Some time ago, John Keeling, the head of the Lake Chapala Birding Club, mentioned to me that his hobby had brought him to the eastern end of the lake where he had come upon the ruins of an old “casona” that had once been an edifice of extraordinary beauty, but was now literally on its last legs. He told me, “Lake Chapala’s hacienda La Maltaraña has quite a history.”
When he also mentioned that the road to La Maltaraña runs along the top of a historically important dike that had changed the size and shape of Lake Chapala 100 years ago, I was hooked. Even though Keeling had sent us detailed instructions for reaching La Maltaraña on our own, I asked him if my wife and I might tag along on his next visit to the end of the lake, sure that we were bound to learn a lot about history and birds in the process.
From the Ajijic area we headed east on highway 35 for about an hour, until we reached the little town of Jamay.
Just at the far end of Jamay we turned off the highway and two minutes later we were on a smooth dirt road atop a long straight levee heading south. “This is it,” said John. “we’re on the dike.”
As we drove along the raised road, John told us that the dike, which is 24.14 kilometers (15 miles) long, was built between 1906 and 1909 by Manuel Cuesta Gallardo, one of the richest men of his day. He saw that the eastern end of the lake was shallow, marshy and rich in silt deposited by the Lerma River. “So,” said John, “Manuel persuaded President Porfirio Díaz to grant him a license to drain one-third of Lake Chapala and sell the land for agriculture, just like other smart developers were doing in California. Manuel built his dike across the lake from Jamay on the north shore to La Palma on the south shore, and also built raised dikes along each side of the Lerma River and its tributary, the Duero River. Water was pumped out of the marshy areas and the land was sold. In earlier times, Lake Chapala may have stretched as far southeast as Zamora.”
A few years after Cuesta Gallardo built his dike, I later learned, the river overflowed its banks and refilled the new land. Cuesta Gallardo then had to lower the level of the lake, raise the height of the dikes and pump out the water once again. In the same period (in the early years of the Revolution), Manuel Cuesta Gallardo got the support of President Diaz to become Governor of Jalisco. He was in power for only 25 days before he resigned, being unable to control popular uprisings against him. He later ran for the National Senate, but his election was disqualified after it was shown that the number of ballots cast exceeded the number of voters.
I suspect it would take only 20 minutes to cover the eight-kilometer stretch between Jamay and La Maltaraña, but bird watching was the order of the day, meaning that we rolled along rather slowly, stopped rather frequently (and often suddenly) and usually jumped outside enthusiastically for a better look with binoculars or to photograph the picturesque marsh below us.
A good number of the birds we saw were familiar to us because they are also found in the Primavera Forest (which my wife and I consider our “backyard”). For instance, the beautiful Great Kiskadee with its bright yellow belly, called “Luis Bienteveo” in Spanish. But, of course, the real treat was to come upon all kinds of birds you cannot see at home, and to be with someone who can instantly identify them. “That’s a White-faced Ibis,” said John, pointing, “and over there, you can see Fulvous Whistling Ducks. Now that bird, all by itself, is a Roseate Spoonbill, a long, long way from its usual haunts near the coast.”
In this fashion, we proceeded to La Maltaraña, which—seen from a distance—is still a truly beautiful building, said to be of either a French or Italian style, with 365 doors and windows. The land is cleared all around it, affording a wonderful view and, in the Mexican tradition, there is no fence to keep you away from the lovely old country house, which is also known as La Bella Cristina, supposedly in honor of Manuel Cuesta’s niece.
As you draw near, you see that it is only standing thanks to dozens of wooden poles propping it up from both the outside and inside. Someone obviously could not bear to see the old house crumble to the ground and had gone to a lot of trouble to keep it looking beautiful. We were surprised that same someone had not erected a sign narrating the history of the place and we were glad we had John Keeling at our side as we sat down on a big fallen tree trunk for a cup of coffee.
“This beautiful house appears to have been built as a hideaway by Manuel Cuesta Gallardo who, being young and rich, was naturally the most eligible bachelor in Jalisco. One story has it that he maintained the place for a very beautiful lady from Guadalajara, but I think the locals deny this. His home base was the hacienda at Atequiza, just one of several prosperous haciendas he had inherited, built on 30,000 acres.”
Later I learned that President Porfirio Díaz used to spend Semana Santa on Lake Chapala, after taking the train from Mexico City, occasionally visiting La Maltaraña, not to watch birds, but to hunt and shoot them.
On these occasions, El Presidente would spend the day at La Maltaraña and then go to sleep at La Florida, another magnificent country house built by the Cuesta-Gallardos not far from their Hacienda de Atequiza.
Casa La Florida has been described as a “combination palace and pavilion.” It was surrounded by an orange grove and received the name La Florida, “the Flowery Place,” because of the scent of the orange blossoms. The entrance to the two-story house was graced by a stunning statue popularly known as The Muse, cast by French sculptor Antoine Durenne, and all the walls were covered with beautiful murals. It is also said that the place was furnished with imported materials like Czechoslovakian stained glass, a French floor and Austrian crystal.
Porfirio Díaz liked La Florida so much, he had a special spur of railway tracks built right to its door so he could directly step off the train and into the elegant casona.
Today La Florida lies neglected and disintegrating behind fences designed to keep the public at bay. La Bella Cristina, on the other hand, is open to visitors every day of the year, its beauty and historical value apparently appreciated by the local people.
After your visit to La Bella Cristina you may want to check out a local curiosity just outside the nearby town of Ocotlán. I am referring to the picturesque home of Don Manuel Dominguez, a local citizen with quite an imagination. Don Manuel’s house is, in fact, a castle, with dozens of towers and turrets of many styles, colors and materials, all of them sprouting like mushrooms above the garishly decorated building.
Next to the castle is something called El Foco Tonal, which perhaps could be translated as “The Power Spot.” This is marked by a sunken ceramic circle enclosed by a low wall, where great numbers of people come to be healed. When you step into the exact center of the circle, you see nothing special, but your hearing suddenly changes, as if you had just walked into a giant tin can and if you speak, you clearly hear a reverberation. Whether this is due to a beam of celestial energy or to sound waves reflected off the circular wall, I cannot say, but it is a curious experience.
To visit La Maltaraña great house, ask Google Maps to take you to Hacienda de Bella Cristina, Jamay, Jalisco. If you also want to check out the castle and power spot, look for Foco Tonal, Ocotlán, Jalisco.”