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Life is Beautiful on the Ribera de Chapala

Boating on Lake Chapala in Ajijic
Credit: Jesuschurion57 | Fotolia

There is a place south of the U.S. border where the sun shines every day of the year, the days and nights are spring-like year-round and whitewashed homes march up steep hills that rise from Mexico’s largest natural lake, Chapala.

The Lake Chapala-area of Mexico, or Ribera de Chapala as it is often called, is situated about 35-minutes south of Guadalajara’s international airport and is home to the largest concentration of American expats in the country.

Mexico’s last census revealed that about 750,000 American expats were living in the country, with the most found in the state of Jalisco, where Lake Chapala is located. By many estimates, about 30,000 American and Canadian expats live on the north shore of Lake Chapala, either full-time or part-time.

On Mexico’s central plateau at a bit more than 5,000 feet in elevation, the Lake Chapala-area is a popular place for expats to live.

To find out more about what makes this place so desirable for expats, my wife and I spent a week in Ajijic, the crown jewel of the lake.

A well-known haven for artists, writers and retirees, Ajijic is just one of a number of small towns that wind westward along the lakeshore from Chapala to Jocotepec.

Michael Kavanaugh, an American expat from Alabama with a Ph.D. from the University of Alabama, purchased Ajijic Rentals and Management and Continental Realty in 2011. He explained the appeal of lakeshore living to me.

“The climate is the big draw here,” Kavanaugh said. “It’s never too hot or too cold, always just right. Even though we are in a tropical latitude, our almost mile-high elevation squeezes out most of the humidity, so we are left with sunshine just about every day and just enough summer and early fall rain to keep the hills green a big part of the year.”

Kavanaugh said about 70 percent of the local expats are American and the rest are mostly Canadian. Many are year-round residents, with the balance either escaping cold winters or hot, humid summers when needed. The average annual temperature is a mild 72 F. High temperatures seldom exceed 90 degrees and lows below 50 degrees are infrequent.

Life in Ajijic revolves around the main plaza, which is in the center of town. It is just a few blocks from the main road to Chapala and Guadalajara and about six blocks up the hill from the lakeshore.

Ajijic has a wide variety of restaurants and a wonderful assortment of small shops that sell quality indigenous handicrafts. The state of Jalisco is well known for its artisan wares. Tlaquepaque, just minutes from downtown Guadalajara, is just 40 minutes away. This well-known and mainly upscale shopping area has the greatest variety of artisan handicrafts in Mexico, often housed in beautiful old colonial homes that have been converted into shops and restaurants.

Downtown Ajijic, Mexico
Credit: Robert Nelson

Kavanaugh and his wife visited the area in 2006 to escape the oppressive heat of Alabama summers and fell in love with lakefront living. “We were staying with friends from Alabama and by the second day we said ‘this is it’ and started looking for a house.”

It took the Kavanaugh’s three years to sell their home and business in Tuscaloosa, but by 2010 they moved permanently to a home in Chula Vista, a small town wedged between Chapala and Ajijic.

“When we moved down here, I bought a trailer for about US$1,800 to pull behind my Suburban,” Kavanaugh told us. “We sold just about everything and made three trips before we were fully moved. It is a heck of a lot cheaper to keep only your most treasured things and sell everything else. I have talked with people down here who spent upwards of US$30,000 to move using an international moving company.”

Although Kavanaugh’s companies both rent and sell homes in the area, we wanted primarily to know about rentals, since the majority of expats rent either full-time or part-time, especially those who are living on just U.S. Social Security checks.

“Rents are very reasonable here,” Kavanaugh said. “Most of our rentals – about 50 percent – are in the US$600 to US$800 range. The cost of living here is much less than the U.S. so we attract a lot of retirees living on fixed budgets. For a relatively modest monthly payment, they can get a small two-bedroom, two-bath place in a mixed neighborhood, meaning a blended expat and Mexican neighborhood.”

I took a morning to visit some of the homes for rent. Homes in this popular price range are indeed modest by U.S. standards. If you are looking for a three-bedroom, two-bath home with a pool and at leastt 2,000 square feet just a few blocks from the lake, be prepared to pay about US$1,500 per month.

If you want to live in a gated community for better security, expect to pay a bit more. Kavanaugh suggests that you rent a home before buying to get a feel for which area would be best for you.

“You should know in advance if the location is noisy, if it has the view you want, what the quality of the water is and other factors that may affect your quality of life,” he said.

Another good reason to sell most of what you own before you move south is that the majority of homes for rent are furnished, both short-term and long-term rentals.

Rental contracts are very similar to the U.S., according to Kavanaugh. “It is pretty much first month and last month rent, security deposit and animal deposit, if you have a pet. The amount will depend upon the size of your pet. Most everyone will allow you to have a pet. Most long-term leases are for a minimum of 12-months.”

The security deposit protects the owner from any renter damage to the property.

“When we rent a house, we walk through the property with the tenants, look at the furniture and take photographs before and after,” Kavanaugh said. “If there is no damage we return all of the deposit except US$200 to cover any outstanding phone or utility bills. After two months, we return the balance of that to the renter.”

View of hills from an Ajijic residence
Credit: Felice Arden Nelson

Kavanaugh lives in a 4,500 square foot home on a hillside in upper Chula Vista, close to a golf course with sweeping views of Lake Chapala. He recently installed solar panels for about US$13,000 to cut down his monthly electricity bill.

“My monthly bill was running about US$375 before I installed solar,” he said. “My last bill, though, was down to less than US$2!

With mild year-round weather and plentiful sunshine, most homes have neither air conditioning nor furnaces.

We asked Kavanaugh what advice he would give to someone who may be considering renting a home on the shore of Lake Chapala.

“Know what you want before you come and look at as many properties as you can. Decide what you really want, what is important to you. And once you move in, be a good neighbor. Life is just so much better when we all get along.”