Despite appearances, Tony & I are not actually one of those couples in their 30s who have managed to retire and gallivant about the globe. When we first set out on our RTW, our trip was funded by years of savings, and we always knew there would come a day when we had to return to the world of the gainfully employed. Happily for us, our graphic and web design and online marketing business has meant that although we must still work to support ourselves, we can do so from the road rather than rejoining the rat race.
That said, it hasn’t always been easy to juggle work with travel (not to mention our regular life) and we’re still trying to figure out the right balance for us. During our month in Tlaquepaque, we found ourselves with very full plates when we decided to add Spanish language classes to our preexisting work commitments. From Monday to Friday, it felt that the bulk of our sightseeing was simply whatever we happened to take in on our route to and from our apartment and school and meals. In some ways, it was kind of nice to turn off the planning part of our brains and just relax into the routine of a schedule, but it also didn’t take very long for us to start to feel a bit antsy and stifled. Eventually, we came to anticipate the weekend like Pavlov’s dogs waiting for a bell. After two weeks of classes, we decided to give ourselves a day of play—to get a taste of what retired life might look for us, we decided to head to Ajijic.
For those of you not up on your Mexican migration patterns, Ajijic is one the country’s top destinations for Canadian and American retirees. Situated right on Lake Chapala—the largest freshwater lake in Mexico—it boasts temperate weather year round, but is especially popular with the over-60 set in the winter. We had read that it was very gringofied (the kind of place where you were more likely to hear English on the streets than Spanish) and kind of expensive, but to be perfectly honest, blog posts about Ajijic are kind of non-existent and even our not-so-trusty Lonely Planet guide was relatively tight-lipped about things to see and do there. At less than an hour from Guadalajara by car, we figured we had nothing to lose by checking it out, but we really had no idea what we would find at our destination.
The drive to Ajijic is on a major multi-lane highway, so what it lacks in scenery it makes up for in comfort and convenience. Within 45 minutes, the hustle and bustle of Guadalajara had melted away and we were pulling into the quaint little town of Chapala.
Whether Chapala is named after the lake or vice versa, I’m not sure. What I do know (and as you might have guessed given its name) is that the lake isn’t just Chapala’s major attraction, it’s its only one. Apparently a popular diversion is to charter a boat and visit one of the two islands within the lake, but since we were really just popping by, we elected to simply stroll along the boardwalk instead. It was a pretty stroll, though if I’m being completely honest, the water didn’t smell very good. In recent years, fertilizer runoff into the lake has caused water hyacinth to invade which has killed off much of the aquatic life. There are still active fishing boats (but given the odor of the lake, the thought of eating anything that came out of it wasn’t very appealing) and we did see a few Mexicans splashing about in the water, but we weren’t overly upset that we had left our swimsuits at home.
As pretty as Lake Chapala is, after about thirty minutes wandering along the shore and taking photos, we were ready to go. The main boardwalk area was pleasant, but there just wasn’t much else to the town, so we got back in the car and continued on to Ajijic.
Here’s the thing about Ajijic: it’s super colorful and super cute. It has a lot of restaurants (some expensive and aimed at gringos, some very affordable and clearly catering to locals), lots of little boutiques, a real estate office on every block, and a beautiful central square that is surrounded by lush flowers and vendors selling ethnic jewelry and fresh berries. Sure the lake still smells as off-putting here as it did in Chapala, but I suppose that is to be expected. It’s not hard to see why so many gringos love it here.
However, it soon became clear to us why there aren’t tons of blog posts or pages upon pages in guidebooks singing Ajijic’s praises. As charming as the town is, it just doesn’t have very much for day trippers to do. Because we have little-to-no-interest in shopping, we instead spent several hours wandering the streets of Ajijic, taking pictures of the colorful buildings and beautiful doors on the houses. That really made up the bulk of our time there. Granted, we did see some really pretty doors, but we need a little bit more from a destination than that.
I hesitate to say Ajijic is Podunk—we walked past a “dildoria” (and yes, that is exactly the kind of shop you think it is…) during our rambles!—and it clearly has a passionate and vibrant group of expats who just love it there. At one of the restaurants where we had lunch, we overheard the community orchestra practicing… unfortunately, they weren’t very good, but it was more proof that if you were to ensconce yourself there that there would be groups and organizations to keep you busy. You just know they’ve got a slamming Bridge club that meets weekly…
(I’m kidding! Or am I?)
From a cultural perspective, Ajijic is an interesting experiment, I think. Although there is a clear gringo presence, it hasn’t completely obliterated the original grassroots Mexican vibe of that town. It does exhibit a blend of blend of cultures—we saw plenty of Mexicans out strolling with their families amidst the gringos—and there is a hum of energy there that is still distinctly Mexican. At its core, it still feels like a sleepy town that shuts up shop around 5 or 6 (probably because most inhabitants are rushing off to early-bird dinners!), and doesn’t even bother getting out of bed on Sundays.
As a diversion from big city life, Ajijic was a nice change of pace. But we are big city people through and through, so an afternoon there was more than enough for us; we both agreed that even though we weren’t expecting a wild and raucous party haven a month-long stint there would likely drive us crazy with boredom if the utter lack of street food didn’t push us over the edge first.
Perhaps the retired life is just not for us, or perhaps we’ll just need another 30 years before it truly appeals. For now, the world of line dancing and shuffleboard—even somewhere as picture perfect as Ajijic—will just have to wait!
Tell Us: Do you love big cities too, or does Ajijic look like heaven on earth to you? What would be a deal-breaker for you in considering a move to a new place?