Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Guadalajara's El Centro - Part 2

One of Guadalajara's "Founding Fathers". The statue above shows an arrogant, confident Spanish conquistador who exemplifies the spirit and attitude of the early settlers of Guadalajara. I believe the statue is of Miguel Ibarra, a Basque who was one of conquistador Nuno Beltran de Guzman's lieutenants when he passed through the area in March 1530. Ibarra later became the first mayor of Guadalajara. The city, which was named after de Guzman's home town in Spain, actually had three other locations before the present one was selected. The first was in the State of Zacatecas and is now called Nochistlan, the second was Tonala (a current suburb of Guadalajara famous for folk art), and the third was northeast of present Guadalajara in a town now known as Tlacotan.

When Beltran de Guzman had first visited the area, the settled Indians lived in a small kingdom ruled by a gentle queen named Cihuapilli Tzapapotzinco. She surrendered peacefully, which was a good thing because de Guzman was known as Bloody de Guzman for a reason. His propensity for rape, pillage, slaughter and enslavement earned him the enmity of the nomadic Chichimec Indians, who happened to be fierce warriors in their own right. The Chichimec's name was actually a Spanish catch-all for a variety of hunter-gatherer peoples populating western and northern Mexico. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, they were much more difficult to conquer than people who grew crops and lived in cities. They were used to what is now called guerilla warfare, and plagued the Spanish and their silver caravans for at least a couple of hundred years.

In the early days of Guadalajara, the Chichimecs attacked the Spanish so continuously that the settlers repeatedly changed locations until they finally found a defensible spot in the current site of Guadalajara's El Centro. The city was founded by a relatively small group of Spanish settlers on February 14, 1542, on a plateau more than 5000 feet above sea level. By this time de Guzman was so thoroughly discredited, even in the eyes of the Spanish, that he was arrested and eventually died in prison in Spain. A relief sculpture of the founding event by sculptor Rafael Zamarriga can be seen on the back wall of the Degollado Theatre facing Plaza de Fundadores (Founders' Plaza)

Beatriz Hernandez played a role in the founding of Guadalajara. Portrayed with a flag above, she was one of the few Spanish women who accompanied the settlers in their wanderings from location to location. Presumably, most of the Spanish men took Indian wives. Only 63 survivors from the Spanish Iberian peninsula remained, including 13 from Andalusia, 6 from Estramadura, 8 Portuguese, 16 identified as "Spanish" and 9 as "mountain" (presumably the Pyrenees). Spain had only been unified as a kingdom for about 50 years, so the Spanish more readily identified themselves by their region than by the national name. Apparently many of the settlers were dissatisfied with the final site because they thought it offered little other than a defensible location. The leader, Cristobal de Onate, took out his sword at one point and stuck the blade in a tree to emphasize his determination that they should stay. The crowd was still restive and unhappy until Beatriz, apparently a woman with a powerful voice to match a powerful personality, stepped up and cried out "Here we stay, by hook or by crook!" The settlers were moved by this and decided to stay.

Stately 19th Century architecture adjoins that of the 16th, 17th, and 18th. As it turned out, the settlers had made a good decision because the land was ideal for farming and ranching and Guadalajara grew to be the capital of one of the richest provinces of Spain's Nueva Hispania and later of Mexico. The city became capital of Nueva Galicia (later Jalisco) and eventually the seat of the Catholic diocese. Guadalajara's economic importance grew not only from the agricultural bounty, but because of its location along the silver caravan route from Zacatecas. In addition, it became a strategic bridge between the ports on the Pacific Coast and those serving Europe on the Gulf of Mexico Coast. Local residents like to call Guadalajara "the Pearl of the West."


Water burbles from a carved stone fountain, green with moss. Fountains abound in the long corridor of interconnecting plazas between the Teatro Degollado and the Hospicio Cabanas. Some have an ancient patina like this one. Others evoke the 18th and 19th Centuries' fixation on Greek and Roman themes. Still others are very modernistic, even as they celebrate pre-hispanic legends.

