About an hour south of Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, Lake Chapala is the largest freshwater lake in Mexico. This area is known as “Lakeside” to residents from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain and Europe, among other places, and “la ribera” to Mexicans. Due partly to the eclectic mixture, it has developed a continental Old World charm which blends smoothly with a distinctly Mexican ambiance.
Guadalajara International Airport is less than 30 minutes away by car and offers flights to 21 cities in Mexico and direct flights to at least 14 cities in the United States. Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, and its international airport are less than an hour away, so Lake Chapala area residents can have anything at their disposal. If for some reason it can’t be found in Chapala or Ajijic, it can be found in Guadalajara. With the airport so close, it is easy to travel to the United States or anywhere in the world.
Its dimensions are 80 km (50 miles) from east to west and an average of 12.5 km (7.8 miles) from north to south, and it covers an area of 1,100 km2 (420 square miles). It is a shallow lake, with an average depth of 7 meters (23 feet)  and a maximum of 10.5 m (34 feet).
Let’s look on the weather throughout the year: January is the coldest month on the lakeside, with temperatures reaching around 70 F or more during the day and cooling to around 50 F to 55 F at night. May is the warmest month, with highs typically in the mid-80s and lows around 60 F. February is typically the driest month, averaging just a tenth of an inch of rain, while July is the warmest month with nine inches. It will be difficult to find a better climate anywhere in the world, roughly at the same latitude as Hawaii.
Due to this large expat population, you will find that many of the locals here speak English as well. Over 10,000 retirees call lakeside their home, call us, we can show you around!
Something that you should not miss is visiting the boardwalks of the different towns on the Lake Chapala area! The malecon is a fixture of coastal cities in the Spanish-speaking world and in towns that grew up around them. Malecons are invariably community focal points. In these towns the malecons often feel as if the perimeter of a plaza square has been unraveled to form a thread along the water’s edge, and the waterfront is an organic part of the town.
The construction in recent years of malecons along Lake Chapala in Chapala, San Antonio Tlayacapan, Ajijic, San Juan Cosala, and Jocotopec has created miles of lakeshore promenades that reinforce the historic connection between the lake and these one-time fishing villages. It is a magnificent experience to walk these malecons of the different towns of the Lake Chapala!
Ajijic, Chapala, Jocotepec, San Antonio, and San Juan Cosala are some of the most popular communities along the north coast. The city of Chapala is the largest community, and here you will find all kinds of shops, cafes, and restaurants.
Chapala is also home to what is said to be the largest American Legion outpost outside the United States. To the east is the community of Vista del Lago, with its popular country club and golf course.
Ajijic has a large community of expats which will give you access to a lot of activities such as those offered in The Lake Chapala Society on “16 de Septiembre” street with more than 3000 members.
Lake Chapala Towns
For more than 10,000 expatriates, mostly Canadian and American, attracted by a climate described as “eternal spring,” the shores of Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest lake, have become a permanent home.
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.
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.
Ajijic is situated on a narrow strip of land between the mountains to the north and the Lake to the South. It is flanked by San Antonio Tlayacapan to the east and San Juan Cosala to the west. It is seven kilometers west of Chapala. Its average annual temperature is 19.9 degrees Centigrade “68F”.
“The Place Where the Water Springs Forth” In 1522, the Spanish Olid Expedition reached the eastern shores of what is today called Lake Chapala. When it arrived, its leader, Captain Avalos, met with little resistance. A royal grant from the king of Spain gave joint ownership of the area to Avalos, who was a cousin of Hernan Cortez. Soon other cousins arrived, and one of them by the name of Saenz acquired almost all of the land that is now Ajijic.
SAN JUAN COSALA
San Juan Cosala is located between Ajijic and Jocotepec. Visitors flock to Lakeside’s most popular spa, Balneario San Juan, with its several thermal pools and its natural geyser. To avoid weekend and holiday crowds, it is best to visit during the week. The place is just off the carretera, well-marked, easy to find, a good spot to relax. Massages can be booked, and there is a restaurant on the premises.
In 1523, Spanish Conquistador Captain Alonso de Avalos arrived in Cutzalan. Chief Xitomatl, who now controlled the area from Ajijic to San Luis, surrendered peacefully, and was baptized by Fray Martin de Jesus. He was given the new name of Juan Bautista de Cosala. Saint John then became the patron saint of the village, which was henceforth known as San Juan Cosala.
SAN ANTONIO TLAYACAPAN
San Antonio Tlayacapan is a town on the north shore of Lake Chapala located between Ajijic and Chapala.
Long before the Spaniards arrived, the Cazcanes and the Cocas lived in what is now known as San Antonio Tlayacapan, and both were dedicated to agriculture and hunting. In 1523, Cortez sent men to control the area. By 1539, both tribes had surrendered to the Spaniards, who then built monasteries as refuges for the natives. Thus, the first Catholic church in Lakeside was built in this spot by the Franciscans. All that remains today is the tower, preserved in the patio of the primary school, the rest having been destroyed by time. A new church was built, still in use today. San Antonio Tlayacapan is located between Chapala and Ajijic.
Jocotepec is located at the western end of Lake Chapala. Its average annual temperature is 22C (71.6F), with a maximum of 22-23C (73.4-75.2F) in May, and a minimum of 16-17C (60.8-62.6F) in January.
Perhaps as early as 100 BC, nomadic bands of Indians passed through the Lake Chapala Valley. Some moved on, others settled on the shore. Jocotepec, once Xuxutepeque, a small fishing village at the western end of the Lake, became a permanent home for the Nahua Indians in 1361. They built a temple to their god, Iztlacateotl, and practiced human sacrifice. The village became a trading and ceremonial site for the surrounding mountain area.
