A Final Visit to Mexico

My dear Mexico traveling buddies, Hans and Ursula, helped me welcome the 2017 New Year from my hospital room in Guadalajara, so it was only fitting that we reunite again this year in Mexico to welcome the 2018 New Year.

The view overlooking Lake Chapala and its surrounding mountains was absolutely spectacular from Hans and Ursula’s new home.  With constant daytime temperatures between 70 and 80F all year, it was the perfect place for 2 weeks of healthful rejuvenation!

I also enjoyed watching the hummingbirds feed on the colorful bougainvilleas–

This last bucket list trip was made easier by a direct non-stop Volaris flight between Denver and Guadalajara.  Just a little over 3 hours to escape the snow of Colorado for the green hills, warmth, and perfect humidity of Mexico.

I reserved a window seat and noticed about 30 minutes into the flight that we were over Albuquerque.  Being so familiar with I-25 south, I followed the highway and the Rio Grande hoping we’d fly over Socorro and my beloved Bosque del Apache NWR— and we did!

Socorro, New Mexico and M mountain in the foreground.  I used the white “box” in the center of town as my point of reference– that’s the roof of the Wal-Mart!

A few seconds later, we were flying over Bosque del Apache!  Note the white road running up and down between the blue ponds.  That’s Bosque Road (which separates the North and South tour loops), and the buildings below it are the Visitor Center, Refuge Headquarters, and RV Volunteer village.

As we continued to follow I-25 south, I easily spotted the next major landmark– White Sands National Monument east of Las Cruces.

After resting and reading a few hours, I looked out to now see the brown Chihuahuan Desert had given way to the Western-Pacific high tropics of Mexico.  Green covered mountains–

and Mexico’s second largest city, Guadalajara (metro population around 5 million!).

I had grand hopes of maybe taking a multi-day roadtrip during my stay to see the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve and the scenic town of Pátzcuaro (both in the eastern neighboring state of Michoacán).  But after a bit more research, had to finally accept that both places were now beyond my physical capabilities.

Not to worry, though!  Hans and Ursula took me on a wonderful day trip down to Mazamitla (pronounced “Maz-a-MEET-la”), a few hours southwest of Lake Chapala in a unique highlands region covered in pine trees.  Our RVing friends Becky and Jerry are currently building a lovely new casa down near the town of Valle de Juárez, so we of course, had to meet them for lunch and get the grand tour of the area.

Mazamitla is a lovely Pueblo Mágico town with white buildings and red trim reminiscent of Pátzcuaro, so I felt like I was getting a bit of that town too.  The town is extremely popular with tourists from Guadalajara, and since we were there just after New Year’s, it was still filled with them!

A young man agreed to take our group photo in front of the church– Hans, Ursula, Me, Becky, and Jerry.

We finished our tour with a brief spin through the clean and lovely town of Valle de Juárez, and viewing their nice lake.

There aren’t a huge number of gringos down in this area, but the locals do welcome them warmly and are as eager to practice their English as the gringos are to practice their Spanish!  Becky and Jerry have been “adopted” by a few families in the area who have even invited them to family birthday fiestas for an 80-year-old grandfather and a 1-year-old niño!  They use Google Translate on their phones if they should ever get into a conversation that is beyond their Spanish and English skills.

Most of the rest of my time was spent along the northwestern shore of Lake Chapala in the towns of Chapala, Ajijic, and Jocotepec.

Chapala (pronounced “Cha-PAUL-a”) is the largest of the 3 towns and also a magnet for tourists from Guadalajara.  The first day we visited was still during vacation week so the town was mobbed, but still fun to experience for a short time.

Chapala’s cathedral, with a good number of Harley-Davidson motorcycles in front of it–

Walking the malecon where the “Chapala” sign is a popular photo spot–

Found this adorable little puppy too– perhaps the young girl’s Christmas present?

A large gathering of coots and a seagull in the water–

Loads of tourists on the pier–

and at the boat launch–

Lake Chapala is a giant lake, yet extremely shallow (only 45 feet at its deepest point).  While they are making some progress, it is also still quite polluted with agricultural chemicals, etc.  so is best to view from a distance rather than swim in it.

Further along the malecon are long rows of souvenir stalls as well as this giant Palo Volador (flying pole).  There’s a whole ancient ritual associated with these voladores (pole flyers), but here in Chapala, it’s mainly just a tourist attraction performed a few times an hour for tips.

On our walk back to the car, Ursula got an impromptu swing dance with one of the young Harley riders– what fun!

The next town west along the northern Lake Chapala shore is one of the smallest, Ajijic (pronounced Ah-hee-HEEK).  It is the main magnet for Canadian and US snowbirds who have built Mexican-style homes with all the interior comforts of  North America (i.e. full-sized appliances, large bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, etc).  There’s also a Wal-Mart, an Auto Zone, and a few large grocery stores in town too.

Lots of English is spoken in Ajijic, so a trip to their Wednesday mercado, is easy for newcomers to navigate.

