Lake Chapala Area
SCENERY, SETTING & SERVICES
Lake Chapala is nestled in the beautiful Sierra Madre mountains just 40 minutes south of Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city. At an elevation of approximately 5,000 feet and ringed by mountains, Lakeside has a climate cited by National Geographic as one of the best in the world.
Along with the weather and economic benefits, North Americans are also enraptured by the breathtaking scenery and picturesque towns and villages that hug the shoreline. So it’s no wonder that between 20,000 and, by some estimates, up to 30,000 Americans and Canadians have chosen to call Lake Chapala home. The local expatriate population consists of full-timers who live here year-’round, snowbirds who escape the cold and spend anywhere from one to six months here and, more recently, a growing number of sunbirds from southern US states who come here in the summer months to escape the stifling humidity, sweltering heat and worsening hurricanes.
Whether full- or part-time, most of these North Americans (sometimes called “gringos”) live on the Northshore, within easy access of the Guadalajara International airport as well as the sophisticated shopping and cultural life of Guad, as the locals refer to it. Because of this large concentration of expats, the social life is abundant. There are countless cultural activities, a wide range of art galleries, gift shops and restaurants either within walking distance or just a short drive away.
Numerous English-language service clubs and organizations have also formed here. Some assist the “gringo” population in every aspect of life here, from medical care to legal information and resident status. Others were formed to help the local Mexican population when in need.
One of the largest and best known of area organizations is the Lake Chapala Society, with over 3,000 members. It offers a virtual marketplace of valuable services and information to both newcomers and long-time residents.
Quaint towns and villages with intriguing names such as Chapala, Ajijic and Jocotepec dot the Northshore with homes fit for every lifestyle and budget (See Prime Residential Areas). Village streets lined with brightly painted houses, roads paved with cobblestones, caballeros on horseback, colorful outdoor markets selling everything from native handicrafts to jalapeno peppers, and local craftspeople hawking their goods on the streets easily mingle with modern sophisticated life and conveniences. Tropical flowering bushes and trees grace the landscape and flourish behind private walls, creating bursts of color that change with each season.
Because of the temperate and predictable weather, most homes have covered patios and gardens where much of the dining and entertaining is done. Generally speaking, there is no need for either air conditioning or heating. However many homes are also equipped with fireplaces so that on cool winter nights, you can curl up in front of a crackling fire.
WINE & DINE
Since one cannot live either by bread or landscape alone, there are also many excellent restaurants and cafés from which to choose, serving everything from soup to sirloin, homestyle to international gourmet cuisine. It is said that you could eat at a new place every day and still not have covered all of the Lakeside restaurants. New ones pop up on a regular basis, and it’s a local pastime to chat about the newest restaurant’s food and service.
FILLING YOUR FRIDGE OR PANTRY
An abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables are available right off the tree, and some of the freshest seafood south of the Rio Grande can be found in a number of places — likely right around the corner. So yes, you can have your cake and eat it, too.
Every town has a specific day when the outdoor street market (tianguis) comes to town. Ajijic is the most popular one with ex-pats. It takes place on Wednesday. All the markets are exotic and colorful, with flowers, fruits, veggies, household goods, clothing and literally everything from soup to nuts offered at bargain prices. Markets are where you’ll not only do your best and cheapest grocery and gift shopping, but you’re likely to bump into everyone you know.
DRINKING THE WATER & EATING SALADS
It is not recommend that anyone drink water from the tap. However, bottled water is cheap, readily available, and even delivered to your door daily. Of course, many homes also have very efficient filtration systems that enable you to carry on as normal. Restaurants, bars and hotels at Lakeside that are frequented by expats depend on their regular clientele of tourists and residents. So their water is always pure. Ice cubes are manufactured in the same plants that produce bottled water and are purchased in bulk. Do stay away from huge blocks of ice. Till you become more familiar with all of the local places, it’s wise to avoid street stands and small restaurants that mainly service the native population. A good rule of thumb is, while in Mexico, drink only bottled water.
Salads in good restaurants and hotels are always carefully washed and prepared. Again, it’s wise to follow the same rules as you do with water. Eat where there are a lot of expats, avoid street vendors, and you’ll be fine.
HOW ABOUT FRUITS & VEGGIES AT HOME?
The fruits and vegetables in Mexico are fresh and flavorful, and well worth a bit of simple preparation. All non-peelable fruits and vegetables should be soaked for 15 minutes in a disinfectant solution that is readily available in all grocery stores and very easy to use. It’s not much different from washing them like you do back home. Once you get used to the process, it will become second nature to you. It is not necessary to do that with fruit such as bananas, oranges, avocados, etc., or for vegetables that you are going to boil for at least 15 minutes. However, it doesn’t hurt to pop everything into a sink full of sterile solution as soon as you bring it home. That way you know that everything in your fridge is worry-free and ready to enjoy either raw or cooked.
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
There are cultural activities galore, with live theater as well as live concerts ranging from classical to jazz and everything in between. The Lakeside Little Theatre, New Circle Productions and other theatrical groups will take care of many of your cultural and entertainment needs. There are also many art galleries, featuring local and expat artists.
For those of you who love to kick up your heels, you can! A number of places have dance floors where you can either show off your fancy footwork or just tap your feet, watch and enjoy. If you just want to have a beer, shmooze with your buddies or catch up on your latest sports game, that too is possible in a number of bars that will make you feel like you never left home.
