The History of Lake Chapala

By Lawrence H. Freeman

Lake Chapala

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 mountain 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.

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. 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.

San Juan Cosala

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 Sueños.’ 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 Chapala.

Lakeside remained a quiet fishing and agricultural 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 transformed 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 of Dale Chandos. The other half of the team, Peter Lilley, then wrote House in the Sun. The LSC 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 silkworms. 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 became 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 Language 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 boutiques, up-scale restaurants and glossy farmacias, not to mention new multi-cinemas.

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 8000, but when the ‘snowbirds’ descend, then estimates from different sources range from 15,000 to as much as 35,000 (and it sometimes seems like millions).

For more information about Lakeside visit: Lake Chapala Towns

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