Fountain of the Four Boys. Shown above is one of four young nude boys in playful poses, this one with a fish in his lap. The sculptor has used the fish's mouth as one the nozzles for the fountain. While Mexico has its share of monumental sculpture, generals and politicians and the like, there is also a playful aspect that pops up everywhere. The kid above looks like he's having a great time.


Anybody hungry yet? El Centro is not just about architecture and statues. The plazas are lined with delightful little restaurants built into the historic buildings, many of them with tables out front. We checked out some of the menus, and sampled a bit of the food here and there. There are selections for a variety of tastes and budgets. No one need perish from hunger pangs in this area.

Steel flame ascends from fountain in the plaza's Central Esplanade. This is a very modernist part of the plaza, both in the sculpture and the building in the background. Ironically, the theme of the sculpture is rooted in an ancient legend common to a variety of pre-hispanic civilizations including the Aztec, Mayan, and Toltec. Quetzelcoatl was an important god-figure to these cultures, represented by the plumed serpent found in many ruins. At one point in the mythology, he was burned, only to be reborn later. The steel flame represents the burning of Quetzelcoatl. He was portrayed in the myth as light-skinned with a beard, and he was supposed to return from the eastern sea. Ironically, the light-skinned, bearded Spanish under Cortes first landed on Mexico's east coast. Reports of this event, and the possibility of an encounter with an actual god, made Aztec ruler Moctezuma very cautious with these strangers. His caution led to his overthrow and death and the destruction of the Aztec empire.

Looking down the Central Esplanade from the Four Boys Fountain to Hospice Cabanas. This whole area is designed for walking, so you'd better bring the shoes for it. I am often amazed at the choice of shoes by Mexicans I see. The women often prefer the spikiest of heels, and the men tight-fitting shoes made for style rather than comfort. They must have feet made of rhinoceros leather. They seem to manage o.k., but I certainly couldn't do it. In the distance you can see the front of the Hospicio Cabanas, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hospicio Cabanas

View from the inner courtyard of Hospicio Cabanas. After a series of disasters in the Guadalajara area left many people in misery and destitution, the Hospicio was founded by Bishop Fray Antionio Alcalde of Guadalajara in 1791. The purpose was to house a variety of social services including a workhouse, hospital, orphanage, and almshouse. In 1796, Bishop Juan Ruiz de Cabanas, Alcalde's successor, retained renowned architect Manual Tolsa to build the magnificent structure. In part, Tolsa used the famous Les Invalides in Paris, and El Escorial near Madrid, as his models. The construction process lasted almost 30 years until 1829, outlasting Bishop Ruiz de Cabanas who died in 1823. However, he was able to leave the structure his name.

Hospicio Cabanas has many rooms, built around 23 courtyards. Tolsa designed the building to accommodate the needs of children, the aged and the sick. The vast majority of the structure is on one floor, with covered walkways connecting the different sections. Two-thirds of the Hospicio's area are either open space or covered, but open-air. This made movement within the building easy for the residents. At various times in the mid-19th Century, Hospice Cabanas served as a military barracks and stables, but later resumed its function as a hospital. In 1980 the Cabanas Cultural Institute took over and the building became a center for the arts. The Hospicio has achieved World Heritage Site status in part because it is one of the earliest structures built specifically for the needs of the socially and economically disadvantaged. Nothing else at the time either in the New World or in Europe compared to the Hospicio in its perfect design for its purposes and in its beauty.

Man of Fire is considered one of muralist Jose Clemente Orozco's masterpieces. After the chaos of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20, followed by the Catholic Cristero insurgency in the mid-1920s against the revolutionary government, Mexico was desperately in need of national cohesion and unity. In the 1930s the muralist movement exemplified by Orozco, Diego Rivera, Zulce, and others emerged as a major factor in pulling the nation together. Various levels of the Mexican government commissioned these talented muralists to decorate public buildings all over Mexico. In addition to his work at the Palacio Gobierno, the State of Jalisco commissioned Orozco for the murals at the Hospicio. The Man of Fire, seen above, represents artists as a transcendent figures, rising above the chaos, violence and intrigue of the time. Fittingly, the Man of Fire is the central figure in the area of Orozco's work at the Hospicio, covering the interior of the central dome.

