Having just sold my house and guesthouse in January, this was a celebratory trip. I wanted to go somewhere very far away, be disconnected since I didn’t need to be reachable by guests or for bookings anymore, I wanted to use my Delta miles, and I was hoping to get a home exchange. I considered Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, San Miguel de Allende, Loreto in Baja, and Ajijic. Ajijic, pronounced “Ah hee heek”, was the winner. I managed to get almost 3 weeks off of work, so it was my 2nd longest vacation after my California road trip 3 1/2 years prior.
Most people haven’t heard of Ajijic, and even the people in Ajijic were surprised I found it. I told them I must’ve found out about it the same way they did. I really don’t even remember how I heard of it other than it being from some website. What I knew about it is that it’s a Mexican village of 15,000 located on Lake Chapala, the largest freshwater lake in Mexico. It has a large number of expats living there, so I knew it would be relatively easy to get by with very little Spanish, which it was. The funny thing is that most people who go to Ajijic are moving there. Most people don’t vacation there I was to find out.
To get there from north Idaho, I took 3 flights. I flew out Thursday at noon from the Lewiston airport and arrived at the Guadalajara airport at 5 am on Friday. I’d purchased Rosetta Stone for Spanish about a year ago but hadn’t been as diligent about studying as I should’ve. While I definitely knew more Spanish before this trip than I did for my Sayulita trip, I still knew very little. So I brought the following notes with me.
Pesos x .053 = US Dollars or Pesos/18.5 = US Dollars
50 Pesos = $2.67 USD
100 Pesos = $5.35 USD
500 Pesos = $26.83 USD
750 Pesos = $40.24 USD
km x .6 = miles (10 km = 6 mi)
Do you know where the bus station is? = Sabes dónde está la estación de autobuses? (I should’ve made it bus stop, not bus station)
Is this the bus to Chapala? = ¿Este es el autobús a Chapala?
Do you have a public restroom? = ¿tiene un baño público?
How much? = Cuanto cuesta?
Arriving at the Guadalajara airport, I knew that I could take a taxi to Ajijic for approximately $25 or a bus for approximately $1.50. Because I’m all about saving money and living like a local when I travel, my goal was to take the bus. The information I got online about taking the bus was very discouraging. The website said that it’s not worth the trouble to take the bus and to just not do it. I’m happy to report that it totally was worth the trouble. The hardest part was finding the highway (Hwy 23), since it didn’t look like any highway I’m used to in the US. It wasn’t a very long walk though and after getting directions sign languaged to me from locals, I found the bus stop under a bridge and had to wait only about 15 minutes for the bus I needed. It was slightly confusing figuring out which bus to get on, because there were a lot of them stopping, but I had a very nice man helping me at the bus stop who knew a little English.
According to the website I’d read, the bus was supposed to drop me off in Chapala, and then I was to take a taxi from Chapala to Ajijic. I was thinking I might walk, since I’d be tired of sitting at that point and might be up for a 6 mile walk. But the bus drove me all the way to Ajijic!
Way harder than taking the bus from the airport to Ajijic was finding my guesthouse that I’d booked through airbnb. The address wasn’t provided to me from my booking, but the directions were, which were completely inadequate. I had at least 7 people helping me trying to find it, and eventually after 2 hours, I did. Luckily, I hadn’t minded the 2-hour walk, since it was too early to check in anyway, and it allowed me to explore the area more. It was also during that time that I met a lot of expats, including a couple from Ellensburg, who I drank coffee with in their home, and my future neighbors, Lori, Lori’s brother Mark, and Shendell.
Once I found my place and dropped my backpack off, I explored.
Sat, March 10 / Get Injured
The first morning I woke up in Ajijic, I was surprised to discover that it was a little chillier in the morning than I expected. But I knew it would warm up, so I could deal with it. But I did have to wear a light sweatshirt to the group kitchen, where I brewed some coffee for myself before heading out for a run.
