Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Life and moods of Lake Chapala - Part 1

A Snowy Egret broods on the prow of a fishing boat gently rocking at anchor. On a crystal clear January afternoon in Mezcala harbor I was mesmerized by the sparkling water. So was the beautiful white bird I was photographing. This photo is one of my favorites because it so perfectly captures the mood of the many sunny days we enjoy at Lake Chapala. I had long considered the possibility of a blog posting with a focus on the Lake itself, but I wondered if I had enough quality pictures to adequately tell its story. I not only wanted to convey information, but to capture the feeling of living at this place. I reviewed thousands of shots I had taken over the last three years, looking for just the right ones. A few of them I have used in other postings, but most I have never shown before now. I hope you enjoy this special two part series.

From the high ground, a vast expanse of blue

Looking southwest from high in the mountains of the North Shore. Below lie the western outskirts of Ajijic. In the distance are the mountains which rim the South Shore. Behind the rim mountains, under the clouds, the long blue Tapalpa Plateau stretches across the horizon. On top of that rolling plateau, the rocky, pine-clad landscape is very different from the lush semi-tropical country around Lake. Lake Chapala stretches out on an east-to-west plane, about 30 miles south of Guadalajara. It is the largest lake in Mexico, about 50 miles long, with a width of as much as 12 miles. Although broad, it is quite shallow, only about 30 feet maximum depth, with a mean depth of about 20 feet. In many places along the shore, one can walk out a long way into the water before reaching a depth over waist-high. To locate Lake Chapala in Mexico, check out this map.

Looking south over Ajijic's El Centro, Mt. Garcia looms across the lake. Unlike the previous photo, which was taken in the lush green of summer, the shot above was taken during the late winter, when the countryside assumes a rich brown coloration. The surface of Lake Chapala is almost exactly 5000 feet above sea level, and many of the mountains rimming it rise above 8000. Mt. Garcia, seen above, is the most visible landmark from the North Shore, topping out at just under 9000 feet. The wonderful year-round climate of the Lake is the result of its altitude, its huge size, and fact that it lies in a bowl surrounded by volcanic peaks and ridges. These factors help maintain a very moderate year-round temperature, along with low humidity. In fact, Lake Chapala is reputed to have the 2nd best climate in the world, yielding only to someplace in Kenya. Climate has always been very important to both Carole and I. Neither of us can abide the combination of high heat and humidity, nor are we much attracted to snow and bitter cold.

Looking southeast over the string of small villages that line the North Shore. These were each separate and distinct small pueblos at one time, and several were already ancient villages before the Spanish arrived. In the last few decades, they have grown together along the single highway that connects them on the Lake's North Shore. Although the Lake you have seen in these pictures may look large, it extends at least another 30 miles out of sight to the east. Lake Chapala has three seasons. June through October is the rainy season, with average temperatures in the mid-70s to mid-80s (F) during the days and 60s to 70s at night. Although we get some dramatic thunderstorms during the rainy season, nearly all the rain occurs at night. Days tend to be cool and cloudy in the morning and warm, sunny, and a little humid in the afternoons. Winter begins in November and runs through March. Temperatures are a little lower: 60s to 70s during the day and 50s-60s at night. But the days are glorious, crystal clear and sunny with cool breezes, free of humidity. In late March, it starts to warm up and the "hot season" begins, running from early April through mid-June. The hot season is quite dry, sometimes dusty, and temperatures can rise into the low 90s. Still, it is nothing like the summer in Southern California, Arizona, or Texas, with their baking-hot climate, or the thickly damp and humid heat of the US Mid-West or the South. In complaining about heat in Lake Chapala, we're all a little bit spoiled.

People and the Lake

Fishing boats float at anchor in Chapala's harbor on a sparkling winter day. Mt. Garcia is slightly obscured by a light haze over the Lake. Sometimes this haze gathers from dust kicked up by strong winds over the long dry lakes on the other side of the South Shore's mountains, along the base of the Tapalpa Plateau. While fishing is still an important part of the local economy, it has been eclipsed by agriculture, tourism and some light manufacturing and commercial activity, mainly centered on the populated western third of the North Shore. In fact, these boats are as likely to be used to transport tourists to Scorpion Island off Chapala's shore, as they are to harvest the Lake's depleted fisheries. The light-colored patches at the base of Mt. Garcia are plastic sheeting covering bean and berry crops of the large farms on the South Shore.

