Jalisco’s International Village in the Sun: Lake Chapala

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An open-air market lines a boardwalk on Lake Chapala. Photo: Greg Custer

Jalisco is the place that gave the world tequila, mariachis, Puerto Vallarta, and Guadalajara. It also launched the Mexico-for-overseas-living movement in the 1940s and is home to the iconic Lake Chapala.

A string of lake-facing villages, towns, and gated real estate communities have hosted foreign-born residents for decades while drawing throngs of Mexican and international visitors. What’s the attraction? The folks living here — a culturally diverse bunch from over 30 countries — will immediately point to the comfortable year-round weather at 5,000 feet, lakeside boardwalks, and serenity enhanced by Mexico’s largest natural lake. 

A malecon makes a scenic stroll easy at Lake Chapala. Photo: Greg Custer

There are also mineral springs, the village charm of Ajijic, three live theatre companies, a symphony orchestra, a choir, cultural traditions, and a nearby international airport. 

Visitors will also be delighted by the region’s forested mountains and the big city attractions of nearby Guadalajara, which is less than an hour away.

The region is also a fascinating laboratory of multiculturalism — home to thousands of foreign-born year-round residents who fall into one of two groups: the baby boomer “do-gooders” who stay active volunteering, interfacing as best they can with their Mexican neighbors and frequenting spaces like the Lake Chapala Society’s downtown Ajijic “campus.” 

Lake Chapala has some of the world’s best weather. Photo: Greg Custer

Another group lives here primarily for the excellent weather (homes here do not generally need A/C nor heating) and affordability, although challenged by the peso’s appreciation and inflation. 

Some call it an American “colony” or joke that it’s Mexico’s “Island of Misfit Toys,” but it still has the world’s best weather with an international intermingling across the town of Chapala and the villages of Ajijic (now a Pueblo Magico), San Antonio Tlayacapan, San Juan Cosala, and Jocotepec. 

Charming cafes abound in Ajijic. Photo: Greg Custer

For many visitors, the epicenter of multiculturalism is Ajijic, with a population of 12,000. Founded in 1531 and wedged between steep mountains and the lake, its kilometer-long lakeside malecon is a delight at all hours. The town’s main square is dominated by a gazebo adorned with lake-inspired cement motifs, a 16th-century chapel, a cultural center, and mural art. Murals are a legacy tied to a 1950s Children’s Art Program (still in operation) launched by the late American author Neill James. She arrived in 1943 and stayed for 50 years, opening the first town’s Spanish library, and sponsoring philanthropic programs such as silkworm looms that employed village women. 

Calle Colón connects the plaza with the lakefront and is lined with art galleries displaying works by Mexican and foreign artists. Surprisingly few museums or colonial-era structures are here, reflecting the village’s historic isolation (the first roads connected the village to the outside world in the early 1950s) and fishing village heritage. Some limited gentrifications have appeared in response to the hordes of weekend visitors from Guadalajara and foreign residents. The restaurant scene is robust, if not truly culinary. 

A wall of skulls on the side of a primary school in Ajijic. “El Muro de las Calaveras” was created by local artist Efrén González in 2016. Photo: Greg Custer

As for where to stay, no sprawling resorts or large hotels exist here. Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville is attempting a foothold for “55 and greater” residents at a 200-unit condo development west of Ajijic. Visitors stay in Airbnb rentals or small inns sprinkled along central Ajijic’s crumbling cobblestoned streets. 

For active visitors, there are hiking trails crisscrossing the lake-facing mountains and morning kayakers plying the lake’s shallow waters from the Ajijic waterfront. A protected ciclopista affords accessible biking east to west, connecting the cities of Chapala and Jocotepec (a distance of 30 kilometers) over flat terrain (regular and electric bike rentals are found in Ajijic). Thermal water balnearios are a short drive west of Ajijic in the village of San Juan Cosala.

Thirty minutes from the Guadalajara Airport, Jalisco’s scenic lakeside village in the sun welcomes foreigners to come, explore, and stay. 

Greg Custer
Greg Custerhttps://mexicoforliving.com/
Greg Custer has lived lakeside since 2015, operates Ajijic Walking Tours and consults with folks exploring Mexico for overseas living.
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