By Lawrence H. Freeman
December 2000 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 17, Number 5

At nearly 50-70 miles long and 15-20 miles wide, covering some 417 square
miles, Lake Chapala is the largest natural lake in Mexico. It is fed at its eastern end by the River Lerma, originating in the Toluca ountain range, and drained at its northeastem corner by the Rio Santiago that then goes to the Pacific Ocean. It provides 55% of the drinking water to Guadalajara. I will not dwell on the problems of the lake, but there are some who prophesize that the lake will not survive and there seems to be no question that the lake is presently at its lowest leve, necessitating water rationing in Guadalajara.
The lake was formed some 12,000,000 years ago in a seismic upheaval and was ahnost 7 times its present size, even covering the present city-site of Guadalajara. The lake bed is the resting place of many fossils, and within the last few months, mammoths have been
found and unearthed, one of them just down the street from here. Originally called Lake
Jalisco, it now hears the name Chapala, taken from the Nahuatl 'Chapalal,' the sound
that water makes splashing on a sandy shore.
Ajijic was originally named, in Nahuatal, the Aztec language, 'Axixic, place where the
water springs forth,' commemorating the seven fresh-water wells that originally provided
the water in this area. One of the wells was at the head of Calle Colon, and another was
likely on the site of the church on Marcos Castellanos.
Before the Spanish arrived, the indigenous Cocas were living at Cutzalán, now San Juan
Cosala, where they fought off the repeated attacks of their traditional enemies, the
Tarascans. By the mid-fourteenth century, the Cocas' burgeoning population caused
them to form additional lakeside villages, including Axixic.
The town of Chapala was founded in 1510, and Axixic followed when the Spanish under
Captain Alonso de Avalos, a cousin of Hernan Cortes, arrived in 1523 and persuaded
the Cocas to surrender and be baptized without a fight. He was given a royal grant and
his cousin Saenz was given a grant for Ajijic.
The fint major building, which still exists, was a mill built in the 1530s on the site of
the Posada Ajijic. A monastery on the corner of Hidalgo and Cinco de Mayo was
founded in 1535 and still exists as a private home named 'Casa de Suenos.' The church
on Marcos Castellanos was also built in 1535, but was destroyed by a hurricane and
rebuilt in 1749.
By the early 1550s, the lakeside area came under the domination of the Spanish
evangelists and they officially founded the city of Chapala in 1538, building the church
in 1548. A 1565 census showed 2,400 residents at the lakeside, 1200 of them in
Lakeside remained a quiet fishing and agricultura] community, but in the late 1700s was
ravaged by a plague that resulted in over 50,000 deaths in Nueva España. In 1810,
Father Hidalgo declared Mexico's independence from Spain. In 1862, France invaded
Mexico and Maximillian ruled until 1867, when he was executed in a successful
revolution led by Benito Juarez, shouting as he was shot by the firing squad, 'Viva
Mexico!' Chapala was brought to new life by the 35-year presidency of Porfirio Diaz. It became the watering hole for the upper classes and boasted a railway and steamboat service, but Ajijic remained a sleepy and isolated fishing village.
The early 1900s were a period of civic upheaval in Mexico, with the border wars and the
Cristero Rebellion tearing families and towns apart.
It was only in 1909 that the first motor car (named 'Protos') arrived in Chapala, but by
1910, a cobbled road connected Chapala to Guadalajara, and it was paved by 1937. Ajijic was discovered by European intellectuals and provided a refuge for those fleeing political prosecution after WWI.
In 1925, D.H. Lawrence was writing The Plumed Serpent in Chapala, and there was a small colony forming in Ajijic. Nigel Millet was managing Posada Ajijic, and in the mid-30s, agold rush tranformed the town into a short frenzy of greed. That was soon over and Ajijic settled down again while Nigel Millet co-wrote Village in the Sun under the name ofDale Chandos. The other half of the team, Peter Lilley, then wrote House in the Sun. TheLSC has copies of both books, as well as their Candeleria's Cookbook, for sale in the frontpatio where one can also purchase refreshments.

