We all have our favorite places. Maybe it’s the place we call home, or where we grew up. Perhaps it’s a vacation spot we return to often. A place we know inside and out; where to find the best cup of coffee, who to ask for information, and the businesses best avoided.
For me, one of those places is Ajijic, a quirky lakeside village in the mountains of Jalisco, Mexico, an hour’s drive from Guadalajara. For the past fifteen years, my husband, Hank, and I have called Ajijic home for extended stays in every season.
Like many of the Canadian, European and American expats that populate the region, we come for the idyllic climate, the scenic Laguna de Chapala, Mexico’s largest inland lake, and the friendly, easy-going village vibe that seems to make problems disappear.
But beyond the lush gardens, vibrant creative community, easy-access mountain hiking, lake views, and daily sunshine, our brains switch into a different mode when we’re there. It has a strong and immediate effect, being on Ajijic time.
Walking everywhere, running into friends at the plaza, shopping at the corner markets, tuning in to the village soundtrack, and joining the fun at the ubiquitous fiestas —it all makes us breathe easier, smile more, and fall into the rhythm of a kinder, gentler, way of life.
Inspired by the “I Heart My City” series on Nat Geo’s Intelligent Travel blog, I thought I’d share a few of the things I love most about living in Ajijic and some insider tips to help you navigate a visit.
The first place I take a visitor from out of town is the Ajijic Plaza - the heart, soul and communal living room of the village. Depending on the time of day, the plaza ranges from a quiet, peaceful retreat to vibrant center for cultural events, open-air restaurant and meet-up hotspot.
When I crave a cup of fresh-roasted Mexican organic coffee I always go to Café Grano Café.
To escape the village noise, I head for the mountain hiking trails high above the town
If I want to relax I go to Total Body Care for a massage and pedicure.
For complete quiet, I can hide away at El Chante Spa.
The best place to catch the local vibe is at the Ajijic malecón (waterfront promenade) on a Sunday afternoon.
If you have to order one thing from the menu from Viva Mexico it has to be Chile en Nogada. But don’t limit yourself, everything here - the mole poblano, chiles rellenos, pozole - is delicious!
Locals know they can find almost any household item they need at the ‘dollar store’ by Bancomer on the plaza.
When I’m feeling cash-strapped I grab a spinach and mushroom empanada from Don Emiliano’s food truck at the plaza.
For a huge splurge I go to Monte Coxala Spa de Altura. Try the temazcalli, an indigenous-style sweat lodge and healing ritual which originated in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica.
Photo ops in Ajijic are everywhere but the best vantage points for lake and village overviews are found from the mountain hiking trails above town.
If it’s Wednesday morning, you’ll find me and most of the village at the Ajijic Tianguis.
Artist, E.O. Garcia, at Ajijic tianguis
The most random thing about Ajijic is that everything is random. Leave the need to plan at home.
In Ajijic, an active day outdoors involves navigating the cobblestone streets and foot-high sidewalks (for run-off in the rainy season), jogging the malecón, hiking the hills, or yoga class with the fabulous Ana Paula Hernandez.
My favorite place to photograph doors and color is along calles Ocampo and Independencia.
For live music, check out the TallBoys Band.
The Jardin Restaurant is the spot for people watching at the plaza.
For slice-of-life watercolors of Ajijic and Lake Chapala stop by the studio gallery of Enrique and Belva Velazquez. From travel-friendly calendars and note-cards to fine art originals, there’s something for everyone. Not only is this husband-wife team one of the region’s most respected, they’re also the nicest!
Lois Cugini’s Opus boutique is my one-stop shop for colorful clothing and affordable jewelry. With it’s clothing-clad flower murals and neon pink walls, you can’t miss it - it’s one of Ajijic’s most colorful and enduring businesses.
To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read the Guadalaraja Reporter.
You can tell if someone is not from Ajijic if they mangle pronouncing the town’s name - ah-hee- HEEK.
A hidden gem in Ajijic is always found behind the walls. Exteriors can often be deceiving. I’ve walked past crumbling or unassuming walls for years without a thought before discovering that a world-class botanical garden or vibrant village-within-the-village existed there.
If you have kids, you won’t want to miss Tobolandia water park.
For a tasty dinner at a reasonable price with plenty left over to take home, head for Ajijic Tango.
Don’t miss the Mexican folk art festival in November, undoubtedly the best indigenous folk art show in Mexico with top artisans from around the country.
From Ajijic, you can visit the town of Tequila (yes, it’s a place AND a drink). You can hop aboard the Tequila Express tourist train from Guadalajara, complete with Mariachis, snacks, drinks and tequila, and learn about the history and legacy of tequila production in Mexico.
The best way to see Ajijic is on foot. But leave the sexy high heels at home. On cobblestone streets, sensible shoes rule.
If Ajijic were a pet it would be a friendly, freedom loving stray.
The most endearing book about Ajijic is Village in the Sun by Dane Chandos (1945, G.P. Putnam’s Sons).
When I think about Ajijic, the song that comes to mind is El Breve Espacio by Pablo Milanés. Hearing this gentle music carried across a languid summer’s breeze from a vendor’s speaker at the plaza one evening is one of my most magical Ajijic memories. I immediately purchased the CD and can’t listen to it without wanting to return.
Ajijic’s best kept secrets is the summer rainy season, when it rains mostly at night, the mountains turn emerald green, daytime temps are comfortably moderate, and before the snowbirds fly in for the winter.
The question on everybody’s lips when we tell them about living in Ajijic* is, “is it safe?” Watching the news, you certainly wouldn’t think so. But in Ajijic, where peace dominates and violence is more media headline than reality, it’s easy to forget we’re supposed to be scared.
*This article was written in September 2011, during a five month stay in Ajijic as part of a year-long expat living in Latin America experiment. We rented a comfortable, 2-bedroom village house from Laguna Realty. To follow our adventures, and for the latest travel news, tips and reviews from EllenBarone.com, sign up here. It’s FREE.