Lake Chapala Mexico

Fall 2007 CSANews Issue 64  |  Posted date : Oct 17, 2007.Back to list

Thousands of Canadians have abandoned their former winter snowbird destinations and are now happily living from one to 12 months of each year on the North Shore of Lake Chapala in colourful central Mexico.

What's caused these once-loyal winter Texans, Arizonians and Floridians to abandon their previous warm haunts and move even farther south? Lake Chapala has a nearly perfect climate, is close to an international airport and expert medical care, has restaurants, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, activities and events to suit every visitor's dream for the perfect winter escape.

Lake Chapala
Mexico's largest natural lake is the focal point of the country's high central plain. Located less than an hour south of Guadalajara (Mexico's second-largest city), Lake Chapala is approximately 66 miles long and 11 miles wide, and home to about 5,000 full-time foreign residents and nearly three times that many winter visitors in January, February and March.

Lake Chapala has had its ups and downs. Less than five years ago, the lake reached its lowest level in nearly 50 years. Today, the water level is back to 65% of the basin's capacity. Once polluted by agricultural run-off and heavy metals from upriver feedlots, farms and factories, University of Guadalajara laboratory tests now show that the water meets United States EPA levels of acceptability.

Lake Chapala is more scenic than recreational. The cool water temperatures combined with the sticky-mud bottom discourage all but the most intrepid swimmers. Most foreigners prefer to swim in local private and public pools or in the variety of pools at a nearby mineral hot springs complex.

Lake Chapala has been a sports fishing destination and a boating mecca, but several hundred local fishermen are out in the lake every morning and then sell the catch from their nets on the village streets. Most foreigners bypass the local carp and catfish. They prefer to purchase the fresh Pacific red snapper, tuna, dorado, swordfish and shrimp that comes from the coast daily to stock local fish markets.

Local legend touts the Lake Chapala area as having the second-best climate in the world, according to National Geographic. While we've never been able to find an actual reference in that esteemed magazine, we have no doubt that the claim is true. Lake Chapala and nearby Guadalajara enjoy eternal spring-like weather, and long-term records hold true the claim that the mean year-round temperature at Lake Chapala is a comfortable 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Actually, that mean temperature is a bit misleading. It takes occasional predawn lows of 40-45 degrees Fahrenheit in late December and occasional late-afternoon highs of 90-93 during the hottest months of April and May to average with the rest of the perfect temperatures.

Each year, the Lake Chapala basin receives an average of 39 inches of rain. According to local publicity, the rain falls mostly at night during the summer rainy season – from May through September. The area's 5200-foot altitude keeps the humidity at very comfortable levels, even during the rainy season.

Safety is largely a non-issue in the string of small Mexican fishing villages along Lake Chapala's north shore.  While petty theft is as common in Mexico as it is anywhere north of the Rio Grande, there are fewer car thefts and personal injury incidents in Mexico than in most countries around the world.

Tourists find that they feel perfectly comfortable walking the ancient cobblestone streets of Chapala, San Antonio Tlayacapan, Ajijic, San Juan Cosalá and Jocotepec. The family and small merchants still rule the streets of Lake Chapala's small towns. There's a mom 'n pop corner store for every 50 homes, taco stands stay busy on the streets until late every evening and families sit on their stoops visiting with passing neighbours, creating the same feeling that many retirement-age folks remember from their childhood days.

Getting to Lake Chapala
It is a 700-mile drive from Laredo, Texas, the nearest border crossing. Since that requires more than $100 for gasoline and another $100 for toll-road fees, most winter visitors prefer to book flights on one of several major airlines that arrive at the nearby Miguel Hidalgo International airport (GDL). Ask your travel agent to check for flights to Guadalajara on United, American, Alaskan, Delta or Mexicana.

You'll need a passport for travel in 2007, but you'll have no problem entering the country for 180 days or less. Once you've cleared immigration and customs at the airport, you can take a cab from the airport to your bed and breakfast, inn or hotel in Ajijic or Chapala (about 35 minutes) for just $250 pesos (about $26 Canadian dollars). Expect to pay a little more when travelling with several friends or when a large amount of luggage necessitates a larger vehicle. It's customary to tip the skycaps and cab drivers about $1 per suitcase.

Taxicabs in the Guadalajara and Lake Chapala area are absolutely safe. All cab drivers belong to strictly controlled unions which pre-set the price of all fares.

Like many other winter destinations, seasonal rental prices have increased over the past decade in response to increased demand. This year, visitors at Lake Chapala will find the remaining two- or three-bedroom homes renting for $1,100 to $1,800 Canadian dollars per month, plus utilities.

Because of differences in rental regulations and traditions, newcomers are well-advised to rent their first home through a recommended real estate or rental office. For extra security, check to be sure that the company with whom you are dealing is a member of the original local real estate board, the Grupo Inmobilario del Lago or GIL.

Renters, or those winter residents who decide to purchase real estate at Lake Chapala, should be sure to only sign contracts written in English and should be sure that they have seen and checked the written inventory to be certain that they know what will remain in the house when they take possession of it.

