The Western Mexican state of Jalisco likes to think of itself as a cultural microcosm of Mexico: an old tourism campaign used to bill Jalisco as “All of Mexico.”
Certainly, being the birthplace of Mariachi music and tequila, Jalisco certainly has a claim to a large part of the Great Mexican Cultural Cliché typified by Pedro Infante in his movies, but popularized by Hollywood.
This area, located to the south of Guadalajara (Mexico’s second-largest city, with around 5 million inhabitants), is known in Mexico as an agglomeration of lakeside towns that include (from west to east along the waterfront): Jocotepec, San Juan Cosala, Ajijic (the largest of the group), and the town of Chapala.
They line up along the northern edge of Mexico’s largest freshwater lake.
The area certainly enjoys a bevy of natural wonders. First is the lake itself (which provides water to the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area), then the lovely hillsides that surround it and last, but certainly not least, the temperate climate that allows for enjoying the outdoors all year long.
To add to this there is the local charm, the quaint architecture of some of the town centers, the arts and crafts and the moderately priced good food. All of it adds up to make a very pleasant weekend getaway for some tapatíos (as Guadalajarans are called) and a great place to retire for many Americans and Canadians who inhabit the region.
It is said that this last group constitutes the largest community of English-speaking North Americans outside their home countries. Estimates vary from 6,000 to 15,000 mostly middle-class retirees. Exact numbers are hard to come by because of the fine lines that divide the tourist from the second-home buyer from the resident/retiree.
What is definitely true is that the Riviera Chapala does have a long tradition of welcoming English-speaking North Americans with open arms. It is unsurprising given the historically low real estate prices and the easy access from Guadalajara itself, which is very well connected and only a few hours flight from dozens of US cities.
That said, it is important to point out that the Chapala Riviera is not a mega resort area, like Puerto Vallarta, or Cancún. In fact, many tapatíos skip the lakeside altogether and make the trip to either Puerto Vallarta itself, which is in the same state of Jalisco, about 5 hours west, or to Manzanillo, which is closer by about an hour and a half and is in the neighboring small state of Colima.
The first is a beachfront powerhouse with a colonial town at its center and the second, although smaller, is becoming an important Pacific port for Mexico and the US. You might remember it from the Bo Derek film of the early eighties Ten, which was filmed at the Las Hadas hotel. Nevertheless, for many it is precisely its slow pace and lack of resort “scene” that the Riviera Chapala is the place to retire or spend a couple of the wintry months.
The area has a distinctly unkempt/bohemian aspect to it, with many artists, photographers and writers among both the national and international visitors.
Jalisco is very rich in cultural heritage, but it is only around average of Mexico’s states in terms of wealth per capita. Nevertheless, the Riviera’s towns have all of the trappings of modern living in terms of telecommunications and banking.
Further, being so close to a major metropolitan area, you can find pretty much every shopping possibility, from "big box" stores, like Costco and Wal-Mart Supercenters through high-end department stores, like Liverpool.
Added to the excellent air connections via GDL, Guadalajara’s airport, the highway connections are very good. Today, Ajijic and Chapala boast some great little hotels, and the government has invested nearly $20 million dollars in the area over the last few years.
This has meant upgrading some of the infrastructure (including Chapala’s waterfront, the construction of the Auditorium of Chapala and the rehabilitation of the old railway station, which is now the Casa de Cultura, or “House of Culture”).
Finally, there are many different towns along the lakeside where you can find handmade arts and crafts, which are readily available.
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