By June Nay Summers
Ajijic was settled by people who came from the north, and their origin is explained by a legend. There was a place far to the north called “Whiteness,” and, from its seven caves, seven tribes set out towards the south.
This migration probably took place in the second half of the 11th and the first half of the 12th centuries. The Nahuas were different from other Indian tribes around the lake. These primitives lived on Chapala’s vast shores with no thought of founding permanent pueblos. Nor were they curious about their own origins, their forefathers or their names.
Their vision of the world was simple. They were completely absorbed with the rendering of tribute to their gods. It was through, they thought, the pleasing of these deities that the sun shone and the rains fell on their land. Obtaining their daily sustenance was their primary reason for being.
Their second priority was defending themselves against hostile Tarascos and other neighboring tribes. To ward off such attacks, the Nahuas established complex barricades on the shores of this immense lake, dwelling place of the goddess Machis.
In 1522, the Olid Expedition reached the eastern shores of Lake Chapala. When they arrived, Captain Avalos met with little resistance. A royal grant gave joint ownership of the area to Avalos and the Spanish Crown. Close in Avalos’ (a cousin of Cortez) wake came other relatives of Cortez. One, by the name of Saenz, acquired almost all of the property that is now Ajijic. By 1530, the Saenz property was one big hacienda. The principal crop was mezcal for making tequila. The hillsides were covered with mezcal plants and their soft blue-green blanketed hill and dale.
Coffee and corn were planted. When a tequila distillery was introduced, the product was exported to Spain along with the coffee beans. A “molino” (mill) was established, which Saenz built on the site of the present-day Old Posada. The blast of a conch horn at 4:00 a.m. called the Indians to bring their corn to the mill to be ground. This mill remained in business until the 1940’s. It is still intact atop the Posada today.
Later, Franciscan missionaries visited the village and gave it a patron saint, San Andres (Saint Andrew). Royal land grants included the Indians who lived there. Franciscan Fray Sebastian de Parrago introduced the first oranges to Ajijic in 1562. Henceforth, the village was called “San Andres de Axixic.” Its cobblestone streets-laid down during the days of Spanish rule-are still used today.
After the border wars (1910-29), the Saenz hacienda was split into many small holdings and all Mezcal cultivation ceased, as each Mezcal plant needs seven years to mature and only large estates can devote such acreage solely to growing plants.
During the Porfirian Era (1875-1910), Ajijic was isolated from Chapala by land. Their commerce with the resort town of Chapala, which was five miles away, was confined to an occasional cargo canoe touching down at the Saenz Hacienda for a load of tequila or coffee beans.
In the early 1920’s, Mr. Ramirez, Mayor of Chapala, purchased the Saenz Hacienda. He re-named it Hacienda Tlacuache (The Opossum). The property is still owned by the Ramirez family and has, over the years, been sublet to various people.
In 1925, Ajijic was discovered by European intellectuals and became a refuge for those fleeing political persecution after World War I. Louisa Heuer, a writer, and her brother Paul, were German refugees. They owned Casa Particular—a small inn overlooking the lake. Zara Alexeyewa, the great-granddaughter of Gideon Wells, Secretary of the Navy under President Abraham Lincoln—first came to Guadalajara in 1925 to dance at the Teatro Degollado. She was accompanied by her mother and adopted brother, Holger Mehner.
The trio had just finished a tour of Europe and South America where Zara and Holger had introduced ballet to that continent. Zara, enchanted with Lake Chapala, moved her menage to Ajijic. They lived in a rambling, decaying, old house on the edge of the lake, next to the Heuers.
Herbert and Georgette Johnson, English refugees from France, comprised the remaining foreign family residing in Ajijic in the 1930’s. The Johnsons built a house, set in an English garden that overlooked the lake.
