What a change from the hustle and bustle of Mexico City to Ajijic’s cobblestoned streets and lazy pace in just a few hours. The flight from the country’s capital to this charming town was just under an hour. This positions the town about 30 minutes away from the big city of Guadalajara. Ajijic (pronounced ah-hee-heek) is one of many villages tucked within the striking Sierra Madre Mountain range on Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest fresh water lake. Between the beautiful mountain peaks, the views of the lake, and the mild temperatures from the town’s high elevation, those who travel to this Mexican paradise will want for nothing. The charm of this sleepy village and its people is far removed from Mexico’s international beach resorts. Ajijic is a quaint, colorful village, steeped in culture and tradition while still having all the expected modern amenities. Today Ajijic is home to over 10,000 people, a quarter of whom are retired expats from the U.S. and Canada. Through the years, this charming Mexican town has risen into its own authentic cultural destination.
But what exactly makes Ajijic so beautiful, you ask?
Imagine a huge lake with fisherman out on the water in small boats casting for carp. Snowy egrets doing their own fishing along the shoreline. Shrubs and trees blooming in a kaleidoscope of color year round. Row upon rows of ceramic pots bursting with succulents, flowers, and cacti adorn roofs and balconies. Fairytale cobblestone streets trace through the city. Handpainted murals of the Virgin de Guadalupe, a key figure in Mexico’s Catholic faith, are displayed throughout town acting as a powerful symbol of Mexican identity and faith. Decorative archways and giant carved wooden doors open into beautiful courtyards. A lovely malecón, or pathway, that follows along the lakeshore. The charming town square bursting with activity. Vibrant murals decorate the streets in a range of styles, from figurative to whimsical to abstract. Countless galleries, boutiques, and restaurants drawing in travelers from around the world.
Children happily and safely play in the plaza with no apparent supervision. Girls braid each others’ hair outside their homes while their grandmother sits on a chair outside with them. Neighbors stop and chat with each other on every street corner. Older Mexican men politely tip their hats and smile as you pass by. Parents or grandparents walk their children to the local school as the church bells ring in the distance. The warmth of the locals and expats alike is immediately evident, and their contentment is contagious. It is the perfect setting to enjoy a quiet and relaxing holiday. So if you’re planning to spend some time in Ajijic, read on below to discover plenty of things to see and do, the best places to eat and drink, and other useful things to know before you go.
WHERE TO STAY:
Before leaving for Mexico, I heard the same words of advice from more than one person: “BE SAFE!” While the sentiment may be understandable due to American media portraying the country as if it’s teeming with crime and violence, it’s unwarranted and almost comically misinformed. Serious violence in Mexico is closely associated with the areas where drug cartels operate. That does not include Ajijic. I have always been enamored with Mexico, Mexican culture and Mexican people. During my travels that sentiment has only grown more true. The kindness and warmth of our Mexican neighbors is genuine, and not once did I experience any anti-American vibes.
There are a plethora of accommodation options on Airbnb in Ajijic, ranging from $20 USD per night to $500 USD per night. In fact, my Mom, Aunt and Uncle recently purchased a home in downtown Ajijic that will be available to rent sometime this summer. It’s right in the middle of town with a great view of the malecón and lake. I’ll update this post with the Airbnb link once it becomes available so stay tuned!
WHAT TO DO:
Go Horseback Riding in Chapala
The town of Chapala is a short 15 minute drive from Ajijic, and just on the outskirts of town, you’ll find Stephanie Decker’s breathtaking ranch, Rancho San Francisco. This gorgeous property is a haven to a wide variety of very lucky animals who have been rescued by Stephanie, from horses and burros, dogs and cats, to peacocks, rabbits, ducks, geese, chickens, doves, pigs, and even iguanas. Just walking around the grounds will make you smile. Tropical flowers bursting with blooms and citrus trees overflowing with fruit. A harmony of animal chirps, grunts and snorts fills the air.
Each of the horses has their own unique personalities and are able to accommodate riders of varying sizes and riding skills. With Stephanie as your guide, you’ll ride along one of the various mountain trails that leave from the ranch. Most of the trails are walking trails, but there were sections where we had the option to canter if we wanted to. Three of Stephanie’s dogs joined us on the trail, making the ride even more fun.
Stephanie was a knowledgeable and gracious host, and her passion for animals is obvious. I have been on several riding trips in Mexico and other parts of the world, and often worry about how the horses are treated. At Rancho San Francisco, there is no question that these animals are well cared for. I have never met anyone who cares for her animals as kindly as Stephanie does.
The cost for horseback riding at Rancho San Francisco is $400 MXN pesos each. At the current exchange, that averages out to approximately $22 per person. YeeeeHawwww!
Take a day-trip to Guadalajara
As I mentioned, Ajijic’s proximity to Guadalajara makes a day trip to the big city a no brainer. Because Uber isn’t very established in this area of Mexico yet, we opted to hire a driver for the day. Guadalajara is worth an afternoon of anyone’s time. The historic center is dotted with colonial plazas and landmarks such as the neoclassical Teatro Degollado and Catedral Metropolitana. The city’s cathedral is an impressive religious landmark with a fascinating blend of architectural styles. Over the years, the cathedral has been damaged by fire and earthquakes, causing the towers to be rebuilt twice. The inside of the cathedral is equally as impressive with an altar made from marble and silver, stained-glass windows imported from France, and one of the largest organs in Mexico. The cathedral is also home to the tombs of several former cardinals and bishops.