Orozco's view of the church/state relationship in Mexico's history. A grim-faced figure of secular Spanish authority clutches the cross closely, significantly resting his crown at the top. The Spanish authorities used the Church as both an ideological justification for their brutal conquest, and as a mechanism of social control over the Indian populations. Most of the time, the Church hierarchy was glad to go along, although there were sometimes conflicts when the brutality became too spectacular to ignore, such as the reign of terror by Beltran de Guzman.

Speaking of reigns of terror. The panel above gives Orozco's view of the Conquest and the centuries of repression that followed. Faceless knights cleave about them with bloody swords and ride over the bodies of crushed Indians, while flames roar in the background. That pretty much covers how the Indians must have seen it.

Orozco focused on larger themes too, such as the rise and dominance of technology. Above, a steel wheel, shimmering brilliantly, rolls over crushed and buried human and animal figures. I was particularly interested in these panels, because they rise above the conflict of Left versus Right, common artistic themes of the muralists of Orozco's day. Here he addresses even more basic issues of humanity versus technology. Film maker/actor Charlie Chaplin, an Orozco contemporary, captured a similar vision in his film "Modern Times" with the little hobo caught up in vast impersonal machinery.

Sinister clowns. Many of the political figures in Orozco's work appear clownish, but are chilling nonetheless. These figures stand, as if on a reviewing dias, as abstract multitudes march by carrying banners. This mural calls to mind Nazi Nuremburg rallies, and Soviet masses marching by the Kremlin. Orozco is warning us against blindly responding to calls for "patriotism" issued by those who very likely have ulterior motives and personal agendas. My home country, the United States, has had some bitter experience with this in recent years.

Nazi Gauleiter, Soviet Commissar, or Capitalist boss? Orozco portrayed the true meaning of the brutal regimes of his time in this mural panel. A figure, whip clenched in his hand, stands over what appears to be a factory production line, surrounded by barbed wire. Significantly, the head of the figure is covered by the arch, so that the true identity of the oppressor could be any number of possibilities: capitalist, fascist, or communist. Viewing this, I was reminded of Orozco-contemporary George Orwell's vision of the future as a hob-nailed boot stomping on a human face forever.

While Orozco's work might seem depressing, it does reflect the reality of the mid-20th Century in which he lived, and much of history since. Artists are not meant to paint only pretty pictures. Also keep in mind that, although the lower panels are filled with all this violence, intrigue, and chicanery, towering over them is the transcendent figure of the Man of Fire, a figure of hope.

On that note, Part 2 of my Guadalajara El Centro posting is completed. Once again, if you are ever in a position to visit this wonderful area, I strongly urge you to build in some time for it. You'll be very glad you did.

Hasta luego! Jim

Friday, July 24, 2009

Guadalajara's El Centro - Part 1

Towers and dome of Guadalajara's Cathedral peep above blossoming jacaranda trees. The old colonial center of Guadalajara, called El Centro, is rich in history and architecture. Carole and I have visited this area several times over the last two years, but I have not until now published my photos of those trips. I guess that which is close and easily accessed is sometimes not valued as highly as that which is more difficult to reach. Anyone visiting the Lake Chapala area or Guadalajara itself should certainly take some time to visit El Centro.

Because there are so many places to visit in the area, I broke this posting into two parts. Part 1 focuses on the Cathedral, the Palacio Gobierno, and the Teatro Degollado. In Part 2, I will explore the eastern part of El Centro plaza down to Las Cabanas, the museum containing some of muralist Jose Clemente Orozco's masterpieces. In a previous post I covered the Museo Regional, a wonderful museum of history, anthropology, and paleontology across Avenida Hidalgo from the Cathedral. You may want to visit that post as a complement to this one.

Guadalajara Cathedral

Guadalajara's Cathedral is the anchor-point of the El Centro area. Also called Catedral de la Asuncion de Maria Santisima, the first simple adobe cathedral was built in 1541. This was about 10 years after Nuno Beltran de Guzman founded Guadalajara, naming it after the city of his birth in Spain. Beltran de Guzman was Spain's most horrendously bloody conquistador, the 16th Century's equivalent to Heinrich Himmler. Like Guadalajara itself, the Cathedral had several locations until the present magnificent building was begun in 1571. Above, the 60 foot towers of the Cathedral loom above Plaza de Armas, one of four plazas that radiate from the north, south, east, and west sides of the Cathedral.

Interior of the Cathedral. This is the area under the dome. For more pictures of the interior of the Cathedral, as well as some of the still-existing churches which were the Cathedral's predecessors, click here. Although I am not a Catholic, or even a religious person, I have always been fascinated by the magnificence of these colonial churches. They represent the height of Spanish power and glory in the 16th and 17th Centuries, which all started with its Conquest of Mexico.

Liberation Square, east of the Cathedral. This plaza is often used for fiestas, folk art displays and other activities, for which these white tents were erected. One of the popular activities we haven't yet tried is a ride around El Centro in one of these coaches.

Sculptors at work. One day we were walking in the plaza and encountered a large group of sculptors scattered around the plaza, all working on their creations. This was part of a contest to see who could make the best sculpture during the fiesta that was underway. Mexicans are devoted to their art, an aspect of their national personality you will find everywhere.

Palacio de Gobierno


Palacio de Gobierno is one of Guadalajara's most ornate buildings. Palacio de Gobierno, or Government Palace, is the administrative headquarters of Jalisco State. It faces Plaza de Armas, across from the Cathedral. It was begun in 1643 and completed in 1774. The style is Baroque with ornate Churrigueresque touches. The clock on the front of the building still bears a bullet hole from the gun of Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa.

Cathedral dome and steeples from the top of the courtyard of the Palacio. The Palacio was built, as usual in colonial Mexico, around a courtyard surrounded by arched passageways called portales.

Chairs await Mexican officials in the great meeting room. Every inch of this building speaks of history, power, and a deep levels of culture.

Father Hidalgo signs his proclamation freeing Mexico's indigenous people. This mural is found on the wall facing the chairs in the previous photo. It was in this building in 1810 that Father Miguel Hidalgo, a leader of the War of Independence from Spain, declared Mexico's indigenous population free. This was the beginning of the end of what was, in effect, slavery in Mexico. It took 52 more years before Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the United States. In the mural, a hooded figure, bound at the wrists, reaches beseechingly for the document proclaiming Libertad--Liberty! As with the United States, it took another century after the proclamation before the more subtle forms of bondage were eliminated. That came with the 1910 Revolution.

Muralist Orozco took a dim view of the politics of his era. Jose Clemente Orozco was one of a group of great muralists in Mexico during the first half of the 20th Century. Orozco grew up during the violent struggles of the Mexican Revolution, and witnessed the rise of Communism and Nazism. The scene above, part of a larger mural in the well of the great stairway of the building, depicts the wildly disorganized struggle of all the political factions of his day. Looking closely, you will see some figures dressed as clowns, while others wear the Nazi swastika, the hammer and sickle, and a cross all at the same time. Although Orozco demonstrated a deep feeling for the oppressed, he apparently viewed most politicians of his day as clownish opportunists.

Some of Orozco's murals show startling levels of violence. This is another scene in the same mural shown previously. One must remember that the Mexican Revolution caused the deaths of more than 2 million people, and the revolution was less than a generation old when this was painted. The Spanish Civil War was raging, Fascism had won in Italy, Nazis were in power in Germany, and Stalin ruled Russia.

Political violence has a long history in Mexico. The statue above, found in the Palacio de Gobierno, portrays a famous incident in Mexican history. Benito Juarez became President of Mexico after drafting a modern liberal constitution. Wealthy elites and the Church lost power under the new constitution and this led to a conservative revolt known as the Reform War of 1858-61. Conservative-backed troops broke into Juarez's office, bent on killing him. They were stopped by a brave subordinate of Juarez who threw himself in front of the president and denounced the troops as assassins. Shamefaced, they withdrew. Juarez went on to win the Reform War and later to lead the successful resistance to the French who had been invited to invade by the losers of the Reform War. Benito Juarez was the first full-blooded Indian to serve as President of Mexico, and became one of the nation's greatest heroes. It would be another 150 years before the United States elected a non-white president.

