By Lawrence H. Freeman
December 2000 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 17, Number 5
At nearly 50-70 miles long and 15-20 miles wide,
covering some 417 square
miles, Lake Chapala is the largest natural lake in Mexico. It is fed
at its eastern end by the River Lerma, originating in the Toluca ountain
range, and drained at its northeastem corner by the Rio Santiago that
then goes to the Pacific Ocean. It provides 55% of the drinking water
to Guadalajara. I will not dwell on the problems of the lake, but there
are some who prophesize that the lake will not survive and there seems
to be no question that the lake is presently at its lowest leve, necessitating
water rationing in Guadalajara.
The lake was formed some 12,000,000 years ago in a seismic upheaval
and was ahnost 7 times its present size, even covering the present city-site
of Guadalajara. The lake bed is the resting place of many fossils, and
within the last few months, mammoths have been
found and unearthed, one of them just down the street from here. Originally
Jalisco, it now hears the name Chapala, taken from the Nahuatl 'Chapalal,'
that water makes splashing on a sandy shore.
Ajijic was originally named, in Nahuatal, the Aztec language, 'Axixic,
place where the
water springs forth,' commemorating the seven fresh-water wells that
the water in this area. One of the wells was at the head of Calle Colon,
and another was
likely on the site of the church on Marcos Castellanos.
Before the Spanish arrived, the indigenous Cocas were living at Cutzalán,
now San Juan
Cosala, where they fought off the repeated attacks of their traditional
Tarascans. By the mid-fourteenth century, the Cocas' burgeoning population
them to form additional lakeside villages, including Axixic.
The town of Chapala was founded in 1510, and Axixic followed when the
Captain Alonso de Avalos, a cousin of Hernan Cortes, arrived in 1523
the Cocas to surrender and be baptized without a fight. He was given
a royal grant and
his cousin Saenz was given a grant for Ajijic.
The fint major building, which still exists, was a mill built in the
1530s on the site of
the Posada Ajijic. A monastery on the corner of Hidalgo and Cinco de
founded in 1535 and still exists as a private home named 'Casa de Suenos.'
on Marcos Castellanos was also built in 1535, but was destroyed by a
rebuilt in 1749.
By the early 1550s, the lakeside area came under the domination of the
evangelists and they officially founded the city of Chapala in 1538,
building the church
in 1548. A 1565 census showed 2,400 residents at the lakeside, 1200
of them in
Lakeside remained a quiet fishing and agricultura] community, but in
the late 1700s was
ravaged by a plague that resulted in over 50,000 deaths in Nueva España.
Father Hidalgo declared Mexico's independence from Spain. In 1862, France
Mexico and Maximillian ruled until 1867, when he was executed in a successful
revolution led by Benito Juarez, shouting as he was shot by the firing
Mexico!' Chapala was brought to new life by the 35-year presidency of
Porfirio Diaz. It became the watering hole for the upper classes and
boasted a railway and steamboat service, but Ajijic remained a sleepy
and isolated fishing village.
The early 1900s were a period of civic upheaval in Mexico, with the
border wars and the
Cristero Rebellion tearing families and towns apart.
It was only in 1909 that the first motor car (named 'Protos') arrived
in Chapala, but by
1910, a cobbled road connected Chapala to Guadalajara, and it was paved
by 1937. Ajijic was discovered by European intellectuals and provided
a refuge for those fleeing political prosecution after WWI.
In 1925, D.H. Lawrence was writing The Plumed Serpent in Chapala, and
there was a small colony forming in Ajijic. Nigel Millet was managing
Posada Ajijic, and in the mid-30s, agold rush tranformed the town into
a short frenzy of greed. That was soon over and Ajijic settled down
again while Nigel Millet co-wrote Village in the Sun under the name
ofDale Chandos. The other half of the team, Peter Lilley, then wrote
House in the Sun. TheLSC has copies of both books, as well as their
Candeleria's Cookbook, for sale in the frontpatio where one can also
The Chapala-Ajijic road, or rather trail, was
still almost impassible. In the 1940s, the
town water supply was still located at a pump in the plaza and bathing
was done in the
lake. There were 14 foreigners living here and the Mayor levied a one-peso
fine on any
livestock owner allowing his pig to use the street for a bathroom.
In 1943 Neill James, a world-renowned travel writer, arrived in Ajijic
to recover from
serious injuries suffered while exploring a newly active volcano, Paracutín,
Pátzcuaro. She soon purchased the property where the LCS stands
today, and never left
until she died in 1994, just a few months short of her 100th birthday.
Neill James was born in 1899 on a cotton plantation in Granada, Mississippi.
graduated from the Women's University of Mississippi with a BS degree
in 1918. Then
followed a varied career, including a stint in Japan as a reporter and
employee of the
U.S. Embassy. She married and quickly divorced without children. In
1929 she left the
work-a-day world to pursue a life as a pioneering adventurer, world-traveler,
writer and novelist. Heroine of many adventures, including living among
primitives and being pursued and hounded across Asia by Japanese agents,
came to roost in Ajijic in 1942.
Her Ajijic property started out as a simple casa toward the back of
fairly wild, almost
jungle-like acreage, and over the years various structures were added.
The building now
housing the office, multi-cultural reading room arad the reference portion
of the library
was built and operated as a silkworm factory and a salesroom until a
freak cold snap
killed the silkwonns. The present main library building was built to
house the looms
used for her weavings, and the mulberry tree that was home to the now-dead
can still be seen in front of the building.