After touring the Cathedral, we walked around the nearby square which houses statues of influential people in Mexico’s history before making our way to the Plaza de la Liberación. You can sit in the plaza and drink in the beauty of the city or you can walk around easily and people watch. Two gorgeous fountains sit between the Degollado Theatre and the Cathedral. At the center of the park, there are giant colorful letters that spell out “Guadalajara” for an ideal photo op.
Go shopping in Tlaquepaque
On our way home from Guadalajara, we stopped in Tlaquepaque, an artistic village famous for its clay pottery. It has become the area’s boutique shopping district with trendy shops and restaurants lining colonial-style streets and alleyways, plazas, and gardens. Many of the old colonial mansions have been converted into excellent cafes and restaurants. The shops here specialize in art and craft work from all over Mexico, with a particular emphasis on up-market ceramics, bronze sculpture, paper-mâché, blown glass and embroidered textiles.
After exploring Guadalajara for several hours, our lunch at El Patio revived us before our shopping spree. I ordered the Molotes de plátano macho, which are plantain empanadas stuffed with black beans and served with a poblano mole sauce and crema. This was one of my favorite dishes from the entire trip. The mole alone was intoxicating enough to bathe in. The crispy plantain crust of the empanada was perfectly complimented by the black beans filling. In addition to the food being incredible, the location of the restaurant is smack dab in the middle of town with a wonderful courtyard setting. The restaurant features a popular female mariachi band who play there exclusively. These women are extremely talented and their musical talents add so much to the overall experience. Tlaquepaque is a cultural hotspot that is well worth a visit.
Take a cooking class
Chef AbueLinda’s cooking class was the highlight of my visit to Ajijic. Her passion for Mexican food and culture along with 35 years of living and cooking throughout Latin America and the Caribbean makes Linda an expert in local cuisine. The class begins at the Wednesday market, known as Tianguis. where Linda shares her knowledge about local crafts and clothing. While educating her students about the different fruits, vegetables, beans & baked goods, Linda also buys the fresh ingredients needed for class. The local fish vendor pushes his wheelbarrow full of tilapia down the narrow path yelling “Peeescaaadooo!” The fruit vendor announces their fresh truckload of pineapples and berries. All of these sounds of the Wednesday market mingle together harmoniously.
After the market, students walk back to her kitchen in the center of the village to cut, cook and chat. Every class focuses on how to make two different recipes, an appetizer and an entree. Each of us was assigned a job to help prepare this delectable meal. For our appetizer, my class made a raw jícama salad with grapefruit, mango, shredded carrot, cilantro and lime juice. We also learned how to make agua fresca, a drink flavored with fresh fruit. Pineapple, cucumber and lime were added to a blender with water then pureed and strained before serving. The flavors were so bright and fresh. I could’ve slurped down the whole pitcher by myself. The entree we learned to prepare featured slow cooked chicken and rice served with a peanut and chile de arbol sauce.
The peanuts were slow roasted in a cast iron pan then crushed to a fine texture. The onions, tomato and garlic were charred, pureed, then simmered on the stove. The chicken and roasted peanuts are added to the pot to cook down and meld together, and the dish is finished with crushed chiles de arbol and fresh cilantro. I’ve already made the dish once since being home from our trip and it instantly teleported me back to Ajijic and my lesson with Linda. One of my favorite aspects of food and cooking is that ability to connect with memories from childhood and travel experiences. I learned so much about Mexico’s history and wonderful food culture from Chef Linda. I will cherish the recipes she taught me and will continue to cook them for my loved ones.
The cost for AbueLinda’s Cooking Class is $500 pesos per person. This class is offered only on Wednesdays from 10:00am to 1:00pm in order to coordinate with the weekly market. Class sizes range from 3 to 8 people, so the setting is very intimate.
Go for a hike
For those who love the outdoors, there is no shortage of hiking in the surrounding mountains or waterfront adventure to enjoy by the lake. Ajijic has a web of trails that wrap their way around the jungle-covered mountains behind the town. After reading about the numerous trails in the area, my sister and I were ready to check one out for ourselves. With very little else to go on, we stumbled upon a trailhead that my Aunt found on a map, which turned out to be the beginning of the Tempisque trail. Papaya trees weighted with fruit and flowers welcomed us at the beginning of the trail. A ceremonial area was tucked into the hillside on our right. Throughout this collection of trails, there are several beautiful shrines dedicated to Virgin Guadalupe. Signs in Spanish welcome visitors into these shrines to pray and worship, however, it is imperative to treat these areas with the utmost respect. The trail is marked with painted rocks and ribbons tied to trees as it creeps up the Tempisque Canyon. With each step up the mountain, the sound of traffic slowly disappears and the forest began to envelop us with its sights, scents, and sounds. Wildflowers scatter the forest floor reaching towards the sun. Deep green ferns flourish along the shady borders of the path.