The Cost of Living
Most retirees living at Lake Chapala find that their monthly living expenses fall into a comfortable range in proportion with their lifestyle, the size of their home and their shopping and entertainment budgets. Most singles spend $600 to $1,200 Canadian dollars per month (in addition to the monthly rent). Couples are spending $1,000 to $2,000 a month, on top of their rent cheque.

Here's a rundown of some basic monthly costs:
  • Telephone (local service)    $20
  • Gas for hot water, cooking, clothes drying    $30
  • High-speed Internet service    $40-60
  • Electricity    $35-85
  • Water        $20
  • Cable or satellite subscription    $25-100
  • Maid (per hour)    $3
  • Gardener (per hour)    $3
  • Gasoline for car (per litre)    $0.60
  • Lady's haircut and colour    $30
  • Manicure and pedicure    $20
  • Man's haircut        $3
  • Massage (hour)    $25
  • Laundry—washed, dried and folded    $3 per load
  • Movie (first-run film in English)    $3.50
  • Tickets for little theatre productions    $9.00
  • Tickets for classical music concerts    $7-15
  • Weekly English newspaper     $1.20
  • "USA Today" daily newspaper     $4.00
  • "Miami Herald" daily newspaper    $2.50
  • "Chatelaine" magazine    $7.50
  • Fine meals in best restaurants, one cocktail    $13-18
  • Sandwich, salad and soft drink    $5-8
  • Breakfast – coffee, eggs, bacon, potatoes    $3-7
Groceries (per kilo, unless other quantity indicated):
  • T-bone steak    $3.80
  • Chicken    $2.80
  • Lean hamburger    $4.00
  • Apples        $2.20
  • Broccoli    $1.20
  • Salad greens    $1.10
  • Oranges    $1.00
  • Onions        $1.20
  • Potatoes    $1.20
  • Bananas    $0.80
  • Butter    $3.20
  • Cola, 2-liter    $1.60
  • Eggs    $1.10
  • Bacon    $4.40
  • Bread (large loaf)    $2.25
Availability of Goods
People come from Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta and all over Mexico to the Lake Chapala town of San Antonio Tlayacapan to purchase imported American, Canadian and European food items. The owners of this medium-sized store import two 48-foot trailers of groceries from the United States each month, giving Lakeside residents ready access to water biscuits and champagne crackers, imported English jams, canned pumpkin and other delights. While it's possible to live a full life without shredded wheat, Irish oatmeal and maple syrup, it's really nice to have these familiar foods from back home, even when the import fees make them cost a bit more.

Some Lakeside residents drive for 45 minutes into Guadalajara to shop once a month or so at the Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and Costco stores. While in the city, they stop off for a stroll through one of the city's malls or stop off for a great lunch. They choose from familiar chains such as Outback, Applebee's, McDonalds and Burger King, or they try one of the many Italian, Japanese, Continental or Mexican restaurants in the city.

Living In a Cash Society
It takes a little adjustment to live in a totally cash society. While visitors may be able to use a major credit card at a few local hotels, be sure to ask if there is a discount for cash payment. Don't bother bringing traveller's cheques. They can be difficult to cash, and you'll receive a lower rate of exchange when you spend them.

Most visitors find that they do best by starting with a few hundred U.S. dollars that they can exchange at a casa de cambio (exchange house), and then drawing money (in pesos) from their back-home bank accounts with their ATM cards. ATM machines are placed in each of the banks in Chapala, Ajijic and Jocotepec. Additional machines are located in larger grocery stores and pharmacies, the airport and Guadalajara's big box stores.

Medical Care
The medical school in Guadalajara is one of the best in the world, with many of the graduating doctors taking additional training in their specialty in respected north-of-the-border schools and medical centres.

Residents of Lake Chapala pay between $15 and $50 Canadian for an office call and are delighted to discover that they can often can see their doctor without waiting for an appointment, and that many doctors also still routinely make house calls.

While there are four 24-hour clinics at Lakeside, most major medical needs are met in Guadalajara hospitals with their exceptional testing facilities, surgeons and specialists in all fields. One happy surprise for foreigners is that when a doctor has read the results of blood tests, X-rays, ultrasounds or MRI exams, the test results are handed to the patient for safekeeping.

The price of medications varies. Some medicines (especially those that are now available in generic form) are a fraction of the price charged north of the border. New drugs can cost the same or more than back home.

What We Do All Day
After the first few weeks, most folks aren't sure exactly what has kept them so busy, but they've been having a great time and have been happily busy every day. It's amazingly easy to become acquainted here in the ancient villages along Lake Chapala.

Most newcomers find that they make friends just by asking the people at the next table what dish they have ordered for dinner. Before they know it, they're chatting like old friends and have been invited to see the other couple's home.

