Chapala: Mexico’s Shangri-la by John Russell Clift

articles Travel & Destinations

Tony Burton

First published in October 1953

MexConnect reprinted, with permission, this article on the 50th anniversary of its original publication in Ford Times, the monthly magazine of the Ford Motor Company.

John Russell Clift, the author and illustrator, was born in 1925 and at the peak of his career in the 1950s when he wrote this piece, one of the earliest to promote the attractions of the Chapala area as a retirement haven. His thoughtful prose and fine silkscreens paint a vivid picture of what life was like at Lakeside 50 years ago.

The original introduction was ” Thirty miles south of Guadalajara, in southern Mexico, is the town of Chapala, on the shore of a lake of the same name. Its charms are many; its living is cheap. Its beauty is one of deep colors and sharp contrasts, ideally suited to the silk-screen technique — known as serigraphy — in which John Russell Clift has chosen to portray it. 

From Guadalajara, the second-largest city in Mexico, swing onto the Calzada Independencia and drive southward for thirty leisurely miles to Chapala. It’s the nearest thing I know to Shangri-la.

The road climbs away from the city and slides across a vast plain that ripples in rich browns and ochres and greens to the encircling mountains. The scenery is beautiful—but keep one eye on the road or you’re likely to hit one of the cows and burros that meander casually across the highway.

About twenty-two miles from Guadalajara you make a long ascent and suddenly, spread out below like a silver shield that could have belonged to some Aztec Paul Bunyan, is Lago de Chapala. Those two islands off to the left, Scorpion and Mezcala, were the scene of a valiant, futile defense by the Tarascan Indians during the Spanish conquest. And that cluster of buildings below you, nestling on the lake shore, is Chapala. It’s the largest settlement on the lake, and a reasonable facsimile of heaven for time-harried, budget-weary Norteamericanos.

On your right as you enter the town are the police station and town hall. On your left are the inevitable plaza and bandstand where, on Sunday evenings, a local band does John Philip Sousa and Victor Herbert proud. As you continue along the wide main street under beautiful Indian laurel trees that cast their shade for fifty feet, you come in sight of the town’s largest church. Its towers have been reflecting the warm Mexican sun for a hundred years.

Behind the church is one of the many pretentious summer homes that face on the playa and overlook the lake. For centuries the Indians around Chapala made crude clay idols which they threw into the lake as offerings to their gods. When the level of the lake dropped several feet a few years ago many of these examples of native art came to light. Some are still to be found protruding from the sediment in the shallow water.

Local fishermen have moved their boats to the new shoreline, and at an early hour every morning they are on the lake casting their nets for catfish, perch, charales and whitefish, which are almost translucent and are peculiar to this area. Charales, about the size of small goldfish, are cooked in deep fat, and eaten heads, tails and all, with a local drink called “Tequila and songra.” Tequila, incidentally, costs a dollar a gallon. Bring your own jug.

Almost everything in Chapala is inexpensive by stateside standards. Beefsteak costs eighteen cents a pound—twenty cents for a juicy T-bone—and you can get a steak dinner for fifty cents at the pleasant café overlooking the lake.

Other prices are comparable. A house with conveniences can be rented for as little as eighteen dollars a month. The town has two hotels: the Nido, where board and room is $3.50 a day per person, and the Monte Carlo, which is somewhat more expensive. Both are first-rate hotels offering good Mexican and American food. There are stores where you can buy anything from a coke to a handmade basket. Sunday is market day. Farmers and their families from the surrounding countryside come to buy, sell, and talk politics.

Near Chapala there are several other places of more than casual interest:

Fifteen miles west of the town on a new road along the lake shore is Jocotepec, famous for hand-woven serapes. All the weaving is done by men who have set up looms in their homes. They create their patterns as they weave; no two designs are ever exactly alike. There is a very good posada (inn) here which acts as an outlet for the serapes and, incidentally, serves excellent meals, both Mexican and American. A small serape (two by three feet) costs about $6.50 and the largest ones (four by six feet) range from $13.50 for white to $17.00 for red. If you wish, you can wear one; in any case they make beautiful rugs.

On the outskirts of Guadalajara is Tlaquepaque, which, with nearby Tonala, constitutes the largest ceramic center in Mexico. Here are many shops where pottery figures, toys, and dishes are made and sold. Here you can watch the crude black clay being shaped, baked, painted and glazed by descendants of the Totonac Indians, much as it was done in Aztec times.

The Odilon-Avalos Glass Works in Guadalajara is one of the two or three places in all Mexico where hand-blown glass is made. The Avalos family has been making it for generations. Time stands still while you watch these superb craftsmen pull molten glass from the ovens and blow it into graceful shapes in red, amber, blue and green. There are several showrooms where glasses, decanters, dishware, and glass miniatures can be admired extravagantly, and bought reasonably.

Guadalajara is famous for its old churches and its educational and cultural facilities—but don’t miss its two market places, the Corona and the San Juan. Here you can purchase textiles, ceramics, wooden bowls, tinware, serapes, shawls, saddles, shoes of all kinds (including huaraches), toys, flowers, fruits, vegetables, meats, fish—anything you want or need.

Any time is a good time to visit Chapala, for the town has an average year-round temperature of seventy. Because of the altitude, five thousand feet, it never gets uncomfortably hot.

Winter is a time of almost continuous fiestas, celebrated with fireworks and music and dancing in the plaza. The season begins with Independence Day on September 15, the equivalent of our Fourth of July. Dead Men’s Day occurs November 1 and 2—like Halloween, but more macabre. At Zapopan, on the outskirts of Guadalajara, there’s a festival in honor of the Virgin of Zapopan from October 4 to 12. On December 12 Chapala children carry flowers to the altar in the church as offerings to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Dressed in brightly colored costumes, they carry birdcages containing live chicks on their backs, with miniatures of household objects dangling from the cages. Nine days before Christmas the pageant of Joseph and Mary is presented. After Christmas and New Year’s comes Carnival Time on February 22. For nine days preceding it there are bullfights twice a day in Chapala. A queen and her attendants are chosen. A dance and reception are held in the plaza and the tavern on alternating days. On Saturday of Holy Week a paper effigy of Judas is burned before the church, and the winter festival program is climaxed by Easter. There are no big fiestas in Chapala in summer, but there are numerous small ones. But perhaps this is the best time to come, after all, for in summer you’ll find leisure to do the things you’ve always wanted to do.

You can follow the example of Mexican families who come in large numbers to swim in the lake, promenade on the plaza or sip cool drinks at Acapulito—a group of open-air cafes with canvas roofs, facing the shore. Ballad singers known as mariaches serenade you for a small fee, accompanying themselves on stringed instruments. You can rent a boat for a trip on the lake, or to Scorpion Island where a lone inhabitant runs a café for thirsty voyagers.

Perhaps, at the end of a warm May-like afternoon, you’ll wander down to the lake and watch the sun set behind the mountains, turning the lake to burnished copper. Chapala is on an old Spanish caravan route, and if you have a romantic nature, you may gaze at the gold-rimmed peaks and see a Spanish caravan laden with Indian treasure bound for a Gulf port and old Spain.

More likely you’ll conclude that the real treasure was left behind in Chapala.

  • 1953 Ford Times. Originally published in Ford Times Volume 45 # 10 (October 1953) pp 34 – 39. The article and accompanying illustrations are reproduced here by kind permission of Ford Motor Company.

Story and serigraphs by John Russell Clift

Published or Updated on: March 14, 2008 by Tony Burton © 2008
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