Nigel Stensbury Millett, the British author, arrived in Ajijic with his father in 1937. They first lived in Casa Particular with the Heuers. Later they moved to Hacienda El Tlacuache where Nigel quickly became part of the Ramirez family. Millet induced Mayor Ramirez to change the name of his hacienda to Posada Ajijic. A few rooms and a bar were added and under Millet’s management, an inn was born. The Posada Ajijic remains today, a lakeside landmark. From 1975 until the early ‘90s when they built their own establishment, Judy and Morley Eager owned and operated the Posada Ajijic.
In the mid-30s, three engineers, their curiosity aroused as to why a certain red hill (variously called Bald Mountain, Gold Mountain, or simply Quarry) was without growth when all others in the area were wooded, discovered gold in the hill.
Almost overnight the gold rush was on. Corn mills were transformed into gold mines. The women of the village reverted to hand-operated metates to pulverize corn for family tortillas. Farmers left their fields, fishermen dropped their nets, and trouble beset Ajijic as food became scarce. Neighbors quarreled. Murders and mayhem were rife.
Leaders in the gold rush were the ballet dancers, Zara and Holger, for they owned the best mine. Zara found life as a dancer tame, compared with gold mining. Armed with her “treasure finder,” Zara looked for gold, but found only trouble. One associate after another cheated her. The dream of gold began to fade.
There was gold in the hills, but not in sufficient quantity. The gold fever cooled. Men returned to their tiendas. Gold mills went back to grinding corn. Fishermen spread their nets again, and farmers re-plowed their land. The Ajijic gold rush had ended.
Once again the village settled back among the green-bladed mango trees squeezed in between mountains and lake. Only two new houses, one built by a Mexican colonel, the other by the English couple, broke the natural curve of grassy shores. Only the unfinished tower of the church, jutting above the tree tops, could be seen by approaching boats.
While living at the Old Posada, Nigel Millett wrote the award-winning Village in the Sun, in collaboration with another Englishman, Peter Lilley. The book was published under their pen-name of “Dane Chandos.” Millett died in 1946 and is buried in the western part of the Ajijic cemetery, alongside his father. Peter Lilley lived in the house he and Millett had built in the village of San Antonio for many years after Millett’s death. It was there that Lilley wrote House in the Sun, which was also published under the name of Dane Chandos.
At this time, the road between Chapala and Ajijic was almost impassable. There were four bridges to cross and all of them had wide, gaping holes. Most cars made a detour, sliding down a steep, slippery bank to ford a stony torrent. Then the car was coaxed up the bank on the other side. This road continued on to Jocotepec, sometimes running along the beach, sometimes alongside the mountain.
Ajijic could scarcely be seen from the road. The houses, with their tiled roofs, grew out of the ground with their adobe walls and were hidden in a tangle of vegetation. The orderly rows of mezcal plants were gone. The narrow belt of land the village stood on was as thickly green as a cabbage patch—and every little bay was different. One was rocky, another sandy, and a third, reclaimed by the Indios as the lake went down, was planted in chili or peanuts right down to the water’s edge.
The writer Mrs. Bedford, en-route from Chapala to Tlayacapan, wrote about her journey on this road: “The trail consisted of two not always parallel ruts of varying depth and gauge, caked hard, strewn with boulders, cut by holes and traversed by ditches. The cart had solid wooden wheels and no so rings. First we passed some stucco vines decaying behind tall enclosures. Forty years ago, during the heyday of the dictatorship, Chapala had been a modish resort. My driver pointed out an imposing residence, “La casa de la hija de Don Porfirio Diaz.” (Porfirio Diaz’s daughter’s house.)
“The trail, conservative in the rhythm of its vagaries, continued-small hole, big hole, boulder, ditch; small hole, big hole, boulder, chasm. In turns, we walked, we rode, we pushed, propped luggage, steadied shafts and helped the mule. We sat by the chasms in discouragement. After some time, pips appeared and baby donkeys, then a banana grove, and presently we reached a sub-tropical village (San Antonio). Women with children at their breasts peered at us from leaf huts.
“After another hour, we came to another much larger village with proper mud houses and a market place. For 300 yards, potholes were agreeably replaced by cobblestones.
“Ajijic!” proudly called out my driver.