A good place to start is the Lake Chapala Society (LCS). While the organization's focus is on education and support rather than craft classes and shuffleboard (like at the seniors' clubs back home), you'll find plenty to do and lots of folks to meet at this square- block tropical garden paradise.  LCS members check out books from the 30,000 English books or videos and DVDs from the Tapeworm club on the grounds. Groups and clubs of all sorts hold meetings on the grounds, you can practise yoga, attend a writers' group, learn more about using your computer or digital camera at the club meetings of those aficionados, or stop in to get some information, have a cup of coffee and a chat on the patio or get a free blood pressure check.

Among the more than 90 groups, clubs and events in English each month is something to match every newcomer's interests. You'll want to visit the Canadian Club and perhaps stop in at the Irish, British, German or French meetings, too.

While not quite as many choices as back home, you can still attend religious services here. You'll find a number of churches with English-speaking congregations. Choose services with Anglican, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Unity-Unitarian, Non-denominational (similar to Presbyterian or Methodist), Mormon, Assembly of God, Seventh-day Adventist or Jewish congregations.

You can play Scrabble, golf, bridge, tennis or volleyball. You can swim, participate in a gourmet cooking club, go horseback riding, learn Spanish, sing in a choral group, design sets or direct plays at the Lakeside Little Theater, teach English classes to local residents, and raise funds to pay for the education or health needs of local children. There are quilting clubs, groups that exercise in the warm water at the hot springs, hiking clubs and places to listen to music and dance every night of the week.

Travelling from Lake Chapala
Lakeside is a great starting point for day trips, tours to other areas of Mexico or flights to connect with cruises or other points in the world.

Most newcomers can't wait to take a few day-trip tours. They visit the downtown historic district of Guadalajara, attend presentations of Guadalajara's acclaimed folkloric dance troupe or hop on the Tequila Train with the mariachis for a fun-filled day trip to the mountain region, where Mexico's signature liquor was born.

Local tour companies plan short jaunts to the neighbouring state of Michoacán. There, visitors shop for exquisite hand-hammered copper bowls, handmade guitars, custom-loomed fabrics, shawls fine enough to pass through a wedding ring, handsome traditional pottery, embroidery and other folk arts. Take a day trip to see a smouldering volcano, a family factory producing fine hunting and carving knives or an archaeological site that has just been discovered. Just 90 minutes from the lush tropical plants of Lakeside, you'll discover pine forests and wooden homes—in dramatic contrast to the brick-and-mortar custom-built houses of Lake Chapala.

When you are ready for time at the shore, you'll grab a premier-class bus—complete with comfortable, big seats, English movies and on-board bathroom and box lunch—for the four-hour drive to Manzanillo or the slightly longer trip to  Puerto Vallarta. Once there, you'll spend a few days basking in the sun, splashing in the surf, deep sea fishing, disco dancing and sleeping to the sound of crashing waves.

When you've tired of day trips and organized activities, you'll revel in relaxing at your home away from home, drinking coffee on the deck in the morning, puttering in the garden or cooking your favourite dishes from the fresh fruits and vegetables that you purchase each week at the traditional street market. This is an area of friendly, casual entertaining. You'll enjoy sharing frosty margaritas and a delicious home-cooked meal with your new friends. You'll find that even in the winter months, you'll be able to dine outside as the sun sets with a fanfare of vibrant colours over Lake Chapala.

Pic 1: Art Class
Members of the Ajijic Society of the Arts teach classes to local children every Saturday morning at the Lake Chapala Society.

Pic 2: Boats
Excursion boats are at the ready near the Chapala pier. Tourists can engage the boats for a ride out to the mid-lake islands.

Pic 3: Coffee
One of the great joys of living at Lake Chapala, even during the winter season, is having access to the same amenities as are enjoyed back home. With English newspapers and comfortable coffee shops, morning routines can remain exactly the same—in Mexico.

Pic 4: Dolls
Mexico is still a land of artisans creating a wide range of colourful hand crafts. These paper maché dolls are a lively reminder of a wonderful winter trip.

Pic 5: Guadalajara Towers
Winter visitors will want to take a tour to the historic area of Guadalajara. The museums, galleries, churches and theatres of this lovely city make for an interesting day trip.

Pic 6: Lake Chapala Society
Foreigners gather at the Lake Chapala Society to read, have coffee with friends, find a good book in the library and attend a plethora of groups and meetings.

Pic 7: Mariachi
Lake Chapala is located in the state of Jalisco—the birthplace of mariachi music. The musicians gather in the Guadalajara suburb of Tlaquepaque and play for tables in the town's restaurants.

Judy King moved to Lake Chapala in 1990. For 11 years, she sold real estate in the area and managed rental property while she studied the area's customs, traditions and holidays. She returned to her first love, writing, in 2001 when she co-founded the popular online magazine "Living at Lake Chapala" ( Judy also speaks to many groups of tourists—explaining what it's like living in Mexico and examining the holidays and traditions of the area. Judy has helped many new residents avoid the pitfalls of life in Mexico in her weekly Living at Lake Chapala seminar.

Related links
Living at Lake Chapala