An hour south of Guadalajara, Lake Chapala is nestled in a 5,000-ft valley in the middle of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Its near-perfect climate, lush environment and scenic lake and mountain views first attracted vacationers more than a century ago. Now, it’s popular with both day-trippers from Guadalajara and long-term expats from America and Canada.
Along the shore of the lake, charming, laidback towns like Chapala, Ajijic and Jocotepec offer an attractive mix of sightseeing, shopping and eating. Between poking around the towns, boating on the lake and exploring its islands, there’s enough for visitors to do here for a fun-filled day or a relaxing week.
Chapala was put on the map in the early 1900s when Mexican president Porfirio Díaz vacationed here several years in a row. And even though Chapala has been a favorite of artists, writers and expats for decades, it remains a simple but charming working-class town.
The town’s boardwalk makes a great first stop in town. The views are lovely, and it’s also a good place to check out the local scene and buy snacks and souvenirs from vendors. Just behind the boardwalk, Chapala’s 18th century Catholic church is quite beautiful and also worth a visit. Art lovers will want to check out the Old Train Station, which has been converted into a cultural center and hosts art exhibits. And everyone will enjoy the town’s lovely plaza, where Mariachi bands often play.
Ajijic is a bustling little town just 3 miles down the lake from Chapala. A bit more fashionable than Chapala, many galleries, boutiques and restaurants have popped up here in recent years. Visitors should walk the narrow cobblestone streets and check out the boldly painted houses and colorful murals. Ajijic’s plaza comes to life every evening and weekend with special events and shopping, and on Wednesdays, the Tianguis shopping market offers locally sourced foods and gifts.
Lake Chapala has three islands, two of which can be visited.
Isla de los Alacranes (Scorpion Island) got its name because of its arachnid-like shape. It has plenty of greenery to explore, as well as a few charming gift shops, quaint chapels and laid-back restaurants, where diners can enjoy local delicacies and take in the views.
Isla de Mezcala (Mezcala Island) is home to historic ruins of a fort, an abandoned prison and an important chapter in Mexican history. During the Mexican War of Independence, 1,500 Mexican patriots holed up here and fought off the Spanish from 1812 until 1816. After hunger and sickness forced the rebels to surrender, the Spanish took over the island and built Fuerte Mezcala (Mezcala Fort) here. When Mexico won the war five years later, it was turned into a prison, which operated until 1855. Now, more than 160 years later, exploring the ruins makes for a fascinating couple of hours.