After hiking for 30 minutes or so, we reached an open corn field. The dried stalks waved in the wind among clusters of yellow poppy flowers. We continued our climb for a little while longer before heading back down. Our sweet uncle had reluctantly dropped us off at the trailhead, and we didn’t want him to worry that we’d become lunch for a hungry mountain lion. On our way back down to the trailhead, we encountered another hiker and his dog as they began their journey. On Tuesday and Friday mornings, a group of hikers meet in front of Donas Donuts around 9AM before heading up the trails. They welcome newcomers to join them, and it’s a great way to explore new routes without going solo. When Andres and I return to Ajijic together, I am excited to hike the Tepalo Trail, which leads to a group of secluded waterfalls, or cacascadas. To get to Las Cacascadas de Tepalo, you go straight up Calle Encarnación Rosas where you’ll see the trailhead is clearly marked. What else can be better than hiking these amazing trails and enjoying nature?!
Have a spa day
After a wonderful week of activities, we thought a day at the spa would be the perfect way to end our trip. We stumbled upon the most incredible spa almost by accident. My aunt had found two spas online, but we couldn’t decide which one looked best. My uncle, who very patiently drove us, made the executive decision to choose the spa that was in the direction we were already headed. This stroke of genius brought us up a steep cobblestone road to a restaurant and spa, known as Monte Coxala. Nestled between the towns of Ajijic and Jocotepec, this lush oasis overlooks Lake Chapala.
In addition to enjoying a panoramic lake view, this magnificent hilltop resort features a prehispanic theme, thermal waters, and a pyramid spa with a steaming mud purification treatment and a sweat lodge. The design of the grounds transports you to the ancient city of Teotihuacan. At the top of an impressive pyramid awaits a mineral bath. A giant Olmec Head is a gateway to a dark covered mineral pool that flows beneath a pyramid. Surrounded by tropical landscaping, three thermal baths are naturally heated between 98°F to 104°F. These calm baths offer a peaceful and regenerative experience, inviting you to relax in quiet serenity while you gaze at lovely Lake Chapala in the distance.
The spa services they provide are top notch while the prices remain reasonable. My mom, aunt, sister and I treated ourselves to a 60-minute holistic massage. The massage was fabulous, and the cost was only $850 MXN per person, which equals about $45 USD! Monte Coxala’s spa offers a wide variety of other services, including facials, body wraps and scrubs, and mud treatments. It’s a beautiful place to rejuvenate health and wellness.
- Soak Up the Sunset
I grew fond of watching the sunset by the lake each evening. On our first day of the trip, I discovered this giant formation along the shore which used to be part of a retaining wall that borders this section of the lake. The rock now provides the perfect place to watch the water as it laps on the shore while various birds fly overhead. So every night, I walked down to the lake, sat on my rock, and drank in the beautiful view. Great egrets patiently fished in shallow waters. Sunbeams shot from behind the mountains before setting west of Ajijic. This was my favorite way to end each day. No one can outdo nature. And it is free.
WHERE TO EAT:
Due to the number of expats who frequent the area, restaurants offer a lot of American style dishes. This might just be the place to take a break from tacos, tamales and tortillas. I myself NEVER tire of Mexican cuisine. Luckily, the markets and street vendors sell all kinds of local food. If you’ve never tried a homemade tamale from a Mexican lady sitting in the market selling them from a giant bucket covered with cloth napkins, you honestly don’t know what you’re missing. It doesn’t get much more authentic than that!
Their cuisine includes both traditional Mexican dishes as well as International favorites like a good ol’ ribeye steak with mashed potatoes. So if you’re craving a taste of home, Cocinart has something for everyone. The portions are generous and the staff is attentive. I also loved the funky and eclectic design of the space.
Alex’s Pasta Bar
My aunt and uncle love this restaurant! Chef and owner, Alex Sgroi, was born in Italy, and his passion for the food of his homeland is reflected by his delicious food. Fresh pasta is made in house daily. The menu has soups, salads, carpaccios of seafood and beef as well as a variety of pasta dishes. The prices are reasonable. The soups and salads start at $45 MXN, the pastas are around $90 MXN.
The Peacock Garden
If you love the outdoors and animals, this is your kind of place. Gorgeous peacocks and chickens wander the grounds while you eat. They What a pleasant surprise! If you love the outdoors, and animals, this is the place for you. There were gorgeous peacocks strutting around (and a few chickens). The food is good, but nothing to write home about. The scenery and interaction with the animals are what makes this place worth visiting.
Ajijic is a land of vivid colors and contrasts, which provide endless inspiration and fascinating new perspectives. As I sat on the lakeshore each night during sunset, I completely understood why so many people have found their bliss in this charming town The beautiful, natural setting encourages you to get out and enjoy the day. Views are vast and sweeping and the lake offers a refreshing breeze. If you have not yet experienced the pure uniqueness and excitement of Ajijic living, I invite you to come down and see this blissful town for yourself. I, for one, can’t wait to return.