The temperature had almost warmed up too much by the time I was done with my coffee, but I set out for my run anyway. I wish I wouldn’t have. I ended up falling off of a sidewalk not even 1 mile into my run and getting a big bloody gash on my left knee and twisting my right ankle. Ironically everyone commented that they totally understood how I could twist my ankle on a run because of the cobblestones, but I hadn’t even been on the cobblestones when I wiped out. My excuse is that the sidewalk was really narrow and had a wire coming out of the middle of it, so I was negotiating around it when my right foot missed the sidewalk and I fell into the street onto the cobblestones.
After inspecting my injuries and trying to tell the concerned Mexican woman on the street that I was ok while trying not to cry, I decided to continue my run. Within minutes, I realized that my ankle was more hurt than I thought and hobbled back to my stone cottage. I cleaned my wound the best I could, covered it with a big gauze band-aid, and changed out of my running clothes into my summer clothes and flip flops. I was off to explore some more of Ajijic.
While walking back to my cottage, I met a man about my age who was concerned about my well-being, since I was limping and had the big band-aid, and I ended up getting asked out on a date! It didn’t happen that quickly. There was a home tour first, and then I played with his husky puppy for awhile, who was adorable. But that doesn’t happen too often in the states by complete strangers you meet on the street. So I said yes. We went out for dinner, and while there was no spark between us, it was very nice to be taken out.
Sun, March 11 / Explore and don’t take care of ankle
My date from the previous evening gave me crutches to use. So the next morning, I headed toward town with them managing the cobblestones and narrow sidewalks. I managed to find a nice little breakfast spot called The Peacock Garden where I had a Mexican dish that I’d never even heard of before. I had a nice chat with some people from the states who were now living in Ajijic. This would end up being a daily if not twice daily event…meeting people from the states or Canada who had relocated to Ajijic.
Like I mentioned before, not a lot of people come here to vacation. They come to move. It has a retirement community feel, which is nice in one respect for one seeking that camaraderie during retirement, but it was a little strange to see very few “young” gringos. And when I say young, I mean younger than 60. There are, however, many different ages of Mexicans living there. And if I were to guess how many expats there were to Mexicans, I might guess 40% of expats to 60% of Mexicans. There was definitely a larger percentage as you got closer to the LCS (Lake Chapala Society) grounds.
I was extremely sore after using the crutches for just a couple of hours, and it felt like my ankle was getting better, so I ended up dropping the crutches back off at Jaime’s house after breakfast. That was a mistake I was to learn later, because while I thought my ankle was improving, it actually wasn’t.
That afternoon, I continued exploring Ajijic on foot.
Mon, March 12 / Jocotepec Trip 1
Today I took a bus to Jocotepec (try saying that 3 times fast) which is 11 miles west of Ajijic. It cost $12 pesos, which is less than $1 USD. I’d planned on walking from the bus stop to the carretera to board another bus that was to take me to Mazamitla, which is a mountain village resembling Switzerland that’s another 50 miles south of Jocotepec. However, when I got to Jocotepec, I couldn’t tell which way was the carretera, and I couldn’t find a map anywhere to figure it out. Plus there also wasn’t anyone there who knew even a little bit of English that I encountered, so I just explored a little and went back to Ajijic by bus. I hadn’t liked Jocotepec this trip and thought I wouldn’t be back, but a few days later, I went again with Lori and Mark and liked it a lot more.
I didn’t take any photos today apparently.
Tues, March 13 / Continue exploring and not taking care of ankle
Wed, March 14 / Wednesday Market
Today I went to the weekly market aka “tianguis” on the east side of Ajijic with Lori and Mark, and then I explored the mountainside of Ajijic by car with them. We went to an open house too, which was pretty expensive for what you got. The real estate prices here are a lot higher than many other places in Mexico, since the town has been discovered by the gringos.
Thurs, March 15 / Mishmash of stuff today
I think it must’ve been this day that I discovered that I was missing my debit card. I spent the next 3-5 days getting a new one. It took a lot of effort, but it was a good learning experience, and it really didn’t cause me too much problem, because I still had a credit card and I still had some pesos, which last a long time in Mexico. What was so hard with the debit card deal was that I didn’t have a way to call to activate the new card that was fedexed to me, and it was a huge challenge just using the “chat” feature on my bank’s website, because I kept losing wifi. But it was actually sort of fun. We all got a huge laugh out of it. Raul, friend of my guesthouse owners, was extremely helpful to me in getting the thing activated. We became close friends through the process, which was really nice.