As she settled in, Ms. James built a house for her sister on the property,
several parcels to her friends to build some of the picturesque houses
that can be seen
on the edges of our grounds. Over the years, Ms. James had the property
landscaped and dotted with reflecting pools. Among the thriving plants
and trees will be
found: coffee, avocados, bananas, oranges, loquats, lemens, giant white
bird of paradise
trees, poinsettias, calla lilies and a wondrous specimen cactus garden.
Riotous colors and
foliage line our pathways and Koi and frogs co- exist in the many magical
ponds that brought humidity in the dry spells.
Her residence was the house by the back patio. When she lived there,
the patio was a
series of multi-level pools aud the atmosphere was enlivened by the
rush, ripple and fall
of the water. It has since been fílled in so that it may be used
as a meeting area.
Overlooking the patio (originally the ponds), is the sun-splashed, glass-enclosed
bedroom where Neill James passed on.
At the rear of the property is the roofed patio that was built by her
for meetings, but is
now used for gatherings, and also as a community-based art project for
the years the classes have turned out several intemationally famous
artists, who return to
pass on their skills to their young successors. Neill James articles
in Life and other U.S.
magazines inspired the first wave of gringo visitations. Her book, Dust
On My Heart, a
personal view of early lakeside life, is also for sale on the patio.
(Ed. Note: Her
publisher was Scribner, one of the best in the world. During this same
period, the firm
published the works of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tom
Deeply involved in the Mexican community, Ms. James opened her first
for Mexican children in 1945 and it has continued uninterrupted, though
locations, since then. The extensive English-language LCS library of
volumes and the Multí-cultural Reading Center is still on these
WW II left Lakeside pretty well untouched, though the German U-boat
Von Spee used to openly patrol the Chapala-Ajijic-Jocotopec road, communicating
Germany by short-wave radio. Nobody seemed to mind.
In the 50s magazine and radio reports extolled the perfect climate,
(and it is a perfect
climate, hailed as one of the three best in the world), along with the
cost-of-living, compared to the U. S., and thus began the flood of retirees
continues to this very day. At a 5,000 foot altitude, it is shirt-sleeve
and even the rainy season cooperates, usually waiting until nightfall
to scatter its
much-needed liquid largesse.
The Lake Chapala Society is a 'bridge' and visitor center as well as
the source of much of the activity at Lakeside. It was founded in January
of 1955, but in spite of 38
memberships, very nearly came to an end in December, continuing only
because it was
already providing many valuable services to the community.
In 1965 the streets were torn up to lay down a new water system, ending
the trips to the
town square for water. But the Chapala-Ajijic road was still a disaster
(some called it the
'Ho Chi Minh Trail') and there were only two telephones and very few
services in the
village, but even so, a few long-haired hippies showed up in the 60s.
The Lake Chapala Society held its first Independence Day celebration
hecame a tradition, and in 1977 the Society was printing 500 bulletins.
By 1983, the Lake Chapala Society moved to the present location and
in 1985, Neill
James donated her property to the Society. New articles in publications
in the U.S. and
Canada inspired a new influx, (but at least there was soon a two-lane
Chapala and Ajijic) and the blessed isolation was at an end.
In 1989, all the streets were torn up to lay sewers, and the 460-year-old
were tossed to one side and transportation came to a standstill for
Rumors abound that Ajijic and the Guadalajara Airport were the nexus
of a recent
well-known 'undercover' CIA operation. That affair allegedly involved
drugs in exchange
for arms for the Nicaragum rebels. This became known as the Iran-Contra
of President Ronald Reagan and Oliver North.
In 1990, Ed Wilkes donated his house to the Society and it became the
Center. Located two blocks from LCS, the Wilkes Center is home to our
Children's Spanish language library, and provides many educational opportunities
both adults and children in the Mexican community. Among the prospects
on offer are
numerous English as a Second Languahe courses, a cooking school, Art
appreciation and other classes. It is also the base for the membership-supported
Today, Ajijic has taken on all the aspects of a wealthy suburb of Houston
and English is the lingua franca of the shops and streets. Million-dollar
condos bloom on the hills and aging retirees fíght for status
in the many clubs and
associations that have sprung up. 'Snowbirds' escaping the vicissitudes
of winter in
hardier climes during winter, and `rainbirds' escaping the debilitating
summer heat of
the Southwest swell the ranks of the permanent residents, clogging the
fancy SUVs and causing restaurant waiting lines.
Ajijic has a colorful heritage in the many famed artists and authors
that have and are
living here, cheek-by-jowl with the trendy bontiques, up-scale restaurants
farmacias, not to mention our new multi-cinema.
We are often asked how many foreigners, (mostly Norteamericanos) including
Canadians, are in the lakeside area at any given time. That depends
on 1) who you ask, and 2) what time of year it is. Estimates of year-round
people may run as low as 800, but when the 'snowbirds' descend, then
estimates from different sources range from 5,000 to as much as 35,000
(and it sometimes seems like millions).
Now with well over 3000 members, The Lake Chapala Society exists for
the benefit of
the indigenous community as well as the English-speakers and visitors
Anyone can join, and membership entities you to the use of the facilities,
Club and Talking Book Club.
The LCS invites you to take advantage of the many activities that take
place on the
grounds. For members they have a service where members transport mail
to be mailed in
the U. S. and Canada. They have writing, computer and camera clubs,
visits by Canadian and U. S. Consular officials, as well as Mexican
They also offer newcomer information, free lawyer
consultations, free blood pressure
and eye checks, as well as information on health and other insurance,
informational meetings, monthly membership meetings, Spanish lessons,
as well as other
The facilities are all staffed and operated by dedicated volunteers,
many of whom have
donated their time for years. You are invited to join!