Ringed with charming towns and villages, Lake Chapala has drawn a steady stream of foreign visitors since the sixteenth century, when the conquistador Nuño de Guzman arrived on the lake’s muddy shores. In the early twentieth century, the luxury obsessed dictator Porfirio Diaz popularized the area as a vacation spot for Mexico’s middle and upper classes, and lakeside towns like Ajijic abound with storied hotels, hot springs, beer gardens, and bars.
Located roughly 50 km south of Guadalajara, Chapala is Mexico’s largest lake: 35 km wide and 120 km long. Chapala is not a swimmer’s paradise: water levels have sunk steadily over the years and the lake is murky and choked with pretty but invasive water hyacinth. Most visitors prefer to explore the lake by boats, which can be chartered at the pier in the town of Chapala. The ruined fortress of Mezcala Island, also known as Presidio, is a must-see.
The three main lake towns, Chapala, Ajijic, and Jocotepec, are all worth a visit. Chapala is a famous writers’ retreat; celebrated visitors include Tennessee Williams and D.H. Lawrence, who immortalized Chapala’s Church of San Francisco in the final pages of his novel, The Plumed Serpent. Ajijic is a haven for retirees and artists; the stone streets are lined with galleries and cafes, and it’s an easy place to get by if your Spanish is limited. Jocotepec is the least touristy of the three towns and features a pretty waterfront park and an old-fashioned plaza, where visitors can dine on authentic regional specialties such as birria, spicy goat or beef stew.
Buses to Jocotepec and Chapala leave Guadalajara’s old bus station (Central Vieja, Los Angeles 218) every thirty or forty minutes. From Chapala it’s easy to catch a bus or taxi 7 km west to Ajijic.