SANTA CRUZ DE LA SOLEDAD
Santa Cruz de la Soledad is a small town in the municipality Chapala located within the limits of Lake Chapala in the state of Jalisco, at an approximate altitude of 1,540 m above sea level.
The name Santa Cruz was given by the Franciscans who were in contact with the natives living on the lakeside. It was a Catholic custom to assign the name of a saint or Christian symbol to the small villages around the municipality in order to gain control over the parishioners. The name Santa Cruz translates to Holy Cross.
SAN LUIS SOYATLÁN
Sitting on the south shore of Lake Chapala, and about 45 minutes south from the city of Guadalajara. San Luis Soyatlán is a town located in the state of Jalisco in central-western Mexico, and is part of the municipality of Tuxcueca. It is the largest population of its municipality.
If you keep driving a little bit farther past Jocotepec, sitting on the south shore of Lake Chapala in the municipality of TUXCUECA, you will find yourself at the small town of San Luis Soyatlán. Its name comes from two languages, a Castilian “San Luis” which refers to the patronage of the saint of the population; Saint Louis of Toulouse, and the other “Soyatlán” which is Nahuatl meaning “place of soyates” (the fiber of soyate is the primary material for Mexican mats and hats).
SAN CRISTÓBAL ZAPOTITLÁN
Founded in the year 1586, located on the shores of Lake Chapala and only 20 minutes away from downtown Jocotepec, you will find a small town called San Cristóbal Zapotitlán. With 1532 meters above sea level and 2119 inhabitants, it is located in the Municipality of Jocotepec (in the State of Jalisco). The predominant climate is semi-dry and semi-warm, with an average annual temperature of 20 ° C, an average maximum of 26 ° C and a minimum average of 13 ° C. Its zip code is 45840 and telephone code is 387.
This town, like several other towns, was founded by indigenous Cocas, who were dedicated to fishing, hunting and farming. Like other villages living by the lake’s shore, they did not see the lake as a limitation to their community, on the contrary, they saw it as a mean of communication and a way of translating from one side of the lake to the other, as well as a mean of exchanging products amongst villages.
By Mildred Boyd
It all began when, some 1.5 million years ago, seismic convulsions threw up chains of mountains to form a catchment basin with only one outlet, trapping the waters of the Lerma River to form the largest natural lake in what would eventually become Mexico. Situated well below the Tropic of Cancer at an altitude of nearly five thousand feet, this huge body of water acts as a thermal flywheel to moderate both tropical heat and high- altitude cold and creates an almost perfect environment for living things. Plants and animals soon established themselves; birds haunted the shoreline, fish teemed in the depths and mammals preyed on both for countless millennia before man appeared on the scene.
Those first people, possibly hunter/gatherers as early as 11,000 B.C., must have felt that they had stumbled into their equivalent of paradise. Where else could they find such an equitable climate or such an abundance of food to be acquired with so little effort? Small wonder, then, that they gratefully abandoned the uncertainties of nomadic life. Over the mi-llennia, other wanderers made the same happy discovery with similar results. Easier life allowed specialization, and farming and fishing villages began to dot the 215 miles of shoreline and true civilization began, borrowing bits and pieces from other cultures as it grew.
Civilization always begets religion and theirs, quite properly, featured a water deity. Michicihuali (Fish Woman), was goddess of wind, weather and fertility. It was she who called forth the cardinal winds to create fish and could, if angered, use those same winds to draw up towering waterspouts and drive them inland to devastate villages and farms. She was propitiated with offerings of blood drawn from the thorn-pierced bodies of her worshippers and collected in tiny clay vessels with breast-shaped protrusions symbolizing fertility. Thousands upon thousands of such offerings were thrown into the water, presumably with appropriate ceremony, and are still found occasionally in the shallows along the shore.
By the 1500s Lake Chapala formed a part, albeit a backward one, of the powerful Purepecha empire. Even the Conquest caused relatively little disturbance here. Fish and maize offer no temptation to those greedy for gold and, although Spanish settlers did come to stay, they were soon absorbed and the only lasting impression was made by the missionaries. Four centuries of wars and revolutions, from the Miston uprising in the 1540s to the Cristero rebellion in the 1920s, caused some local turbulence but hardly affected the lives of the people of the lake. There were always more important things; fish to be caught, nets to be mended, milpas to be planted and livestock to be tended.
Then came a more insidious invasion. Artists and writers from all over the world discovered the enchantment of lakeside living. Their enthusiasm attracted more foreigners to the area and many who came as tourists fell thrall, in turn, to the siren’s song and never left. The growing expatriate colonies did bring major changes. Farming and fishing were still important but many villagers could earn better livings catering to tourists or providing the goods and services demanded by their uninvited, but seemingly welcome, permanent guests.
The possibility that Michicihuali’s winds would soon be raising dust devils instead of waterspouts became frighteningly real.
Happily, that disaster has been averted. A generous rainy season and release of impounded waters have restored almost normal levels and long range plans to reduce pollution are being implemented as rapidly as possible.
Furthermore, public awareness at the international level, the activities of the Amigos del Lago, and the guidance of the Living Lakes organization with its perfect success record, should guarantee that we never again forget one simple fact.
The wonderful climate and serene beauty we once took for granted are the gifts of a unique and fragile ecosystem and will be ours only as long as Lake Chapala is treasured and protected!