Ajijic's pier has had a rocky history. Seen from the waterfront of Amistad Park, the pier stretches into the shallows. Mexico law has tried to protect the Lake Chapala waterfront for public use. It forbids building private or commercial projects within a certain number of feet of the shoreline. Encroachments by private landowners, often with the connivance of local officials, regularly occur. They are just as regularly fought by people in the community, both Mexican and expat. Ever since the restaurant began construction along the public pier, questions have been raised about its legitimacy. Now a citizen's petition has initiated legal action against the owner of the restaurant. These things are always very murky, with charges (sometimes founded, sometimes not) of payoffs or special deals. I have mixed feelings about the restaurant. On the one hand, I don't want the law flouted and the Lake's shore taken over by commericial interests. On the other, the restaurant does provide a nice place to while away a hot afternoon meditating on the changing colors of the Lake.

On the end of Ajijic's pier, a lone fisherman tries his luck. This is a popular spot for the locals, and I have seen them pull out quite a number of fish over time. Tilapia and carp are the most likely products of this man's efforts. However, it is just as likely that his real goal is to enjoy the evening as the golden light fades and the sun drops behind the western mountains.

A gorgeous day for a ride along Ajijic's shore. A young boy exercises his horse along the shore line. Except when the water is high, one can walk for a considerable distance along the shore in Ajijic. Most of it looks pretty much like the stretch above, although a new malecon (built-up public waterfront) has been constructed for a couple of hundred yards to the west of the Ajijic pier. During a quiet walk along the shore, one can view Great White or Snowy Egrets wading the shallows with their long skinny legs, or performing intricate mating rituals. In winter, flotillas of majestic White Pelicans perform their naval maneuvers off shore. Sometimes, in the evening, a young man will wade waist-deep into the water and begin throwing and retrieving a large circular net, hoping to extract dinner from the murky waters. Similar activities have continued, uninterrupted, for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Enjoying the soft glow of a quiet evening. A young Mexican couple has found a new way to express mutual support. This railing used to run the length of Amistad Park, just above the water. Since a flood in the summer of 2008, all this has been replaced by the new malecon. As with the pier, I have mixed feelings. I really loved the old park with its huge old shade trees along the shore. The new malecon is attractive, however, and the locals seem to enjoy it.

Petatan, ground zero for White Pelicans. Petatan is a small fishing village on the South Shore. Here its point juts into the Lake like the long sharp prow of one its many fishing boats. Petatan was originally a volcanic cone which formed a small island a couple of hundred yards off the South Shore, about 1 1/2 hours drive from Ajijic. At least as of 1976, it was still an island, according to topographical map I saw in Chapala. Some time after then, a causeway was constructed connecting the island and its little village with the shore. Petatan has become locally famous because of the huge winter congregation of White Pelicans along its waterfront. They gather in hopes of feasting on fish parts discarded from the day's catch by local fishermen. In the photo above, you can see them in the distance, cruising around the point.

Two young fishermen prepare to try their luck off Petatan's waterfront. The net held by the boy on the right is the same type of circular, hand-thrown net I have seen used in Ajijic. Although young, both boys knew their business. One skillfully handled the boat, while the other cast the net. After a bit, they returned with a nice catch of tilapia. A bit further out, a squadron of pelicans cruises watchfully, hoping for a snack.

And he didn't have to lie about the one that got away... This Petatan fisherman got very lucky with his net. He proudly showed off his catch, probably a tilapia, but larger than any I have ever seen brought out of the Lake. Both tilapia and carp are introduced species. Originally the Lake abounded with White Fish, a unique, and reportedly very tasty, species which is now extinct. At one time, the Lake produced 150 tons of White Fish each year, but it was a species unable compete against environmental degradation, pollution, and competition with the introduced species. Notice the fisherman's hat, which spells out "Los Angeles." The hat is no doubt an introduced species which has strongly competed against the traditional straw hats. Ironically, while expats here (including me) favor the straw hats, the locals often favor baseball caps with north-of-the-border slogans and logos.

Preparing the pelicans' lunch (at least from the pelicans' point of view). Labor is divided in traditional ways in Petatan. The men catch the fish, and the women clean them. During several visits, I have never seen this division violated. The women were amused that we wanted photos of what they must have considered a rather pedestrian task, but they consented with grins all around. Petatan is an extraordinarily friendly place. People walked up and introduced themselves and tried to make sure we were having a good time. One woman stopped our small party and insisted on giving each of us a hug. Another proudly showed off her small shrine dedicated to the Virgen de Guadalupe.

