Skip to main content

Finding your Happy Place

Last month the US fell from the top 20 “happiest countries” list. I suspect many of the estimated 11 million US passport holders currently living outside the US took this news with a shrug. Some may wonder how the US stayed on the shortlist of “happy” places in the first place, given how events of the last twenty years have tattered the country’s cultural, political, and economic fabric.

You likely have a passing interest in what it’s like to live in Mexico. Foreign-born, non-Mexicans likely live in all 32 of Mexico’s states. But some places come closer to satisfying the needs of aging baby boomers than others. My happy place is Jalisco State. It is home to many of Mexico’s emblematic destinations, attractions, and cultural touchstones. It’s the place that gave the world tequila, Mariachis, Puerto Vallarta, and Guadalajara. Jalisco also launched the Mexico-for-overseas-living movement and is home to the iconic Lake Chapala.

Chapala is both a town and a lake (Mexico’s largest). Tucked between shoreline and Sierra is a string of cobblestoned and colorful colonial-era villages. A ribbon of lake-facing settlements and gated real estate communities has been hosting foreign-born residents for nearly 100 years, while also drawing throngs of weekend Mexican visitors from Mexico’s second-largest metropolitan area, Guadalajara.

What’s the attraction? The folks living here (a culturally diverse bunch from over 30 countries) will immediately point to the splendid weather (comfortable year-round temperatures, and very low humidity), proximity to an international airport, and a bonanza of ways for active baby boomers to embrace the one question to seriously consider when moving to a foreign country: how will I spend my time?

The region is a fascinating laboratory of multiculturalism – home to thousands of foreign-born year-round residents who fall into one of two groups: the baby boomer “do-gooders,” who stay active volunteering, interfacing as best they can with their Mexican neighbors and frequenting spaces like the Lake Chapala Society’s downtown Ajijic “campus,” weekly mercados, performing arts venues and more. The restaurant scene is robust, if not truly culinary. Another group lives here primarily for the good weather (homes here do not generally need A/C nor heating) and affordability, casually connecting with their Mexico surroundings.

The epicenter of staying busy is Ajijic, with a population officially at 12,000. This number doesn’t include the estimated 4,000 foreign-born year-round residents and thousands more seasonal visitors. Founded in 1531 and wedged between steep mountains and the Lake, Ajijic’s kilometer-long lakeside Malecon is a delight at all hours. The lake faces

numerous challenges, however, mostly resulting from pressures upstream and the Rio Lerma watershed. It’s a magnificent body of water, but rarely do humans ply its calm surface or explore its shallow depth.

Ajijic’s prosperous Plaza is dominated by a gazebo adorned with lake-inspired cement motifs, an 18th-century Capilla, a cultural center, and mural art. Murals are a legacy with ties to a 1950s Children’s Art Program (still in operation) launched by American Neill James. She arrived in 1943 and stayed for 50 years, opening the first Spanish library, sponsoring silkworm looms that employed village women, and encouraging philanthropic initiatives.

Calle Colon bisects the villages from north to south and connects the Plaza with the lakefront. Colon is lined with art galleries displaying works by Mexican and foreign-born artists, real estate offices, and clothing boutiques. There are surprisingly few museums or colonial-era structures here, reflecting the village’s historic isolation (the first roads connecting the village to the outside world came in the early 1950s) and fishing village heritage.

There are hiking trails crisscrossing the lake-facing mountains, a 30-km-long protected “cyclopista”, and morning kayaking from the Ajijic waterfront and thermal water balnearios a short drive west of Ajijic in the village of San Juan Cosala.

For us living here, many enjoy the three live theatre companies, a symphony orchestra, a 50-member choir, a Jalisco State performing arts center, plus secular and religious cultural traditions. As for where to stay, you won’t find any sprawling resorts or large hotels here. Visitors stay in Airbnb rentals or small inns sprinkled along central Ajijic’s crumbling cobblestoned streets. Gated communities and dozens of residential “fraccionamientos” mix foreign buyers with affluent tapatios who generally occupy their homes on weekends and holidays.

The foreign “invasion” is not without impact. Gentrification has brought changes in ways good and bad. Rising prices for real estate and rentals weigh heavily across the entire northwest Lakeshore region, impacting Mexican residents. Residential water wells are being tapped out. Traffic congestion through Ajijic and into Chapala is confounding. A partial positive counterweight is the economic impact of foreign spending that goes into the hands of residents and business owners. Dozens of social services, animal rescue, and educational efforts strive to mitigate some of these externalities, affording volunteer opportunities that are having positive impacts.

Take in the world’s best weather with international intermingling across the town of Chapala and the villages of San Antonio Tlayacapan, Ajijic (now a Pueblo Magico), San Juan

Cosala, and Jocotepec. All this and more begins a short 30-minute drive from the Guadalajara International Airport.

Of all the “happy places” you may consider parachuting into, I’ve found mine along the northwest shore of Mexico’s largest natural lake.


Greg Custer has lived Lakeside since 2015, operates Ajijic Walking Tours and consults with folks exploring Mexico for overseas living.