I think today was also the day that I started taking it easy on my ankle, because it got really swollen at about this point. It was a little alarming how swollen it was, and some people were even suggesting that I get it x-rayed to see if it was broken. But I figured I couldn’t be walking on it if it was broken, so I just started elevating it this day and applying frozen peas that were given to me by Lori, who’d used them for the same purpose. I spend a lot of time reading in the hammock this day I think. I read 3 books during my 3 week stay in Ajijic incidentally. I never read that much at home.
This might’ve also been the day that Mark, Lori and I drove to Jocotepec with the goal of finding boots for Lori for her new scooter that she just bought. I liked Jocotepec a lot more when I went with them.
This night might’ve been the night that I went with another guest staying at my guesthouse to someone’s birthday celebration at a neighborhood restaurant.
I didn’t take any photos today.
Fri, March 16 / Manzanilla de la Paz and Mazamitla
I’d told Mark, Lori’s brother visiting from Florida, about my unsuccessful trip to Mazamitla when I took the bus to Jocotepec and couldn’t figure out how to get to the carretera. I was still thinking I could do it and and had done a little more research since then, but Mark had a rental car and wanted to drive there. Lori had been there and wasn’t so excited about going again, so she stayed home. On the 1 hour (?) drive to Mazamitla, we turned off at the town of Manzanilla de la Paz to explore. We actually both preferred Manzanilla de la Paz to Mazamitla as it was just so perfect and not touristy at all like Mazamitla. I must’ve been distracted by talking to Mark all day that I didn’t take a lot of pictures, which is too bad, because the 2 towns were very pretty, and I wish I would’ve gotten better photos.
Sat, March 17 / Neighborhood gathering and more exploring
Today, I explored some more on foot and probably read. Shendell invited a bunch of us from the neighborhood over to her house at noon for drinks and appetizers. It was about 6 expats and 1 Mexican woman who didn’t speak much English, and with a couple of us not speaking very much Spanish, it was interesting to watch those that were fluent in both languages translate in order to not leave anyone out. I must say that the expats in this town do a fantastic job of learning the language. Other than Mark and I, who were just visiting, everyone else at the table who lived in Ajijic either knew Spanish or were actively taking lessons to learn it. I especially liked hanging out with Lori and Mark because even though they were from the states and English was their primary language, they spoke Spanish to one another a lot of the time in order to practice. I learned a lot more Spanish by hanging around them.
Sun, March 18 / San Antonio
Today I walked to the community just east of Ajijic called San Antonio. Sticking to the neighborhood streets south of the carretera, it was pretty fun because it was quite different from Ajijic. I’d thought that I’d read that San Antonio had good shopping, but I must’ve remembered wrong, because there most certainly was not, unless you count Walmart and a small outdoor mall, both of which were on the carretera. But I was definitely looking for different kind of shopping than that.
Mon, March 19 / Chapala
Having had so much fun walking to San Antonio the previous day, I decided to walk to Chapala this day. If I got tired, I knew I could just jump on a bus, but I ended up walking the whole 6 miles. I walked on the ciclopista (bike path) adjacent to the carretera the whole way. It gave me a chance to pop into the many stores along the way and meet merchants and see what everyone was selling. I liked Chapala a lot. It was very clean, had a lot less gringos and an amazing malecon. There was a lot I didn’t see though and would’ve liked to have explored more but I was getting pretty tired.
I met a couple of really nice people there and hung out with each of them for awhile. The expats here are very friendly. Love it. I took a bus back, which was difficult, because the bus stops weren’t marked here. I ended up just holding up my hand when a bus drove by, and he actually stopped! I sure wish we had a good public transportation system where I live. I LOVE not having to get in a car and drive anywhere. If I could not own a car and get by exclusively with public transportation, I would be so happy.
Tues, March 20 / Tuesday Organic Market and Moving Day
I went to the organic market on the west side of Ajijic today. The prices were relatively high, most likely because all of the shoppers were gringo and even some of the vendors were gringos.
