Those of us who reside at Lakeside, the areas surrounding Lake Chapala, know it as a serene spot for bird watching and walking the malecons that dot its shores. As expats, we are accustomed to our small towns and have little knowledge of the political intrigue, colorful characters, and even murder that has been its history. These are the secrets of Lake Chapala.
We begin our journey in San Antonio Tlayacapan. There the church sits, as all do, in the center of the village, taking pride of place. In the late 1800s and early 1900s lovelorn ladies came to the church in a tradition known as Las Burradas, or the burros. These ladies, riding burros, came to petition San Antonio to find love. Those who were more desperate, however, came on foot, and even on their knees trying to find Mr. Right.
One fine day a particularly portly and rich woman came on burro, Señora Capitillo. She rode to the door of the church and entered the sanctuary, waddling up to the altar to touch the cord around the waist of San Antonio. As she reached up to touch the cord she pulled too hard and the statue toppled over, pinning her to the floor. She called out for help and as luck would have it the parish priest heard her pleas and came running, freeing her from the statue. He helped her up, and since San Antonio was so intimately involved in her petition at that moment, he granted it. Señora Capitillo and the parish priest married.
Ajijic, while known hereabouts as the gringo pueblo, actually played a role in the tumultuous history of Mexico. All of lakeside is volcanic with deep mines of silver peppered throughout the hills. During the Revolution the owners of the mines wanted to ensure their spiritual and fiscal health, and for this they constructed labyrinths of tunnels deep in the hills. These tunnels served to bring the silver directly to the waiting warehouses and out of reach of any peasants who wanted their share. At the same time, since the priests had been banned, the upper class ensured that their religious practices would continue as the tunnels were tall enough to accommodate a priest on horseback to come directly to their homes. There, unlike the poor folk, they could continue to receive the sacraments. These tunnels still exist, but since they date predominantly from the early 20th century, efforts by our local Lake Chapala chronicler to study the tunnels have, so far, met with little success at the government.
On the south side of the lake there are pueblos that house both recent and past events of interest. Tizapan el Alto is one such village. Here you will encounter the best empanadas in Mexico, baked in a cement oven that we expats would use for pizza. The bakery is hot as you stand inside waiting for the empanadas to be ready. The oven is pre-heated with a blow torch and the empanadas are baked with their usual fillings, but, by far, the best is the sweet potato filling. Visiting the bakery means watching the whole process and collecting your empanadas directly from the cooling racks.
The same village serves up another treasure in the home of the local ponche maker. I preserve his identity as he usually does not entertain visitors, but on this day, he opened his home to us. He is 95-years-old, as is his wife, and they are still making the ponche. No matter my cajoling he refused to divulge any secrets but gladly shared the brew. His home with three bedrooms was the site for the whole family of nine children, all of whom, according to him, grew up strong from the ponche they drank, even as little ones.
No self-respecting lake would be without its pirates and we would have to say the same about Chapala. On the shores near Tuxcueca there was an extensive storage and transportation system for taking the goods from the hills to the northern shores of the lake and then to Guadalajara. The local people constructed concrete storage units to hold the goods and built a pier into the lake. Local farmers and artisans used these facilities to ensure that their goods left the little towns and traveled to the big city of Guadalajara. Small dinghies and rowboats carried the goods to larger vessels for transport across the lake. It was these ships, now laden with a multitude of goods, that were attacked by the pirates of the lake. In this era there was no possibility of patrolling the northern shoreline and if the authorities identified an area where the pirates were landing they simply changed locale and went about their business.
Like he did in all aspects of life during his reign, Porfirio Díaz got involved with the lake as well. Near Atequiza a political conspiracy was brewing. Two rich landowners were solidifying their power and, as is always the case, wanted more. Cuesta Gallardo and Diego Moveno owned vast tracks of agricultural land and had provided for the future of their families by uniting their first-borns in marriage. However, water was scarce and they needed to irrigate their fields. Through their relationship with Díaz they convinced him to allow them to build a dam and siphon off 30 percent of the lake water for their fields. He agreed, thus insuring their continued wealth.
At that time Díaz had a private railroad that brought him to this part of the lake. As a thank you for the dam, the two owners built a small theater for Díaz so he could enjoy performances when he visited the area. This theater still stands and is used by the community now for its own performances. The two also presented Díaz with Villa Tlalocan, which is the only one remaining of the five homes they gave him in Chapala. It pays to have power.
Chapala was also home to many artists, writers and infamous characters. The British novelist, D.H. Lawrence wrote the Plumed Serpent here in 1923 in a burst of artistic creativity. Another local celebrity, the Black Widow, who deserves a full novel herself, is reported to have murdered 15 people here including the owner of the mortuary who helped her cover up her crimes.
Along with history, intrigue and corruption, the lake is also a haven of natural beauty and holds the distinction of being Mexico’s largest lake. These days of climate change require that the lake, too, must be protected. In the late 1990s Mexico passed a law that essentially expressed support for local municipalities to band together to tackle problems that were community-wide.
Sixteen of the lakeside communities created the Inter-Municipal Association for the Protection of the Environment and Sustainable Development of Lake Chapala, or AIPROMADES. With a small but energetic professional staff, AIPROMADES currently has 48 projects underway in these municipalities. It has recently teamed up with the Sunrise Rotary Club in Chapala to extend the projects, which include: cistern-construction, habitat protection, wetlands sustainability, and a variety of other worthwhile projects. The modus operandi of AIPROMADES is total community involvement in all efforts.
Perhaps the next time you think about Lake Chapala, you will remember its rich history and its optimistic future, as well as some of the deep secrets lying beneath its tranquil waters.