lake Chapala & Ajijic 2006 road trip

Lake Chapala Pics 2006


For those of you following my little adventure, better known as "Brown's off in the ditch again" - here is the latest from Mexico. I made this trip for two reasons, to confirm what I already thought I knew - that I was going to move down to Lake Chapala, MX around first of year, and mainly to take the noise levels down a couple of notches from friends and family who all think I'm nuts for considering this. I figured if I go down and come back smiling they'll accept - it right? - well, not totally, but here's the story.

I headed down on the 7th and did pretty well, being out of the habit of traveling and especially international, it was a "trip". The flights were uneventful but as we approached Guadalajara (GDL) the steward handed out visa forms for our FMT's. I filled the first one and then the first tope (speed bump) appeared, the second form was totally in Spanish? - so I asked the steward, who was Mexican, and he waved his hands saying something about, don't worry, it depends on who's working, usually they don't even need it! - really? - this should be exciting. The incoming Customs is pretty much a cattle car operation. So, when I got to the guy he took my passport and form and asked for another form, one the steward hadn't given us. Ok, fill it out, get it stamped, get my bag and find Ron, the guy who was picking me up.

Ajijic is about 35 miles south of GDL and a nice drive, and Ron was a great tour guide. The hotel is at the end of Donato Gurerra street next to the lake. The streets are very narrow and made of cobblestones, and occasionally a cobble "boulder" with appropriate potholes interspersed. This is NOT the place for my Lincoln, although I did see one down there. The hotel is only a few years old, but built to be a quintessential small Mexican hotel. I got the best room of all, #305 on the 3rd floor corner, so I looked at the lake and the town and best of all I overlooked La Tasca restaurant across the street which has lots of live music which was absolutely great. I hauled my bags up to the room; elevator? cu? es ?e? - no.

This area is a mile high and so moderate they don't put heating or AC systems in houses, basically it's an indoor/outdoor living place. So, the hotel lobby and "hallways" or galleries are open to the outside, birds come, birds go - as birds are known to do. The 3rd floor where my room was opened onto the roof or mirador which had lots of plants and flowers and chairs and tables. It turned out that this was where I could connect to the wireless Internet, the signal in my room wasn't strong enough, or I could go to the 2nd floor computer room.

PS: all the pics are reduced from original size, click on them to enlarge, but if you want even larger, let me know the number and I'll send it, I'm using for my desktop, I think it's my favorite of all the pics, it's "me" - different from all around me, always have been, always will be - and people are surprised I'm moving to MX?

The room was great, they build big rooms, but don't put a much in them. The large half round window (in the pics) have 2 quarter round sections that open but, no screens? - I thought really, guess we'll try it, but there are very few bugs and they don't come in? The shower was the whole end of the bathroom, about 4' X 8' with a neat oval window. Also the bath had another opening window with no screen. I left the two of them open most of the time and never saw a bug inside, nor in all my walks along the lake was I ever bitten by anything. This time of year they have some small gnats, but they don't bite.

I went to La Tasca for dinner the first evening, good food, the view? - sitting outside under an umbrella looking across the lake at the mountains (about 12 miles across the lake) is stunning. This is the rainy season so we had clouds every day, but that first evening as the sun was sinking, the thunderheads across the lake were lighted in an ever changing drama that was worth the whole trip alone. This is a new restaurant and is owned by a musician so they have live music almost all the time which was great because from my room it provided a perfect background to the tropical setting.

The next day I grabbed the camera and headed out and made the first trip up to the highway, the Carretera, to the Pharmacia, forgot my toothpaste. That was the next experience, first of all this is a cash society, credit cards are not used in normal transactions. I had converted money in Houston and the rate is almost $11pesos per $1, so generally you just figure 10:1. The Pharmacia is new and has everything including some food (including Max's favorite cat food, so check that off the gotta have list) so it was good for price shopping. Many of our brands are there, although you pay a bit more for imported vs. MX brands. I noticed Ruffles, Doritos, but the Lays package is Sabritas. At first you mind has to adjust, the Colgate was $23.40 - DOLLARS??? - no dummy, calm down, move the decimal over one place and it's $2.34, actually less due to the conversion. But, you do end up carrying a huge (you feel like a drug dealer) wad of bills and a pound of coins around with you unlike here where a debit card and $20 is all you ever need.