Today was also the day I moved from my airbnb stone cottage to the house on the lake I found on homeexchange.com. This was to be my 7th home exchange, and it was fantastic. I love that homeexchange has their new Passport program, where I received a virtual “balloon” from someone who stayed at my home the previous fall while visiting the U of I and WSU campuses while I went camping, and I gave that virtual “balloon” to Teresa in Ajijic, so she and her family can go wherever they want that will take her “balloon”.
I found it really interesting that this was a vacation home for Teresa and her family, with their primary residence being Guadalajara, only an hour north. But it was a family home that either her father or grandfather built. They’re Mexican, which shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did, because all I’ve ever heard about Mexico is what a poor country it is. But there are plenty of wealthy Mexicans in Mexico, which I had learned during my San Diego trip last year, but this just confirmed it for me. There are plenty of middle-income Mexicans too. The house was absolutely gorgeous by the way and was more of a castle than a house. I felt like royalty staying there. I felt slightly guilty too, because it was just me, not including the gardener and maid who lived on-site.
Wed, March 21 / Bike to San Juan Cosala
Possibly the best thing about this home exchange is that I got a mountain bike to use in the deal. This was fantastic, because it gave me a whole new way to explore. Biking was a lot easier on my twisted ankle than walking. After biking to the tianguis (Wednesday market), where I bought 3 new-release movies for 50 pesos ($3 USD), I biked to San Juan Cosala, which is about 3 miles west of Ajijic. There were a couple areas that were a little dangerous car-wise that I didn’t have much of a shoulder to bike on, but the drivers are quite considerate to cyclists here plus there’s really not much traffic, so it was quite doable. My goal for biking to San Juan Cosala was to see the thermal springs. I still wasn’t up for swimming, since the gash on my left knee hadn’t closed up yet, but I figured I was days away from it being healed, so I just wanted to be ready when it was.
As I arrived in San Juan Cosala, I biked towards the lake knowing the springs were down there somewhere, since I’d seen pictures of it being near the lake. It was really easy to find actually as there’s even a sign from the carretera. There was nowhere to lock my bike (there are no bike racks anywhere in any town there that I saw), so I brought it in. They said I could prop it up in the entryway by the attendants while I got a tour. I had the tour and thought it was neat but probably not for the price they were charging especially since it was hot water and 85 degrees out. I have no idea why people were in that water!
As I’m biking away, I remembered that Lori mentioned how there are 2 hot springs, 1 frequented primarily by gringos and the other by the locals. I biked down the street and didn’t see any other springs but did see more of San Juan Cosala, which was a pretty poor area. So I biked the other direction, and voila! There it was!! Not only was it half the price, but it was so much better. It had a lot more pools, had a lot more people including happy children, lots more eating places, and it was just so much cooler. I wonder if the gringos go to the other one, because they don’t know about this one. Or they just like it quieter. It was a lot quieter at the other one.
I knew that when I came back, I’d be going to the one that’s on the east side. They may even be owned by the same outfit. I couldn’t tell. I ended up buying 2 bathing suits there, since it’s so hard to find good bathing suits in north Idaho. I didn’t even go back to swim another day, because I just couldn’t wrap my head around getting into that hot water in such hot weather. There was a larger, cooler pool at the busier springs, which I thought might work, but I really wanted to go into the little pools covered by palapas. Maybe I’ll go back in January sometime.
Thurs, March 22 / Guadalajara
Today was the biggest adventure day of them all. I took a bus to Guadalajara, an hour north. Guadalajara has 1.5 million people and is the 2nd largest city in Mexico behind Mexico City. It has a lot less people than Mexico City, but that’s beside the point. The complication for me was that I don’t know Spanish, and as to expect in large cities, people might not be as friendly and helpful. I did it though. I got the t-shirt. I didn’t even get lost and I made it all the way up to the jewelry district, which also happens to be the historic district too.