After the catch, work remains. We found this fellow carefully straightening and winding up his net. Although he looks rather grumpy, his expression was due to the brilliant sunshine. He was actually quite friendly and enjoyed having his picture taken with his small, very dirty dog snoozing at his feet. He has not given up the traditional style of hat for the more fashionable baseball cap.

Lakeside animals

Animals, as well as people, seem enjoy the Lake. There are many creatures which live beside, on, or under the Lake. Horse owners regularly turn their stock loose on the shore to graze and water themselves. I have often seen this calico colt and its mother wandering the grassy shore while munching on the fresh green shoots. Although there is a considerable amount of petty theft in the area, no one seems to keep a close eye on horses such as this one. Perhaps it is because everyone knows to whom it belongs, and a thief would have a hard time disposing of his ill-gotten gains.

From under the water, a bountiful catch. One of the species most common in the Lake is Charal. These small fish, about the size and appearance of sardines, are caught by the tens of thousands, although there have been reports of declining catches in recent years. Charales are a common "street food" around the Lake. They are deep fried whole, and served in shallow cardboard containers with fresh sliced lime and hot salsa. Due to concerns about pollution in the Lake, I have yet to try them, but the locals seem to enjoy them.

Snowy Egret and a seagull share a local fisherman's boat. I enjoyed playing with this photo, digitally adjusting the color and other features until it finally resembled a painting. It really didn't fit in the posting I was creating at the time, so I am glad I finally got to use it. Although birds like these are competitors for fish and other small creatures of the Lake, these two seem to have put aside their differences just to enjoy the quiet, sunny afternoon together.

Another critter enjoys himself, as only a dog can. Dogs of all shapes and sizes are a daily fact of life around the Lake. This labrador retriever joyfully plunged into the Lake again and again, as long as his master was willing to throw the empty plastic bottle. His appetite for retrieval finally outlasted the strength of his master's arm. The sheer joy of a water dog in his element is a wonder to behold. Humans are very fortunate if they manage to find as much pleasure in such simple activities.

Egrets and White Pelicans maintain an uneasy truce. Though they often share the same perching sites, there always seems to me to be sense of tension. Here, the crowd of pelicans, heading for their evening feast of fish scraps, finally overwhelms the patience of a shore dwelling Great White Egret. The egret flaps its broad wings as it leans into its takeoff.

Food fight at the Petatan shoreline! Gathering around a great heap of scraps, the flock squawks and flaps and jostles. Throwing its head back and spreading its wings, the pelican in the center prepares to swallow a tasty morsel. Others look on enviously, or search for an advantageous position.

Pelican arrival forms a good excuse for another fiesta. Petatan and other local towns in the area have found another good excuse for a fiesta with their annual Pelican Festival, timed for the annual in-migration of these great birds from the US and Canada. The Festival draws attention to their small towns, brings in tourists from Lake Chapala's North Shore and Guadalajara, and allows everybody to have a walloping good time. The Festival also highlights the environment and wildlife of the Lake and helps local efforts to clean up the Lake and protect it from encroachments.

This completes Part 1 of my two part series on Lake Chapala. I hope I was able to communicate the daily enjoyment I get from living next to this wonderful resource. In Part 2, I will cover the changes the Lake has experienced in recent years, and finish with a photo series of "mood shots" I think you will enjoy. Feed-back is always welcome, either through the comments section below or directly by email. If you leave a question in the comments section, please be sure you leave your email so I can reply.

Hasta luego! Jim


  1. Thanks so much for sharing these gorgeous photos, along with the education about the Lake. Your blog is a wonderful resource and we truly appreciate all the work you put into it.

    Kevin and Erin

  2. Jim,

    I have enjoyed reading your blog in preparation for my trip to the Lake Chapal region.

    Is the Tuesday hiking group planning on meeting on Dec 22nd or 29th? I am staying in Ajijic for a few weeks and would like to meet up at Dona's Donuts for a day hike or overnight. A local friend has agreed to take me on a paseo en las colinas on the morning of the 21st.

    brad.roberson at

  3. Hey Jim, really enjoyed your Part 1 of Lake Cahpala. Have you done Part 2 yet? I couldn't find it in the index. We're heading down to PV & then to the Lake form there. We'll be there on 10/28. Can't wait! Thanx for the great read!
    Kevin Michal


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim