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


  1. Wow! I LOVE this posting. I am very happy to "meet" Beth and Jane. And the Indian mime. And Beth's necklace. And the pelicans at feeding time. And the hotel! The Amish outfit!

    Darn good posting. Muy rico!

  2. Jim this has been a wonderful experience with you. Being a photographer as well, and living here in Chapala I truly appreciate your intense capture of a very wonderful and beautiful place here on earth. Thank you for your creativity and beautifiul expression of our wonderful life here. Sharline Evans

  3. Thanks so much for posting such great information on Ajijic. Your love of the area shines through, and it is great info for those of us thinking of making the move. :)


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