All kinds of things to buy at the Ajijic market, from ceramics and tourist souvenirs, to delicious fresh produce, meats, and fish.

Our favorite berry lady.  This is the berry growing capital of the world, and you can buy a large litre jug of blackberries or raspberries for only US$1.25!  The blueberries are slightly more (around US$1.75), but an incredible deal to buy them from the source at their peak of ripeness!

Finishing our trip to the market with a delicious shrimp taco lunch– only US$0.95 per taco!

Ajijic also has a number of nice shops for home furnishings. Ursula found some nice flower pots at a Talavera pottery shop, while I found some colorful Catrina figurines and bath fixtures to photograph! 
Yes, you too can own a talavera toilet & sink!

The Catrina figurines are brought to life each year during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a wonderful celebration I was able to experience last year in San Miguel de Allende.  The new Disney Pixar animated film “Coco” is a great, fun, introduction to this tradition.  Hans, Ursula, and I watched the film and absolutely loved it– hope it wins an Oscar next month!

Ajijic has a small town plaza surrounded by a number of good restaurants and shops.  I met my fellow Bosque del Apache volunteer friends, Kay and Andy, for dinner one night at a terrific Thai restaurant (sadly, we forgot to ask someone to get a photo of us)!  Ajijic also has some terrific, colorful murals around town–

One day as we walked through town, the locals were having a parade!  What fun to see the kids (and adults) all dressed up!

The Mexican kids love the movie “Coco” too!

The “Yesterday and Today” float–

and these “wild and crazy guys”!!!

Becky and Jerry came to visit on my final day in Mexico, and we all headed to the Peacock restaurant in Ajijic.  Lots of ambiance and fellow gringos, but terribly lacking in service (two hours for our lunch to arrive!).

The final town on the far western shore of Lake Chapala is Jocotepec (pronounced “Hoe-COE-ta-pec”).  This was perhaps my favorite.

While it lacks the tourist sites of Chapala, and colors of Ajijic, it’s an authentic Mexican family-friendly working town with few gringos, and loads of charm.  We would visit on Sundays during their weekly market to people-watch on the plaza.  

The cutest kids in all of Mexico!

One Sunday was First Communion at the church, and kids were dressed in their finest communion dresses and suits as parents accompanied them with a bible and communion candle.  What innocence, pride, and joy!

Each visit to the Joco market would not be complete without a stop at the carné asada taco stand.  The owner would recognize us every week (as probably the only gringos to ever eat there), but the food was outstanding, and only US$0.75 per taco! Delicioso!

My 3 tacos with a grilled onion on the side, and a delicious cup of Agua de Jamaica (sweet hibiscus tea).

Hans and Ursula took me on a couple trips into Guadalajara, but due to lots of construction around the city center, we avoided visiting the most common tourist spots.  But we did visit the artsy neighborhood of Tlaquepaque (pronounced “Tla-kuh-PAH-kay”).

Lots of upscale arts and crafts shops–

And sculptures in front of Tlaquepaque’s most famous local artist galleries,  Rodo Padilla

and Sergio Bustamante —

Tlaquepaque had its share of street vendors, like this ice cream man–

but I most enjoyed the female mariachi band that serenaded us as we relaxed with some late afternoon coffee.  Mariachi music was born in Guadalajara, so it was very special to see it performed where it all began!

While Tlaquepaque had lots to see, our second visit to Guadalajara was the most moving.  I wanted to reunite with my friend Alma who had taken such wonderful care of me at her nursing home for about 10 days after I left the hospital in Guadalajara last year.

Alma speaks terrific English, and in our daily conversations at the nursing home, I discovered that she’d been an exchange student for one year at a high school only a few miles from my house in Chicago!

I learned this year that I was actually her first non-family patient at the nursing home (her 95-year-old mother was the first patient).  We knew the nursing home was new when my doctor recommended it, but I had no idea I was the first patient after being treated like such royalty!

We had a wonderful long lunch with Hans and Ursula talking about everything under the sun.  It also happened to be Alma’s birthday that week, so another great reason to celebrate!

I will miss Mexico, and all of my friends there, more than can be ever be imagined!

Americans could learn so much about treating neighbors with respect, welcoming and giving to strangers and those in need, and valuing family and the elderly by spending some time in Mexico.  I had no idea until I first visited this magnificent country 5 years ago.  The U.S. has many virtues and benefits, but it sorely lacks the warmth, generosity, vibrancy, and sense of community that makes Mexico so special.

I encourage all Americans to ignore the negative, racist things you hear on TV and really look at all the smiling, warm faces you see above.  Sure, there are a few areas of drugs and crime hidden away from the tourist centers (just like there are in the U.S.), but the vast majority of the country is probably as safe (or safer) than the majority of the U.S.

I encourage all readers to click the “Mexico” topic link on the sidebar of our homepage to see all of my past posts on Mexico, and then to go discover this great country for yourself!  I guarantee you will be welcomed with open arms, smiles, and kindness.

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