I roamed the streets which are clean, you rarely see even a single piece of trash and the only odors you smell are the sweetness of flowering vines or sometimes something good cooking. Leash laws don't exist, but the dogs are well behaved and quiet, it's not uncommon to find one sleeping on the sidewalk and they'll open an eye as you approach. Or, you might see one sitting at the entrance to a bar waiting for it's owner to come out. Horses? - yes, there are some and they rent them on the Camino Real in La Floresta. In the distance I heard a rooster or two and of course the bells from the church on the Plaza told the time and call to Mass.

A few blocks to the east is the area of La Floresta, the streets there are as wide as Ajijic's are narrow. The homes are very nice and many of the house and flower pictures are from that area. Most homes are behind walls so you really don't see what they're like. The concept of "curb appeal" doesn't exist here. I was in a home in Chapala and it was distinguished by an orange section of wall, a black garage door and an entrance door to the courtyard. Once inside it opened up into its world with a lovely courtyard, fountain, house and back yard growing bananas, limes and all manner or fruit and palms. However, all this is behind 8-10' walls and this is common in the villages. The Gringo areas are more open in some cases, a bit more like NOB.

Breakfast was served each morning generally out under a huge rubber tree at the hotel. The tree must be hundreds of years old as are many others. Ficus trees are apparently native, the ones seen in the pics along the sides of the streets are neatly pruned, but are obviously old. I have a little one that is about a foot tall, some of those have trunks a foot in diameter.

I had been communicating with people on the Internet for some months, so had arranged to meet them when I got there. The fellow who picked me up at GDL lives over in Jocotepec which is the west end of the lake and he's been there a number of years and loves it. Friday night I was picked up by a lovely couple who took me to a sort of newcomers get together at Que Linda's. Linda is a Texan and a lawyer who chucked it in and went SOB and opened this great place - yes, they even have chicken fried steak on the menu (check off another gotta have). They had live great oldies music and a dance area and something like 40-50 people showed up, a friendlier group you couldn't find anywhere. I ended up sitting by a couple from Pflugerville and across from a lady from Austin. But most of these people are retired, some military and so they're from all over the world. Happy hour and dinner were great and Everett (my host and author) and his lovely wife Becky took me back home about 9 and I settled in. The high altitude and all the walking guaranteed I slept very well. Oh, and when I laid down looking out the big half round window, the full moon was rising in the east - that's a scene I'll hold close in my memories always. The only thing better would have been to share it with Chris.

On Sat more walking and pics in the morning and I was again hosted by Bob and Louise and taken for a tour of the west end of Ajijic where they had lived for a time before selling their house and moving to Chapala. We ate at a good Greek restaurant and again had a wonderful time learning the things one needs to consider before making a decision like this. After lunch they took me over to Chapala to their home as described earlier. Their property was a composite of 5 properties, so they have lots of space. After remodeling they've created an apt at the front which they're renting to a fellow from Canada.

As Bob drove me back to the hotel I saw something in up in the air and asked, he said they were globas (don't hold me to spelling) which are paper hot air balloons with a fire in the bottom to make them rise? - paper and fire, you have to be kidding? - nope, some are over 12' tall and they compete to see who goes the highest, and later from my hotel I could see they were going out of sight. But what if it falls on a house and starts a fire? - well, it's the rainy season so not to worry and besides, everything there is made of concrete or tile, so nothing burns. Although later someone said the house doesn't burn, but if a fire does start inside it's like a pizza oven, cooks everything! Wood isn't used for building down there, too expensive and termites eat it anyway, so why bother?

Sunday I met another charming couple at La Tasca for afternoon brunch, Dick and Doris. They had lived there some time and sold their current house and are building a new one in Rancho Del Oro to the west (more where I want to be) and said they're up the side of the mountain and will have a view of the entire lake, all 50 miles of it when finished (really where I want to be). They liked the guitar player who was there at the restaurant and again, you couldn't find more gracious hosts. I suspect Dick and I will enjoy "debating" politics if you know what I mean.

