The Lake Chapala Society’s home village of Ajijic is one of the oldest in western Mexico (founded by the Spanish in1531). It’s also Mexico’s newest Pueblo Mágico. But that’s hardly the whole tale. The next time you visit the Plaza, stroll to the lakefront, or gather at your favorite watering hole, reflect on how our village in the sun has been a magnet for humans for thousands and thousands of years.
It all started very, very long ago. Lake Chapala has formed some 12 million years ago and today gathers precious water in its giant tectonic plate rift. Archaeologists tell us there is evidence of human occupation dating back 13,000 years. Nomads hunted along the Lake Chapala lakeshore for the game, including woolly mammoths that roamed across a string of lakes in what are today the states of Jalisco, Michoacan, and Mexico. The lake’s rising and falling level over the last 70 years has afforded scientists access to ancient bones and hunting tools. You can see these at the Cultural Center Gonzalez Gallo in Chapala.
A theme you’ll see over and over here is water. Ajijic is a name in Nahuatl and means “place where the water bubbles up”. In fact, it’s just up Calle Colon that a natural spring flowed to the lake. Until the 1940’s village, women washed clothes here.
For a Colonial-era town, we have surprisingly few structures from three hundred years of Spanish rule. You can count them on one hand. How many can you name?
There are also dozens of abandoned gold mines on the hills above Ajijic and to the West. Gold was found first in 1856 and by 1885 there were 35 gold and silver mines. A company called the Quien Sabe Mining Company was founded in 1906. Then came labor strikes, the Mexican Revolution, and a lot of land titles changing hands.
Today we better understand how this humble settlement grew, and how a colorful collection of characters left their imprint in ways both positive and negative. Non-Mexicans started having an impact in Ajijic in the 1930s. Author Tony Burton and his new book Foreign Footprints in Ajijic show us how the census of 1930 indicates one (one!) foreign-born resident of Ajijic.
We have come here with a mix of intentions; the “Reformers” and the “Stay Quiet” cohorts. This has generated some multicultural conflicts, but also many lauded partnerships and a communal coexistence from decades of living side by side.
As a result of Ajijic mentions in foreign press in the 1950s, waves of newcomers descended on the village – beatniks, bohemians, and hippies brought sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, not always to the resident’s liking. The town we stroll and bump through has names for the “barrios” (neighborhoods) we live in. The Lake Chapala Society grounds, for example, are in the San Gaspar barrio. How many can you name?
Until the mid-20th century, Ajijic was a grid of about five blocks by five blocks. 24-hour electricity didn’t’ arrive until the 1950s, along with a “respectable” road from Chapala. Before this time, almost all arrivals were by boat or horseback. Bisecting Ajijic’s eastern entrance is the Camino Real, for centuries the only path from Chapala. The land route was dubbed the “Ho Chi Mihn Trail” by ex-pats. The Carretera we all traverse was a “bypass” around the village center.
Serious growth started in the 1970s, as neighborhoods like La Floresta were developed. This is also when hillside streets and homes became common, as the city’s population grew to 6,857 by 1980.
Murals by the town’s native sons and daughters portray a pre-Hispanic ritual that was practiced in early May. People would gather to plead for and celebrate the coming rainy season. Our rain and the river-filled lake have supported fishermen for thousands of years. In fact, Ajijic’s 18th-century Parroquia San Andres Apostol is dedicated to the Saint of fishermen.
We can all fall into routines and routes that confirm what we know about Ajijic. But thanks to historians and the vivid memories of our Mexican neighbors and friends, the Ajijic story goes far beyond your favorite coffee shop, art gallery, or cantina. It’s a fascinating tale.
Walking Tour of Ajijic
Take a weekend “Walking Tour of Ajijic” with author Greg Custer. The tours take three hours and include insights about local legends, ancient history, and a colorful constellation of characters who have impacted the Ajijic community. It includes a complimentary beverage from a local café, as we explore the realities of Mexico for living. The tours are led by Greg Custer, a full-time Mexico resident since 2015. Greg has a BA and Master’s degree from UCLA in Latin American Studies and has been training travel agents about Mexico for over four decades. www.mexicoforliving.com/ajijic-walking-tour for more details and information.