When I got off the bus, I was really overwhelmed and had no idea where to go. I’d bought a map of Guadalajara at a bookstore in Ajijic, but it was such tiny writing that I could barely read it. My mission was to find some beads for my bookmarks that I make and will start selling on etsy one of these days. Not knowing who could or couldn’t speak English, I asked the only gringo I saw at the bus station where he was going, and if it was someplace interesting, could I follow him. I still can’t believe I did that. But I am so glad I did! He was from Prague originally but was living in Mexico now. He told me I need to take the macrobus to San Juan de Dios, and that’s where the historic area is. I didn’t tell him that historical areas don’t really interest me, but it ended up being the jewelry district too ironically, and really frankly, anyplace was better than the central bus station area. He was taking the macrobus too, so we rode up together, but I got off before he did. He was so nice and was pointing out landmarks, so it would be easy for me to find my way back to the bus station. So helpful!!
I didn’t find the beads in Guadalajara to be that great of prices. As a matter of fact, I could’ve bought them for the same price at Joann Fabrics with a coupon. Crazy, huh? After lunch and shopping at the big semi-outdoor Mexican market, I ended up walking back to the bus station instead of taking the macrobus, since I preferred walking, which worked out just fine.
Fri, March 23 / Watch a movie being filmed
I was sort of running out of things to do and was missing my old neighborhood at the airbnb. So today, I thought I’d go sit on a bench on the malecon and do nothing. That was something I hadn’t done yet. So I biked towards Colon Street on the malecon. I was stopped by a movie production of all things! They were filming a remake of My Best Friend’s Wedding with a famous Spanish actor named Miguel Silvestre. I took a couple photos to show my kids, but I promised a movie person there that I wouldn’t post it on the internet anywhere. So I can’t put those photos on here of the main actors unfortunately, but he said it was fine to share pictures of the extras.
It was pretty neat seeing them film the same scene over again and again and again. It did get boring pretty quickly, so I’d leave, and when I’d come back, they were doing another scene a little farther down the malecon. They were only to be in Ajijic that day, after which they were headed to Chapala. I can’t wait to see that movie. Hopefully I can get a copy of it and with subtitles.
This is also the day I met John from Eugene, Oregon, where my sister, Tami, lives. He’d cycled from Los Angeles to Ajijic for the last 2 months and would be cycling for another 2 months to Oaxaca. I can’t even imagine doing that but not because of the distance. I love bicycling, but I hate bicycling on major roads, and I think that’s all you’d be on. While a part of me really wants to do a trip like that someday, I know that being on the busy roads would make it hard for me mentally.
Sat, March 24 / More exploring and biking
So now all that I had left to do before leaving that I wanted to do was hike the Chapel trail. I’d looked for it the day before but couldn’t find it. So I looked again today. I found it, but it looked hot and my ankle still wasn’t 100% yet. The trail also looked steep and dry. I decided against it, since I was alone and it just didn’t seem wise. The positive side to my search however is that I found an area north of the highway that I really liked.
I had lunch in the village square and met more very nice expats. I also went into a shop where they were selling very pretty dresses. I asked if they had the pink one in a small, and while they didn’t, they offered to make it for me and it would be ready in 14 days! They make the clothes right there in most, if not all, of the shops. So cool.
Biking back “home”, I stopped at St. Remy, the fanciest restaurant in Ajijic. It was around 2, and I was the only customer, so since I couldn’t find any convenient place to lock my bike, I asked if I could bring it into the courtyard. Of course they said yes. I love Mexico. I had a nice chat with the bartender there and learned about Mexican cheese along with other things I was curious about.
Today was the 2nd time during my trip that I had waves of nausea (and to be clear, I felt nauseous before going to St. Remy so I didn’t get sick from them). The first time was a week earlier but the feeling passed. This time, it was a lot stronger, and I was afraid I was going to throw up, so I took some Imodium AD, which worked like a charm. Just as in Sayulita, I was surprised that I felt the need to throw up before having any GI distress. Having just googled “getting sick drinking the water in Mexico”, I see that puking is the first symptom of Montezumas Revenge. Well that explains that. Glad there’s Imodium AD.