Teatro Degollado

Teatro Degollado is one of the great performing arts venues in Guadalajara. The Degollado Theatre was built almost exactly on the site of the earliest Spanish settlement of present-day Guadalajara. The Indian inhabitants of the area had held a tianguis (open market) every 5 days on the site since ancient times. The cultural leaders of Guadalajara in the 19th Century yearned for a theatre, and submitted 16 proposals to various governors between 1838 and 1854. The construction was started in 1856, but was repeatedly halted because of the Reform War and the French invasion. The portico contains 16 Corinthian columns.

The facade above the portico. This beautiful marble relief facade depicts Apollo with the nine Muses, which are the patron deities of the arts. When the theatre first opened in 1856, it was called the Alarcon, after Mexican author Juan Ruiz de Alarcon. The name was changed to honor Jalisco Governor Santos Degollado who signed the decree authorizing the construction. The marble relief was carved by stone workers in Tlaquepaque, an area of Guadalajara known for its fine craftsmanship. The relief was designed by artist Agustin Yanez Roberto Montenegro.

A huge glass chandelier adorns the oval multi-story atrium. Delicate wrought-iron railings frame the chandelier at each floor in the picture above.

Stained glass lamp glows in the ceiling above the audience seats. Electric lighting was installed in 1897. Many structures around the Degollado were burned in a great fire in 1909, but the theatre itself was relatively untouched.

A horseshoe of box seats faces the stage. In addition to the ground floor audience seats, 4 stories of box seats rise majestically above. The very first performance in 1856 was the opera "Lucia di Lammermoor", with Angela Peralta in the lead role. Today the theatre hosts the Guadalajara Philharmonic, the University of Guadalajara Ballet Folklorico, and the ballet of the Municipality of Guadalajara, as well as countless concerts, operas, and recitals. Some of the great international artists who have performed include Anna Pavlova, Andres Segovia, Pablo Casals, Placido Domingo, Rudolf Nureyev, and Marcel Marceau.

Statue in the lobby expresses the 19th Century elegance of the Degollado. The theatre is one of the great prides of the City of Guadalajara. It has been rebuilt or refurbished numerous times over its 150 year history. In fact, it may be the only theatre that has had a total of 6 grand openings, including those in 1856, 1866, 1880, 1910, 1941, and 1964.

This concludes Part 1 of my two-part series on Guadalajara's El Centro. We love hearing from people, so if you'd like to respond, please leave a comment below, or send us an email directly.

Hasta luego! Jim

Friday, July 17, 2009

When your relatives come to visit Lake Chapala...

Indian mime at the Chapala Malecon. There is so much to do and see around the Lake Chapala area that when relatives or friends come to visit, it can be a daunting task to figure out just how to give them the best experience. The Indian mime shown above is typical of the unusual and offbeat experiences one encounters while on a casual ramble about the area. The mime provides a good idea of what early Indians may have actually looked like when the Spanish arrived. Notice the dancing rattles on the dancer's right foot. He was so still, I took him for a manniquin at first. His performance has earned the small pile of peso coins at his feet.

When my mom announced that she was coming down with my sister on their first trip to Ajijic "to see what my youngest child is up to", I had to do some serious thinking about what adventures fit their personalities and capabilities. My guess is that many expats down here face the same questions when they anticipate visitors. People who are considering a visit on their own from up north, and have just a few days, often face similar questions. If you fit any of these categories, you may find some of my relatives' experiences enlightening.

Voyagers from the cold and snowy north. First, an introduction to the protagonists of this little drama, which occurred in February of 2009. My big sister Beth is on the left. She has made a career of teaching inmates in the Maryland and Virginia prison systems, which she still does full-time. I have found that it almost takes a stick of dynamite to blast her out of her normal routines, so I was delighted that she decided to come. Beth is not much into vigorous physical activity, so hiking the wilds was definitely off the table. On the right is Jane, my mom. In addition to being a homemaker for many years, she has always been active in charity work and has run food and social programs for the poor in Virginia. She would turn 93 during her visit and I wanted to shape activities what would not overtire her. Jane is in remarkably good health, but is also a bit frail. Trudging the cobblestone streets of Ajijic could be tiring for her and I certainly didn't want to risk a fall. At the end of her visit, I kidded her that I hadn't held her hand so much since I was 5 years old.

