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Published: March 13th 2010
Lake Chapala is the largest inland lake in Mexico. 90 miles long, as much as 15 miles wide, but only about 20 feet deep, so the water looks murky - much like the water in Wascana Lake at home. But although we have read accounts of the lake being choked with weeds and devoid of fish and bird life - essentially dead - we found it alive with birds, and watched fishermen set their lines from the shore. The government has made a great effort to restore life to the lake, cleaned up the water hyacinth that had covered much of the lake in the past, and has designated the lake as a protected area. One of the local men told us that while there are fish in the lake, and some of the restaurants use the lake fish, that he doesn’t eat them because the lake is still polluted. A lot of seafood is trucked in from Guadalajara, and seafood restaurants line the shore in both Chapala and in Ajijic. (pronounced A-he-heek) - the two major towns where tourism and ex-pats are found. The view over the lake is very pretty, with mountains coming down to meet the water on
three sides. We had planned to rent bicycles and ride along the malecon between the two towns, but we found the malecon was all torn up and being re-done in paving stone. The parts that were finished were in the main part of both towns, and were very nice. It will be really a nice walk along the lake once it is done.
The air is cooler here, and fresher than in Guadalajara. Warm days and cool evenings make the climate here the second most desirable in the world (the best climate we are told is in Kenya somewhere) which is the reason that so many Canadians and Americans flock to Lake Chapala, many settling permanently in the area. Most of the permanent residents have settled in the Ajijic area, driving up real estate prices almost as high as at home. But there are still bargains to be had if you want them. The guy who wrote the section in the Lonely Planet guide on Ajijic said that because of the number of ex-pats in the town and their influence on the business and residences in the area, Ajijic isn’t a real Mexican town and it rubs him the
wrong way. OK, that is his opinion. But we found it to be a charming place. There is lots of “real Mexico” (cobblestone streets, colorful paint on the cement block buildings, the way the shops and food stalls are crammed in together and the things they have for sale, the architecture, with high stone walls and hidden gardens), but the streets are cleaner, roads that aren’t cobblestone are paved or have paving stone, the buildings and yards are nicely maintained and landscaped, and you can talk to many of the people you pass on the street in English, which is nice. Shopkeepers are a mix of Mexican people and English ex-pats, many who are artists who sell what they create (both Mexican and English artists). It doesn’t have the really old architecture that we found in Guadalajara, but neither was it really touristy like the coast towns. We really liked the place, and for us, it was easy to see why people would want to make their homes here. But, a drawback is a lack of water sports - we like to dig our toes into the sand on the beach, play in the ocean waves or snorkel where the
water is clear and the fish are colorful. Here, the water is murky, and you don’t see people playing in the water. A few small launches ferry tourists to the 2 small islands - we heard that there was not much to do or see there either, but we didn't go to look ourselves.
Not only people travel south to Lake Chapala. Many birds do too. We saw lots of birds that are native to Canada and the US: the white pelicans and coots (black ducks with white beaks) that we get in Wascana Lake were here, herons and snowy egrets, and lots of other birds that I don’t know the names of. If fact, the snowy egrets here are almost as common as seagulls back home, except they are solitary wading birds. We saw them perched on everything from walls to buildings to boats as well as standing on the shore. There were also many little songbirds of all colors, and hummingbirds everywhere. The small B&B in the town of Chapala where we stayed was recommended to us from the owner/garden designer of the place where we stayed in Guadalajara, and also was a delight of gardens, trees,
and fountains. Of course, the birds loved it there too, and we spent a few leisurely hours just sitting and taking it all in. If you know where to look, these hidden gardens are everywhere in the older parts of the cities, shutting out the noise and dust of the city. .
The hotel owner found us a taxi driver who spoke English and gave tours to the places of interest around the lake. Armando was wonderful, and for 160 pesos an hour (about $16), he was at our disposal for the day or as long as we wanted. His knowledge of the area was very good, and he pointed out things that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Driscoll raspberries are grown on the south side of Lake Chapala, and the fields and outdoor shelters where ladies pick, sort, and pack the berries can be seen from Chapala on the north side of the lake. We stopped and got a big bag of fresh berries - a 2 litre ice-cream pail full - for 20 pesos ($2). Strawberries and blackberries are also grown here. He showed us all the little towns around the lake, and stopped for us to
take pictures as much as we wanted. Our tour was great, but we had a frightening thing happen on the way back. On a busy curve on the highway, another van lost control and hit the barricade on the outside of the curve, then came screeching towards us on the inside lane. Armando heard and saw him coming and pulled over as far as he could, but the van crashed into our taxi on the driver’s side ahead of the front wheel - pushing us up against the cement wall. Then the van careened off sideways across the other lane, hit the barricade, and flipped over right off the highway. We thought they were dead for sure, maybe halfway down the mountain, but lucky for them they landed on their wheels in the centre meridian and partway in the road heading the opposite direction. We were OK, but shaken, and unbelievably, the guys in the van also walked away from it! They were all drunk, which I guess explains it. The police and ambulances showed up in just a few minutes, and Armando was stuck there doing the reporting, etc. Once we established that it wasn’t his fault, and that
we were all OK, Armando was allowed to call another cab - a friend of his - to come and get us and take us back to the hotel. We were all lucky, and we heard later that his cab was in the shop, and he was using a friend’s cab, so everything was OK. What a day - we got much more adventure than we had bargained for!
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