November 18, 2017
Vieques, Puerto Rico
This is the first time John and I have ever been to Mexico together and we’re loving it.
Just south of Guadalajara, sister cities, Chapala and Ajijic sit on Mexico’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Chapala. Both cities have unique charm, temperate climates and amenities galore, which have made this area a mecca for retirees and ex-pats.
You might think that for a community focused on so many retirees, that activities would be sedate, laid-back and mundane. Oh contraire! Boredom is not allowed. In fact, even mediocre is not permitted! We had heard horror stories about safety in parts of Mexico, but found this area to be one of the safest places we’ve ever been. I ran on the highways to and from town and felt perfectly safe. So after spending a few days here, we decided that all the tales of retirement blah and fear are made up to scare “un”fun people away from this lovely area and the fun side of the wall!
Located directly on the banks of Lake Chapala, Chapala’s biggest draw is its old world appeal. Just walking along the cobblestone streets, visitors are consumed by the historical significance and charm of the place.
In fact, Chapala history dates back to the XII century, A.D., when a migrating tribe of Nahuatl Indians settled here. Four hundred years later, they merged with the Coca and Cazcano Indians when Franciscan missionaries sought to evangelize the group and built a convent, churches and cathedrals, many of which are still standing today.
The first steamboat sailed the lake in 1868 and sailboats served as ferries. But the town acquired the “official” resort moniker in 1904 when Mexico’s President Portfirio Diaz began vacationing in the area. To add to the notoriety, D.H. Lawrence wrote The Plumed Serpent while staying at a villa on Zaragoza Street and mentioned the San Francisco parish church in the book.
The malecón, Chapala’s lakeside boardwalk, offers boat rides, restaurants, colorful shops and a scenic strolling area for tourists. One day, as we were wandering down the pier and the shady walkway, we were fortunate enough to catch bird men performing the ritual Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers). We had noticed the tall pole (we estimated about 100 ft) in the middle of a sandy area, on the lakefront, and thought that it must have been some kind of spotlight for the park area. Wow, were we in for a treat.
So, here’s what we experienced.
These four guys clad in colorful Mexican garb climb up the pole and start playing instruments once they all perch at the top. I’m thinking, cool, this is great, the height is a unique way to amplify the sound. And then, they did the unthinkable. Their feet were each attached to cables and they hung at the top of the pole UPSIDE DOWN. Then to make the spectacle even more intense, they began to rotate around the pole. Now this may sound like something you’d do at an amusement park, or with a bungee cord off a bridge, but these guys continued to play their instruments and the music never missed a beat! Incredible!
I’m a big fraidy cat when it comes to heights, so I was getting a little woozy just watching, but these guys repelled upside down, in a circle, playing their instruments until they reached the ground…and not one of them puked! In fact, not one of them even acted dizzy once their feet touched the ground. We were impressed and gave them a hefty donation.
After doing a little research, I found out that the Danza de los Voladores is a ritual performed, to the gods, to end a severe drought 450 years ago. Traditionally, there are five dancers performing the rite. One stands at the top and plays a flute and drum while the others spin around to the bottom of the pole. The four “bird men” circle the pole 13 times (52 total circuits) which represents the number of years in the Aztec calendar round. The four spinning voladores represent the four cardinal directions, as well as the four elements: earth, air, fire and water.
In the 70’s, women were trained as voladores and there are about 20 of the 600 professional performers that are female. The ceremony was recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in 2009, and to promote the ritual and culture, groups of voladores perform in parts of Mexico and other countries around the world.
Consider us WOWED by this unique, talented group.
It took me over two weeks to pronounce the name of Chapala’s sister city correctly. It’s Ajijic, Ah-heé-heek. I felt like I was giggling, hiccupping or clearing my throat every time I tried to say it. Ah-heé-heek.
Ajijic is approximately 3 miles west of Chapala and is sandwiched between mountains and the lake. Much like Chapala, it is thought that the Coca Indians and other nomadic tribes originally called the area home. But since the 1890s, the area is considered an inspirational muse attracting many writers and artists. Somerset Maugham and Tennessee Williams are among the notable writers. In fact, while in the area, Williams wrote a piece called The Poker Game, which he eventually expanded into ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’
We loved exploring the colorful, quaint shops that line the cobblestone streets of the city. I enjoyed the best “fizzy” drink I’ve ever had, at Maria Isabel, as we rested for a while before wandering some more.
Canadian and U.S. retirees make up a large portion of Ajijic’s population. Who wouldn’t want to retire in this magical place? The climate is perfect. The cost of living is nominal. There is theatre, art, festivals and all kinds of sporting activities. Plus, the people are open-minded and welcoming. They even have a Walmart! We were taken aback as the aroma of Walmart’s bakery area drew us to the area. There are many high end bakeries in Dallas that can’t compete with what was offered here! Yummy!
All in all, the Lake Chapala area has…well, it has it all. If you are ever traveling to Mexico, you won’t want to miss it.