Hotel Casa Blanca served well as a place to stay and as base of operations. I wanted a hotel with interesting options close at hand. I also wanted a place where the management would be especially attentive to the needs of an elderly woman. Hotel Casa Blanca turned out to be an excellent choice. The owner, Josef, speaks perfect English and he and his staff were very solicitious. Josef is actually of Syrian extraction, although he could pass for a Mexican easily. His Middle Eastern background is reflected in the decor of the hotel which has a distinctly Moorish feel. Hotel Casa Blanca is on Calle 16 de Septiembre, near the corner of Calle Ramon Corona, and lies directly across the street from the Lake Chapala Society, the local expat organization. The LCS has gorgeous gardens and very nice facilities overall. You don't need to be a member to enjoy much of what the LCS has to offer. There are also restaurants and small crafts shops within a few steps of the hotel. Ajijic Plaza is only about 3 blocks away, and the lakeshore is right around the corner.

The Casa Blanca has an intimate feel. With its curious and charming passageways, and two small, colorful courtyards, it is a minor adventure just to explore this place. Jane and Beth's room was immaculate and had all the conveniences you might expect. It also had a set of windows (see picture #2) that overlooked the front courtyard and swung out so that they could enjoy the view below. Carole and I avoid driving Mexican roads at night so, for an extra fee, we arranged for the hotel to pick them up at the airport and return them when they left. I was pleased that Josef himself acted as their initial chauffeur. If there is no room at Josef's inn, click here for some other possibilities.

View from the Malecon (waterfront) at Chapala. There have been considerable improvements along the shoreline of Lake Chapala over the last couple of years. One of these improvements was to rebuild the walkway along the City of Chapala's shoreline. The city created beaches, cleared the water hiacynth that choked the shore, and a generally upgraded the whole area. Above, you are looking southeast across the lake. While a mother and her child enjoy the new beach, tourist boats behind them rock gently at anchor. Behind the tourist boats, a large flock of white pelicans socialize on some rock outcrops. In the distance behind the pelicans, you can see Scorpion Island, the destination of most of the tour boats. Behind the island loom the southshore mountains in Michoacan State.

Despite Scorpion Island's name, you shouldn't have any worries about scorpions, and you may enjoy one of the several island restaurants should you decide to visit. The boats are comfortable and safe and all contain life jackets to the best of my knowledge . The boats' cost in pesos translates to about $25.00 USD. The charge is the same whether the boat is full or you are the only passenger, so it behooves you to make this a group outing. Boats can be rented at the base of the Chapala pier.

A Feria for every taste. There always seems to be a feria (fair) or fiesta going on someplace in the area. When Carole and Beth and I visited the Chapala Malecon area, there was feria along the street leading to the pier. Local artists and craftspeople displayed their wares and some worked on their creations as we watched. This weaver works at a loom that an 18th Century weaver would have instantly recognized. These looms, which can be found in textile shops all over the area, are not "antiques" or museum pieces. They are the fully-functioning tools of local textile crafts people. Notice that, except for a few nuts and bolts, there are few pieces of metal in the construction of this device. Most of the moving parts are connected by twine.

Chapala pier from the western section of the Malecon. The tour boats dock along the pier, which extends a considerable distance out into the lake. Once, while I was sitting at the open-air Beer Garden restaurent at this spot, I watched a continuing stream of Huichol Indians debarking from the boats from Scorpion Island. The Huichols are immediately identifiable by their colorfully embroidered clothing. I had never known the Indians to be tourists, so I was puzzled by their boat trip. Later, I learned that Scorpion Island is a sacred place for the Huichols. According to their founding myths, they originated on an island in the middle of a lake and they return periodically to pay tribute to their ancestors. Their original lake, west of Guadalajara, was drained by Spanish and later Mexican farmers to create more land, as usual without any consultation with the Huichols. Government officials encouraged them to relocate the center of their ceremonies to Scorpion Island, which the Huichols ultimately accepted.