Sunday night seems to be a party night, although Sept 16th is they're July 4th and they party all month, but Sunday afternoon the cars and kids began gathering along the lakeshore below the hotel over to the old pier which is about 3-4 blocks. At about 7 I decided to take a walk and by that time there were probably 150 cars and maybe 500 Mexicans with every other car playing a radio/CD etc. with doors and trunk open at max volume. I put on my best Texas swagger and walked down among them like I belonged and never felt the least bit out of place, other than being about 3 times as old as some or most of them. People I met said they never worried about walking the streets at night. Now, like any place, take your brains with you, but this sure wasn't a problem.

In the interim I had met several other people in different places including a Brit who had moved to Toronto 25 years ago and now was looking at this as his next stop. Dereck also had a laptop and so we shared information about connecting and ended up eating together and talking a few times, a very interesting fellow as were all the folks I met. I suspect many or most could afford to live most any place in the world they want to, but come to this place and throw out the anchor, there is a magic and magnetism about this place to say nothing of the climate.

Back to Saturday night; I had intended to walk over to Tom's bar where the UT game would be on big screen, but before leaving the hotel I poked my head around the corner into the bar off the lobby and Judy Eager, whom I'd met earlier, greeted me and motioned me to come over to the table. She introduced me to Michael, her son, who is the owner of the hotel (her other son owns the realty across the street) and we ended up talking for nearly 2 hours, what wonderfully friendly people. By that time it was raining a bit and I decided walking in the rain to see a game I was afraid we'd loose (and we did) wasn't worth it, so went upstairs and watched NASCAR and listened to the music from across the street. The rain is gentle and straight down, I left the windows open and not a drop came in? - definitely not Texas style. Other times I heard thunder in the distance and one night watched some lightening on the south side of the lake.

It normally only rains at night - really! One day it rained and people were seriously puzzled by that, it NEVER rains during the day (although unlike here, I didn't hear anyone say "AlGore must be right, global warming").

Here's a funny out of sequence side story: The guy who drove me to the airport was named Carlos Zotos. As we were driving I asked him Carlos, does it snow here? - no. Carlos, does it hail here? - no. Carlos, do you have tornados here? - no. Carlos, do you have earthquakes here? - no. Carlos, do you have hurricanes here? - no. I said, Carlos, this is the most boring weather place I've ever seen - he laughed, then said that about 2 1/2 hours away was a volcano where you can eat at a restaurant and watch it shoot up smoke and fire etc. - I said I'd pass.

The lake is somewhat polluted and has a lot of water hyacinth or liira growing in it. It's a very shallow lake and so when low it shows a lot of bottom, now it's within a couple feet of full. White egrets stand on the floating plants and then in the evening a few hundred roost in a big tree next to the hotel and compare notes - loudly - sounding all the world like a duck farm, but they settle for the night when the sun goes down.

I used the last of my "free" airline miles from traveling years past and at the time I thought it was pretty easy to get a seat (usually they make you beg) on the days I wanted. Later I realized I was flying back on 911 which might have made a difference. But, nothing happened of course and who would hijack a plane from GDL to Houston - except Evil Martinez? However, getting back through Customs in Houston was my final task. First of all at GDL they put you on a bus and haul you out to the plane (it was a small one) and when we got to Houston the same white bus with the same driver was there to meet us - how did they do that? - anyway, get on the bus, they hauled us to what appears to be a new Customs terminal at Continental, it's huge. We had to walk at least half a mile - seriously, and some of it was uphill, although compared to cobblestone it was smooth, but I digress. I was feeling sorry for people with kids etc, then you start the gauntlet; you're herded through the first filter, give them your Customs declaration (1 tee shirt) and then a fair hike over and downstairs to the next filter, the dreaded security check - take off the shoes, put them in a tray, take the laptop out of the case and put it in a tray, then the case goes with the shoes and then you shuffle with 300 other stocking feeted people through the magic arch - if it beeps, you get turned into a frog - or something.