The Chapala-Ajijic road, or rather trail, was still almost impassible. In the 1940s, the
town water supply was still located at a pump in the plaza and bathing was done in the
lake. There were 14 foreigners living here and the Mayor levied a one-peso fine on any
livestock owner allowing his pig to use the street for a bathroom.
In 1943 Neill James, a world-renowned travel writer, arrived in Ajijic to recover from
serious injuries suffered while exploring a newly active volcano, Paracutín, located near
Pátzcuaro. She soon purchased the property where the LCS stands today, and never left
until she died in 1994, just a few months short of her 100th birthday.
Neill James was born in 1899 on a cotton plantation in Granada, Mississippi. She
graduated from the Women's University of Mississippi with a BS degree in 1918. Then
followed a varied career, including a stint in Japan as a reporter and employee of the
U.S. Embassy. She married and quickly divorced without children. In 1929 she left the
work-a-day world to pursue a life as a pioneering adventurer, world-traveler, travel
writer and novelist. Heroine of many adventures, including living among Asiatic
primitives and being pursued and hounded across Asia by Japanese agents, she finally
came to roost in Ajijic in 1942.
Her Ajijic property started out as a simple casa toward the back of fairly wild, almost
jungle-like acreage, and over the years various structures were added. The building now
housing the office, multi-cultural reading room arad the reference portion of the library
was built and operated as a silkworm factory and a salesroom until a freak cold snap
killed the silkwonns. The present main library building was built to house the looms
used for her weavings, and the mulberry tree that was home to the now-dead silkworms
can still be seen in front of the building.
As she settled in, Ms. James built a house for her sister on the property, and deeded
several parcels to her friends to build some of the picturesque houses that can be seen
on the edges of our grounds. Over the years, Ms. James had the property lushly
landscaped and dotted with reflecting pools. Among the thriving plants and trees will be
found: coffee, avocados, bananas, oranges, loquats, lemens, giant white bird of paradise
trees, poinsettias, calla lilies and a wondrous specimen cactus garden. Riotous colors and
foliage line our pathways and Koi and frogs co- exist in the many magical reflecting
ponds that brought humidity in the dry spells.
Her residence was the house by the back patio. When she lived there, the patio was a
series of multi-level pools aud the atmosphere was enlivened by the rush, ripple and fall
of the water. It has since been fílled in so that it may be used as a meeting area.
Overlooking the patio (originally the ponds), is the sun-splashed, glass-enclosed
bedroom where Neill James passed on.
At the rear of the property is the roofed patio that was built by her for meetings, but is
now used for gatherings, and also as a community-based art project for children. Over
the years the classes have turned out several intemationally famous artists, who return to
pass on their skills to their young successors. Neill James articles in Life and other U.S.
magazines inspired the first wave of gringo visitations. Her book, Dust On My Heart, a
personal view of early lakeside life, is also for sale on the patio. (Ed. Note: Her
publisher was Scribner, one of the best in the world. During this same period, the firm
published the works of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Wolfe.)
Deeply involved in the Mexican community, Ms. James opened her first public library
for Mexican children in 1945 and it has continued uninterrupted, though in different
locations, since then. The extensive English-language LCS library of some 30,000
volumes and the Multí-cultural Reading Center is still on these premises.
WW II left Lakeside pretty well untouched, though the German U-boat Commander
Von Spee used to openly patrol the Chapala-Ajijic-Jocotopec road, communicating with
Germany by short-wave radio. Nobody seemed to mind.
In the 50s magazine and radio reports extolled the perfect climate, (and it is a perfect
climate, hailed as one of the three best in the world), along with the inexpensive
cost-of-living, compared to the U. S., and thus began the flood of retirees that
continues to this very day. At a 5,000 foot altitude, it is shirt-sleeve weather year-round
and even the rainy season cooperates, usually waiting until nightfall to scatter its
much-needed liquid largesse.
The Lake Chapala Society is a 'bridge' and visitor center as well as the source of much of the activity at Lakeside. It was founded in January of 1955, but in spite of 38
memberships, very nearly came to an end in December, continuing only because it was
already providing many valuable services to the community.
In 1965 the streets were torn up to lay down a new water system, ending the trips to the
town square for water. But the Chapala-Ajijic road was still a disaster (some called it the
'Ho Chi Minh Trail') and there were only two telephones and very few services in the
village, but even so, a few long-haired hippies showed up in the 60s.
The Lake Chapala Society held its first Independence Day celebration that quickly
hecame a tradition, and in 1977 the Society was printing 500 bulletins.
By 1983, the Lake Chapala Society moved to the present location and in 1985, Neill
James donated her property to the Society. New articles in publications in the U.S. and
Canada inspired a new influx, (but at least there was soon a two-lane road connecting
Chapala and Ajijic) and the blessed isolation was at an end.
In 1989, all the streets were torn up to lay sewers, and the 460-year-old cobblestones
were tossed to one side and transportation came to a standstill for months.
Rumors abound that Ajijic and the Guadalajara Airport were the nexus of a recent
well-known 'undercover' CIA operation. That affair allegedly involved drugs in exchange
for arms for the Nicaragum rebels. This became known as the Iran-Contra connection
of President Ronald Reagan and Oliver North.
In 1990, Ed Wilkes donated his house to the Society and it became the LCS Education
Center. Located two blocks from LCS, the Wilkes Center is home to our Adult and
Children's Spanish language library, and provides many educational opportunities for
both adults and children in the Mexican community. Among the prospects on offer are
numerous English as a Second Languahe courses, a cooking school, Art appreciation and other classes. It is also the base for the membership-supported scholarship program.
Today, Ajijic has taken on all the aspects of a wealthy suburb of Houston or Toronto
and English is the lingua franca of the shops and streets. Million-dollar houses and
condos bloom on the hills and aging retirees fíght for status in the many clubs and
associations that have sprung up. 'Snowbirds' escaping the vicissitudes of winter in
hardier climes during winter, and `rainbirds' escaping the debilitating summer heat of
the Southwest swell the ranks of the permanent residents, clogging the streets with
fancy SUVs and causing restaurant waiting lines.
Ajijic has a colorful heritage in the many famed artists and authors that have and are
living here, cheek-by-jowl with the trendy bontiques, up-scale restaurants and glossy
farmacias, not to mention our new multi-cinema.
We are often asked how many foreigners, (mostly Norteamericanos) including Canadians, are in the lakeside area at any given time. That depends on 1) who you ask, and 2) what time of year it is. Estimates of year-round people may run as low as 800, but when the 'snowbirds' descend, then estimates from different sources range from 5,000 to as much as 35,000 (and it sometimes seems like millions).
Now with well over 3000 members, The Lake Chapala Society exists for the benefit of
the indigenous community as well as the English-speakers and visitors among us.
Anyone can join, and membership entities you to the use of the facilities, Library, Video
Club and Talking Book Club.
The LCS invites you to take advantage of the many activities that take place on the
grounds. For members they have a service where members transport mail to be mailed in
the U. S. and Canada. They have writing, computer and camera clubs, visits by Canadian and U. S. Consular officials, as well as Mexican government representatives.

They also offer newcomer information, free lawyer consultations, free blood pressure
and eye checks, as well as information on health and other insurance, hearing aid
informational meetings, monthly membership meetings, Spanish lessons, as well as other
The facilities are all staffed and operated by dedicated volunteers, many of whom have
donated their time for years. You are invited to join!