In 1521-22, Franciscan evangelists, sent from Spain by Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to Christianize the natives, baptized Chief Chapalac, and named him “Martin of Chapala,” master of the people, owner of the land. In exchange, the Taltica Indian chief destroyed his god, Iztlacateotl.
In 1538, Franciscan Fray Miguel Bolonia founded the city of Chapala. He built a hermitage on Chapala’s highest hill, Cerro San Miguel, where he lived until his death. He built another hermitage on the island of Mezcala, where native children were given religious instruction.
In 1548, a church was built of adobe and grass, and named San Francisco after the order of the padres. A hospital was constructed, adjoining the church.
By 1550, Chapala had a population of 825 married persons and 349 children. About this time, a scholar from Spain, studying Indian cultures of the Chapala shores, found that each lakeside community seemed to have its own language. Probably, the lack of transportation (the rough dugout fishing canoes were not capable of crossing the lake) had prevented a common language from developing.
On September 10, 1864, Chapala became a municipality by decree of the Jalisco State Congress.
Chapala is located on the north shore of Lake Chapala, 26 km. (16 mi.) east of the Lake’s western end, and 42 km. (25 mi.) south of Guadalajara. It is the oldest, most populated, and the most easterly of a string of villages – Chapala, San Antonio Tlayacapan, Ajijic, San Juan Cosala and Jocopetec – known locally as Lakeside.
Its altitude is 1530 meters (5020 feet). Its average temperature is 19.9 degrees C (68 degrees F).
About 1,000 B.C., roaming Indian tribes drifted into the Lake Chapala basin, a paradise rich with fish, fowl, reeds and mud for shelters, grasses for mats, baskets and clothing. As time passed, some of the wanderers stayed behind, eventually making permanent settlements.
From the XVI to the XVIII centuries Chapala was only partially commissioned by the Spanish Crown, being inhabited mainly by indigenous people, in spite of the fact that the process of European colonization had started back in the XVI century.
In addition to the first European colonization in the XVI century, the period 1895 to the decade of the ’30s of the present century, Chapala gave shelter among its population to a good number of foreigners of diverse nationalities, as well as to those of our fellow countrymen who began promoting tourism along the lakeside.
Since the 1960s, Chapala has been frequented by both Mexican and international tourists.
“Grasshoppers Over the Water” – Nahuatl “Very Wet Place” – Coca “Place Where the Pots Abound”- Nahuatl
Founded in 1538, the town probably took its name from Chapalac, one of its earliest Indian chiefs. Or perhaps it came from the Mexican “Chapatla,” the “place where pots abound,” referring to the primitive Indian practice of appeasing the gods by throwing pots, spotted with blood from earlobes, into Lake Chapala.
Chapala’s main street is blooming with trees, plants and flowers, making it a beautiful place to rest. Among the varieties found in the area are pine, evergreen oak, palo dulce, huizache, campanilla, caspire, madrono, saucillo, tepame and chaparral.
Almost every plant will grow in this ideal climate, so home gardens usually have a great variety of trees, plants and flowers. Fruit trees – mango, lemon, tangerine, guayaba, orange, banana, avocado – are very common. Grains, fruits and vegetables, sold in the markets, and even from the sidewalks, are always available.
There are a few small farms in Chapala that grow corn, wheat, peas, chick-pea, and sorghum. A small amount of cotton is produced. In the mountains, and by season, nopal and camote are harvested. The nopal is a cactus and is a common ingredient in numerous Mexican cuisine dishes. They can be eaten raw or cooked, used in marmalades, soups stews and salads, as well as being used for traditional medicine or as fodder for animals. The other part of the nopal cactus that is edible is the fruit called the tuna in Spanish, and the “prickly pear” in English. The camote is a wild tuber and is sold as snack and food served in plastic bags, bottle sauce or chili powder tree, salt and a generous dose of lemon juice.
Fauna formerly found in Chapala included dry climate animals such as deer, coyote, skunk, rabbit, squirrel and reptiles. Although most have now disappeared, it is still common to see rabbits and squirrels. Until recently, images of the puma Yagouaroundi which was thought to be extinct in the area were captured by nocturnal cameras set on the hills. Snakes such as the rattlesnake are usually found in the mountains but one can spot non poisonous snakes swimming on the lake shores. Dangerous insects such as scorpions and spiders are seldom seen but are common in the area.
Because of contamination, the fish population of the Lake has been reduced. Charales, white fish (very rare), carp and bagre are still caught by fishermen and consumed by villagers. Today, most fish sold in restaurants is brought from the ocean or the gulf. Charales, a very common treat around Lakeside, is a very small fish, dried and eaten as a snack.
The four-lane Chapala-Guadalajara highway connects with highways to La Barca, Guanajuato and Michoacan. It also takes you to the Miguel Hidalgo Guadalajara Airport (25 minutes away) which has national and international flights.
From Chapala’s central bus station, buses run to and from Guadalajara every half hour. For other destinations, travelers must first go to the Guadalajara bus station, and board another bus.
Near the Chapala bus station you can catch a local bus to Jocotepec or any town along the way.
Chapala has a post office and offers all the services of any big city. In Coldwell Banker is a UPS courier. Telephone service is very good. Cell phone and internet services are available. All around Chapala are public telephones for local and long distance.
Artisans sell their work at Chapala’s Monday tianguis (open air market) and on the malecon (pier) by the Lake. Carved bone and wood, embroidery, typical Mexican dresses and ceramics are the principal products. Prehispanic reproductions are also made locally and sold here. Craftsmen can be commissioned to make furniture of wood, forged iron, and rattan. Chapala is also well known for its candy, made here in a long-established factory. You can find them set on little tables along the highway and on many corners around the area. They are so good customers come all the way from Guadalajara to buy it.