SPORTS, LEISURE & HEALTH
There are two golf courses in the Lake Chapala area, Chula Vista and the Chapala Country Club in Vista del Lago. There are also health spas that offer massage and other beauty treatments at a fraction of the price back home. Gyms and tennis courts will keep you shipshape and eternally youthful.
There are a number of clinics and private doctors’ offices in the Lake Chapala area that offer excellent medical services at approximately $15 per visit. Lakeside has the added advantage of close proximity to Guadalajara, which boasts some of the best Medical facilities and hospitals in Mexico. Contrary to popular belief, Mexican doctors are highly trained, and the major hospitals in Guadalajara have the latest high-tech equipment. There are also many alternative medicine practitioners who offer services locally.
There are a number of medical insurance options to choose from. IMSS is the Mexican government’s universal health care program. It costs about $300 USD per year and gives you a lot in return. It provides excellent catastrophic coverage and is available to foreign residents.
Retirees with US plans such as Blue Cross, Blue Shield, Champus, Metropolitan, Golden Rule, Cigna and others, can use their coverage in Mexico. In addition, a number of organizations such as the American Legion and the Lake Chapala Society have local health insurance plans.
US citizens with Medicaid and Medicare often carry a medical evacuation provision in the case of life-threatening illness. These policies provide coverage that allows them to be transported by air ambulance to the US for treatment.
Dental costs are a fraction of what they are in the US and Canada. Nursing care, assisted living and nursing home care is excellent as well, and much less expensive.
TRAVEL & BEYOND
For a little excursion outside of Lakeside, good highways provide easy access to such exotic seaside destinations as Puerto Vallarta, the Costa Alegre (Manzanillo, Barra de Navidad, and Melaque).
Fascinating inland cities and towns such as Zacatecas, Patzcuaro, Morelia, and San Miguel de Allende are within a day’s drive by car. With the Guadalajara international airport a mere 30 minutes away, the world is literally at your doorstep. Easy accessibility to the airport makes it a lot more convenient for family and friends to come and visit.
Travel agencies will take care of all your travel needs either by air or bus. Mexican coaches are luxurious and inexpensive. For those who aren‘t comfortable driving, they offer a comfortable and safe window from which to admire the gorgeous Mexican scenery.
Historic Guadalajara, with its sophisticated culture, shopping and dining, is just a short car or bus ride away. Whether simply window shopping or actually buying furniture, world famous manufacturing centers like Tonala and Tlaquepaque are a delight for the eyes and senses ... and just 40 minutes by car or bus. Wal-Mart, Costco, Sam’s Club, Home Depot, Office Depot and a host of chains that we are all used to are also easily accessed by car. Guadalajara’s modern air-conditioned shopping centers will make you feel right at home.
In short, life at Lakeside is as leisurely or as busy as you want to make it. Dress is usually casual. Every day is summertime and, like the song says, “the livin’ is easy.”
AREA ATTRACTIONS & ACTIVITIES
Balnearios (thermal springs) are one of Lakeside’s most relaxing and therapeutic natural attractions. Underground thermal springs can be found in remote mountain areas, and even in some private homes. The closest and largest public thermal spring is in San Juan Cosala, between the towns of Ajijic and Jocotepec. Here you can bathe in natural thermal water available in swimming pools at three hotels. There is even a good pool-side restaurant. Your kids and grandkids will love it. Another great kids’ adventure is Tobolandia, a water park in Ajijic offering water slides and other refreshingly wet diversions.
Mexicans love their fiestas. And there are certainly quite a number of them. Most are heralded in by cohuetes (pyrotechnic rockets) and firecrackers which go off at all hours. There are also fiestas for the patron saint of each Lakeside town, each of which lasts for two weeks. Food and drink flow freely, as does music and dancing in the main square. There is plenty of noise and merriment. The best strategy is to relax and enjoy the cultural experience. After all, it’s happy noise and part of the charm of living in a foreign culture.
A few of the many other events at Lake Chapala include Carnaval (Mardi Gras), held at Chapala’s Cristiania Park; art exhibits held throughout the year; and the annual Chili Cook-Off, a three-day festival held each February to benefit a variety of local charities. The Chili Cook-off is sponsored by Absolut Fenix, along with many other local businesses and organizations. Other celebrations such as July 1st (Canadian Dominion Day), and July 4th (US Independence Day), are held in the gardens of the Lake Chapala Society. There are also countless charitable balls and events that benefit local children, orphans, and single moms, as well as the environment.
You’ll also have a hard time recognizing Christmas and Easter celebrations. They last much longer than they do north of the Rio Grande. They are also much more festive and celebratory, involving the entire community. Christmas pageantry includes Posadas, nine consecutive days of lively parties and candlelight processions. Church bells ring, fireworks go off and the festivities begin anew every day. Whatever you do, feel free to join in the public displays of joy. It’s wonderfully exciting and contagious. The locals are very welcoming and will likely invite you to join in.
Did we say that life here is leisurely? Definitely! But it totally depends on you. You can be as busy as a beaver or as lazy as a sloth, or anything in between! It’s all up to you.
For newcomers, the typical symptoms of successful transition are simple and often noticeable after only a few days at Lakeside. First of all, stress fades. Then you notice how warm people are and how easily new friendships are formed. And, before you know it, you wake up one morning and say “This feels like home!”