Petatan is a fishing village full of warm and friendly people, and pelicans galore. I decided to give Jane and Beth a taste of a Lake Chapala area visited by few Gringos (or Gringas either). Petatan is located on the south shore, a little more than an hour's drive from Ajijic, just inside the neighboring State of Michoacan. Now a long, thin peninsula, Petatan was an island as late as the 1970s. The original island was created by a small volcanic cone just off shore. Now the island is connected by a causeway to the shore. The small homes and stores ring the volcanic cone in concentric circles up to the peak on which sits the small local church. Petatan appears on few maps, and you have to watch closely as you head east on the south lake shore along Highway 15. You will find the marked turnoff to Petatan on the left after you have passed Tizapan heading east, just before the road turns south away from Lake Chapala toward Cojumatlan de Regules.

Doing it the old-fashioned way. One of the things that charms me about Mexico is how the ancient and the modern continue to exist side-by-side. The Petatan farmer above, who may well be a fisherman when not working his field, plows in a fashion known to farmers back to the time when horses were domesticated for agricultural work. Probably the only significant "modern" touch here is the metal blade on the plow, a feature widely introduced in the early 19th Century. Still, this method of plowing suits the needs of a small field; the horse produces manure; the process doesn't significantly pollute the environment; and the horse can be used for other purposes as well as plowing.

On the lookout. Jane is an avid birder, and she brought her binoculars when I described the plethora of avian inhabitants of the Lake Chapala area. The Lake is a significant stop-over for birds migrating from the US and Canada to South America and back. There is also a huge variety of native species. The Audobon Society has a large and very active chapter among the expat community. They meet and go birding almost every Sunday morning.

Chow time at the pelican cafeteria. Petatan is well known to locals, and to birders, as a gathering place for hundreds of large white pelicans that winter here (December-March) and summer in the US and Canada. They assemble just off shore in Petatan to feed on the fish scraps left over from the catch of the local fishermen. Graceful, even majestic, in the air, the large white birds are comical on land. The local people bring out the scraps from the fish-cleaning sheds that line the shore of Petatan and dump them in a pile just off shore. The pelicans then swoop in to land in long evenly-spaced lines reminiscent of big airliners at a busy airport. When they gather around the pile of fish scraps they sqwack and quarrel and flap their huge wings as they jocky for position. Once they have scooped up a chunk of fish, they throw their heads back and swallow it down in one gulp. There is a restaurant right on the water where you can enjoy a lunch and watch all this free entertainment, however it is only open on weekends so we went elsewhere for food. It is not a bad idea to bring your own snacks as a back-up on a trip like this because you never know what might be available.

Fishing, people-style. The locals learn the ropes early and these two young Petatan boys were determined to try their luck. One boy handles the boat and the other the hand-net. The net is circular with weights around the edge for control. The boy will swing the net behind him and then cast it out in a flat circle to land a few yards off the side of the boat. As it settles he will draw in a rope which closes the net and then haul it back over the side of the boat. Sometimes, lacking a boat, young Mexicans will stand waist-deep in the Lake to cast the net. It all looks very picturesque in the golden light of the setting sun, but it takes lots of strength and energy and often produces little. As beautiful as it is, Lake Chapala is sadly a shadow of its former glory as an abundant producer of fish.

Success comes to the fisherman who works at it with patience. One of the boys proudly displays his catch for us. They were well aware we were photographing, and I think they put on a little extra show for us. The open friendliness of this boy was typical of the people we have met over several visits to Petatan. They are proud of their town and its reputation as a pelican haven, and eager to show us the sights. On a previous visit, we encountered a middle-aged woman in an alley-way we were exploring and she beckoned us to come over so she could give each of us a hug of welcome. Others have struck up conversations, plying us with questions about who we were and where we came from and whether we liked their town. No one wanted anything from us, that's just the way they are.

A local shrine drew out attention. While poking along the shoreline, we encountered this shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico and particularly of its Indians . Shown above is only a small detail of a hand-created tableau that was at least 6 feet wide and extended 10 feet up the side of the hill. The inspiration for the shrine was an oval mark in a large rock nearby that remembles the standard portrait of the Virgin. When we asked a neighbor about it, she pointed out a local Indian woman who hustled over to proudly show off her creation. Although I am not at all a religious person, I am often touched by the simple, but deeply felt, religious devotion of many Mexicans, especially the country folk.