There is an annual art festival in November called Feria Maestros del Arte. The artisans come together once a year to sell their work. It is the most incredible folk art show in Mexico – 40 minutes south of Mexico’s 2nd largest city, Guadalajara. Buyers and collectors come to the Feria from around the world to purchase the highest quality Mexican art at the best prices available.
Another annual festival happening in February is “Al Son de las Olas”, a traditional music festival offering workshops, lectures, musical presentations, and expo and sale of local crafts. The objective of this music festival is the approach and the diffusion of our music, dance, traditional gastronomy to all our municipality as well as the tourists visiting us. In addition it reinforces instruction and experience of local artists by interacting and exchanging knowledge with artists from other regions of our country.
Mariachi musicians from Chapala are famous. Groups travel widely to play at parties, and they are hired for most of the fiestas patronales (celebrations for patron saints) in various towns.
Many fiestas are celebrated by the people of Mexico, but two are especially dear to the hearts of Chapala people. Carnaval, in February, starts off with a “bad humor burial,” proceeds with “allegorical cars,” a procession, music, dance, and then ends with a charreada (rodeo), serenades for the fiesta queen, and a coronation for the Ugly King.
Perhaps the most important event of the year, Chapala’s Fiesta Patronal, September 25-October 4, honors Saint Francis of Assisi with nine days of fireworks, games, castillo (bamboo tower for pyrotechnic display), dance, music, typical Mexican food, and drink. The main plaza is packed with people each night, promenading in the paseo, eating, drinking, listening to the mariachis, and waiting for the midnight fireworks.
The old presidency building was managed in 1908 by the municipal president, Manuel Capetillo Villaseñor and in 1910 the property was bought. In 1940 was the first remodeling of the building. In the administration of Alberto Alcántar (1998-2000) the structure of the building ceased to be safe by recommendation of Civil Protection, the presidency was changed to where the one of the oldest hotels was, the Hotel Nido, which was founded in the early 1910s and once housed vacationing elite from all parts of Jalisco.
The old presidency building was fixed and remodeled and opened its doors in 2015 as the new Cultural Center featuring a theatre with a capacity for 216 people. This new center houses art shows, plays, musicals, and academic presentations all year long.
Chapala has several banks, several travel bureaus, an investment company, and the oldest real estate firm in the entire area. Downtown is where almost all economic transactions are made, with people coming from all the villages to do business.
It is also the main seat of government for several Lakeside villages. Inside the township’s colonial building are housed almost all of the agencies and departments that administer the legal, civic and ecological life of the area.
Chapala boasts several medical clinics, some featuring the latest and most modern diagnostic equipment. The Red Cross clinic and ambulance service operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for medical emergencies. Moreover, Lakeside has a few outstanding retirement homes, with round-the-clock medical assistance available.
For sports enthusiasts, Chapala has a yacht club, several good tennis courts, a few beautifully maintained soccer fields and a bullring, as well as fully-equipped health clubs. In recent years, the citizens of Mexico have become much more health conscious, and the town of Chapala reflects this new trend.
Near the lakeshore sits a quaint quay that sports several of the best seafood restaurants in all of Mexico. People from Guadalajara and other towns around come on Sundays to enjoy a nice shrimp cocktail and all that these restaurants offer.
The malecon was remodeled expanding and evening the walkways and planting palm trees and other lush tropical plants all along giving it an inviting atmosphere. It is a place for the public to wander down by the lake and purchase food or trinkets from the local vendors. Freshly made ice cream is a favorite treat and is famous around this region. On weekends, the place rocks with lots of tourists, traveling minstrels, balloons, bubbles and more. There is a modern skate board area which is very active with the young showing off their skate boarding skills.
Fishing boats are a mainstay of the scenery here at Lake Chapala. Boats offer you tours around the lake and to the island called La Isla de los Alacranes (Scorpion Island) where you can enjoy nice views of the lake and lake shores all around, see the diverse local and exotic birds. The island houses several little restaurants offering local food dishes.
The municipal park situated on the east shore of the lake in the Chapala area called Parque de la Cristiania is walking distance from the malecon. It has a couple of swimming pools and water slides for those hot summer days. An amphitheatre in the middle of the park houses musical and theatrical plays presented by local schools. For the more active type it also has tennis courts and volley ball courts. Lots of picnic areas, green sunny and shaded spaces, are filled with people enjoying a nice day with family and friends.
Back in the 1920s, the introduction of the railroad offered better alternatives for the economic growth of the region, besides providing a nicer ride, as the railroad was more comfortable than the stage coaches which took up to 12 hours to make the trip, or the buses with big solid rubber tires, which also took a minimum of 5 hours to cover the same distance that the railroad did in 3 hours from Guadalajara to Chapala. After a flood, the railroad operation ceased in 1926 and was abandoned and later bought by a wealthy family but was taken over by squatters. In 1991, the family donated the building and was remodeled and turned into a museum. Today, the museum also houses an art school offering music, theatre and visual art classes.
The new and the old are harmoniously integrated in Chapala, and it is not unusual to find a modern facility nestled in between two stately residences whose histories go back several hundred years. The past is well preserved, and hints of village history can be found around nearly every corner.
One example is the former home of the novelist, D.H. Lawrence, who resided here in the early 20s, during the time he was writing one of his most celebrated novels, The Plumed Serpent. Today, the house is one of the best bed and breakfast establishments in Mexico.
Another impressive residence is the former home of the Braniff family. Built around the turn of the century by the scion of the family who later would establish one of the largest airlines in the United States, it is today a fashionable restaurant called Los Cazadores.