Sun, March 25 / Winding down
Really starting to wind down now, I walked into town and spent the day looking unsuccessfully for a book, since I finish my 3rd book this morning. My ankle was still throbbing a bit and still a little swollen, and I was becoming anxious to get home and put an ice pack on it and keep it elevated. I also started getting a bit homesick today and missed my kids.
Mon, March 26 / Last Day
My flight left at 8 pm, with my arrival to be the next day at around noon. Having all day, I went to the town plaza for one last time, took some videos of pigeons for my son, bought a book for my flight home at a consignment store, and got on the bus heading north.
Many people, including the locals, said that there’s no bus stop at the airport. I stuck to my guns and said I wanted to get off at the closest stop to the airport. I had many concerned people on that bus making sure that I didn’t miss my stop. They all got off before I did, so they kept telling the bus driver, who didn’t speak any English at all, to stop for me. I was afraid he’d be so annoyed that he might not stop, but he did. And he was even really friendly about it 🙂 I love this place. I walked to the airport from the stop, noting how completely different it looked than when I arrived, since I’d arrived so early in the morning. Walking from the stop to the airport, I had a nice, yet challenging, conversation with a guy who worked at the airport who was learning English.
I had the misfortune of having an overnight layover in the LA airport, which was the only time my entire trip that I felt unsafe. I wasn’t allowed to go into the gate area, so I had to sleep by the ticket counter or baggage claim area. It was pretty miserable.
THINGS I LEARNED FROM MY SAYULITA TRIP THAT CAME IN HANDY
Words for Please, Thank you, Hello, Good Morning, Good Afternoon, Goodbye, No thank you, Yes please
Don’t drink the water; I successfully remembered not to drink the water this time, but I did brush my teeth with it. I had waves of nausea and gastrointestinal issues after 9 days but it went away and then I had it again stronger on the 2nd to last day of my trip
I downloaded a map onto my phone of the area, which was accessible while my phone was in airplane mode the entire time.
THINGS I’LL DO NEXT TIME I TRAVEL TO A PLACE LIKE MEXICO
Learn the numbers up to 1,000 – valuable for monetary transactions
Learn the words for the following:
I like this
Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish
Bring 2 debit cards for which a travel plan is in force or have an international sim card for your phone
Get an international plan on my phone, so I can call the US or local people I meet. Wifi is too unreliable, so it’s a lot easier to just have a phone.
Use google translator instead of a dictionary. Even without an international calling plan, you can use it while it airplane mode, which I didn’t learn until the end of my trip.
Don’t twist my ankle
Wear a hat more often, so my nose and scalp don’t burn; apply sunscreen to my nose way more often
Bring a pumice stone for feet scrubbing at the end of every day of exploring
Always carry small pesos and toilet paper, since there’s a small charge of 3-10 pesos for bathrooms and often they don’t have toilet paper.
Choose a place to stay close to town when traveling alone and possibly even choose a room in a home or a B&B, so I don’t feel so isolated.
Don’t throw away that piece of paper stamped by Customs in the airport when arriving. That needs to be returned upon leaving the country. I’d thrown mine away and had to get another one. I had plenty of time to do that luckily, but I did get a friendly, yet stern, lecture from the customs guy.
THINGS I DIDN’T LIKE ABOUT AJIJIC
- The main topic of conversation for expats is moving there and the expat community is largely the retirement crowd.
- You can’t swim in the lake because it’s polluted, although I did see Mexicans swimming in it but not many. A biologist from the US spent a month running tests on the water, and it was discovered that it’s safe to swim in, but the gringos aren’t convinced.
- My allergies were bad there, but apparently it was spring and others were complaining about their allergies.
THINGS I LIKED ABOUT AJIJIC
- The temperature was perfect and seems to be all year round, even in the summer. It can get chilly in the winter which actually would be nice to go to the thermal springs in San Juan Cosala then. And it’s always cool in the morning, which is great for running.
- I loved the walkability of the town and how easy and cheap it is to take buses to the others towns and to Guadalajara, which seems to be the case throughout Mexico.
- Expats and Mexicans are very friendly here, and it’s very safe, just like Sayulita.
- I never saw a scorpion or big spider.
- Prices of everything.