Until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, nomadic Amerindian tribes, including the Nahuatl, occupied the Lake Chapala region. They migrated from northwestern Mexico and gave rise to the Aztec civilization. Chapala is named after the last chief of the Nahuatl, Chapalac. Ajijic, the second largest town along the lake’s northwestern shore, received its name from the Nahuatl word for “Place where the water springs forth.”
Although colonized by the Spanish, the local population remained primarily Amerindian through the next several centuries. From the late 19th century to the 1930s, an influx of foreigners began to change the towns and villages along the lakeshore from villages of fishermen to tourist destinations. The first summer residences and hotels were built at the beginning of the 20th century.
The city of Chapala’s town hall (Palacio Municipal) and its now defunct railroad station (it now serves as a museum) were built between 1913 and 1930. The railroad was the first and only service connecting Chapala with Guadalajara and points north. During this time, Guadalajara’s high society spent their weekends, Holy Week and Christmas at the lake.
In the late 1940s, the famous American writer Tennessee Williams settled in Chapala to work on his play called “The Poker Night,” which later became “A Streetcar Named Desire.” As Williams explained in his essay, “The Catastrophe of Success,” Chapala offered him an ideal place to work.
Today, more than 40,000 people live in Chapala and over 10,000 reside in Ajijic. Other communities along the lake’s northwestern shore are much smaller. Tourism is still a significant contributor to the area’s economy.