figures in the picture were in the main traffic intersection near the plaza.

Life in miniature. The plaza is a vortex of activity. Sidewalk street vendors sell clothing, fresh produce, hot food, and handicrafts such as this finely carved set of doll's furniture. Some of these vendors seem to have regular spots, and I picked up a strong sense of community among them. For all America’s talk about free enterprise, most Americans work for somebody else, usually a corporation. Mexico strikes me as a far more entrepreneurial society, no doubt out of necessity. As multinational corporations penetrate further, this will probably start to die, but maybe not.

Chapala harpist. Street performers and musicians are also part of the daily scene. The harpist pictured must be pretty enterprising given the difficulty of hauling the instrument around as well as playing it.

The Portales. Another typical aspect of a Mexican plaza are the colonnades, called the portales. Usually at least one side of a plaza has this feature. Generally there are vendors or open air restaurants nestling in the shade of the portales. In Chapala, the portales extend perhaps 50 yards and provide a nice breezy place to eat lunch and view the kiosco and the activity around the plaza.

Chicharrones, anyone? One of the most popular hot foods available from side walk vendors, and sometimes directly sold by butchers out of their carnecerias, are chicharrones. These are chunks of pork, boiled in oil in a huge wok-like pan over a wood fire or perhaps a rigged-up gas flame. The meat and the way of cooking it would give both US health experts and fire inspectors heart attacks, but the Mexicans seem to love it and it smells great.

Blessed shade for an incandescent day. As you move away from the bustle of the plaza and the waterfront area, Chapala becomes quieter, but has other charms, including some wonderful shady cobblestone streets. Mexicans seem to love their trees, particularly the big ones with spreading branches providing welcome shade from the sometimes intensely bright sun one encounters most days at our 5500 foot altitude. Rather than cut down one of these great old trees, Mexican builders tend to incorporate them right into walls or just build around them.

Everyone an artist. Chapala homeowners, like those in Ajijic, employ vivid, often contrasting colors. A walk down a side street can be startling, amusing and a revelation on what colors actually work well together.
A gate both draws in and keeps out. Another very common architectural feature is placement of a door or a gate at the corner of a block. Wood, wrought iron, archways, clay roof tiles, vegetation and many other features are used to catch and please the eye. The owners seem to enjoy making a statement with their doors and gates, even as these features help conceal what is behind.

New and old on Cinco de Mayo Street. As usual in Mexico, I found new and old juxtaposed in Chapala. Racy looking scooters are a very popular low-cost form a transportation. I often see adobe exposed on walls of older buildings where the plaster has chipped away. The mud bricks were manufactured in the same way, with the same materials, that people in pre-Columbian Mexico used.


  1. Jim, again thanks for sharing your pictures and comments. They are very enjoyable. Makes ;me want to move to Mexico, or just come visit. It sounds like you and Carol have found a wonderful place to live. JackieP

  2. I am blown away by the Chapala essay. The photos are incredible; the prose is succinct, pithy and just plain fun. I'm going to re-visit this time and again.

    Right now I'm going to pick one of the photos for my wallpaper (high honor). I'll pick another one tomorrow at work.

    On the personal side, I really enjoy the references to geography and geology.


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