Back on the north shore, we turned our attention to some serious shopping. Above, Beth models some of her new finery. She purchased the hand-embroidered blouse at a small cooperative store around the corner from Casa Blanca on Ramon Corona which offers the work of local women artisans. The necklace was our gift from a trip we had taken to Manzanillo, but we found similar ones among in the handicrafts booths along the Malecon in Chapala, along with the white bracelet on her right hand. You can spend a lot of money unnecessarily here, if you don't shop around. Often there will be a huge price difference for virtually identical items depending on whether you buy them in the expensive tourist-oriented boutiques, or the out-of-the-way crafts shops.

One place we jokingly call "Sach's-by-the-Sea". It is located at the east end of Paseo Ramon Corona, the street that parallels the Chapala Malecon where the street runs into Christiana Park. Beautiful clothing, textiles, jewelry, footwear, and other items are astonishingly inexpensive, and the asking price can usually be bargained down a bit if you want to try. It is a covered, but otherwise open-air group of stalls occupied by small family operations. Because of its somewhat obscure location, I have never seen the crowds one finds at the Malecon or elsewhere.

Mom finds a brace of handsome charros at the tianguis. These two, plus a pair of gorgeously-gowned women, were roaming the open-air Wednesday street market called the tianguis. They were drumming up customers for the ballet folklorico scheduled for that weekend. Unfortunately, Jane and Beth had to leave before the event. I am sure they would have been wowed by the knock-your-socks-off dancing and costumes of this popular Mexican event. A little research before your guests (or you yourself) arrive in town may reveal special events like this that will be very memorable for visitors. You may even want to ask the visitors to adjust their trip schedule by a few days, if possible. The Guadalajara Reporter, which is the local weekly English-language newspaper usually carries schedules of events for the coming week. The Reporter comes out on Saturdays and is available free at numerous locations around town. We often get ours at the coffee place on the corner of the Ajijic Plaza across from the Jardin Restaurant. Other sources of annually scheduled fiestas can be found on Google.

I should also mention that the tianguis itself is a must-see for visitors. This street market has ancient origins and occurs every Wednesday from about 10 AM to about 2 PM. The site is on Calle Revolution from the Carretera (the main drag through Ajijic) down toward the Lake to Calle Constitution (which becomes Ocampo further west). What will you find? Folk art, crafts, jewelry, clothing, fresh fruits and vegetables and other food, some hot prepared food, and everything else you can imagine from watch batteries to underwear. If your visitors can't manage an hour or two of fascinated wandering here, they don't have a shopping bone in their bodies.

A touch of luxury at the Hotel Real de Chapala. The most luxurious large hotel in Ajijic, in my opinion, is the Hotel Real de Chapala, located right on the Lake in the eastern Ajijic neighborhood of La Floresta. It is one of the few places around Lake Chapala resembling what one might think of as a "resort hotel". Above, Beth basks in the mid-day February sun by the pool, which has a 180 degree overlook of the Lake. We have never stayed here, but have come sometimes for lunch or dinner in their very nice patio restaurant which sits next to the pool and has an equally great view. Just the place to spend a few leisurely mid-day hours, browsing your food and chatting as the light dances across the lake and fluffy clouds cast shadows on the mountains beyond. In Mexico, the waiters would consider it extremely rude to press you to finish up and move on, as often happens north of the border. The prices at Real de Chapala are on the high side for here, but would be moderate by US or Canadian standards.

Your host for this tour of Lakeside attractions. Here, I am posing for my sister's photograph next to one of the unusual metal-sphere sculptures which double as fountains in the patio of the Real de Chapala. My wife calls this my "Amish preacher's outfit". I just like casual.

This completes my post on local attractions. Let me assure you that this barely scratches the surface of all the things you can do. It only represents the things I scheduled for my own relatives, taking into account their interests and limitations. Doing a little advance research, locally if you live here, or by Google if you don't, can tremendously enhance a visit.

Hasta luego! Jim