Now, at this point there are experts and rank amateurs all mixed together, so it's a crap shoot. Me, I'm watching and doing the dance as best I can and head into the metal detector and BZZZ - no, not metal, the guy there needs the boarding pass that I left it in the case which is now being irradiated in the Xray machine - so, I went from potential expert in the eyes of those around - to rank amateur in a heartbeat.

Next I'm hiking down through this huge place and a guy says "did you have a bag sir?" - sure, but it's checked to Austin - BZZZ again, it's been unloaded and it has gone, or has to go; unclear at that point, through Customs as well, so back to the carousel and retrieve it and then through another filter, this guy wants the form they stamped at the first stop, can't get out of here without it. A bit further a lady is collecting bags and looking at destination tags and - - - you guessed it, she wants to see the boarding pass and takes the bag. Now, at this point it's obvious to the least astute among us that the boarding pass is the most precious thing you own at this point in your life, without it you ain't squat, so, now, I'm on the road again (might be a song in there).

I had assumed I'd have time to eat in Houston - wrong again, now I'm hiking like crazy to make the Austin connection.

I burst out of the Customs terminal - finally - to find myself in terminal E - I need C-36 and the time is getting short, so I'm moving at max warp through E, to terminal C - what happened to D? - don't know, don't care, through C to the central hub, left and out almost to the end of C at gate 36 as indicated in large print on my precious boarding pass, and I'm on time for boarding.

Now, seriously at this point I would estimate I've walked close to a mile as fast as the old legs go, an older person, or one with kids, would be out of luck, they'd never have made it. But, I'm in good shape even after gosh only knows how many miles on the cobblestones of MX. I look up and it says Birmingham - BIRMINGHAM? - yes, the lady sees my look and says "where to?" - Austin please - "oh, that's changed to C-44" - which is back at the entrance to C where I had just passed - another half mile back - now time is really getting short, so hike hike hike and finally I'm there. So, you finally get on the plane, sit for 30 minutes, you push back and taxi for 25 minutes (I timed it) you fly for 29 minutes (the pilot says so) you taxi another 10 minutes (I timed it) and - - - gee, you're in Austin already. Fortunately good friends George and Karen met me, I'm not sure I'd have made it to my car and home otherwise.

Oh, forgot to mention back at GDL, I checked in and the security screening was a 15 year old kid with spiked hair wearing a plastic glove on his right hand running it down through the suitcase. You could have had a bazooka in there and he would never have found it. Also, his partner who looked much older, maybe 16 looked at my laptop case and, with about as much English as I have Spanish, asked "liquid?" on about the third try I got it and said "no" - he didn't bother to open to confirm.

Now, only having been on the lower level so far I didn't know if there would be a place to get anything to eat or drink at the gate, so I checked Burger King, yes, a Whooper, drink and fries was over $70 - there we go again, and Starbucks, I opted for a coke. Then when I got upstairs to the International level it was huge and beautiful, nicer than our Austin airport to be sure and we spent $175M building it in '99, but I digress, marble floors, shops, restaurants and boutiques. So, I stopped in Chili's and had one last libation.

Here's the "money line" as they say in journalistic circles; all in all this place looks like my next home. Dereck from Toronto and I had breakfast Monday morning and compared notes and neither of us could come up with a single negative about the place worth mentioning. So, now it's get back to painting and get the house on the market and Max and I will be heading to MX.

Folks, this is NOT the MX we hear about on the news, or from years past, it's not Lake Travis Texas, it's not Lakeway, it's a different place and culture, but so was living near New Orleans in the 60's. If a place has the basic infrastructures, is safe, has a good climate, healthcare etc., then it's what you make of it, and everyone I met without exception was friendly, gracious, accommodating, healthy, happy and loved living there.

Depending on what I find either short term or long term in the way of a Casa or Casita - or Villa, there will be a place for guests at mi casa, y'all come on down (oh, that's something else positive, they don't hate Texans).

Steve & Max the Gato
(actually I'm going for the title Don Esteban, work on it, we'll see if it sticks)


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