As a home-based working mother I recently found myself faced with an annual quandary: how to keep my two restless pre-teens entertained over their summer holiday and simultaneously squeeze some quality time into an already busy agenda. Inspiration came from a handsome coffee table book entitled Espacios del Lago de Chapala * (see note below) featuring dozens of stunning images captured from different vantage points along the 250-kilometer shoreline of Mexico’s largest lake.
Following the huellas of photographer Carlos Valencia Pelayo, my children and I initiated a series of one-day excursions to explore neighboring localities. We reaped many rewards from our weekly adventures, not the least of which was discovering the delightful idiosyncrasies that distinguish the people and places we encountered along the way.
Venturing eastward along Lake Chapala’s north shore, the road–such as it is–stops at San Pedro Itzicán. Perched precariously on the steep incline of the Cerro de la Cuesta, this remote outpost is linked to Mezcala de la Asunción, the nearest point of civilization, via a narrow dirt road, barely five kilometers long. It turns out to be a 30 minute ride.
Our pace is unhurried by necessity. As we carefully negotiate rocks, mud and countless pot holes, we have plenty of time to take in the landscape–now lush with wild greenery fed by summer rains. On one side the long stretch of the cerro towers above us, its summit studded by a forest of tall cacti. To the right, the land drops off abruptly towards the vast expanse of Lake Chapala far below. Clearly Mother Nature still rules over most of this rough terrain. The hand of man is visible only just beside the roadway where heaped up stones mark off small plots of corn and chayote.
There is an odd sense of stepping back in time as we roll slowly into San Pedro. We bounce along in low gear, passing a line of squat adobe and brick houses, picking up the pungent scent of kitchen hearths fueled by firewood as we dodge dogs, chickens, turkeys, burros and pigs all roaming freely in the street. Only the shiny satellite dishes fixed incongruously to the roofs of a half dozen tiny homes remind us that here, too, the calendar reads 1999.
Our first stop, as always, is at the central plaza. We park and wander towards the entrance of the church, a long rectangular structure simply fashioned of exposed brick. At midday the gates to the atrium are chained shut, but our steps have led us to an outlook that offers a magnificent wide-open vista of lake and mountains.
The strange sight of unknown visitors immediately draws a group of curious children. Shy at first, they are easily drawn into conversation when we introduce Phoebe, our pet dalmatian and faithful travel companion. The niños speak with a distinct, unfamiliar cadence more akin to the native tongue of Michoacan’s Purépecha Indians than to the Spanish language.
Learning that the youngsters are headed for a swim in the lake, we follow as they descend a long stairway that zigzags down to the waterfront. One by one they strip down to their underwear and dive into lake. Phoebe spies some birds flitting about a clump of water hyacinth and scrambles over the rocky shore line in hot pursuit. The children giggle as they watch the dog’s antics. ” Fibi, fibi, fibi,” they shout, trying to entice her further out into the water.
We make way for a group of fishermen who are rowing their boat up to shore with their morning catch of carp and catfish. Then, anxious to continue our tour, we call Phoebe out of the water and shout a farewell as we start tramping back up the stairway.
The church is still closed and there’s not much happening back on the plaza–just a few folks standing around waiting at the dusty bus stop. Next to them a fat hen pecks at the ground. Heads turn abruptly as Phoebe lunges forward towards the unsuspecting bird and we loudly call her to a halt. Relieved that she has managed to catch nothing more than a mouthful of feathers, but mortified nonetheless, we scold and snap on her leash. Though all eyes are upon us, we feel no hostility. On the contrary, this unexpected bit of escandalo seems to have broken the rhythm of an otherwise uneventful day, spurring lots of light-hearted conversation.
With the mischievous pup now under control, we stroll around the plaza until we find a small store where we stop to purchase soft drinks and snacks.
This lends an opportunity to learn something about San Pedro, a place beyond the ken of guidebooks and even most maps.
We ask the proprietress to tell us about local festivities. She says we’ve just missed the June fiesta honoring the village patron, Saint Peter the Apostle. The celebration falls just as the rainy season is beginning and, like the ancient rituals of pre-Hispanic Mexico, seems to bear the hope of calling upon higher powers to control the unpredictable and sometimes devastating powers of nature.
“Outsiders often criticize us for spending so much on the music and fireworks, but we do this with great faith,” the storekeeper tells us earnestly. “We have seen the hand of San Pedro pushing great waterspouts away from the village, taking them far out into the lake.”
She urges us to return in December to join in the festive shepherd’s processions the villagers will celebrate during the Christmas season.
While we are chatting, Phoebe has been dozing at our feet. Suddenly she leaps up, tugging furiously at the leash. We hang on tight as she intently watches two pint size piglets trot by, turn at the corner and disappear from sight. We take this as a sign it’s time to depart.
On the way back to the car we run into our little swimmer friends. They, too, are now heading homeward. Each one carries a bunch of glistening fish, whimsically strung up on the fat stems of water hyacinths. This bounty from their fathers’ nets is destined for the family kitchen and eventually the dining table.
We wave goodbye, calling out ” Buen provecho, ” the standard adage to wish them a fine meal.
” Adios. Hasta luego,” the niños shout back as we drive away, taking with us the perfect souvenir: a warm feeling that on our next visit San Pedro will receive us not as strangers, but as amigos.
* Espacios del Lago de Chapala, by Carlos Valencia Pelayo, was published in 1998 by Agata Editores, S.A. de C.V. The book’s brief text was translated into English by Tony Burton, a regular contributor to MexConnect, whose own book, Western Mexico, A Traveler’s Treasury, has also proved to be an invaluable companion guide for our summer expeditions.